Why Is Bush Afraid of Franklin Graham?

If Bush wants to convince the world this isn't a war against Islam, he needs to tell the Christian leader to stay out of Iraq

BY: Steven Waldman

 

President Bush and his aides have been willing to criticize just about anyone in order to protect America's national interest. They've whacked the United Nations, the French, the Syrians, the French some more, all of Old Europe and even Bush's pal Vladimir Putin. So why is President Bush hesitant to criticize a politically-influential American preacher named Franklin Graham?



Graham, the son of Billy Graham and a leading evangelical figure in his own right,

last week told Beliefnet

that workers from his charitable group, Samaritan's Purse, were "poised and ready" to enter Iraq after the war to help with humanitarian aid.

That's infuriated Muslim leaders because: First, Graham has been one of the most strident critics of Islam, calling it a "very evil and wicked religion." Second, he made it clear that while converting Muslims wasn't the goal, "I believe as we work, God will always give us opportunities to tell others about his Son.We are there to reach out to love them and to save them, and as a Christian I do this in the name of Jesus Christ." Third, he's closely associated with President Bush, having delivered the invocation at the inauguration.

Yet Tuesday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said he'd have no comment on Graham's activities, and referred questions to the State Department. A State Department spokesman referred calls to the Agency for International Development, which coordinates humanitarian aid. "What private charitable organizations choose to do without U.S. government funding is ultimately their decision," said Ellen Yount, an AID spokeswoman. "How could the U.S. government control that? We can't just say to an organization, 'you can or cannot do something,' if we don't fund them. Imagine what the United States Congress would say to us."

Hopefully, Congress would say: Secretary Powell, President Bush, pick up the phone and tell Graham that although his intentions may be noble, he's now interfering with American foreign policy.

The stakes could not be higher. The administration is struggling unsuccessfully to convince the world that this isn't a "crusade" against Islam. Suicide bombers, eager to be part of the new Holy War, are reportedly entering Iraq. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is warning that the U.S. posture will create "a hundred Bin Ladens."

And now the news of Graham's activities is starting to spread in the Muslim media. The publisher of the British Muslim magazine Q-News responded to the reports about Graham by writing in The Guardian, "For the few remaining Muslims who doubted the crusading nature of the coalition forces, the final blow came last week." The website khalifah.com, an Arabic site, reported the news as "Enhancing the conviction among some Arabs and Muslims that the U.S.-led war of aggression on Iraq is part of a new "crusade" campaign."

The activities and rhetoric of American Christian leaders are noticed abroad. When Jerry Falwell said Muhammad was a terrorist it literally triggered riots in India.

Obviously other factors besides the activities of American Christians are helping fuel the notion that this is an anti-Islam war. But this is one that the White House could almost certainly control--if it so chooses.

Not only will the White House not rebuke Graham, but the Christian leader told Beliefnet he's been in "daily contact" with US Government officials involved in the humanitarian effort and has never heard any concerns expressed. "We would not go in and participate in something that would embarrass our administration," Graham says. But he added, "We don't work for the U.S. Government, so we don't get our permission from them."

Ouch.

I have tremendous respect for Franklin Graham. His humanitarian missions and spiritual writings have brought comfort and inspiration to millions. Indeed, Beliefnet has published some of his writings and his book has even been advertised on this site.

So it's with some trepidation that I write that Graham's activities not only undermine long-term strategic objectives but may even put American troops at risk right now by helping to fuel anti-American sentiment among Iraqis.

Continued on page 2: »

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