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Turning ‘Muslim’ to reach Muslims
By Yoginder Sikand

‘Inculturation’ is a buzz-word in Christian missionary writings these days. The term, as Christian writers understand it, suggests the expressing of the Christian message in a form and idiom, culturally more acceptable to a particular target audience as part of an overall missionary agenda.

‘Inculturation’ as a distinct Christian missionary project can be traced to the crisis facing Christian missions in the Third World in the post-colonial period. At the height of Western colonial power, Christian missionaries were often the torch-bearers of Western culture, ‘civilizing’ the ‘natives’, as they saw one of their principal tasks. Christianity and western culture were seen as roughly synonymous or, at least, inseparable from each other, and to become a Christian one necessarily had to renounce one’s own cultural heritage.

The political independence of almost all former European colonies in Asia and Africa, many with large non-Christian populations, posed major problems for Western Christian missionary agencies. Newly-independent countries, some fired with a passionate commitment to reviving their own, long-suppressed cultures and religious traditions, made earlier missionary strategies seem, for the missionaries themselves, increasingly irrelevant, if not counter-productive. If the spreading of Christianity were to make any headway in the post-colonial world, it was increasingly realized, the earlier hostility towards local cultures would have to be revised, or, even reversed. This is when Christian theologians began turning their attention to what is now fashionably called ‘inculturation’, a project that received its blessings from the Pope himself in the 1960s following the Second Vatican Council. Although the Catholics played a leading role in the effort, and, indeed, continue to do so, various Protestant groups, some belonging to the extreme Right, were not slow to jump onto the bandwagon.

An interesting example of how ‘inculturation’ is sought to be used as a Christian missionary strategy is a recently published guide for Christian missions working among Muslims. Titled ‘Issues and Insights Into Church Planting In the Muslim World’, it is authored by a certain Ron George, founder of the UK-based WIN [World In Need] International Associates, a Christian missionary organization which claims to have been working for several decades now trying to spread Christianity among Muslims all over the world.

George writes that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Christian groups are turning their attention to missionary work among Muslims, presumably because of the perceived threat to Christianity from Muslim quarters, for, he insists, ‘there is an inherently anti-Christian spirit to Islam’. However, he notes, despite this increased interest in the Muslims, one of the most ‘unreached peoples’ of the world, Christian missionaries, for the most part, are not well equipped for the task at hand. George intends his book as some sort of instruction manual for prospective Christian missionaries working among Muslims. ‘Inculturation’ is George’s primary concern, and he insists that Muslims will be able to respond positively to Christian missionary work only if Christianity is made intelligible to them in terms and forms that they can understand and relate to, stripped of its western moorings, and thus rendered less culturally alien and threatening. George advocates a range of what he sees as innovative adaptations in this regard. These can take several forms. Thus, for instance, women Christian missionaries might wear Muslim-style veils. Churches might be called ‘ messianic mosques’, and may be designed to look like Muslim places of worship, with worshippers being required to remove their footwear before entering. Worship services might be designed on the lines of Sufi zikr and sama sessions, with regular Christian Sufi orders in place. Certain Muslim festivals may be celebrated by Christians after being ‘suitably’ adapted. By thus presenting themselves as little different from Muslims in external appearance, Christian missionaries, George hopes, will find it easier to win Muslim friends, and, hopefully, converts. The motto, George writes, should be, ‘Become like the Muslims to reach the Muslims’. Be all things to all men, George suggests to potential Christian missionaries. If the word ‘Islam’ means ‘submission to God’, then Christians are actually followers of ‘Islam’, for their religion alone is ‘true’. Hence, George suggests, in their encounters with Muslims, Christian missionaries must insist that they alone are the true Muslims. This, he says, promises to have ‘an impact’ on potential converts. In order to further convince Muslims of their claims to true ‘Islamicity’, Christian missionaries could formulate their own version of the Muslim ‘shahada’, on the lines of ‘There is no god but God, and Isa is His Messiah’. This, George writes, is ‘a truth that no Muslim can deny’. This does not mean that Christians must borrow any theological truths from Islam, he insists, and nor does it mean granting any legitimacy to syncretism. Rather, it is simply a means whereby ‘Islamic forms can be used…This may influence unbelievers [Muslims] to join them [Christians] and [may] bring in an element of doubt and hesitancy in the authority’s attitudes that could means the difference between survival and annihilation’. George urges Christian missionaries engaged in the ‘inculturation’ project among Muslims to learn from Shia and Ismaili strategies of missionary work.

Thus, like the Shia, Christian missionaries, too, might adopt taqiya, concealing their faith when occasion demands, focussing more on what unites them with the Muslims rather than on what divides them, while at the same time trying to spread Christianity among the Muslims through subtle means.
This, however, is clearly to be understood not as a matter of faith or conviction but as a short or medium term strategy, what George calls ‘a strategy for survival until the storm is over’. Strict secrecy may need to be adopted, in the manner of the medieval Ismailis, not maintaining any written records and keeping their faith concealed, while at the same time trying to infiltrate the higher levels of society and the administration to ‘wield influence secretly on behalf of their brethren of faith’. This would carry on till such time as they can ‘openly take over society’.‘Inculturation’ is, George insists, only one aspect of the strategy that the missionaries must adopt. They must, he says, also turn their attention to setting up, of promoting, western education in Muslim countries, for, he argues, such education is ‘the greatest enemy’ of Islam.

Thus, while, on the one hand, missionaries must appear to celebrate traditional Muslim culture, on the other hand, they must also seek to subtly attack that very culture from within by promoting Western culture through the educational system.

In addition, he suggests, Christian missions must invest much more money in setting up centres for ‘Islamics’, a curious term coined by Christian missionaries working among Muslims, to study Islam from a polemical Christian perspective. Such centres should train local missionaries to preach among their own people or among groups of Muslims with whom they share close cultural relations. Thus, George suggests, instead of despatching European or American missionaries to work among Malaysian Muslims, the task could be done more effectively by using Indonesian or Filipino Christian workers.

Among the Turks, Korean Christian workers would probably score more missionary successes than Westerners, as the Koreans and the Turks belong to the same large family of speakers of Altaic languages. In addition, George hastens to comment, hiring the services of a Third World Christian worker might cost just a hundredth of what it would to employ a white missionary in his place. Neo-Imperialism in the Mission Station, indeed! George is no mere cry in the wilderness. A casual glance at the Internet reveals the existence of literally scores of missionary bodies charged with the same agenda. Some choose to conceal their missionary motives under seemingly harmless slogans of ‘dialogue’ and ‘reconciliation’, while others, like George, are perhaps more honest about their aims. While not seeking to deny the importance of dialogue and inter-faith understanding, seemingly innocuous appeals for ‘inculturation’ in the name of promoting better understanding between communities need to be seen more critically in the light of what often appears as a hidden agenda.
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