Abu Akleh and the Religious Other

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By Abed Zein El Dien

On May 11, Shireen Abu Akleh, a journalist and longtime TV correspondent for Al Jazeera Arabic in Palestine, was shot dead by the Israeli forces while covering army raids in the city of Jenin in the northern occupied West Bank. Her death is a tragedy that has startled the world in profound ways, but it has also caused passionate conversation about the way we manage religious differences.

Arabs were furious about such a murderous incident and many Muslims spoke of Abu Akleh as a martyr and asked Allah to bring mercy on her soul. Many were not familiar with Abu Akleh’s religious background but when it became known that she is a Christian, some Muslims claimed that wishing her mercy from Allah is wrong since she is not a Muslim and is going to hell! It is shameful, to such Muslims, for the Umma to consider a non-Muslim, even if they are a martyr for a noble cause, worthy of God’s favor. Other Muslims considered that all people, regardless of religious background, are worthy of God’s mercy. Lest a martyr who honored all Arabs by her death. We bow with utmost respect to her! These comments went viral as people discussed why or why not a Muslim ought to wish mercy on a non-Muslim. Perhaps the underlying issue concerns the attitudes of religious people towards the religious other. This matter of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ includes Christians in general and, I believe, Evangelicals in particular!

Questions around a non-believer’s eternal fate have been part of ongoing conversations. As a Lebanese follower of Christ from a Muslim background in an Evangelical milieu, I sometimes hear church folk say that all non-Evangelicals- Christians and non-Christians alike – are destined to hell. Therefore there is no need to ask God for mercy on their souls or even to attend their funerals. I am not trying to argue soteriological points about who goes to heaven or to hell but rather consider an alternative formulation: as followers of Christ in the MENA context with its shame and honor culture, our interaction with the ‘other’ ought to be characterized by respect.

In my own doctoral studies I explored the relationships Lebanese believers from Muslim backgrounds (BMBs) have with their Muslim families and their churches, and how BMBs’ views of Muhammad and the Qur’an (I will refer to this as MQ) affects their belongingness to Muslim family and Christian churches. My research set out to suggest some approaches to MQ that might enable Lebanese BMBs to retain healthy relationships both with the Muslim community and the church while remaining faithfully “in Christ.”

I was surprised to discover in the research findings that the main factor for retaining healthy belonging for BMBs was not their views on MQ but their respect to their families and to the churches on one hand and the wise way they would share and communicate their views on the other hand. It seems that the way we communicate what we believe is as important as the content of that belief. Form and meaning both communicate and make up the final message. For example, if a BMB wishes her family a blessed Ramadan or attends socioreligious events then she shows respect and honor to the family although she might have a vertically opposite view about MQ. Again, the way we communicate is key!

Furthermore, as MENA Evangelicals living in a collectivist society, where to a great extent the maxim “we are, therefore I am” is very much still in vogue, we might want to give a special attention to our multilayered state(s) of belonging in order to build healthy relationships with our neighbors who constitute the religious other. Even at the risk of compartmentalization, I borrow here Tim Green’s framework as he speaks of the three layers of identity: (1) the core identity that probes the question, “who am I in my inner self?” (2) the social identity that asks the question “who am I in my relation to groups I am part of?”, and (3) the collective identity that asks the question, “who are we as a group in the eyes of other groups?” It might be worth saying that there is no assumed order of importance for the three levels of identity. Some might even consider that “We (i.e., social identity)” comes before “I (i.e., core identity).”

The core identity begins to form during childhood with the discovery of parents’ standards, and it represents the core of a person’s view of self and the world. In our case, being now followers of Christ, our core identity becomes theological in nature; it is our identity “in Christ.” As for social identity, growing up is essentially learning that one’s personal identity is tied to that of others. Meaningful relationships make up who we are. Hence, social identity is the sum of a person’s social relationships. Some Baptists (or Nazarenes, Presbyterians, Pentecostals…) might prefer to be socially connected to Baptists like them. Finally, the collective identity is a title for the whole group, that is, the identity of the individuals placed together and the group identity as distinct from other groups. Here, Lebanese Evangelicals are hesitant to engage with Lebanese Catholics or Orthodox (and of course with Muslims!).

Maybe Green’s identity framework helps us portray a wider and deeper picture of who we are as Evangelicals and how we are to relate to non-Evangelicals. As a corollary, is it enough for Evangelicals in the MENA to focus on their core identity being “in Christ” at the expense of giving attention to their social and collective identities? Such a view of self is not only reductionist to identity but also stands as a hindrance from building healthy relationships with religious others.

Our triune God is a relational God and we are made after his own image as relational beings. The Logos incarnated, showing us who God is and who man is. There are huge implications here; relational includes recognizing and respecting the difference in the other, and incarnational involves walking alongside the other. As individuals, paying condolences for Muslim friends or wishing them a happy Ramadan or inviting them for a homemade meal is relational and incarnational, so it is sharing Orthodox and Catholic churches mutual events. Again, giving special attention to how we share life and faith with the “other”; it genuinely happens through mutual respect in MENA shame-honor contexts.

My ABTS colleague Martin Accad puts it well as he speaks of Islam and Muslims, and which can be extended to non-Evangelicals as well. He says that “your view of Islam will affect your attitude to Muslims. Your attitude will, in turn influence your approach to Christian-Muslim interaction, and that approach will affect the ultimate outcome of your presence as a witness among Muslims.” Still, and in my blog’s case, I might change the order of Accad’s statement by starting with attitude rather than the view per say; your attitude to the religious other will impact your view.

Let’s end where we have started; should we wish mercy on those who die in other faith traditions? My answer is a yes. Perhaps the death of Abu Akleh (as well as the results of my studies and so many others) reminds us that mutual respect, accompanied by wise communication, are vital as we aim to build healthy relationships with our MENA neighbors.

Abed is Assistant Professor of Pastoral Ministry at ABTS.

5 Comments

  1. Mike Kuhn says:

    Good insights here, Abed. Thanks for sharing. I had not even realized the Shireen Abu Akleh was a Christian. Thanks for your sane and helpful approach concerning attitudes towards those who hold different views.

    • Abed says:

      Thank you, Mike, for your feedback. This is a phenomenon that has been for some time now, be it from Muslims towards Christians or the other way around. Let’s hope that attitudes change to become more Christ-like.

  2. Dave McCormick says:

    Excellent article, well written and very timely and helpful. Thank you. May we all live from mutual respect and wise communication towards the religious other (or any other for that matter). I have found that when I live with such values others begin to do so, too.

    • Abed says:

      I appreciate your encouraging feedback, Dave!

      Yes, I agree (from my own experience as BMB); if you live out your values, other usually reciprocate…

  3. Thank you, Abed, for this thoughtful and insightful post! When I read of Shireen Abu Akleh’s death, and especially the events surrounding her funeral, I found myself stirred up about the injustice of it all. But I have to admit, I would not have likely been as impacted had she been Muslim, and this makes me sad to admit. First, I pray mercy for myself, and my short-sighted view of humanity (we’re ALL created in the image of the Triune God, and each person I have ever met has a unique way of expressing that image!). But thank you for inviting us to extend that same prayer for mercy for ALL those we meet, regardless of their social/religious identity.

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