Graham’s works defy anti-Muslim image

The State (South Carolina), June 26, 2002 (Opinion)
By VAN KORNEGAY, Guest columnist

Muslims, media pundits and even other evangelicals have taken evangelist Franklin Graham to task for saying he thinks Islam is a “wicked and evil religion.” Some have called on him to keep his relief organization, Samaritan’s Purse, out of Iraq, claiming its presence would be inflammatory.

Many will brand Graham as intolerant and divisive for his words, but they should also consider his work before trying to banish him from the Muslim world. It is work that has not only alleviated human suffering but also has given Christians and Muslims the chance to rub elbows rather than cross swords.

In the summer of 1999 in a boggy field on the Albanian coast, I saw a dozen Samaritan’s Purse staffers build and run a small tent town for 2,000 mostly Muslim refugees who had fled ethnic violence in Kosovo. In less than two months’ time they worked like characters in a fast-forward video erecting tents, digging latrines, installing a water system and starting a bakery.

For many of these refugees, the Serbs were the only people calling themselves Christians they had ever known, and it was these same Christians who had terrorized them and driven them from their homes. It’s no wonder they were a little perplexed that a Christian organization was now coming to their aid.

Samaritan’s Purse relief workers came from all walks of American life — college students and professors, nurses, doctors, retired military, even a short-order cook. They lived in tents alongside the refugees, ate the same food, used the same pit latrines and provided a humane haven from the oppression the Albanians had known for more than 10 years.

The refugees had the freedom to worship any way they wanted, and Samaritan’s Purse training materials even proscribed how staffers should dress and act in order to avoid offending Muslim sensibilities.

But Samaritan’s Purse staffers weren’t the only ones to deliver mercies and lessons that summer. The refugees also defied the violent and extremist image of Muslims many Americans have been tempted to embrace since 9/11. Most had little more than what they could carry with them, yet they were quick to invite the staff into their tents for tea or to share a meager meal. In the evenings staffers and refugees would often gather around a man with a guitar to sing an odd mix of Albanian folk and American camp songs. The music mingled with the fine dust that hovered over the tents at dusk and made the place sound more like a summer camp than a gathering of exiles.

These earnest encounters did not erase the profound differences between Christianity and Islam, and they may have been more accessible in Albania than they will be in the more fundamentalist Middle East. But every Christian who worked in the Samaritan’s Purse camp that summer and every Muslim who had to be there received a vaccination against the idea that the other is nothing more than a monolithic group of hate-filled extremists.

Franklin Graham may never deliver a sermon peppered with fashionable language about interfaith tolerance, but in his work you’ll find a parable or two about interfaith understanding. Platitudes are easy; delivering humanitarian aid in difficult circumstances is hard and sacrificial work that can build bridges across seemingly irreconcilable differences.

Graham’s words may be abrasive, but his record defies the stereotype of a Muslim-baiting crusader, and it reinforces the truth that oftentimes the things we do are more significant than the things we say.

Mr. Kornegay is an associate professor at the USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications.

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