His Mission: Christian-Muslim Reconciliation

Former Rep. Mark Siljander Tells of His Final Rejection of Religious Intolerance

Posted November 7, 2008 at 4:04pm

Correction Appended

Former Rep. Mark Siljander (R-Mich.) considers the reconciliation of Christians and Muslims the cause of his life.

In his new memoir, “A Deadly Misunderstanding: A Congressman’s Quest to Bridge the Muslim-Christian Divide,” Siljander tells the story of his journey from religious intolerance as a conservative evangelical Congressman in the 1980s to finding common ground between the Quran and the Bible in his post-Congressional studies. He founded the consulting firm Global Strategies 23 years ago and has used the firm as a platform for his work and for other international partnerships.

The irony is that, while Siljander’s work has opened doors for him to talk to both well-respected and widely reviled leaders around the world, earlier this year it also got him a meeting with a judge at the U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Mo.

Siljander was hired to lobby the Senate Finance Committee on behalf of the Islamic African Relief Agency (also known as the Islamic American Relief Agency), according to a federal indictment released on Jan. 16. The IARA had been placed on the State Department’s terrorist watch list, and Siljander’s role, the indictment said, was to convince the committee it had no connections to al-Qaida. All of that was legal.

What apparently wasn’t legal was the way Siljander was paid with funds that the IARA had received from the U.S. Agency for International Development before it was placed on the list. Investigators charge that the former Congressman lied about the lobbying and helped launder the money. He was indicted on charges of money laundering, conspiracy and obstruction of justice.

Siljander pointed out that the indictment came after “A Deadly Misunderstanding” had been written. He added that those who had endorsed the book, including United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and former Secretary of State James Baker, were given a chance to remove their testimonials but chose not to. He said he has been pleasantly surprised with the support from friends following the indictment.

Former President Harry S. Truman was wrong that if you want a friend in Washington, you should buy a dog, Siljander said in a phone interview. “Sometimes when people go through hard times, people run away from you. I have not experienced that. I experienced delightfully just the opposite.”

Citing legal advice, Siljander refused to talk further about his case. He had no such qualms about talking up his book, though.

At 29, Siljander was elected to Congress in a special election after former President Ronald Reagan appointed Michigan Rep. David Stockman director of the Office of Management and Budget. He was a conservative evangelical Republican best known for his stands against abortion rights and for Israel.

A 1984 prayer breakfast best illustrates Siljander’s journey from a strict evangelical to a more open-minded ally of Islam. At the breakfast, the Congressman was “outraged” that the speaker was Muslim, and he walked out.

“From my office I dashed off a stinging letter of protest to the leadership of the National Prayer Breakfast,” Siljander recalls 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?”

The recipient of the letter later challenged Siljander’s perspective, asking him where in the Bible it demands that a person convert to Christianity instead of merely living in relationship with God. After he lost re- election in 1986, that conversation inspired him to learn Aramaic.

“Aramaic is not only considered the mother tongue of Hebrew, but it is also a very close cousin to Arabic,” Siljander writes in his book. “All three are Semitic languages, and in this simple but long-ignored fact lies tremendous hope for the future of our civilization.”

Siljander was surprised to find that the differences between the Bible and the Quran were often nuanced. In the interview, Siljander said he went through three stages in the process: discovering how respectful the Quran is of Jesus and Christians, finding that significant differences remained and looking for ways to reconcile those differences.

That last stage is what inspired the book’s title, “A Deadly Misunderstanding.” He explores the words in the Quran and the Bible that have led to conflicts between people of those faiths for centuries.

For example, Siljander dissected the word jihad, which he said has “many shades of meaning” in the Quran.

“‘Jihad’ is used in the Quran primarily to describe the struggle or striving against negative influences in the pursuit of internal purity,” Siljander writes. “It is also commonly used in defensive terms: struggling against sin and vanity, avoiding contacts with unbelievers and other corrupting influences, much like the ‘shunning’ practiced by the Amish in America.”

A similar word is used in the Bible to describe Jesus’ moments in the garden of Gethsemane before he was led to the cross, Siljander writes. He insists that if more Muslims —who, like Christians with the Bible, often aren’t intimately familiar with what the Quran says — knew about this meaning, they would challenge the way jihad has been twisted to justify terrorism.

The more he learned, the more he engaged people of other faiths to study with him. Siljander has been invited to share his discoveries with political and religious leaders and scholars, including the pope, the Dalai Lama and Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan.

In the past year, though, business at Global Strategies has ground to a halt because of his legal problems. The former Congressman is currently the firm’s only employee, even answering the phones himself.

Once these legal problems have been resolved, he said, he hopes to write another book, this one adding a third dimension to the relationship between Christians and Muslims. It would focus on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and look for ways Jews can reconcile with Christians and Muslims.

It’s a subject Siljander remains passionate about, despite legal troubles. He has come a long way since his days as a conservative Congressman. In the spring of 2000, about 14 years after he walked out on a Muslim speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast, Siljander read from the Scriptures to a group of Christian missionaries and theologians in Tennessee. They listened carefully and shouted praises — until he told them he had just read from the Quran.

“Liar!” they shouted, Siljander writes. But he pulled out his copy, and when he proved it, the scholars lined up to talk to him.

“They knew my reputation and Christian background, and most of all, they saw the evidence of their eyes: There was the text, just as I’d said. It was irrefutable. They were dumbfounded.”

Correction: Nov. 11, 2008

The article should have noted that according to a federal indictment, former Rep. Mark Siljander (R-Mich.) was hired as a lobbyist for the Islamic African Relief Agency and that the money laundering charges filed against him did not specify where the money was routed.