So much of late has been written about the warming of
relations between Israel and its Gulf neighbors. While I have long advocated
this is an important pathway to Middle East peace, a recent study has pointed
out another thoroughfare that must be cleared if we are to achieve this end.
According to the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding’s new poll on Evangelical Christian-Muslim relations in the US, there are pronounced differences and mutual misunderstandings between the two faith communities but it also revealed the potential of Evangelicals to be game-changers in achieving rapprochement between Israel and the Muslim world.
For example, the survey asked, “If a Muslim nation were to engage in cooperation with Israel (developing bilateral, strategic and economic relations, have an active Jewish community, supply oil to Israel) how would you feel toward that Muslim nation?” An overwhelming 82 percent of Evangelical respondents said they would feel either “very favorable or somewhat favorable to such a nation.” Intriguingly, 72% of Muslims also affirmed that position – a much more positive attitude toward the Jewish state than evinced in recent misguided remarks about the Jewish State by Muslim Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib.
In fact, 76% of Evangelical respondents said knowing that a particular Muslim nation is moving to strengthen ties with Israel would make them more optimistic about their overall assessment of US relations with the Muslim world (70% of US Muslims had a similar assessment). Interestingly, Evangelicals tend to perceive lower levels of support for Israel among Muslim nations than is actually the case; with nations like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and Azerbaijan being perceived respectively by only 19, 14, 13 and 12% of Evangelical respondents as being supportive of Israel. This shows there is potential for consequential opinion change if Evangelical opinion leaders visit these countries.
In other words, the greatest opportunity to improve negative Evangelical perceptions of Muslims and Islam is to expose Evangelical opinion leaders to a story few of them have yet internalized; namely, that major Muslim nations are moving to end their conflict with Israel, and ally with the Jewish State against the virulent pan-Islamist extremism being spearheaded by Iran. Once the Evangelical community comprehends that reality, it will strongly endorse those efforts and feel decidedly less suspicious of Muslims in general.
Yet while Muslim-Jewish relations have decidedly improved, those of us in the field understand that we will never be able to reach full reconciliation without achieving peace between Israel, the Palestinians and the larger Muslim world. To accomplish that, we need to engage Evangelical Christians and help them overcome their preconceived anti-Muslim beliefs by getting them into contact with Muslims who have made the strategic decision to cooperate with Israel.
Why is this so important? Compared to only about 16 million Jews in the world, there are an estimated 60 million Evangelicals in the US, and more than 600 million globally. Evangelicals are the largest conservative constituency in the US; the bedrock of support for President Donald Trump, and a community presently rife with misconceptions and misinformation about Muslims and Islam. If those negative perceptions can be changed and the conservative wing of the US political spectrum comes to understand that they can find common ground with moderate Muslims, the present sharply polarized political dynamic will shift in a positive direction.
Far-fetched? Not at all. Within the lifetime of many of us, Evangelical Christians abandoned longstanding anti-Jewish attitudes and became ardent supporters of Israel. Something similar can happen vis-a-vis Evangelical attitudes toward Muslims, especially if they come to understand that by building ties with Islamic Middle Eastern nations, they can help Israel achieve its longstanding dream of achieving peace with its neighbors while helping avoid an endless, violent conflict between Islam and the West.
It is for that reason that earlier this month, I led a mission of US Evangelical opinion leaders to Azerbaijan to meet with President Ilham Aliyev and leaders of the Azeri Muslim community in order that they could experience firsthand a Muslim country which is pro-Israel. Several participants went from skepticism and distrust at the beginning of the trip to understanding from their encounters with Azeri Muslims that belief in Islam is not an insuperable obstacle to accepting Israel as a Jewish state. As one leader said to me; “For the first time, I realized that not all Muslims are hostile to Judeo-Christian values.”
It is significant that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two nations at the heart of the Muslim world which have been upgrading military and economic relations with Israel, recently hosted delegations of American Evangelical leaders. They have come to understand the importance of outreach to the Evangelicals; making the point to their guests that Islam and Evangelical Christianity are traditional faiths that share core values such as daily prayer and the importance of family and community.
Peace and reconciliation are possible only if we bring all major political and religious constituencies – liberal and conservative alike – to the table and into support of that goal. For the sake of Israel and peace in the world, we must therefore focus energy and resources into transforming Evangelical-Muslim relations for the better.