The Night I Experienced Shiite Street Justice


South Lebanon, 2001

I was returning home to Tyre after an evening of visiting friends in another town called Nabatieh, which is not known for its friendly feelings toward the West. I drove my early nineties model Honda Accord hatchback.

I crested a hill, winding through streets hemmed in tightly by concrete structures. Suddenly, another car shot out from a narrow alley on the left that had been concealed from my view by the darkness. I stomped on my brakes and veered to the right, but our front ends met and the two cars abruptly came to rest in the middle of the street.

Almost instantly there was a crowd of men where a moment before there had been no one. In the darkness an assembly convened. Five young Shia men got out of the other car and at least seven more emerged from nearby homes to participate in the impending tribunal. I fearfully tried to prepare myself for the beating that my imagination told me was coming next.

Vigilante Justice

Nobody was hurt, but the other driver was understandably upset about the damage to his car. “Why didn’t you swerve more? You could have kept from hitting me!” He shouted amidst hand motions demonstrating the path I should have taken.

I got out and looked at the damage. I had a small dent and part of my rubber bumper out of place slightly; purely cosmetic. The other car’s radiator had been crushed into a 45 degree angle and had already emptied its contents into the street in a puddle. It wouldn’t be moving from that spot under its own power.

Then something amazing happened. A few of the gathered crowd pulled the other driver aside and calmed him down, asking his side of the story. A few others came to talk to me, the scared-eyed westerner who barely knew enough Arabic to communicate. A judicial process kicked in and members of the spontaneous community assumed roles as if they had rehearsed in advance.

After their interviews, the negotiators and witnesses met in the neutral ground, barring physical contact between the drivers while they sorted out the details. I was mesmerized by the flurry of activity.

The Verdict

They reasoned with the other driver. “Look, you have no insurance and the foreigner does. The damage to your car is a lot worse, but he won’t have to pay because it looks like it was your fault.”

I offered to call the insurance agent to make a claim, but he was in a tight spot because he was driving with no insurance, which would have gotten him in trouble if the accident was reported.

The counsellors continued “If the foreigner agrees to accept his own damages, it will go better for you.”

He didn’t like it. He argued that I should pay him for the damages. One of the bystanders asked me if I wanted him to pay to have my car fixed. When I said, “No.” he told me to get in my car and go. I got in and went.

Case dismissed.

A powerless American, acquitted by a God-fearing, Shiite justice mob.

If you like this story, you should read my book, Coffee & Orange Blossoms: 7 Years & 15 Days in Tyre, Lebanon.


Meeting Muslims, Part 2 – Where Are They?

IdrissMosqueI took off my shoes and put them into a cubbyhole, just inside the front door of a mosque, in Seattle. Was this really happening? I shook off the haze of surrealism and strengthened my resolve.

In 1998, I was about to move to the Middle East. My knowledge of Lebanon was limited to a ten-day trip I had taken previously. My friend Bob questioned my lack of preparation.

“So Nate, how many Muslims do you know?” I had to admit to a goose egg. Zero.

He promised to connect me with an Iraqi Kurdish friend of his, whose family needed tutoring in Conversational English. That was a great start, but I understood that to avoid culture shock, it would be better to have a wider exposure. I summoned the needed courage to visit the one mosque I knew about. Where else could you go to meet Muslims?

Shoeless in Seattle

I was led into the basement of the building. Without having any idea of the Friday prayer schedule, I had arrived late, but just in time for the Qur’an study afterward. I was ushered into a room with fifteen bearded men seated around a long rectangular folding table – exactly like the tables in my church’s fellowship hall. The Imam welcomed me with a smile and bailed on the planned subject of the class in favor of exchanging theological points with me.

The two of us had an informative though somewhat defensive conversation. The others in the room observed silently, adding tension. I managed to escape the torment after an hour and a half and reclaim my shoes. I left with a Qur’an in hand, given as a gift.

Of course it was awkward. How could it be otherwise?

Artificial and Forced

In retrospect, I considered what it would be like to reverse the situation. What if a Muslim walking into church just in time for Sunday School? The novelty would create a host of questions. Is this guy here to try to disrupt our worship? Is he dangerous? Maybe he wants to convert? The emotions would range between fear, distrust, and defensiveness all the way to hopefulness and potentially excitement. But it wouldn’t be comfortable.

How would the pastor respond? Would he patiently explain the Trinity? Would he invite the Muslim to share about his beliefs? How many of the others attending the class would engage respectfully in the conversation?

Do you think it likely that such an exchange would end in friendship?

Alternatives to Mosque Hopping

In contrast, I think of Nabih and Omar. I met with them a couple times a week at the Lebanese restaurant where they worked. I’d drop in at 3:00 PM when there were no customers, and learn vocabulary words from Nabih. One time, Omar agreed to teach me the Lebanese national dance – the Dabke. We stood next to each other between the tables. With fingers interlaced, we moved counterclockwise. Left, right, left, right, left foot kick, stomp.

Playing soccer, shopping at international markets, and watching for cultural events are other great ways to connect. Intentionally deciding to be friendly and slowing down long enough to talk are key components too.

Where have you met Muslims in settings more conducive to friend making?

Fear of Islam in the United States: A Faithful Approach

FearFilterThe subject line of an email informed me, “This will give you cold chills.” I read on with a pre-loaded sense of foreboding. It was the transcript of a speech by Geert Wilders, a member of the Dutch parliament. He outlined how Europe has already fallen to Islam’s global political agenda. The warning to Americans: our turn was coming soon. He wanted us to be afraid.

But fear is a poor guide.

There must be some way that we as Jesus-following people can be educated about dangers that exist in the world, but avoid the cloudy judgment that results from fear. There is no place in the Bible where we are taught to fear anyone but God himself. I think the first place to begin overcoming a fear of Islam is to practice empathy. What do Muslims think of us? How do they feel?

I remember trying to sleep the first night I spent in south Lebanon, fifteen years ago. I imagined the explosions I heard outside were sounds of terrorist violence. In the morning my host chuckled as he explained that I’d heard the fireworks at a wedding celebration. I was embarrassed. My fear had invented danger that wasn’t there.

Christianity as a Global Movement

Did you know that hundreds of thousands of Muslims are becoming disciples of Jesus all over Africa and Asia? Jerry Trousdale describes this phenomenon as people movements in his book Miraculous Movements. Muslim leaders who are aware of these statistics must fearfully wonder how to control the Christian horde that threatens to end Eastern Civilization.

Could it be that both Christians and Muslims are experiencing the results of globalization rather than nefarious attempts to subjugate each other?

Our two belief systems demonize each other by assuming that the opposition is knowingly sowing evil and chaos in an attempt to destroy. Believing the worst about each other causes the avoidance of contact. Nobody wants to get to know the person whom she believes hates her.

At the same time Muslims and Christians each see ourselves as honorably offering our enemy that which we hold most dear – true faith in God. Can you accept the idea that a Muslim who wants to convert you to Islam sees his efforts as an act of love? Could it be as difficult for a Muslim to believe the good intentions of a Christian?

The Obligation of Jesus Followers to Makes Disciples in The Nations

I read an excellent article by Ralph Winter in a course called Perspectives on The World Christian Movement. The Kingdom Strikes Back explains how the fame of Jesus spread around the world, even in historical moments when his followers forgot the task to “Go, and make disciples of all nations.”

It turns out that when Christians haven’t gone with the good news, God has brought nations without it to come to them voluntarily.

Consider the Viking invasion of Christian Europe. Geert Wilders’ barbarian ancestors were eventually won to Christ as they were assimilated by the monotheistic civilization they came to plunder.

Can you blame people for wanting the better life that exists in wealthy western nations? If you lived in Somalia, Iraq, or Pakistan, wouldn’t you want to move here too?

A Better Response Than Fear

Geert Wilders failed.

Instead of making me afraid, his warning increased my passion to obey. I’m committed to demonstrating what it means to follow Jesus in the growing Muslim communities in our US cities. I see opportunities to build a kingdom for the King, not a threat of Christendom lost.

How have you engaged with Muslim neighbors in a way that honors Jesus? Please share in the comments section with practical suggestions so we can learn from each other.