Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Book Review: A Deadly Misunderstanding: A Congressman’s Quest to Bridge the Muslim-Christian Divide by Mark D. Siljander

A Deadly Misunderstanding: A Congressman’s Quest to Bridge the Muslim-Christian Divide. By Mark D. Siljander. New York: HarperCollins; 2008. pp. 260. ISBN: 978-0-06-143828-8.
Mark Siljander served his Michigan district in the United States House of Representatives from 1981 to 1987. He came into office supporting Ronald Reagan’s, Newt Gingrich’s and Tom DeLay’s policies of economic deregulation, supply-side economics and confrontation with the Soviet Union and other communist and socialist nations. In a conversation with a trusted advisor, he revealed all he needed to know and all he wanted to know about Muslims and Islam:
… if I didn’t mind his asking, as a follower of Jesus, what was my strategy in relation to other people in my travels around the world? I replied without hesitation: it was to convert them to the Christian faith. [p. 16]

His advisor then asked him to produce a textual basis for this position from the Bible. Mark Siljander spent the next year searching, but at the end concluded that no single verse “stated or even implied that Jesus of Nazareth promoted, began or intended to begin any religion. … Following Jesus, according to Jesus’s own disciples, was not a matter of religion; it was about the revelation of God’s truth as conveyed by Jesus’s influence on the human heart.” [p. 18] This represented a crash in Mark Siljander’s personal life.
When President Reagan appointed Siljander an alternate delegate to the United States’s delegation to the United States, Siljander began to meet with representatives from forty-one nations, asking each one “about themselves and their lives; about their region of the world, what it was like, and what were their biggest challenges; and finally, what did they think the United States could do to improve our image in the United Nations and around the world?” [p. 20] These representatives told Siljander that previous United States diplomats never asked these questions.
We don’t have conversations. The United States tells us how they suggest we vote, what they suggest we do. They’re cordial and friendly, and very polite. But they don’t ask us anything about ourselves or our countries, and certainly don’t ask for our opinions on how the United States can better its relations around the world. [p. 21]
Interpersonal relationships were missing, Siljander concluded, and he spends the rest of the book describing how he uses his new understandings of the Bible and the Quran to build interpersonal relationships with Muslims and others around the world.

Siljander recounts meetings with Western Sahara rebels, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, the foreign minister of Libya, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and others. In these meetings, Siljander would insist that his associates and he were not seeking to persuade these leaders to do anything, but instead they wanted to become their friends. As a way to initiate their friendship, they suggested that they discuss their mutual love and admiration for Jesus and his teachings. And then they would ask to pray together for a better relationship and peace.

The lesson Siljander drew from these encounters was that a non-sectarian understanding of Jesus and a commitment to living his teachings could facilitate conflict resolution in a way that the traditional conflict resolution focus on diplomatic, political, economic and military engagement could not.

Is Siljander so naïve to believe that this can work? Apparently, he is. Even when Israel’s attacks on Lebanon in 2006 destroyed the Muslim-Christian discussion group in which he participated, he wrote:

Am I made less hopeful with each new eruption of hostilities, each new incidence of suicide bombings, each fresh escalation in the seemingly interminable cycle of attack and retribution? Quite the opposite: I’m more hopeful. [p. 207]

He is looking for highly influential people to carry “the radical idea of reconciliation that Jesus taught two millennia ago and, in my view, that the Qur’an reiterated” until those ideas dominate the society.
If being naïve in the hope for peace is the book’s only fault, then I’d say it’s a welcome flaw and I ask God to bless me with it. And if this book is taken as an attempt to get people to rethink their previous religious conceptions which made them think that conflict is good, necessary or inevitable, then I recommend it wholeheartedly.

I do think there are significant problems to Siljander’s specific approach, however. The most important is his attempt to modify Muslims’ understanding of Jesus to include the idea that he was crucified, he was the son of God and that he was divine. He promotes historically minority opinions of groups of Muslims regarding these doctrines and then claims that Muslims who believe these things can be “Messianic Muslims.” Messianic Muslims, who would never identify themselves in this way, “retain their cultural identity, … go to the mosque and read the Qur’an, and … pray in the name of Jesus and read the Bible.”

Even if I don’t read this as a backdoor attempt to “convert” Muslims, which Siljander vehemently denies, the inequality of this relationship is revealed by the fact that he never talks about a Muhammadi Christian, a Christian who is inspired by the example of the Messenger Muhammad . Jesus is important for Muslims to follow, but it is not important for Christians to follow Muhammad .

The second big problem is that the impetus in the book is for Muslims to change. I find it hard to take this whole project seriously when Siljander associates with Islamophobe and ardent Zionist Cal Thomas. While I know the author may not be in complete control of a book’s jacket comments, one endorsement of the book comes from Edwin Meese, III, a fellow at the Islamophobic, neo-conservative and colonialist Heritage Foundation. He is quoted saying, “I cannot overstate the importance of Siljander’s strategic efforts to defuse the activities of radical Muslims worldwide.”

Real peacemaking efforts begin at home. Yes, there are plenty of Muslims who need to be converted to peace, but there are also plenty of warmongering heathens right here at home for Siljander to reach.

Finally, Siljander never addresses why a religious approach to peacemaking and relationship-building is better than a humanistic or an international law approach. Would it not be better to begin with the U.N. Charter of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions than the Aramaic Bible and speculations on the Qur’an?

The author has a web site,, for further information.

P.S. The author Mark Siljander has been sentenced to a year in jail for activities related to this book.