January 10, 2015

4 Lessons for Adventists From the Islamist Attack in Paris

, director of the Center for Adventist-Muslim Relations and religion professor at Oakwood University

Jan. 7, 2015, will join July 7, 2007, and Sept. 11, 2001, as a significant date in the ongoing war on terror, when a calamitous battle was taken to the heart of a major Western capital.

Paris now joins London and New York as a place where extremists have used religion as an excuse to justify the massacre of the vulnerable. In just a few moments, 12 lives were mercilessly taken and 11 other people injured.

Although the casualties amount to a fraction of those who died in New York in 2001 and London in 2007, the stealth nature of the attack has pierced the heart of an entire nation. France had not experienced such a tragedy on its soil since 1961, when the Organisation de l'armee Secrete claimed responsibility for killing 28 people in a train bombing.

The majority of the victims were on the staff of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine that often ridiculed religious faith. Most recently, the magazine had garnered international attention for depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad in ways that many deemed offensive.

When two gunmen forced their way into the offices of Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday, they apparently had only one thing on their mind: to avenge the prophet. They calculatedly killed their targets, which included two police officers, one of whom was named Ahmed Merabet.

Meet Ahmed

Judging from his name, you would be right in concluding that Ahmed was a Muslim. When the killer took his life, Ahmed had no idea that the man before him also expressed his faith by repeating the Shahada, "There is no God, but God." The killer, like Ahmed, would have repeated the Fatiah several times a day, where they both would have asked God to guide them in the Sirat al Mustaqeem, or "the path of righteousness." Similar to his killer, Ahmed was also awaiting Yaum ad Din, "the day of judgment" when God will reward the righteous and punish the wicked.

From a nominal perspective, Ahmed's killer was also his "brother" in the faith. But on Wednesday, when the attacker looked at Ahmed, all he saw was the enemy. Now his victim serves as an unwilling symbol of the mindlessness behind the violence.

Ahmed's death provides Adventists with another important lesson. It did not take long for ultra right groups in France to use the tragedy as an excuse to attack Muslim mosques and businesses. Like so many who live isolated and insulated lives, these groups used the terroristic tendencies of a minority as lenses through which to view the majority.

However, if they could take a step back from their narrow environment, they would be compelled to embrace Ahmed as a fellow citizen whose Muslim faith did not hinder him from fully integrating into society. Ahmed chose a career in which he was charged to protect and serve the rights of both those who ridiculed his religion and those who would one day take his life. In Ahmed, we are reminded that all Muslims are not terrorists. Perhaps even more jarring is the reminder that the vast majority of the victims of extremist terrorism bear names like Ahmed and adhere to his faith.

Free Society Benefits Religion

A third significant lesson can be drawn from Ahmed's tragedy. The fact that his faith did not prohibit him from entering into public service is a testimony to the benefits of living in a free society. If France had maintained its former theocratic medieval form of governance, a religious outsider such as Ahmed never would have gained a similar level of acceptance.

Ahmed also was no doubt aware that many of his fellow police officers would have no place in many of the theocracies fashioned by some of his fellow Muslims. France’s free society allowed him to be both French and Muslim and would not have punished him if he had chosen to switch faiths or reject religion completely. This is the type of society that respects a person's conscience and allows everyone to choose his or her own religious destiny.

With a view to protect open society, despite its pitfalls and shortcomings, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has expressed its official condolences to the French government. "We thank the people of France for these fundamental freedoms and its authorities for the freedom of expression and religion that they protect," John Graz, head of the church’s public affairs and religious liberty department, told France’s ambassador to Washington in a letter written on behalf of the church.

Read related article: "Adventist Church Offers Condolences After Islamist Attack in Paris"

The truth is, the same government that guaranteed Ahmed's religious freedom has done the same for Seventh-day Adventists.

The final lesson from Ahmed is closely related to the third. As Graz said, Adventists value the right of freedom. Indeed, it is free speech that has aided church growth in some areas of the world. While dissent and contrary opinions are not always easy to deal with, we cannot champion free speech when it pertains to our interests but deny it to others.

People of God Are Everywhere

Having said this, it is imperative to acknowledge that free speech comes with responsibility. Even in the face of France’s tragedy, we must admit that we sometimes face consequences for our public decisions. In a truly civil society, no one would fear violent repercussions for making controversial comments in a public setting. However, we must remember that not everyone embraces this worldview. Sadly, when these worldviews collide, the result can be death. On Wednesday, Ahmed became a symbol of caution for all who value free speech.

Ahmed Merabet now joins the 11 others killed at the magazine’s offices in sleeping the sleep of death. But even as he sleeps, he speaks. He reminds us that the place and circumstance of our births doesn't change the fact that we are all God's children. The Christian, Hindu, Jew, Muslim, atheist and agnostic alike are all precious in God's sight.

Through his death, Ahmed reminds us that we should never judge a group of people solely on the activities of a few. As Paul said in his sermon on the Aeropagus in Acts 17:16-34, we believe that sincere people of God can be found in all places.

Furthermore, we are reminded to make the most of our opportunities to show the gospel of peace. This is especially relevant for those who live in societies that protect free speech.

In showing and sharing Christ’s love, we must remember to always speak the truth in love. Christ never asked us to tear down other religions but simply that we lift Him up.

As we reflect on the lessons from Ahmed’s death, never forget that "a tree is known by its fruit."

Related link

Adventist Review, Jan. 8, 2014: "Adventist Church Offers Condolences After Islamist Attack in Paris"