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Crusaders

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The organization's day-to-day activities are handled by an earnest, engaging former banker, Greg Self, who last winter became the first to graduate from the Fort Worth seminary with an Islamic studies degree.

As part of his coursework, the 40-year-old Self set up a Web site for Shahid's group and set about modernizing its materials, digitizing everything from books, lectures and maps and putting them on discs for easy travel abroad. This fall, Self has been helping the Reverend Billy Graham's organization publish materials in Arabic and training local churches in methods for reaching the estimated 75,000 Muslims who live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Self began gravitating to the work a decade ago in, of all places, out-of-the-way Tifton, Georgia. An agricultural research station there attracts a small international community, and Self, not long out of Auburn University and working in his first banking job, became a regular dinner guest at a Syrian couple's home.

The next year, he traveled to Syria, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates and found himself drawn to the people and culture. "In the middle of the day, things shut down, and men will gather in different places behind closed doors to eat and talk and fellowship," he says. "In Abu Dhabi, I got in with a family there; the husband was a businessman, and he would shut his office down and tell his friends, 'Come see my American visitor.'"

During these kinds of encounters, he says, it was easy to talk about his religion. "That's ministry as I see it," he says. "It's as easy as falling off a log."

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."

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."

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Thomas Korosec
Contact: Thomas Korosec