On October 6, Jerry Falwell's appearance in a 60 Minutes segment sparked international Islamic protest, political fallout, and a fatwa calling for his death. Christianity Today spoke to Islamic experts, Christian theologians, and observers to summarize the events and put it into perspective.
According to the CBS transcript of the program, CBS's Bob Simon asked Falwell in an interview prior to the October 6 airdate, "You wrote an approving piece recently about a book called Unveiling Islam … The authors of that book wrote, 'The Muslim who commits acts of violence in jihad does so with the approval of Mohammad.' Do you believe that?"
The question was in reference to an article Falwell wrote defending Florida pastor Jerry Vines's claim at the Southern Baptist Convention that Muhammad was a "demon-possessed pedophile." Falwell said Vines's comment was in the context of Ergun and Emir Caner's Unveiling Islam: An Insider's Look at Muslim Life and Beliefs (Kregel Publications). Falwell's column discussed the book and some of its claims.
Falwell responded to Simon's question by saying:
Muhammad was a terrorist. I read enough of the history of his life written by both Muslims and non-Muslims [to know] that he was a violent man, a man of war. In my opinion … Jesus set the example for love, as did Moses. And I think that Muhammad set an opposite example.
After intense public outcry and protests, Falwell issued a "Statement of Reconciliation" on October 12. "I sincerely apologize that certain statements of mine made during an interview for … CBS's 60 Minutes were hurtful to the feelings of many Muslims," the statement said. "I intended no disrespect to any sincere, law-abiding Muslim."
Falwell also said that he always shows respect to other religions but "answered one controversial and loaded question at the conclusion of an hour-long CBS interview which I should not have answered." Muslim leaders accepted the apology.
Falwell told World magazine he should have anticipated that his sound bite would be used "to stir up conflict and animosity." (World editor Marvin Olasky agreed, and called Simon a bigot.)
According to the Associated Press, Falwell said that Simon directly asked if Muhammad was "a terrorist." Falwell said he wanted to reply honestly to the question.
60 Minutes spokesman Kevin Tedesco told CT that Simon's question was not leading and was directly related to evangelical support of Israel.
"We definitely take issue with the claim of a loaded question," Tedesco said. "We in no way tried to put words into Rev. Falwell's mouth. The word terrorist was his. We did not prompt him in any way."
Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University, said that such reaction is typical for extreme statements from a major figure in American Christianity.
"Dr. Falwell has great influence in not only the U.S. but around the world," George said. "In the minds of some people it would perhaps be like the Pope speaking. He is seen as a venerated leader of many millions of Christian people. For such an intemperate statement to come from such a respected leader, I can see how that would arouse a great deal of indignation and anger on the part of Muslims who heard him in some distant country."
"While there have been scattered condemnations from editorials here and there, there has been silence from the White House and most mainstream political and religious leaders," Zakaria wrote. "Commentators who froth at the mouth when they read of one crackpot mullah in Egypt saying noxious things about Christians or Jews are now silent."
Actually, the White House hasn't been completely silent on Falwell's comments. In an August 9 press briefing, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said, "Assuming, of course, that that's an accurate quote — I haven't read it, myself — the President's views on Islam are well known. The President has said many times in his visits to mosques and his visits with Muslim leaders and his invitations for Muslim leaders to come here, as an important signal of America's openness and welcoming of Muslims, that Islam is a religion of peace. … There should be no misunderstanding, you've all seen it with your own eyes, you've traveled on the trips the President has taken to these mosques and to these visits. It's a very important part of America's openness and tradition of tolerance."
Some observers claim that Falwell's comments may have consequences beyond interfaith relations or religious tolerance.
"Most Muslims will ignore this, but the Islamists, the fundamentalists, the militants will weave this as a scenario between Falwell and Bush," Abdullahi An-Na'im, the former head of Human Rights Watch-Africa, told Newhouse News Service. "Instead of reporting this as the comment of a bigoted, ignorant American, it will be presented as a national conspiracy in which the highest ranks of American government are implicated."
The Washington Postreported Tuesday that Falwell's remarks may have contributed to Islamic parties winning more than 50 seats in the Pakistani parliament last week.
An Islamic expert at American University told the paper, "All the predictions were that the mullahs would not get more than their usual four or five seats. Suddenly you get these [Falwell] statements on the front pages. People are outraged. Ordinary Pakistanis say, 'A vote for the religious parties is a vote against the Americans.'"
The article also said that the comments may have hurt U.S. chances of finding support from Islamic countries for its war on terrorism. But immediate effects of the 60 Minutes program were felt across the globe.
Protests, riots, and death
"When I saw the broadcast in Britain which contained Falwell's outburst against Islam, I prayed that the broadcast would not reach India and the subcontinent," said Joseph D'Souza, president of the All India Christian Council (AICC). "As soon as we heard some cable channels broadcasted Falwell's statement, we knew there would be trouble."
In India's mainly Muslim state of Jammu-Kashmir, thousands demonstrated in the streets, shouted anti-U.S. slogans, and threw rocks. The October 7 protests and worker strikes, especially in the main city of Srinagar, added to pre-existing tensions surrounding contested state elections scheduled for the next day. Over 600 have died in the state since the election was announced in August. Fourteen died on October 7.
In the city of Solapur, in Maharastra state, at least 10 people have been killed and more than 140 injured in what began on October 11 as protests against Falwell. AICC's D'Souza said that when protesting Muslims found shops not on strike, they attacked the businesses. The demonstrations then sparked communal violence between Hindu and Muslim mobs that continued this week. On Tuesday, authorities said Solapur was under control.
"As an evangelical leader in India who is involved the largest alliance of evangelical and other streams of Christians, I find these statements very insensitive, inappropriate, and reactionary," D'Souza told CT. "American Christian leaders have to know that in the age of globalization they are not isolated anymore."
Andrew Rippin, dean of humanities and specialist in Islamic studies at the University of Victoria, Canada, said that the volatile reaction has a larger context than just the criticism of Islam.
"Any reaction that comes from those kind of statements probably has much greater relevance in terms of internal dynamic within the countries themselves," Rippin told CT. "It strikes me that the actual statement itself is highly unlikely to be what is truly the significant element here. There is a lot more to it than something nasty being said about Muhammad and a reaction to it. This becomes a symbol for the masses or certain sub-groups to express anti-government sentiments."
Even Falwell's critics are defending the Baptist preacher against claims that he is to blame for the Indian deaths. "In the undignified back and forth over the meaning and nature of Islam that seems to play out between conservative Christians and Muslim groups roughly once a week in this country, it may be that Muslims—or at least, the Council on American-Islamic Relations—behaved worse in this instance," writes Chris Mooney of The American Prospect, a liberal magazine. "Jerry Falwell should certainly knock off his intemperate and unfair remarks about Islam. But CAIR should apologize for acting like his words killed anyone."
"The death of that man is a religious duty"
Lebanon's Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah said last week that Muslim countries must respond peacefully to the comments. He said that because Islam is a "a religion of mercy and love," the response to Falwell should not be "physical violence."
However, Iranian cleric Mohsen Mojtahed Shabestari issued a fatwa last Friday, saying that Falwell was a "mercenary and must be killed." Shabestari, a representative of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said, "The death of that man is a religious duty, but his case should not be tied to the Christian community."
Shabestari reportedly did not use names, but according to AFP, he referred to three "Israeli mercenaries" who needed to be "separated from other Christians." Officials in Iran had previously singled out Jerry Falwell, Pat Roberston, and Franklin Graham for their statements on Islam.
The most publicized instance of an Iranian fatwa was 1989's order for the death of Indian-born author Salman Rushdie over his book The Satanic Verses.
"A fatwa is simply a legal decision," said the University of Victoria's Rippin. "It's a ruling given by a jurist as an interpretation of Islamic law. The real question is, How binding is it in terms of whether people will respect it or not?"
He told CT that the current case differs from the Rushdie fatwa because the 1989 order was issued by Iran's late supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and thus carried far more weight. Rippin said it is hard to know what the significance of the Falwell fatwa would be.
"I am sure the vast majority of Muslims would say it is just ridiculous," he told CT. "It is quite clear that any ruling from Iran would not have any particular weight outside Iran. It is very much a matter of individual decision whether these kinds of rulings are listened to at all. For most Muslims, this one would be disregarded."
Regardless, George, dean of Beeson Divinity School, says that any death threat must be taken seriously. "It is disturbing," he said. "I think this needs a great deal of discussion between Christians and Muslims as to how this kind of scripture—calling for violence against another person in the name of God—can be justified and what that means in a world like ours."
George, author of Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad? (Zondervan) and a CT senior editor, said Christian and Muslim relations need a great deal of discussion and comments like Falwell's do not help that dialogue.
"To use highly charged language as such as he did in referring to Muhammad as a terrorist is unhelpful to present the good news of Jesus Christ to Muslims," George said. "Those Christian leaders who have spoken with such passion and lack of caution about Islam will maybe step back for thoughtful concern of 'How can we Christians who are called to share the gospel of Jesus Christ conduct ourselves so that there will be a warm, winsome witness?'"
Todd Hertz is assistant online editor for Christianity Today.
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