x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Pillored for his efforts to reconcile religions

Once a fundamentalist Christian politician, Mark Siljander is accused of "heresy" by his former allies for highlighting common concepts and terms found in the Bible and Quan.

NEW YORK // Mark Siljander's spiritual and political journeys have left the former Christian fundamentalist congressman in a position he could not have imagined when he began his religious questioning more than a decade ago. In the 1980s, he once walked out of a prayer breakfast because one of the speakers was Muslim. He also claimed that "Arab terrorists" planned to kill him during a pro-Jewish rally in Washington, which he attended wearing a bulletproof vest. Today, he stands accused by some of his former allies on the evangelical religious right of "heresy" for highlighting common concepts and terms found in the Bible and Quran. The former deputy UN ambassador also faces federal trial on charges of working for the Islamic American Relief Agency, which the US government alleges raises money for terrorist groups.

"My personal struggles have come at a high personal cost," Mr Siljander said. "Charges against me have not yet been dropped and I've been made to look like a terrorist." He would not comment when asked whether the government's charges against him were politically motivated but he pointed out the indictment was issued last year after the publication of his book, A Deadly Misunderstanding: A Congressman's Quest to Bridge the Muslim-Christian Divide. The book describes how he began questioning the very basics of his faith. After he walked out on the Muslim leader in 1984, he "dashed off a stinging letter of protest to the leadership of the National Prayer Breakfast", he wrote in his book. "What did they think they were doing, I wrote, allowing a Muslim leader to read the Quran at an event supposedly dedicated to peace and brotherhood?"

A friend later challenged him to find in the Bible where it demanded that a person should convert to Christianity. He could not find it. He then read the Quran and discovered he held equally misplaced notions about Islam. His studies of Arabic, Hebrew and Aramaic, an ancient Levantine language, led him to the belief that mistranslations and misconceptions over centuries were directly connected to many of today's conflicts. He hoped to reach out to both Christians and Muslims. "My job is to say we're both consumed with cultural traditions," he said in a telephone interview from Key Largo, Florida, where he is working on his second book, which focuses on Judaism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "If you look at the original languages, a lot of our traditions are inconsistent with the holy books," he said. "Not many people can understand classical Arabic, Hebrew and Aramaic so we're dependent on what others tell us."

One example of common ground described in his book is the word "jihad". He explains its original meaning of struggling against negative influences and how a similar word is used in the Bible to describe Jesus's feelings before he was crucified. Mr Siljander said academics and many Muslims, who already recognise Jesus as an early prophet, had received his ideas favourably. The most "pushback" had come from evangelical Christians long used to describing the Prophet Mohammed in derogatory terms. "Many people go from thinking 'impossible' to 'maybe'," he said. "People don't have to believe me about everything but start to think outside limited boxes." He said he was heartened by the support he received since being indicted from American Muslims, many of whom say they have faced similar intimidation and scrutiny by federal agencies investigating alleged funding of terrorism.

He also pointed out the high-profile people who refused to withdraw their endorsements of his book, including Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, and James Baker, a former US secretary of state. The charges against Mr Siljander included money laundering and conspiracy arising from alleged lobbying he did for the Islamic American Relief Agency, which the US Treasury designated in 2004 as a suspected fundraiser for terrorists. He said he could not comment on legal proceedings but he hoped to be vindicated, either through the charges being dropped or being found innocent at trial, a date for which has not been set. As a congressman from Michigan between 1981 and 1987, then as a UN delegate appointed by Ronald Reagan, and subsequently as a private consultant, Mr Siljander has met many world leaders, not always with the US administration's approval.

He drew criticism in particular for meetings with Omar al Bashir, president of Sudan, as part of efforts to end the conflict there. His said his next book would also describe his trip to Jordan in a last-bid effort to stop the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. He and other members of his delegation were prohibited by the Bush administration from visiting Baghdad. Mr Siljander continues to talk to academics about improving the US education system to bring about a better understanding of all three monotheistic religions. As for politics, he refused to say whether he was still a Republican. "I've never been a paid member of the party, but I did vote in the Republican primary. I know [former Republican presidential candidate John] McCain and like him very much," he said. "But Obama is refreshing and not just because he's black. He's young and progressive and just what we need after the last eight years." sdevi@thenational.ae