ASSOCIATED PRESS / FEBRUARY 2007
Iraqi Muslims offer prayers in the Shiite district of Sadr City in Baghdad, Iraq. Religious leaders summoned Iraq's Shiites and Sunnis to joint prayer services that day, a Friday, amid an extraordinary daytime curfew aimed at halting a wave of sectarian violence.
A six-week course uses a Christian view to study Islam
For a student doing homework these days, it's just so much easier to rake information from the abundant fields of cyberspace than to make a trip to the library.
But easy access hasn't made it easier to distinguish between what's wheat and what's chaff and to recognize fertilizer when we dig it up.
Hopefully, students are being taught to consider the source, to ask "Who says?" and "Where did this come from?"
That's been my train of thought during a course on "Understanding the Koran: A Biblical and Compassionate Response" that met for six Wednesdays. The class was offered by the Bible Institute of Hawaii and taught by Daniel Vargas, who identifies himself as a Messianic Jew -- in other words, a Christian of Jewish ethnicity.
Knowing that, an adult student should have got it that class materials on Islam and its scriptures, the Quran, would be coming through the filter of Christian perspective. By the end of the first class, as Vargas talked about being "at the end of days," a discerning listener might have recognized the viewpoint of a specific camp of Christianity that believes all the natural and man-made upheavals on the globe are part of a divine plan. Bad times are ahead soon, but then Christ will come again and all will be glorious for true believers.
It took three classes before I got it: We weren't going to zoom out for a wider perspective. I don't believe some of my classmates even know they were looking through a distorted lens.
Oh, there was helpful background for watching news reports, a glossary of terms -- jihad at the top of the list, apparently solid historical information about Muhammad and the spread of Islam, a geographical primer on the "Holy Land" by the teacher's son, David, a Christian pastor.
But week after week, there were videos: the bloody, tearful aftermath of suicide bombings; rabid anti-America rantings of extremist Muslims in a controversial video, "Obsession"; and that clip of the planes hitting the twin towers, again and again.
There were printouts about Jesus and Christian beliefs, pointing out "errors" in Islamic teachings. There was a comic book about a Muslim who saw the light thanks to Christian friends who told him all about the moon gods worshipped before Muhammad and how, gasp, Allah was just one of them. That graphic story was from Chick Publications. But most sources were not identified.
"The Muslims are coming," Vargas said Wednesday. "They want to convert all of America and the entire world. Now you have insight."
We should have been asking, "Where did this come from?" and "Who says so?" We didn't.
Half of the original 32 students had dropped out by the final class Wednesday. The Rev. Tom Choi and eight other Kailua United Methodist Church members were long gone by then. Those and other dropouts registered complaints with the Bible Institute of Hawaii, which has a solid reputation based on several years of adult classes on biblical topics.
Choi said the class did not match the catalog description, which implied an exploration of Islam's scriptures. "It felt like when my college buddies invited me for a get-together with friends and it turned out to be a multilevel marketing presentation. It felt like a bait-and-switch. I was led to believe it was one thing, and it turned out to be another ... how to strategize proselytizing Muslims."
Choi especially objected to a film that purported to be a talk by a Muslim man and his wife, who bashed American culture and morals. At the finale they stripped off their turban and veil to announce they were Christians just dramatizing what Muslims think. "I have never liked evangelism that had to cloak itself before being revealed," the Methodist minister said. "I am for honest communication."
Choi said Vargas "seems a very sincere man, ardent and passionate in what he believes."
What was missing from the class catalog was the list of ingredients, including the full disclaimer about the teacher.
Vargas is fairly well known in local evangelical Christian circles, an organizer of the annual National Day of Prayer event held last month at the state Capitol auditorium. He is the director of the Beth Israel Jewish Ministries International Center in Mapunapuna, which he describes as an educational center. Before each class, he donned a yarmulke, a cap worn by Jewish men, and he was identified as a rabbi. A soft-spoken man, he did not rant against Muslims. He said, "I'm not an expert; I'm a student. Islam is at our door, and it's important that we understand what it is."
He collected written prayer requests from class members, which he promised to stick on the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. He said he will leave tomorrow on an annual visit to Christian missionaries in the Palestinian territories where "they" have banned Christian proselytizing.
Fifteen students who attended the last class turned in glowing evaluations on the class. "They really liked the class," said Mary Kessell, of the Bible Institute. "There were two different types of people looking for different things." One man, an Army Reserve member, registered a complaint about the violent videos shown but overall was satisfied to learn about Islam, she said.
Gavin Archard said: "It was one of the best classes I have been involved with. It brought clarity to the events taking place around me daily.
"I knew it was from a Christian vantage point," said Archard, who identifies himself as an evangelical Christian. "It was one proselytizing religion looking at another proselytizing religion. It is helpful to look at their roots and, at the end of the day, compare what they are doing with what we are doing. I have a deeper understanding of why they feel the way they do. It helped me fill in the blanks."
Archard said the classes stimulated him to spend more than 30 hours on the Internet researching Islam, and he has ordered three books about Islam, all from the Christian vantage point.
"The end times are not normally my focus. I am now looking at it as being tied to Islam," Archard said.
Each class began and ended with prayer. One night, pastor David Vargas called on God to "lift up the people of Arabia and of Islam. Have mercy on them and allow the spirit of repentance to come upon them."
On the final night, student Justin Yost led the prayer. "Lord, let us spread your word to the Muslim world."