Google Mark Siljander, the evangelical Christian writer and global activist — and you’ll feel a jolt. Right near the top of the online “hit list” are disturbing news items like this one from the Los Angeles Times: “Mark Siljander vehemently denies the allegations in the indictment …”
This is a conservative, evangelical, Republican who formerly served in the U.S. Congress and now travels the world working on peaceful development projects. When he’s not working on commercial projects (like a green, bio-fuels project in Kenya at the moment), then he’s working on nonprofit projects in trying to build peaceful relations between Western (mostly Christian) and Eastern (mostly Muslim) governments.
Not only that, but HarperOne has just published his book, “A Deadly Misunderstanding: A Congressman’s Quest to Bridge the Muslim-Christian Divide” — a terrific book that Americans should be reading and discussing in small groups.
Plus, the book carries endorsements from Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, former Secretary of State James Baker — and the hottest writer in emergent-Christian circles, Brian McLaren.
So, what indictment?!
Well, ReadTheSpirit has not fully investigated all of the federal charges leveled at Siljander one year ago, but we dug into them enough to see that they represent a swamp of complicated issues. As Siljander himself insists — the charges may simply vanish this year, although the online headlines from a year ago will live on forever like a dark stain in an otherwise spotless overcoat.
The fact that major figures like the trio above still are backing Siljander speaks of his credibility. He was charged with obstruction of justice and money laundering and aiding terrorism in a complex case involving grant money that may have passed through his nonprofit group. These funds were related to the controversial Islamic Relief Agency — although Siljander is not a part of that group. This may have been a well-intentioned donation of funds that wound up mistakenly in the wrong hands. It may also turn out that the federal case against Siljander was politically motivated to embarrass him because his work in promoting friendship with Muslim groups is so controversial.
There’s a federal court date in November 2009 that may be the next step in the case, if it isn’t dismissed or resolved before this autumn. Little has been reported about the charges in the past year — but the headlines about the indictment are everywhere online. That’s how the online world “works” these days. So, today’s Conversation had to begin on that note.
HERE ARE HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR CONVERSATION WITH MARK SILJANDER:
DAVID: We’ve got to start our interview today with a question about the indictment, because it pops up in any Google search of your name these days. You’re often meeting with people around the world. What do you tell people about this lingering issue?
MARK: When this was presented to the news media a year ago, it hit with two days of international journalism in top headlines and there were all these wild accusations that were just absolutely mind boggling to me. Then, there hasn’t been anything new, really, in about a year.
What I can say is that I travel a lot and I am working on a model of peacemaking that comes right out of the teachings of Jesus. I meet with world leaders who other people may not choose to meet with. I’m hopeful and I try to build trust in the work that I do. I’ve traveled to over 130 countries in 20-some years and I’ve found that the kind of work I am doing is not what our American approach to ambassadorship normally tries to do.
I tell people that, when I travel, that I’m trying to show love between people like Jesus showed us. But, that idea is not even a part of normal ambassadorship. That’s not a part of political thinking. You talk to people in the secular, political world and you say that what motivates you is trying to show love to people, they say: What are you talking about?!
People have been skeptical of my motives. In the Bush administration, there were people who claimed to be Christians, but the truth is that there were people in that administration who think that people like me are out of our minds.
DAVID: It’s clear from reading the press coverage from a year ago that there were some political motives in bringing this case against you. I’m not trying to pass myself off as an expert on this indictment — and the charges are serious — but having been a journalist for many years, this story reads to me like a legal situation that may end up with the charges pretty much vanishing. That is, except for the headlines on Google. Those will dog you for years.
MARK: It’s not over, but we’re hoping it will be over this year.
DAVID: Thanks for talking about that. I’m glad we could give people a basic framework for understanding what they’ll find on the Internet involving your name. Now, aside from that legal issue, your personal story is absolutely amazing!
You once described yourself — years ago as a rising young Republican Congressman — as “a poster boy for Jerry Falwell.” You’ve been described as even more conservative than the term “evangelical” suggests. You’ve been described as a “fundamentalist.” You’re famous for calling the Quran “the book of the devil.”
And now — now you’re an eloquent “poster boy” for Christian-Muslim dialogue. You’ve trained yourself in a number of languages and you’ve studied the Quran. You’re now saying that Christians and Muslims should become friends and, together, they should isolate and help to end the threat of violent religious extremism.
It’s an amazing story. Have I got it about right?
MARK: You do. I was an arrogant young-punk politician.
DAVID: That terrible thing you said about the Quran? That happened back in the mid 1980s, about 20 years ago, when you went to a prayer breakfast and someone read aloud from the Quran. Right after hearing that, you wrote an angry letter saying that awful thing about the Quran. So, what happened next?
MARK: I was highly offended when I heard the Quran read and I sent off that letter to the head of the prayer breakfast. I was young and in Congress and I was thinking I was so great, so smart. But I found out that I was wrong about some things.
DAVID: This led to a personal challenge that forced you to go back and study the Bible more carefully to see if Jesus really did instruct people to go out and convert people from other faiths, right?
MARK: Yes, and I got terribly embarrassed. I read the New Testament over that year three times — three times — looking for where Jesus tells us to go out and convert people from other religions. I couldn’t find a single verse where Jesus told us to convert people from other religions. This was revolutionary in my mind. Jesus never mentioned the word “religion” once.
What Jesus talked about was the need to help women, orphans, the needy. We also should struggle internally in our lives to keep ourselves clean from the evils of this world.
DAVID: And, now, if our readers understand Islam, they’ll be nodding their heads, because they’ll recognize that this is very close to things that Islam teaches. The kind of “internal struggle” you’re describing is really the meaning of “jihad” for most Muslims.
MARK: Yes. And I kept reading the New Testament again and again. I was shocked that Jesus wasn’t talking about what I thought he was talking about. I had to call the guy I had written the letter to — and I had to tell him: “I’m stunned.”
DAVID: Then, stunning moment number 2 came when you also began to read the Quran — and you discovered that the Quran says a whole lot about Jesus. In fact, the Quran talks about Jesus in ways that provide a big common ground for Christian-Muslim dialogue.
MARK: Before I read the Quran, I was told that it talks about Jesus. Here’s how much I knew: I said, “Oh, that’s BS. The Quran doesn’t mention Jesus.”
Then, I went and bought an edition of the Quran and I was blown away. It talks about Jesus more than 100 times.
DAVID: In the book, you’ve got a terrific chapter about how you’ve now taken this message back to evangelical Christians. It’s late in the book and you describe addressing an audience of 150 pastors and missionaries “gathered for a conference in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, all waiting to hear what I had to say about Islam. It was no mystery to me what they were expecting me to say: Islam is of the devil, a pernicious corruption of faith that is bent on destruction of everything we believe in.”
MARK: That’s right. And I said to them: “Do you mind if I open with some passages from the holy book?”
And they called out, “Oh, yes!”
I began saying, “Jesus is the Messiah.”
They said: “Amen!”
I said, “Jesus is sinless, supernaturally conceived through a virgin named Mary by the spirit of God. He is the word of God. He heals the sick and the blind. He can even raise the dead.”
They got all wound up. They were shouting: “Hallelujah!”
And I said: “Jesus was taken up by God and he’s coming back on Judgment Day.”
They were going: “Amen! Amen!”
Then, I said, “These are all words from the Quran.”
DAVID: What happened?
MARK: The place went from a holy ruckus to a silence so complete that you could have heard a pin drop.
DAVID: What fascinates me about your work is that you remain a devout Christian. You attend a conservative, evangelical church in McLean, Virginia. And yet you argue passionately — and work in daring ways — to push Christians toward friendly, constructive dialogue rather than hateful confrontation.
MARK: I’m not an apologist for the Quran or for Islam. I’m an apologist for Jesus. I’m just trying to move people from this very negative point of view of Islam. It’s in the title of my book. The view of Islam by so many Christians is really just a big mishmash of “Deadly Misunderstanding.”
The vast majority of Muslims — like the vast majority of Christians — want to lead peaceful lives. To force Muslims into a corner where there’s nowhere left to turn is a deadly mistake. That gives power to militants who are talking about killing people.
I’m not telling people to go become Muslim. I’m a Christian. But there are more than a billion people in the world who we all ought to know a lot better. Christians ought to know Muslims. By learning about each other, we all can support moderates and endorse a peaceful interpretation of scriptures.
DAVID: You’ve served several terms in Congress. You’ve served at the United Nations. You’ve traveled the world. And still — still you tell readers that there’s hope for peace and reconciliation. There are a lot of people who are sounding pretty hopeless right now about global conflict. You’re not only refreshing in your promotion of serious, peaceful dialogue between devout Christians and Muslims. You’re also refreshing in saying that we should be hopeful about world peace.
MARK: In the middle of the last century, who ever thought the world could defeat the massive empire of communism? Communist leaders even had nuclear weapons! Who thought that could be overcome? But it was.
I’m saying that the practical way to engender hope in the world is to support the vast majority of Muslims and work with them to undermine the small number of radicals out there. This isn’t a big Einstein theory. It’s just common sense.
DAVID: You write a lot about the importance of Indonesia and Lebanon. You’ve traveled extensively in both countries and you point out that Indonesia is a huge part of the Muslim world that Americans aren’t sufficiently addressing. In Lebanon, you write about the multiculturalism that’s an essential part of Lebanon’s history.
I’m impressed. I agree with you on both of these points. Most Americans don’t know that there are more Muslims in Indonesia than in the entire Arab world. There have been problems with violence in Indonesia, but the potential for dialogue there is enormous. The same thing is true in Lebanon. It looks like a violent, troubling place to most Americans, but in Lebanon’s own history is the potential for multicultural dialogue and peaceful co-existence.
MARK: Your questions are very astute. Lebanon to me is both a perfect example of how things could work and why they don’t work. The fabric of Lebanon is extremely cosmopolitan and diverse and the war in the early 1980s was just tragic. In Lebanon’s past, it has been the Paris of the Middle East.
The trouble is that the hate between groups keeps resurfacing. Cycles of violence and fighting resurface. To recover the cosmopolitan nature of Lebanon, we all need to work on the reconciliation of the human heart.
DAVID: And again you’re talking about concepts more pastoral than what we expect to hear from politicians.
MARK: What we need is reconciliation between people. Jesus gives a model of reconciliation in the Bible and in the Quran. We need to find just a few leaders on each side who can form a little cell that can grow and organically influence others for reconciliation.
DAVID: And you believe it can happen.
MARK: I do. Who would have believed that William Wilberforce could end the slave trade in Britain? He was a well-to-do Parliament member but no one expected he could end slavery. People laughed at him.
But he did it.
Can we end this problem with violence in Islam? Yes, we can upend this situation. And we’re not going to do this by passing around copies of movies like “Obsession.”
People have shown me that movie and they ask me: “Frightening, isn’t it?”
I don’t disagree with that. These are frightening things. But then I ask the people who want to pass around “Obsession” — “So, what’s the end result of a movie like this? The end result is people are left fearful.” And these filmmakers want us to pass along more copies of this frightening movie?
You’re left with nothing but fear. You’re left with people terrified. You’re left with people thinking: All they want to do is kill us!
To that, I say: No.
I say: We have to work on reconciliation.
Can we make this change? We can. I know we can. If someone had told Americans in 1960 that we’d elect a black president in the United States, they’d have thought you were mentally ill. But change has come.
Why do we keep teaching the politics of fear? We need to become prayer partners. We need to start studying scriptures together. That’s where our hope lies.
CARE TO READ MORE?
Visit Mark Siljander’s Web site that showcases his new book, “A Deadly Misunderstanding.” It’s a well-designed site with lots of endorsement notes, an excerpt of the book, a video you can watch and more.
His for-profit consulting firm, Global Strategies Inc., is what underwrites Siljander’s global work outside his nonprofit peacemaking projects. Siljander says he tries to accept mostly international projects that are “green” and that are good for developing countries. At ReadTheSpirit, we can’t vouch for that and we have not independently investigated the whole array of clients he has served over the years with Global Strategies — but he has an array of strong supporters who do vouch for his work.
You also can visit his Wikipedia page. This is a pretty good overview of his career, although we spotted a couple of small factual flaws in the Wiki article.
Or, read about Mark’s home church, the McLean Bible Church.
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(Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)