In March, 30-year-old remarks by Billy Graham about Jews grabbed the attention of journalists and garnered horrified reactions from the American Jewish community and media figures who make their living by holding colorful opinions. By and large, however, reactions were carefully measured and people cut Billy Graham a lot of slack. He had a virtually impeccable record as a religious leader and as a private citizen, the remarks were in clear contrast to his historic relations with the Jewish community, and people knew that no matter what he said to Richard Nixon that day in 1972, anti-Semitism never had been an item on his agenda.
Last fall, Billy Graham's son Franklin made informal remarks about Islam that similarly grabbed media attention and horrified the American Muslim community. Islam was "wicked" and "violent," he said, adding that it was not "this wonderful, peaceful religion." The Qur'an, he said "instructs the killing of the infidel." This month, the controversy has taken on new life as he has talked with reporters about The Name, his newest book.
Franklin Graham has not been a major leader long enough to have established in the public mind a similar track record of good works and good will. Understandably, people are cutting him a lot less slack than they cut his father.
In the midst of this controversy, a few key points need to be understood:
Franklin Graham is not alone in his deep suspicion of Islam. Witness, for example, the grassroots reaction to the University of North Carolina's decision to require incoming first-year students to read a book about the Qur'an. Especially since September 11, Americans broadly distrust Islam, and moderate Muslims will have to work hard to win over American opinion.
Attacking Islam is not on Franklin Graham's agenda. The controversy began last November after NBC Nightly News's Jim Avila dredged up weeks-old comments to create media buzz at the beginning of Ramadan. Franklin defended his comments, other media took note, American Muslim spokespersons took public umbrage, and more media gave the story additional play. Franklin Graham is not trying to promulgate his sincerely held views on Islam—he is defending them. Those who want Graham to stop condemning Islam should stop asking him to explain himself.
Franklin Graham is about much more than his views on Islam. His new book defends the right of American Christians to express their faith publicly. Let him be known for that. In his book and on important public platforms, Graham has been promoting compassion for those infected with HIV/AIDS and encouraging churches to become involved in AIDS-focused hospice ministry. Let him be known for that. Through his relief and development organization Samaritan's Purse, he has been bringing aid to people whose lives have been ripped apart by wars and natural disasters. Let him be known for that. Of special note is the Children's Heart Project, which has brought over 100 dying children from Bosnia to the US for heart surgery. Let him be known for that. Through his father's evangelistic organization, he has been preaching the good news about Jesus Christ. Let him be known for that.
Now, I do not agree with some of Franklin Graham's overly generalized comments about Islam. I believe it is important for Christian leaders to avoid unnecessarily alienating moderate Muslim leaders (who are perhaps truer to the central Islamic tradition than their radical counterparts). Instead, we should work with them on a range of issues from pornography to human rights. (Yes, there is an argument for human rights from the Qur'an and traditional Islam.)
Nevertheless, along with Franklin Graham and millions of Americans, I believe that the treatment of women and the famine of freedom and democracy in many Muslim countries is shocking and should be loudly protested. Early signs from Northern Nigeria, for example, are that the administration of Shari'ah law there is likely to be brutal and inhuman. And lethal attacks on Christian groups and institutions by Muslim groups in Pakistan and Indonesia threaten to destabilize those societies. It is the duty of Americans of every religion and no religion to protest such developments.
Franklin Graham has observed many Muslim societies up close, but he is not only protesting their worst features, he is bringing physical and spiritual aid to thousands in the Islamic world. His actions speak for him.
David Neff is Editor of Christianity Today.
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