Since the overthrow of Saddam Husain by the western coalition, there has been much debate about the weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that were used as a pretext to launch the war, but which have not been found. However, there is hardly any mention anywhere of the American evangelical groups’ campaign to convert Muslims to Christianity.
This campaign has already started as ‘humanitarian aid’ in Iraq, and constitutes a potential threat to mankind far greater than the one posed by the WMDs allegedly possessed by ‘rogue states’. It is led by senior Christian fundamentalists with close ties to the Bush administration, who are also widely known for their attacks on Islam and the Prophet (saw), and could lead to a global confrontation between Muslims and Christians, drawing in people of other faiths, such as Hindu extremists, who are already targeting both Muslims and Christians in India.
This new phase of the war on Islam and Muslims is not a peaceful effort to convert people by explaining Christianity. Closely identified with the “war on terrorism”, which is really a war on Islam and the Islamic movement, and an excuse to hunt down Islamic activists, it is already being waged in countries where American forces have invaded or set up bases. In the former Soviet Central Asian republics, the evangelists are active in opposing Islamic groups and preaching, and have strong US diplomatic and financial support. And in Iraq the coalition forces are giving them cover for “carrying food in one hand and the Bible in the other”, as a journalist has described it.
In Iraq, for example, the man leading the campaign is none other than the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, who once infamously described Islam as a “wicked, violent religion”, with a God different from that of Christianity. “The two are as different as lightness and darkness,” he added. Graham is not a newcomer to Christian extremism, nor a political nonentity. He is head of the Samaritan’s Purse, an organisation engaged in charitable work for three decades, whose main mission is to “serve the Church worldwide to promote the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ”, as its official policy reads. His closeness to the US government began when he was chosen to deliver the invocation at Bush’s inauguration to the presidency.
One of the evangelical groups now present in Iraq is the Southern Baptists, the second largest group in the US, which, like many others, backed the war on Iraq. Sam Porter, one of its coordinators, insists, like Graham, that the groups’ main purpose in Iraq is the provision of humanitarian aid.
Most Muslims dismiss these protestations out of hand. The few independent academics and heads of NGOs in the US who are familiar with the evangelists’ machinations have explained why they are sceptical. Describing the groups involved in Iraq as “despicable and deceitful” in a newspaper interview, Ibrahim Hooper, of the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said: “This guy [Graham] has repeatedly stated that Islam is intentionally cruel. I fail to see how such a person can be a positive influence in a Muslim country”, adding that “humanitarian relief is just a cover” and that their “basic motivation is conversion”. According to him, they “train workers to go in under the guise of relief to convert people away from the faith”.
Explaining that he is familiar with the groups’ methods because he has been on their training courses, Hooper unveiled some of the tricks they use while on a ‘humanitarian mission’. He said: “There’s a technique known as contextualisation. You never say directly you are a Christian. You take chairs out of the church to make it look like a mosque. You grow a beard. You dress your wife in Islamic attire. They know they’re not welcome [otherwise].”
One academic, who is familiar with their methods because he grew up attending Catholic and Protestant missionary schools in Pakistan, has explained that the offensive language now being used by the groups’ leaders is new. Akbar Ahmed, chairman of the Islamic studies department at the American university at Washington, has been quoted by the New York Times as saying that he had never heard a “negative word about Islam from the missionaries [in Pakistan].”
Ahmed is not denying the offensiveness or scale of the new hostility, nor the prevalence of the Muslims’ anger. According to the New York Times (May 28), “lectures and books criticising Islam and promoting strategies for Muslim conversions in evangelical Churches and seminaries across the US are gaining currency”; “more than a dozen” of these books are now available in Christian bookshops. One thing these lectures and books have in common is “the basic presumption that the world’s two largest religions are headed for a confrontation, with Christianity representing what is good, true and peaceful, and Islam what is evil, false and violent.”
What makes this concerted attack on Islam more dangerous is the fact that Arab Christianséparticularly from such countries as Lebanon, where there is friction between the Muslim and Christian populationségive the lectures, write the books or prepare the teams who are given the task of converting Muslims. Their knowledge of Arabic and of Muslims is used to give greater credibility to their distortions and misrepresentations of the meanings of the Qur’an and to their insults and slanders of the Prophet (saw).
At a recent lecture in Grove City, Ohio, attended by evangelists from several states, for example, an evangelical preacher from Beirut quoted passages from the Qur’an which he claimed prove Islam to be “repressive, fraudulent and violent”. He told the audience: “Here in the Qur’an, it says slay them, slay the infidels”, adding that “in the Bible there are no words from Jesus saying we should kill innocent people.” This preacher refused to identify himself; he claimed that it is too risky for “a missionary to Muslims” to do so.
Moreover, the Arab International Ministry, an Indianapolis-based group that led the “crash course on Islam” (as the New York Times called it), says that it has trained 4,500 American Christians “to proselytise Muslims in the last six years, many of them since September 11, 2001. The evangelical groups are exploiting the attacks on New York to depict Muslims as the greatest threat to the US, and Christians, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991éarguing that Islam is an even greater threat than the ‘Evil Empire’.”
But the reality is that the evangelists’ conversion project poses a far greater risk, not only to them and to the US but also to all mankind: a risk that is made even greater by the assistance given to the project by the Bush-led coterie and their various backers. The crackdown on Islamic charitable organisations and the freezing of their bank-accounts enables the evangelical groups to pose as the only charitable organisations offering ‘humanitarian aid’ to Muslims in Muslim countries. In the long term their combined conduct is more dangerous than physical WMDs (the phrase was coined by an archbishop of Canterbury in 1937) because it imperils the moral status and ethical duties of humanity, not merely its physical survival.