Should Christians Mock Muslims in Apologetics?: The Case of David Wood and ‘Islamicize Me’

Islamicize Me, a play on the documentary Super Size Me (2004), is a 2018 mockumentary created by several Christian apologists (David Wood, Vocab Malone, and Jon McCray) who, in the feature, act as a group atheists that accept the challenge to live for 30 days as Muslims in accord to the religion’s sources. Some of these sources are from the Hadith that many Muslims ignore or likely do not know about. The mockumentary intends to show the absurdity of embracing the Islamic religion and living it out practically. The comparison to Super Size Me is obvious: just as eating McDonald’s for 30 days will have disastrous effects on the body, so will embracing Islam have a terrible impact on one’s life and on others.

The Motivation for Islamicize Me

Claimed in support of producing Islamicize Me is freedom of speech (1). The Christian apologists who produced the series are frustrated at death threats and actual deaths over criticizing Islam and depicting Muhammad in cartoons or drawings. In particular, the series was spurred on by the Charlie Hebdo shootings in France and the attempted murder of Robert Spencer who hosted a 2015 draw Muhammad cartoon contest in the United States. As Spencer said in an interview, the purpose of the contest for which the assassination attempt was made on his life is to,

“… gain a general understanding in the West that freedom of speech was important, was valuable, was worth defending, that the adage “I may not agree with what you say, but that I will defend to the death your right to say it” is an important foundation of any free society, and therefore that it is imperative that we stand up against violent intimidation and that we refuse to allow ourselves to be silenced by threats, silenced by murder, that we will not be intimidated into silence, but that we will continue to speak. If we allow ourselves to be intimidated into silence we are effectively giving the signal that terrorism works.” (1)

For Jon McCray, the series is about combatting terrorism and bringing light to the high number of terrorist acts carried out by Muslims,

“Everybody knows, or at least they should know, that Islam has a disproportional amount of terrorism compared to every other world religions combined. Since 9/11, there has been over 33 000 deadly terrorist attacks inspired by the teachings of Islam… If we are not allowed to critique Islam, then we are not going to be able to solve the problem of terrorism. As history has shown us, ignoring the problem will not make it go away. Terrorism will not stop if we just conform and accept Islamic ideology without questioning it” (2).

McCray explains that he is not saying all Muslims are terrorists. He also claims that the Islamicize Me series is aimed at those who are considering joining terrorist groups. They are the ones McCray hopes will see the videos and “take a deeper look into the teachings that are found in the Qur’an and the Hadiths.”

Criticism of the Series

Islamicize Me has been criticized by some Christian apologists, in particular James White. White finds the mockumentary inconsistent with biblical values. White appeals to texts such as 1 Peter 3:15-16 which exhorts Christians to give an account of their faith “with gentleness and reverence.” The book of Ephesians says that in Christian conduct there is to “be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting” (5:3-4). There is also the discouraging of participating in “the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them; for it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them in secret” (5:11-12). In 2 Timothy, Christians must “not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition…” (2:24-26). White presented these biblical values to David Wood and argues that there is nothing of the Gospel in the Islamicize Me videos: “They are meant to mock and offend and shock, but they are not meant to provide the truth so that upon abandoning error the Muslim might know where to go and what to do.”

Moreover, if one supports the use of mockery, then Christians themselves lose grounds for complaining when a mockumentary of their beliefs is utilized by Muslims against them. Christians have ceded the moral ground. White says that Islamicize Me uses the worst possible interpretation of the Islamic texts in question. If Christians are willing to treat Muslims like this, then they shouldn’t be surprised when Muslims do the same to Christians. White argues that this approach undermines both truth and meaningful action.

To White, both Wood and the other Christian apologists involved in the production of Islamicize Me are more concerned with getting people to abandon Islam than in generally presenting them with the Gospel. The Gospel is merely a tag on at the end and it is not the driving force. White states that this is the ultimate difference between his ministry and the efforts of apologists like David Wood; White is first and foremost concerned about presenting the Gospel to Muslims and apologetics is used in service of this. White explains that,

“They’re [Wood, Malone, and McCray] doing it to get people out of Islam. And then if you can get them into Christianity that’s great, but it’s a secondary issue. It’s not the primary issue… [They] think Islam is the worst thing to come down the pipe.”

White grants that there is plenty of material in the Muslim sources that can be made fun of, but this is an inappropriate way for Christians to go about engaging Muslims: “I just don’t know what that’s supposed to accomplish. I don’t think the Gospel is actually promoted by the use of mockery and, yes, the other side uses mockery, but that doesn’t give us the right to use it” (3).

Responses to White

Supporters of Islamicize Me have responded to White’s criticisms. Common to the justifications for producing the series is that because figures in the Bible, including Jesus and Ezekiel, use sarcasm, mockery, and even insults against certain groups of people, so too can Christians use insults. Robert Spencer supports Wood’s series because it tackles serious issues despite being “full of slapstick, broad (some would say tasteless) comedy and satire”; Spencer maintains that,

“…the intention of the series is absolutely serious: to show to Muslims and to all people of good will that the canonical texts of Islam contain a great deal of material that is absurd and inhumane. Since some Muslims are harming people on a daily basis because of those inhumane teachings, this is an effort that is charitable at its core — not all Christian charity can be equated with niceness, although many people today assume they are identical. The series could result in some people not acting upon those Islamic teachings and thus not harming others, and that is a good thing, and something that Christians should want.”

What Islamicize Me portrays in its satire are things that are all too real: “There are Muslims today who are doing and teaching all the things that are depicted in the series.” If indeed these doings have real-life examples, then it follows that satirical simulations of lesser transgressions are justifiable. There seems to be a moral legitimacy in doing this.

Some supporters of the series find that the satire and mockery are useful and are superior to other ways of communicating a message. This is because images can have an impact on viewers that might not happen through mere words or verbal communication. To visually act out the absurdity of the teachings and message of the Hadith will get the point across to viewers in a way that explaining it through words on a page will not.

It has also been argued that the series is predicated on the notion that there is an important distinction between making fun of people and making fun of positions. Islamicize Me does not make fun of Muslims or show hatred of Muslims; rather, it makes fun of Islam.

James White’s Defense

For White, engaging Muslims is about changing hearts and the only way to do this is to emphasize the Gospel: “the Gospel is the core. It is the very matrix in which we work. It’s the essence of what we are communicating” (4).

White argues that to embrace Wood’s approach will have the opposite effect; mocking Muhammad and Islam will not change hearts. A critic of White may, however, point out that Wood’s mockumentary has been helpful in removing people from Islam. But equally one might wonder just how many Muslims the mockumentary has alienated and hardened from accepting the Gospel through its mockery.

What about the claim made by Wood that Jesus and some of the prophets like Ezekiel used mockery and that this provides justification for contemporary Christians to do likewise? White responds by saying that “there are specific guidelines that are given to believers in the New Testament… the New Testament is our ultimate authority. It lays out the parameters, and so when we are given specific commands we make application of those commands to particular situations.” Using harsh words in apologetics is not the same as insultingly depicting one’s ideological opponents in the worst possible light. White claims to himself use “strong” words in his formal debates with Muslims he has engaged across the world. Yet White includes “no insulting words” in these engagements and using strong words is perfectly in line with the biblical parameters.

Referring to the example of Ezekiel’s approach used as justification to mock Muslims, “Ezekiel was called to do some really weird stuff because he was called to a specific situation with the people of Israel, the covenant people of Israel, not Muslims… he is dealing with the broken covenantal people in the situation of the exile and he is told to do some strange things by God. Not a single one of the New Testament writers use him as an example of how we are to behave. But all of a sudden, if you want to become a hot head and mock and deride, well let’s go find Ezekiel…”

According to White, the New Testament provides general principles for how believers are to engage non-Christians in application to specific events. Islamicize Me fails to adhere to these values and this, argues White, seems to suggest that Wood and his fellow Christian apologists are anti-Muslim rhetoricians who happen to be Christians. White fears that in this hate the Christian loses the Gospel.

Some Personal Reflections on this Debate

There are several remarks I wish to make about this debate. I don’t like the idea of mockery and would never encourage it. I would especially discourage using mockery when it comes to sensitive topics like religion. However, that said, I fully support the right to mock religions and worldviews. To mock worldviews is a unique privilege and those societies in which certain political or religious views are immune to criticism are dangerous. Freedom of speech is an important democratic right and it is one that we should never take for granted. To make my point more relevant to the case here, I support the right to depict Muhammad in cartoons and even mock the Prophet. I would not do this personally because I know how most Muslims will feel about it, but we need to allow the space for others who wish to do so.

I agree with White that matters of religious debate and reaching others involves the heart. I believe that the use of mockumentaries can severely undermine attempts to reach the heart of others in religious discourse. I would suggest that most Muslims will not find Islamicize Me to constitute a source of doubt, no more so than many Christians who come across a skeptic mocking Christianity and Jesus will end up doubting their religion. I think, if anything, more Muslims will become hardened to skepticism of Islam after watching a series like Islamicize Me. To view a feature that so deliberately makes fun of one’s worldview is bound to have such a reaction. I believe Muslims will be more receptive to a critical skepticism that is charitable and does not prioritize offending them.

I think there is need for greater sensitivity on controversial matters, especially when it comes to minorities. In the West, Muslims are a minority population, Islam is a minority religion, and strong evidence does prove that there is real Islamophobia out there (5). In many societies minorities, religious and other, exist in a fragile state and we need to be sensitive to them. I agree that mocking Islam is not the same as Islamophobia, no more so than criticizing smoking is to hate the smoker. But I can see how such a feature as Islamicize Me will be warmly received by those people who do hate Islam and Muslims. As I said earlier, the freedom to mock religion is a right and must be allowed, but just because we can do something does not mean that it is necessarily wise.

To end on a personal anecdote, some of my views here were affirmed two years ago when I showed a friend, who is herself a former Muslim turned agnostic, a video of David Wood criticizing Islam. All I remember is that she remarked, in shock, that she hopes no Muslim ever sees Wood’s videos. We then watched a video of William Lane Craig who too criticized Islam, in particular the Islamic concept of God as inferior to the Christian conception. But for those who do not know, Craig is far softer in approach than Wood and I don’t think he has ever stooped to mockery in his apologetics. My friend, I noticed, was far more pleased and willing to listen to Craig even though what he said was not what she wanted to hear. I therefore really do believe that approach is important, that sensitivity is required, that we are in a battle for hearts more than anything else, and that, if we mock and ridicule, we run the risk of falling on deaf ears.

References

  1. YouTube. 2018. Islamicize Me: Why?? (Robert Spencer, David Wood, Vocab Malone, Jon McCray and more). Available.
  2. YouTube. 2018. Ibid.
  3. YouTube. 2018. Report from Around the World, “First Century Mark” Fragment That Isn’t, the Mockumentary, & the SBC. Available
  4. YouTube. 2018. A Brief Rejoinder to David Wood, Vocab Malone, John McCray Regarding Islamicize Me Series. Available.
  5. Tamney, Jospeh. 2004. “American Views of Islam, Post 9/11.” Islamic Studies 43(4):599-630; Dunn, Kevin., Klocker, Natascha., Salabay, Tanya. 2007. “Contemporary racism and Islamaphobia in Australia: Racializing religion.” Ethnicities 7(4):564-589; Hyun Jung, Jong. 2012. “Islamophobia? Religion, Contact with Muslims, and the Respect for Islam.” Review of Religious Research 54(1):113-126; Cheng, Jennifer. 2015. “Islamophobia, Muslimophobia or racism? Parliamentary discourses on Islam and Muslims in debates on the minaret ban in Switzerland.” Discourse & Society 26(5):562-586.

3 comments

  1. Excellently written James. Yes I appreciate J White’s comments too. Definitely think Wood and Co cross a boundary and that it is unhelpful to the proclamation of the gospel. I can’t think of any Muslim that would turn to Christ after watching Islamicize Me.

  2. David Wood was instrumental in the salvation of Nabeel Qureshi who has left a brilliant legacy of teaching on Christian apologetics to Islam. I’m not defending David Wood’s approach in IM, but I do understand both sides. Even if mockery of beliefs we hold dear is unpleasant to see/hear, it can cause us to question things we may have not previously considered.

  3. Yes. Qureshi, in his book No God but One, points out that most Muslims don’t even know what the Quran, and in many cases hadiths, say. If this mockumentary is helpful in causing them to know and to then forsake Islam as a result, then all the better.

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