In another holy war, the battle plan is to turn Muslims into Bible believers

A few years after his return, Self came to see the trip as a life-changing experience and enrolled in Shahid's program in Fort Worth.

At the risk of oversimplifying, evangelical Christians looking at Islam apply the same literal significance to its chief text, the Koran, and supporting laws as they do to the Bible. As a result, they come away seeing the religion much the same way as Islamic fundamentalists. "You have to understand the history of Muhammad," says Shahid, referring to the seventh-century prophet whose teachings form the basis of Islam. "There are two phases in that history. When he started out, at age 40, he was a weak person with no followers, and his message was a peaceful message. He was calling people to abandon their idols and worship God, to take care of orphans and widows. His message was a peaceful message. Our culture doesn't have any problem with that message.

"But later on, when Muhammad went to Medina from Mecca, he became more powerful. He had followers, and the tone of the message changed. It became violent. Over this period he waged over 14 wars against his enemies. It is in this second phase where the message is one of war and violence against the enemies of Islam."

Brian Stauffer

Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary Professor Samuel Shahid runs one of three programs in the United States aimed at converting Muslims.
Mark Graham
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary Professor Samuel Shahid runs one of three programs in the United States aimed at converting Muslims.

Today, Muslims either set aside those teachings as appropriate only for their time, or use them as a basis for radicalism and intolerance of non-Muslims. "We heard a lot from both sides after the September 11 attacks," says Shahid, saying that this historical break in the Koran makes it subject to wide interpretation. "In America, you heard a lot more that this was a peaceful religion. There was less of this from the imams in the Middle East."

Self calls the more liberal interpretations "politically correct Islam," and to him its harshest elements--commands to resist infidels and fight against Jews and Christians--represent the religion's truer form.

To be sure, prominent evangelicals have made news over the past year by isolating various intolerant passages in the Koran, or by disparaging Muhammad's teachings and life. Earlier this month, the Reverend Jerry Falwell called the prophet a "terrorist" in a 60 Minutes interview. He later apologized after the broadcast sparked riots in India and may have pushed Pakistanis to flock to religious candidates in the country's recent parliamentary elections. The Reverend Jerry Vines, former president of the Southern Baptists, called Muhammad a "demon-possessed pedophile" at a major denomination gathering earlier this year. The Reverend Franklin Graham, Billy Graham's son and successor, got the ball rolling last October when he called Islam a "very evil and wicked religion."

"It can be argued that Osama bin Laden is a good Muslim," says Self, whose polite, almost studious manner is an interesting contrast with his vehement beliefs. "Islam is what it is. I believe it is a tool of the devil. As a believer in the Bible, I believe people in the Islamic faith will not go to heaven. That's why it's so urgent for me to go out and tell them."

Just out of college in 1991, Cynthia Wilson felt that same urgency when she signed up with the International Mission Board for a two-year posting at the organization's hospital in Yibla, Yemen. Wilson says the Persian Gulf War, and the fact that she had a good friend in college who was Muslim, moved her to go. "I just felt like God was starting to lay Muslims on my heart," she says.

The Baptists set up the hospital 35 years ago with the purpose of providing free care and medicine and to bring Christianity to the region. "I'd say most of the people who were there were focused first on sharing their faith, not just to fill and heal their bodies," she says. But in Wilson's words, "We were sowing on very hard ground."

The radical Muslim Brotherhood was active in the area, she says, and she knew of one Muslim who was killed after getting too close to the missionaries. "Another ran away right after that." She says many of the staff--including one particularly outspoken doctor--were frustrated by the restrictions on their preaching, but even when they had the ears and hearts of hospital patients or their families, conversions were rare.

Wilson's role at the hospital was to teach the staff's children, but she also came in contact with young Muslim women to whom she was teaching English. She says she talked about her faith to several but ended up leading no Muslims to Jesus during the four years she worked abroad.

Tribal leaders' and converts' families were more likely to uphold Islam than government entities, she says. Family pressures to remain in the faith were intense.

Returning to Fort Worth in 1996, Wilson began taking classes with Shahid. She married another seminarian, started a family and hopes to go abroad again once her two children are a little older.

The difficulty in finding converts in the Muslim world is hardly isolated to the Yemen hospital, which the International Mission Board announced last month is being sold because of lack of funding and a shortage of medical volunteers.

An internal mission board report titled "The Bleeding Edge," based on interviews with 300 missionaries, places the blame on repression and family pressures to remain true to Islam. The report, which was completed last year, found that many Muslims convert because of ulterior motives, among them "a hunger to emigrate, education in the West, a desire for a job and seeking a wife."

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