?Crusading? Do-Gooders: Who and What They Are, and Why They Should Leave Us Alone
By Yoginder Sikand
As a thinly-veiled mouthpiece of the American establishment, the TIME magazine is strictly outside the purview of my already limited reading list. I must, however, confess that I was tempted into breaking my vow of abstinence last week. The June 30, 2003 issue of the magazine carried too provocative a cover to resist. It pictured an upheld fist clenching a cross, nudging against a slogan asking a cryptic query: ?Should Christians Convert Muslims??. Now, inter-religious polemics have ceased to interest me of late, tired as I am of loud-mouthed fanatics peddling their own spiritual wares. However, since the vexed issue of the relations between Muslims and others continues to exercise a strange fascination for me, I shed by scruples about the venerable TIME, and clicked on its web-page to go through the cover-story.
The gist of the story, based on reports filed by correspondents in North America and the Middle East, was, to put it in a nutshell, this: Western, largely American, Christian evangelist fundamentalists appear to be convinced that the time has now come to wage an all-out spiritual war against Islam. Islam, as many of them see it, is a Satanic-inspired programme of terrorism that bodes ill for all humankind, and represents the greatest challenge to Christianity and Christiandom. As an American evangelist, identified simply as ?Barbara?, puts it, Islam is in itself the ultimate ?weapon of mass destruction?. Charged with a fanatic zeal to spread their faith to ?benighted? Muslims, the story speaks of scores of Christian evangelists following close on the heels of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, offering ?aid?, both material as well as ?spiritual?, with the latter, of course, being tied to the former. The report quotes the Massachusetts-based Gordon-Cornwell Theological Seminary to suggest that there are today more than 27,000 Christian missionaries working in Muslim countries, almost double the number two decades ago.
The events of September 2001, the TIME tells us, seem to have galvanized the American Christian rightwing to take its evangelistic duty of ?saving? the Muslims more seriously. There can be no doubt that growing unrest in many Muslim countries, and the threat that the West perceives from this, is a, if not, the, major factor in stirring the missionary zeal of the evangelicals. As in classical colonial times, in these days of American global neo-colonialism, a symbiotic you-scratch-my-back-and-I-scratch-yours relationship appears to bind the imperialistic ambitions of the American military establishment with the missionary fervour of the Christian evangelical right-wing. Evangelical fundamentalists today enjoy, as is well known, the warm support of the American president. In turn, the evangelicals faithfully serve American goals abroad, propagating an extremely conservative, indeed ultra-reactionary theology, based on the deeply-rooted conviction of the ultimate superiority of the American ?way of life?, on the one hand, and the firm belief that all religions other than [their own version of ] Christianity are wholly false, if not downright ?Satanic?. Little wonder, then, that evangelists are often the most fanatic defenders of American foreign policy, from zealously supporting to Israel to excitedly welcoming the invasion of Iraq, seeing in all this both a triumph over the ?forces of evil? represented by Islam as well as an opportunity to proclaim their ?good news?. If Bush proclaims, in the war against terrorism, that those ?not with us are against us?, so, too the evangelicals boldly announce: In the war against the ?powers of darkness?, if you are not one of us?if you choose to remain Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or anything other than Christian?then you are a minion of the Devil.
Personally, I have no problem at all with anyone wishing to change her or his faith, or even to anyone eager to convince others of the claims his or her own religion. As an avowed opponent of ?inherited religiosity?, the fact that one is doomed to follow or identify with a certain religion simply because one is born into it, I believe that change of religious affiliation is really a very basic human right. In that sense, then, the passion thatfires Christian evangelicals to spread the ?good word? is unexceptionable. That said, however, I must hasten to add that any sort of proselytisation that disguises itself and conceals its ultimate goals is thoroughly condemnable. To use what some might consider a rather ?un-Islamic? metaphor, it is about as unethical as a bootlegger seeking to palm off a bottle of country-made arrack as French wine. And yet, that is precisely what, as the TIME story suggests, many evangelicals precisely do. In order to escape strict visa regulations, they often travel to and reside in Muslim countries in the guise of businessmen or do-gooder social workers. A good part of their time and money is spent on ?development? work, which is generally a cover for pursuing their missionary goals. The TIME story speaks of missionaries even going to the extent of distributing toys to unsuspecting children and using that as a means to get their message across. They are careful to keep their real identities concealed, and some even attempt to pass of as Muslims to dupe their potential converts.
Christian evangelists face an uphill task making themselves acceptable among the communities they work, who often see them, and generally rightly so, as seeking to propagate and impose alien cultural norms along with their faith. Since many, and not just Muslims alone, regard the evangelists as propagandists for ?Western? culture, the evangelical project has come up against major hurdles. As a way around this barrier, a growing number of evangelists working in Muslim countries are today experimenting with what is in evangelical circles fashionably called ?inculturation? or ?contextualisation?. Put simply, what this means is that the evangelist seeks to disguise his message in the cultural forms of the population he seeks to target. By doing so, Christianity is made to be appear as culturally familiar and therefore more easily acceptable. In India, for instance, numerous evangelists are now engaged in articulating a ?Hindu? Christianity: Mother Mary abandons her long, flowing gown for a rich silk sari, Jesus is painted brown and the Om appears alongside the cross atop the steeple of the church, which is now made to look like a temple. The TIME tells us of similar experiments being made by evangelists in Muslim lands. Some evangelists disguise themselves as Sufis and hope to be able to pass off as Muslim mystics; others set up what they call ?Jesus mosques?; and yet others go to the extent of publicly reciting the Muslim creed: ?There is no god but God, and Muhammad is His prophet?!
In the course of my travels, which have taken me across large parts of India, I have had numerous encounters with fiery evangelicals on the lookout for unsuspecting victims. Some years ago one could find them loitering around in Connaught Place, Delhi, passing around pamphlets and glossy tracts, proclaiming the end of the world and the impending dawn of the Day of Judgment. This literature was specially designed to catch the unsuspecting eye, keenly aware of the Indian penchant for vibrant colours. They were filled with brightly coloured cartoons of a bearded stern Jesus perched atop a fluffy cloud brandishing a sinister-looking sword; swarms of red-cheeked, white-faced, distinctly European-looking angels astride galloping horses, their manes blowing wildly in the wind; hordes of men and women wearing crosses around their necks being lifted up to heaven on angelic wings; and a large swathe of humanity, dark-faced ghoul-like most of them, going up in a ball of flame and smoke in Hell. In all, more amusing than instructive. Even more amusing, I felt, were the missionaries? reactions to the way in which I would respond to their earnest entreaties. I would first be greeted by a well-fed face displaying a strained plastic smile. ?Are you in distress?, he would ask, somewhat disconcertingly, and then, without caring to hear my tale of woe, would look up to heaven with half-closed eyes and a beatific smile and whisper: ?Oh Lord Jesus in heaven, help this brother cross the river of woe?. Then, a bundle of colourful leaflets would be thrust into my hands, the way do-gooder missionaries dole out chocolates to starving village children. Hurriedly glancing through the mass of propaganda material, I would, rather irreverently I admit, curl them into a ball and fling them into the nearest rubbish heap. The angelic smile on the cherubic face would then curl up into a snarl, and all at once a pair of angry, stone-cold eyes would stab at me. ?Hey man! That?s no way to enter Heaven!?, I would be told as I hurriedly made my way.
If the TIME is to be believed and if Western evangelists are really now heavily investing in targetting the Muslim world for ?spiritual warfare? or ?crusade? as they still call it, it is very likely that India, with its vast Muslim population, figures prominently on their map. Personally, I must admit to knowing little about their activities among the Indian Muslims. I?ve heard of several groups engaged in such work, but I haven?t really got down to seriously studying them. I do, however, know that many of them, like their counterparts working among the Hindus, are often money-raking ventures, set up by enterprising envangelists with access to generous donors in the West. For purposes of illustration, let me describe two such groups,both located in Bangalore, about which I know something. Although they may not be representative of the evangelical camp in general, they do offer crucial insights into the ways in which the evangelists seek to spearhead their contemporary ?crusade?.
The first of these is called the Dar ul-Nejath, an Arabic term meaning ?The House of Salvation?. Headed by one Dr. Fazal Sheikh, probably a Muslim convert to Christianity, this is a branch of the global ?Call of Hope: Mission to Muslims? organisation. In order to ?reach out? with the ?good news? of the Bible to Muslims, it has set up what it calls the ?Muslim Masihi Fellowship?. Under this programme, in order to present the Christian message to Muslims, the Dar-ul-Nejath undertakes an impressive range of activities. These include ?out-reach? work, involving door-to-door visits to Muslim homes by Christian missionaries, as well as a comprehensive correspondence course in Islam and Christianity. It also conducts an advanced level course on Islam, in association with the evangelical Christian Light of Life Bible College, Austria, to train Christian missionaries in the art of polemics, arming them with knowledge of Islam so that they can present the Christian message to their prospective Muslim converts in a manner more intelligible to them. Plans are afoot now to have a regular three-week residential advanced-level course on Islam and Christianity at Bangalore. Initial work in this regard has already started in the form of classes in ?Islamic theology and Christian Evangelism?, with the help of the Bangalore-based Asia Evangelical Bible College and Seminary.
The Dar ul-Nejath claims to have a number of ?honorary evangelists? (whatever that may mean, presumably unpaid workers) who are engaged in missionary work among the Muslims of Bangalore. In a circular it issued some years ago it says, ?This ministry has reached out (to) each and every corner of Bangalore district and the surrounding areas of other districts?. Within Bangalore City itself, it runs several centres. In order to attract young Muslims, it has set up a special Muslim school named Madrasat ul- Masih, in which one Reverend Dr. Fazal Masih teaches Urdu and the Bible to destitute Muslim children. [The name of the school is itself striking: seeking to pass off as an innocuous Muslim-style madrasa] It has also a small medical centre, St. Peter?s Clinic, which is visited mainly by poor Muslim patients. Even in this apparently purely humanitarian effort the ultimate goal of conversion is paramount, for as the circular says, ?through that [the medical centre] it is easy to make friends and share the gospel?.
The second Bangalore-based Christian evangelical organisation specially working among Muslims that I have come across goes by the benign and unexceptionable name of ?Helping Hands International?. Among its declared aims are setting up children?s homes, schools and craft centres, conducting agricultural training programmes and engaging in relief and medical projects. Yet, behind these noble ventures the ultimate goal remains one of ?evangelism and Church-planting among Muslims?. In a letter addressed to ?The Heads of Evangelical Mission and Bible Teaching Institutions?, dated 27 the March, 1996, the organisation?s Executive Secretary, G.M. Dhanaraj remarks that the ?Ishmaelites? (the children of Isma?il, meaning the Muslims) are, for the Christian missionaries, ?the most un-reached people of India?. 98% of India?s vast Muslim population, he notes with profound regret, have as yet not been brought into contact with the Christian message, so much so that ?there is not even one Christian evangelist to work for one lakh Ishmaelites?.
Note the pathetic paternalistic concern for the hapless ?Ishmaelites?. Muslims are not even allowed to call themselves as they would wish, although almost none of them would recognize themselves in the ?Ishmaelite? label that is forced on them! As the Biblical story has it, the Arabs are descended from Isma?il, whom the Bible describes (contrary to the Qur?an) as the son of Hagar, slave-woman of Abraham, with all the negative connotations that go with this status. All Muslims are then collapsed together as Arabs, and all Arabs as off-springs of a mere slave. Given their base origins, they beg, or so we are made to believe, to be delivered from the shackles spiritual bondage by do-gooder saviours of their souls.
Now, having taken serious note of the lamentable state of affairs, ?Helping Hands International? has, in its magnanimity, Dhanaraj suggests, taken upon itself the onerous task of ?working for the salvation of the Ishmaelites?, a euphemism, of course, for attempting to convert Muslims to Christianity. The ?motto? of his organisation, he reveals, is ?tell Jesus about Ishmaelites and tell Ishmaelites about Jesus?. In pursuance of this goal, the organisation claims to have spread its activities to eight states and two union territories of India. It has put before itself the ambitious task of opening its centres in all the states and union territories of the country before the year 2000 A.D. In order to do this, Dhanaraj writes, the organisation has launched a training programme for Christian missionaries who will later be dispatched to engage in proselytising work among Muslims all over India. The main training programme is of a one-year duration, but there are also several short-term courses to choose from. These are conducted at two locations?Bangalore, for volunteers from South India, and Nagpur, for those from the North. Volunteers are often sponsored by various Churches and upon finishing their training they go back to their ?mission fields? to put into practice what they have learnt. The training programmes are divided into several levels. The Basic Level course entails three days of lectures, followed by six months of practical work. The purpose of the latter is ?to meet one Ishmaelite for one day everyday for one hour and tell (him) about Jesus?. This is to be supplemented by the use and dissemination of suitable literature provided by the centre. The Advanced Level and Research Level training programmes are similar in nature, though more intensive.
To assist the trainees, the organization has a very well-stocked library called by the Arabic term Al-Noor (?The Light?), which, apparently, has ?a vast collection of books from all over the world on more than 50 different subjects?, including, and especially, on ?Evangelism Among Ishmaelites?, ?Reaching out to the Ishmaelites? and testimonies of Muslim converts, to Christianity. In addition, it has a large collection of audio and video
cassettes on similar topics.
Besides its numerous training programmes for Christian missionaries working among Muslims, ?Helping Hands International? has set up what it has christened as the ?Ishmaelite Salvation Association? (ISA)?a cleverly chosen acronym meaning ?Jesus? in Arabic and Urdu. Till date the ISA has published 37 gospel pamphlets, 18 books and one comprehensive correspondence course, all, of course, tailored to the ultimate aim of converting Muslim to Christianity. In an effort to sensitise Christian missions to the need for greater evangelical effort among Muslims in particular, it has, according to a leaflet setting out the various services it offers, organised numerous lectures on ?how to evangelise Ishmaelites?. Apparently, much intensive research and careful planning has gone into all this, for it says that these lectures consist of no less than ?three different sets of teachings on 21 subjects?. These lectures have been delivered at various ?Bible Colleges, Theological Seminaries and Missionary Training Societies in different parts of the world?. So far the ISA claims to have conducted almost two hundred ?challenging? seminars on the above themes at various places under its curiously-titled MECCA programme, the ?Middle East Culture and Christian Approach? project.
Having at its command such ?expertise?, the ISA provides free consultation to missionary groups keen on ?Ishmaelite Evangelism?, ?follow-up ministry?, ?discipleship? and ?church-planting? among ?Ishmaelites?. It offers to impart advice and training on ?how to share the gospel? with Muslims, particularly such vulnerable groups as students, patients, prisoners and women. The ISA has, or so it claims, gifted preachers who can give excellent speeches in gospel meetings and ?open crusades?, and makes available their services to Christian churches who wish to engage in conversion activity among Muslims.
Like many other Christian organisations, the ISA, too, runs various social service projects whose final aim is of course, to assist in conversions and to prevent those who have already converted from ?relapsing?. These services for ?Poor Ishmaelite Children? are said to include boys? homes, girls? hostels, training courses in carpentry, agriculture, tailoring and so on as well as temporary shelter, jobs and medical assistance to ?Ex-Ishmaelite families?. These facilities are presently provided by six centres of the ISA, under the Siraj (Social, Industrial, Rehabilitational, Agricultural and
Now, as I said at the outset, I have no problem at all with those who want to change the religion into which they were born. Nor have I any qualms with those who see themselves as charged with a divine responsibility of communicating what they take to be the ?Truth? to others. That said, however, I have the most serious differences with right-wing evangelist ?crusaders? for whom all those outside their narrowly inscribed circle of chosen followers are doomed to eternal perdition. We have enough of such paranoid megalomaniacs in our country?among Hindus, Muslims, Christians and others?to deserve any more! If this be the road to salvation, then I, at least, would rather remain among the damned!
Originally printed at http://www.islaminterfaith.org/july2003/issue.html, and reprintd at TAM with permission.