WASHINGTON — Islam was the main focus when conservative Christian activists gathered here last weekend for a symposium on the Muslim faith. But it wasn’t the only target. One speaker at the Christian Coalition-sponsored event took aim at American foreign policy, declaring that September 11 was a divine punishment against the United States.
William Koenig, director of an Evangelical Christian news Web site, argued that the terrorist attacks were divine punishment for America’s pressuring Israel to give up its “covenant land.”
“God is very serious and very active,” Koenig warned the 70-person crowd at the Hyatt Regency hotel. He added, “The God of Israel is taking it seriously, and his fury is building.”
Koenig’s remarks drew an enthusiastic response from pastor Donald Kretzer of Boonsboro, Md., who pulled a shofar from the blue velvet quiver on his back and blew hard into the long, shiny ram’s horn. So hard, in fact, that the walls of the Capitol Hill hotel ballroom seemed to shudder from the blast.
In general, however, the day’s harshest remarks were reserved for the militant wing of Islam and at times for the Muslim faith itself.
Billed by organizers as an unbiased examination of Islam, the symposium was packed with speakers known for their outspoken criticism of the faith. The apparent lack of balance drew criticism from Muslim organizations in the weeks leading up to the event.
The Council on American Islamic Relations, known as CAIR, called on the organizers “to offer mainstream Muslim leaders and scholars an opportunity to provide accurate and balanced information about Islam.” Meanwhile, the American Muslim Council sent a letter to the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives at the White House, recommending that the Christian Coalition be “automatically disqualified from receiving any sort of federal funding” for sponsoring “such a bigoted event.”
An Egyptian newspaper weighed in as well, protesting the expected defamation of Islam.
In an apparent response to critics, Christian Coalition president Roberta Combs opened the symposium by saying it was “not designed to be a critical attack on one’s belief,” but an opportunity to “inform” by shedding light on Islam.
The coalition has seen its influence wane in recent years following the departure of its founder, Reverend Pat Robertson, and his top lieutenant, Ralph Reed. But Combs has been attempting to revitalize the organization
In October, she organized an evangelical pro-Israel rally in Washington that attracted several prominent conservative speakers.
Combs told the Forward that the Christian Coalition does not hold a position on Islam. By sponsoring the event, she said, the group was trying to display a spectrum of views on Islam.
That was not obvious in the program. The most moderate voice on the day’s main panel belonged to Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes, one of America’s most outspoken critics of Islamic societies and regimes. Pipes, who is accustomed to being the most right-wing speaker on panels dealing with Islam, repeated his oft expressed argument that America’s war should be framed as a battle against militant Islam, not simply terrorism.
“It is not a war on terrorism, but a war on jihad” that the United States should be fighting, Pipes said.
Other panel participants went much further in their criticisms of Islam.
Labib Mikhail, a Christian author of Egyptian origin, quoted at length from the Koran in an attempt to show that “Islam and terrorism are associated,” and that Muslims “want to kill Christians by any means.”
Don Feder, a syndicated columnist, compared Islam to Nazism, and said that America’s leaders today are appeasing the political manifestations of Islam just as European leaders appeased Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
Speakers at the event also took aim at the Bush administration.
When conservative Internet editor Joseph Farrah spoke out against the creation of a Palestinian state — a cornerstone of Bush’s stated vision for the Middle East — the crowd reacted by cheering and chanting “Amen.”
“Let’s hope and pray that this administration is beginning to get it,” Farrah said.
Feder charged American leaders with peddling “soothing lies” about Islam being a “religion of peace.”
“When your head is deeply in the sand,” Feder said, “the rest of your anatomy is fully exposed.”
Combs, in an apparent attempt to counterbalance the criticism of Bush, said the president was “wonderful” and “one of the best we’ve had in a long time.”
Combs called on the coalition’s supporters to “keep him in our prayers.”