The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Evangelicals on the War Path

Yoginder Sikand

Among the most vociferous supporters of the American invasion of Iraq and its so-called global ‘war on terror’ are large sections of America’s powerful Christian evangelical right wing. American Christian evangelicals have probably never had it so good for themselves in the recent past—what with a fellow Christian fundamentalist as President of their country, who is on record as having declared that he sees his country’s present imperialist offensive as nothing less than a holy crusade.

Most right-wing Christian groups in America see America’s war on Iraq, and on Muslim peoples more generally, as nothing less than a cosmic battle between Christianity and Islam, between God and the Devil, between good and evil. For them, the global imperialist offensive led by America is actually part of ‘God’s plan’ to help plant the Gospel in ‘heathen’ lands, to win ‘benighted’ Muslims to the Christian fold. Not surprisingly, many well-funded right-wing western Christian groups have rushed to Iraq (as they sought to do earlier in Afghanistan), following closely in the heels of American troops. The troops rain down bombs on civilians, massacring them in their thousands, while seemingly do-gooder evangelists make a pretence of ‘cleaning up the mess’ of ‘their’ soldiers, offering the hapless victims of American terror a few sops—a mid-day meal or a sack of grain—and a free Bible in addition, hoping in this way to win their foes to what they see as the only available way to ultimate salvation.

This nexus between right-wing evangelicals and the American political-military establishment serves the purposes of both partners admirably. For the American establishment, the presence of evangelical ‘charity’ groups on the battlefield seemingly engaged in doing some amount of ‘good’ for the suffering helps diffuse opposition to America’s occupying armies among the locals. It is also of immense propaganda value, seeking to convince the world that America’s imperialist offensives are actually stem from a spirit of unbounded ‘Christian’ ‘generosity’ and ‘charity’. For the evangelicals, the presence of American occupying armies provides them the security they need to carry on with their missionary depredations. Despite their protestations of ‘love’ for suffering and dying Muslims, they seem to actually relish the prospects of war, for it enables them to gain entry into areas where they would ordinarily would never had dared to tread, being protected by the force of American arms. In addition, the mass misery that imperialist military offensives unleash on millions of people—as in Iraq—appear to create just the right climate that evangelical groups so desperately need to get their ‘Good News’ fall on receptive soil—through the medical missions, makeshift schools and food distribution centres that they set up to take the place of regular hospitals, schools and farms that the imperialist armies go about pounding to utter ruin. In the present American offensive against Iraq, do-gooder western, particularly American, Christian evangelical outfits are playing a major role, many of them working within Iraq itself as well as in neighbouring countries among the streams of Iraqis who have fled the fighting. While apparently involved in providing ‘relief’, this is simply a cover for missionary work.

Frontiers is one of the several American-based right-wing Christian evangelical groups heavily involved in missionary work among Muslims in several countries. Its website describes its formidable range of activities. It has a number of overseas missions, packaged and priced like commercial adventure holidays. They are designed to combine the pleasure of a holiday, a burning sense of adventure and a passionately held belief in Christian mission. To cite some examples: Its North Africa Trekking Team package deal (priced at $2650) promises missionaries with a love for the wild the possibility of a mule trek in the mountains, while also giving them the opportunity of conveying Christianity to Muslim villagers. Its North African Prayer Team package ($2850) includes visits to archaeological sites and the prospects of ‘proclaim[ing] God’s Word over the land and join[ing] Him in tearing down strongholds keeping Muslims blinded to the truth about Christ’. Its Southeast Asia Bike Ministry Team ($3900), playing on deeply cherished orientalist fantasies associated with classical imperialism and its racist project, promises the thrill of biking through the mountains of a south-east Asian island, offering ‘strategic prayers over the land and the people’, engaging in ‘low-key evangelism’ and ‘build[ing] relationships with hospitable Muslims who’ll want to serve you endlessly’. Some of the packages involve a limited form of social work (teaching English and computers to Muslim youth, or caring for Muslim refugee children), intended, of course, simply as a means for beguiling unsuspecting Muslims into abandoning Islam for Christianity.

Frontiers is a classic case of a Christian fundamentalist outfit. In what it calls a ‘statement of faith’, Frontiers insists in the ‘full, verbal inspiration of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament: as authoritative, sufficient, infallible and without error in the original manuscripts, not only as containing but as being in themselves the only written Word of God’. Accordingly, it declares that acknowledging Jesus as the Son of God and his death on the cross for atoning for the sins of all humankind is the only way to salvation. Consequently, it says, Christians are assured of ‘eternal blessedness’ in Heaven, while all others would be summarily consigned to ‘everlasting, conscious punishment’ in Hell.

From this belief stems Frontier’s global imperialist missionary agenda. It acknowledges that Muslims (and other non-Christians) are fellow human beings and creatures of God, and that, in that capacity, God ‘loves’ them. This love, however, is, it is suggested, strictly conditional, for they would be dispatched to hell if they fail to accept Jesus as Son of God—that is, if they continue being Muslim. In other words, while God may love Muslims, he seems to detest their religion. This sets out the missionary mandate for Frontiers, of ‘rescuing’ Muslims from Islam. It describes the task that it has established for itself thus: ‘Our passion is to glorify God by planting reproducing churches among unreached Muslim peoples’. As it sees it, Muslims can ‘avert eternal destruction’ only if they accept Christianity.

Frontier’s international director, Rick Love, is said to be a missionary with 20 years experience working among Muslims to abandon their faith and accept Christianity. He holds a Ph.D. from the ultra-right wing Fuller Theological Seminary, where he is presently adjunct professor of ‘Islamics’ (a curious Christian missionary term for Islamic Studies). In a recent interview, titled ‘A Christian Perspective of Islam and Terrorism’, he dwells at length on what he sees as his organisation’s mandate, linking it with America’s current so-called ‘war on global terror’, a euphemism for its invasion of one Muslim country after another.

As a true fundamentalist, Love sees the ‘war on terror’ as reflecting, in essence, a spiritual conflict between God and the Devil. And in this grand battle there is no doubt as to whom he sees Islam siding with. In his view, the attacks of 11 September (which he appears to employ as a justification for America’s consequent ‘war on terror’) have little or nothing to do with American imperialism (he mentions what he terms as ‘Muslim perceptions’ of America that have given rise to a wave of anti-Americanism all over the Muslim world, but then argues that, being a superpower, America is a ‘lightning rod for criticism’, and hurriedly adds, ‘Sadly, it is human nature to want to take people down a notch). Rather, the attacks, he suggests, were a natural corollary of Islam itself. In his mind, terror and Islam are inseparable. He categorically denies that Islam is a peace-loving religion, although he does admits the existence of peace-loving Muslims (suggesting, therefore, that their love for peace is despite, rather than because of, their belief in Islam). On the other hand, Christianity is presented as the very epitome of love and peace, while, of course, the long history of Christian-inspired wars and genocidal campaigns, including the current invasion of Iraq, which many evangelicals bless as a crusade, are conveniently glossed over. Love sums up his argument thus:

[…] Muhammad rode into Mecca on a stallion with a sword in hand to conquer by force. By contrast, Jesus saddled up a donkey to ride into Jerusalem to humbly suffer and die for the sins of the world. Herein lies the difference. Jesus founded a religion based on moral persuasion. From the beginning, Islam has condoned the use of the sword […] Islam is a religion which sanctions force, if necessary, to advance its purposes.

This said, the task before Christians, Love suggests, should be to ‘wage peace’ on Muslims—in other words, to wean Muslims away from Islam that is seen as sanctioning violence. He sees Muslims being divided into two broad camps: ‘non-violent moderates’ versus ‘violent fundamentalists and terrorists’. Since he sees violence as somehow intrinsic to Islam itself, presumably the former would be Muslim just in name. ‘Moderate’ Muslims would, he says, help promote ‘a greater respect for human rights and a recognition of common values between us’, which in turn, would help stamp out Islamic ‘terror’. It is as if ‘terror’ is solely a Muslim monopoly—Love says nothing here America’s historical record of bloody war, or of Christian-inspired colonial wars, for instance. Love advises Christians and western governments to cultivate ‘moderate’ Muslim countries, arguing that this is vital for the success on the ‘war on terror’ (no mention here of the complex economic, political and cultural roots of widespread anti-American sentiments among many Muslims and other ‘Third Worlders’, factors that are essential to understanding the phenomenon of much of the violence in Muslim lands today).

At the same time, Love appeals to Christian missionaries to launch major efforts to spread their faith among Muslim peoples, or what he calls ‘the advance of God’s kingdom in Muslim countries’. This must, however, he says, be done with love and concern, so as to win over Muslims rather than alienate them further and make the missionary task that much more difficult. As he suggests, ‘building bridges of love’ with Muslims at this point would ‘make much easier the job of every Christian who is involved in evangelism among Muslims […] for a long time to come’.

As Love sees it, the events of 11 September, 2001, and the wars that have followed in its wake are possibly cosmic signs of what Christian fundamentalists believe would be Christ’s return to earth before the Day of Judgement. This adds even greater urgency to what Love regards as the missionary task of winning Muslims to Christianity before Christ comes back to the world and heralds the Last Days. The impending arrival of Christ must be preceded by ‘world evangelization’ says Love, suggesting a global plan of Christian imperialist domination.

Love is not alone in his imperialist Christian designs, for he echoes the views of many, if not most, powerful, well-heeled western Christian evangelical fundamentalists. One wishes one could dismiss Love (and the organisation that he heads) as simply a harmless babbling bigot, but there are enough of people like him around (not to forget the president of America who appears to share many of his views) around to make talk of resurrecting the crusades a very real and menacing possibility.


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