• October 15, 2002
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    Christian Leaders' Remarks Against Islam Spark Backlash
Christian Leaders' Remarks Against Islam Spark Backlash A recent series of disparaging remarks about Islam by the Rev. Jerry Falwell and other evangelical Christian leaders have sparked riots in India, helped religious parties win elections in Pakistan and undermined public sympathy in Islamic countries for the U.S. war on terrorism, experts said yesterday.

Falwell apologized over the weekend for calling Muhammad, the founder of Islam, a "terrorist" in an interview broadcast Sept. 30 by the CBS News program "60 Minutes." "I sincerely apologize that certain statements of mine . . . were hurtful to the feelings of many Muslims. I intended no disrespect to any sincere, law-abiding Muslim," the Southern Baptist minister said.

But the damage was done, according to academic specialists.

"Jerry Falwell makes a statement, he pleases his constituents, then he says he's sorry and apparently thinks that's the end of it," said Akbar Ahmed, chairman of Islamic studies at American University. "What Americans don't realize is that remarks like this are flashed all over the Muslim world, and they are doing very serious damage to U.S. interests."

Falwell did not return calls to his office seeking comment yesterday. In the "60 Minutes" interview, he said, "I think Muhammad was a terrorist. . . . Jesus set the example for love, as did Moses, and I think Muhammad set an opposite example."

In the Indian city of Solapur, Muslim youths who had gathered to protest Falwell's remarks clashed Friday with Hindu crowds and local police, causing a riot that left at least eight people dead and 90 injured, according to wire reports. In Iran, Egypt and Lebanon, Muslim clerics denounced Falwell, some calling for the evangelist's death and others urging a nonviolent response.

Ahmed said he believes Falwell's remarks contributed to the success of Islamic parties in last week's elections in his native Pakistan, where religious candidates won more than 50 seats in parliament.

"All the predictions were that the mullahs would not get more than their usual four or five seats. So what happens? Suddenly you get these [Falwell] statements on the front pages. People are outraged; they are scandalized. Ordinary Pakistanis say, 'A vote for the religious parties is a vote against the Americans,' " Ahmed said.

Falwell's remarks followed a stream of similar statements by evangelical leaders. The Rev. Franklin Graham, the Rev. Billy Graham's son and successor, has repeatedly called Islam an "evil" religion that preaches violence. Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson described Muhammad as an "absolute wild-eyed fanatic . . . a robber and brigand . . . a killer." The Rev. Jerry Vines, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, called Muhammad a "demon-possessed pedophile."

Each of these comments has drawn rebukes from other Protestant leaders as well as from Catholic and Jewish groups. But the condemnations, and even apologies such as Falwell's, never equal the impact of the initial remarks overseas, said John L. Esposito, director of Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.

"Anybody who's trying to build bridges between these cultures -- scholars, nonprofit organizations, government officials on both sides -- all their work is immediately torpedoed by these kinds of statements," said Ebrahim Moosa, co-director of Duke University's Center for the Study of Muslim Networks. "Falwell's remarks color the image of all Americans, which is a real tragedy. One person's statement implicates an entire country of 275 million people, in almost the same way that the actions of al Qaeda damage the reputation of a billion followers of Islam."

Shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush visited a mosque and said the U.S. war on terrorism was not a war against Islam, which he called a "religion of peace." Bush's approach quieted the evangelical community for a few months, but "it wasn't very long before I began to pick up rumblings in the grass roots -- sermons saying not all religions are equally correct, evangelicals saying the president may have gone a little too far," said John Green, a professor at the University of Akron who closely follows the Christian right.

"Once some prominent people stepped forward, like Franklin Graham, that made it easier for others," Green added. "I suspect that it's just become more and more acceptable for evangelical leaders to speak out against Islam."