Jesus, Carpet Bomb My Heart: An Undercover Muslim in Detroit

I’m the one they’re after. I’m “the enemy,” the believer in the “false idol,” “the darkness” Jesus needs to cast out of America, the reason they’re spending all night in Detroit’s Ford Field, sending prayers over Michigan mosques “like sending special forces into Afghanistan.” And there are thousands of them, come because Pastor Lou Engle asked them to.

Founder of TheCall, Engle warns that an Islamic movement is rising in Dearborn, Michigan—“Ground Zero” for America’s spiritual future (and site of a new TLC reality show, All-American Muslim). When I heard the goals for TheCall Detroit—healing America in a time of crisis, accomplishing racial reconciliation, and (here’s where I come in) bringing Jesus to Muslim hearts—I figured a Muslim in the crowd could be a nice twist.

So I was there with them for hours into the late night and hearing their ex-Muslim speaker ridiculously early in the morning, the undercover Muslim surrounded by tens of thousands beside me, praying for Jesus to invade my heart. My plan was to report from the inside, to talk to the attendees as one among devoted thousands (though probably not revealing my religious background, unless I had to and knew where the exits were).

I’d observe firsthand what goes on at a gathering like this. I’d try to understand how such Christians understand Islam. Lou Engle’s world is alien from my New England roots and New York life. I’d attended churches before, but nothing like this. We need to know where this fear and hate come from, what its intentions are, and who it appeals to.

But as the day approached, Engle’s connections to a network of right-wing activists and political Christians came into focus. From the involvement of US Army Lt. Gen. William Boykin (who has helpfully compared Islam to a diabolical religion), to a Michigan Call coordinator named Rick Warzywak (who believes that Christians should “go back and occupy or take back the land” of American Muslims), to a particularly weird twist on the theme of racial reconciliation (involving sending Detroit’s African-American Muslims, or ex-Muslims, to the Middle East), it was clear that this might be an uncomfortable assignment.

So I shaved my beard down to a goatee. Just in case.

But that anxiety only confirmed the importance of what I was doing. I needed to see this for myself. Americans, and American Muslims especially, need to know how certain interpretations of professedly apolitical Christianity become allied to a far-right agenda of foreign wars and domestic austerity, glorifying the rich while demonizing the poor.

Political Christianity’s treatment of Islam is one of the few points, and perhaps the only point, at which right-wing, political Christianity’s radical agenda is revealed, for its attitude to Islam speaks both to the narrowness of its domestic vision (America for certain Americans) and the aggressiveness of its foreign vision (going abroad to find monstrous Muslims to convert). Don’t let the language of love fool you.

A Pep Rally for Jesus

I was sure I’d be one of very few non-white folks in attendance, yet when the gates opened on Friday afternoon, I was struck by the diversity—and the juvenile vibe. I took my seat close to the stage, surrounded by people of every color, finding it hard to focus because of the pounding Christian rock music shaking the stadium. Folks were on their feet, dancing and swaying. Rather than stick out, I blended in perfectly.

People have tried to compare Islamophobia to old-school racism. And I’ve repeatedly disagreed. We have a tendency to accuse arguments rooted in religion and tradition of reaching back to the past; the truth, however, is much more complicated. As much as religion shapes the world, it is shaped by the world. Even when we invoke the past, we must accommodate the language and conclusions of today. Just fifty years ago, Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann would not have been viable candidates. Hell, they wouldn’t have been candidates at all. And so too with TheCall.

The rally formally opened with a Native American band (actually, since they were Canadian, a First Nations band). Everybody seemed into it, on their feet and swaying to the beat. Judging by those first hours, this was worship at the altar of a multicultural Jesus, advertising its many ethnicities, stressing the need for racial reconciliation and forgiveness, encouraging populations pushed apart by suspicion to come together in Jesus’ name. I found it encouraging and I found it worrying.

The diversity was nice. Different languages were spoken on the stage, many different ethnicities were represented. But that diversity could be used to excuse a more subversive intolerance, all the harder to detect for the polyglot multiplicity. It’s not so different from how, since the 1960s, consumer culture has appropriated the language of diversity, and even its attitude, without dealing with its underlying and democratic point. And so we have elite institutions that are ever more racially diverse, who increasingly deploy people of different colors and backgrounds in their advertising and hierarchies, even while social mobility goes into steep decline and the middle class is eviscerated.

I’m sure Engle believes in a Christian movement that transcends race, to reach around the world. Just as I’m sure he’d be greatly pleased by my conversion to his Christianity. But this misses the deeper point, the truly political and partisan nature of TheCall; I saw this as far more than a spiritual exercise in part, I think, because I was forced to process what was happening around me as an outsider. Because, after all, religions are not interchangeable, like different color cars of the same make and model.

Raised in Sunni Muslim tradition, I always experienced worship as the effort to establish an immediate, intimate, and contemplative connection with God; in Sunni mysticism, observing the law is a necessary condition of spirituality. I say this not to establish distance, or to enforce division, but to draw our attention to how religion can be either a source of strength or a source of harm. To make a long point short, Islam is a religion of moral law; when the institutions that produce its legal scholars (who are, ideally, also spiritual authorities) are subverted, undercut, or simply insufficiently rigorous, the resulting interpretations of law become irrelevant—or dangerous.

Keeping that in mind, I found TheCall was immediately shocking.

A friend called a few hours in, concerned that I might be kidnapped (I’m sure he was joking—I hope), and asked what I made of the whole thing. And the first thing that came to mind was: “It’s like a pep rally for Jesus.”

So that Jesus Might Invade Their Dreams

Even when there were speakers, they were bookended by passionate music, deeply emotional calls to prayer, folks spontaneously joining hands and forming prayer circles, turning not to established rituals but whatever the moment led them to. A man behind me started speaking in tongues, and within a few hours, people were fainting and falling to the ground. I had never experienced anything like it.

But with all the transport out of and away from yourself, there was little time to digest what the speakers were saying, little time to think through the implications of their exhortations. In fairness, that didn’t seem to be a problem right away. As I said, the first few hours seemed to be a public relations dream come true; I heard little overtly anti-Muslim sentiment (and no mention of homosexuality).

A look at the program confirmed why. The section titled “Dearborn Awakening” was dumped in dead time, 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. Since Dearborn is home to many Arabs and Muslims, as well as one of the largest mosques in America (a Twelver Shi’a mosque, incidentally), I knew this must be the part of TheCall that would confront Islam. Likely the organizers wanted to shift the more controversial stuff to when nobody would be paying attention; according to Rachel Maddow, this might also have been in the hope that, with Michigan Muslims asleep, Jesus might invade their dreams.

Engle underestimated this Muslim’s desire to see through the subterfuge.

I left Ford Field after five hours, frankly exhausted by the emotional commitment requested by TheCall. A friend took me to an Arab restaurant, where all the waitresses wore hijab. That, and seeing Arabic signs and advertisements everywhere, only fifteen minutes from Ford Field, was pleasingly jarring (and strategically reassuring: In case things turned ugly, I knew where to run, and had a reasonable sense of how fast).

I explained to one of the friendly, all-American, veiled waitresses what I was doing in Dearborn. She seemed skeptical. So I shared TheCall’s promotional literature, and she was stunned. This poor girl hadn’t realized she was part of any “Islamic movement in America” (in America, but not “American”). That night, I spoke to other Muslims about TheCall. They were either deeply concerned or just shrugged it off. As of Friday night, I would’ve been with the second group.

At midnight, I was back in my hotel, stuffed full of shish tawouk, Arab pastries, and chai. I took a two-hour nap, and then went back for more.

Like the Muslim Brotherhood

The Muslim Brotherhood used to have a popular slogan: “Islam is the solution” (Islam huwa al-hall). “Jesus is the answer” is the same kind of sloganeering. I’m not just saying that because I know it would drive Engle nuts. It is an overly and therefore problematically easy answer to some very knotty problems. And hearing Engle insist on this point brought me back to the very format of TheCall, which rushes through speakers, condenses their points, and squishes them between loud music and unreflectively emotional appeals. There’s little time to ponder what it means for America if only Jesus can solve our problems.

In an introduction found in the event program, Engle wrote:

Revolution is in the air. But the revolution that is needed is not a revolution of snarling protesters or angry mobs; it’s a Jesus revolution, a revolution of forgiveness, racial reconciliation, compassion.

It’s one thing if he genuinely disavowed politics, but time and time again his supposedly apolitical efforts have an undeniable political goal. In fact TheCall is deeply and suspiciously political, and—at least here he is honest—revolutionary. It seeks to heal America by making a different America in its place, one whose moral conversation displaces its political discourse, one whose reference point is Jesus. Rick Perry’s prayer rally The Response was modeled on Engle’s interpretation of the solemn assembly described in Joel 2, which in turn shaped TheCall. Engle himself has traveled to Sacramento, Washington, and Kampala to praise efforts to restrict the rights of LGBT people and has led elected Republicans in a prayer session that predicted God would punish America for passing health care reform.

But most relevant here was the vacuity of the content: The solution to America’s great crisis was prayer, from start to end, and apparently little else. Any religiosity that encourages worship without broader social engagement—non-Christians were barely acknowledged over the course of an event designed to heal America’s profound crisis—while allying with those who seek to do away with much of our government is anything but apolitical. It just doesn’t have the courage to admit it.

Engle argues that America is in crisis. So do a lot of folks. But then he argues that the only way out is through Jesus. Undoubtedly every political and social crisis has a moral dimension, though to admit that means little. What matters more is to think this logic through: How will we solve political and social crises if we read them through religious lenses? While a universalized, transnational Christianity has its appeal, it doesn’t leave much room for other Americans—or America as a political project. The more I listened to Engle diagnosing America’s problems, the more I thought of old-school Islamists.

Moozlums Allergic To Jesus

Of course, I had come to hear what TheCall would say about Muslims. Engle’s disavowal of any political agenda is, on this point, either evidence of duplicity or naiveté. We are at war in numerous Muslim-majority countries, facing an America in fiscal crisis, fighting a magnificently costly war on terrorism with no defined end, and watching a movement to ban Shari’ah law to save the Constitution while our civil liberties are increasingly challenged. There is no way that any conversation about Islam in America cannot have political implications. Long story short, I’m glad I was wide awake and raptly attentive at 3 a.m.

“Dearborn Awakening” began with a preacher who could not pronounce “Muslim.” He seemed to think it was “Mooz-lum.” I wanted to raise my hand to correct him, but everyone else had his or her hands raised (for different reasons). In the singing, one of the chorus lines was “Gather the remnants/among the Muslims”—a reference to the remnant of Christians remaining during the Tribulation who will evangelize the non-Christians so they will be saved before Jesus’ return. Another speaker clued us in on Jesus’ attitude to the Muslims: “You love them, and there’s nothing they can do about that.” Leave it to TheCall to make love sound alarming, even terrifying.

But the best was yet to come, and his name was Kamal.

Kamal was the reason we were here (and awake). I didn’t know who Kamal was, and would only later learn his identity, although while he was speaking, I suspected he was a fraud. (I’m not the only one who finds Kamal Saleem dubious). Kamal introduced himself as an ex-terrorist, which usually makes me wonder, considering how others have made lucrative careers profiting from ignorance, paranoia, and naïveté. (Imagine how much money I could make as a “former Muslim” on the incestuous right-wing circuit. I’m imagining it right now, and am mildly depressed.)

I’m not saying Kamal Saleem is definitely a fraud; it may simply be that he was raised by one of the dumbest Muslim families in the world.

Kamal claimed that he was raised in “jihad” in Lebanon, and kindly shared the implications with an audience that knew no better. For example, he said, when a Muslim’s blood is first shed in the path of God, he becomes a Messiah. (Unfortunately for Kamal, there is only one Messiah in Islam, and it’s Jesus—who, to take the previous speaker’s logic to its conclusion, loves us even if Lou Engle doesn’t want him to.) Kamal then told us that Islam teaches that there is only one way to go to heaven, and that is war. In fact, he shared many “facts,” the full effect of which was to convince the audience that Islam is purely demonic. Indeed, numerous references were made to “the darkness,” “the enemy,” and “false idols,” oblique enough to avoid outright outrage, but obvious enough to anyone more than half awake.

Stressing his Muslim credentials, Kamal said that one of his uncles was “the holiest of holies,” the Muslim Pope. There is no Muslim Pope, though to be fair, Kamal’s uncle might just have been lying to the poor boy. Kamal then told us that he was recruited by the Muslim Brotherhood and the PLO (a secular organization) and went on his first mission into Israel—we’re assuming that this was a military operation—at the age of seven. At the age of eight, he went on his second mission. Years later, when he first met Christians in America, Kamal was repulsed. His initial reaction was: “I’m allergic to Jesus.” (The audience loved this part.) Unfortunately for the supposed former Muslim, nobody taught Kamal that a Muslim who does not honor Jesus is by the consensus of every school in Islam not a Muslim.

Kamal then turned his sharp mind to theology, and distinguished the Muslim concept of God from the Christian, arguing that what Muslims believe in is a false idol. Christians, on the other hand, believe in the true God of love. Nobody told Kamal that one of Islam’s ninety-nine names of God is al-Wadud, the Loving, and that many other names express compassion, mercy, and forgiveness. Pretty much everything Kamal praised about the “Christian” God, short of the Trinity, could easily square with Islam’s understanding of the Divine: God is loving, forgiving, merciful, and personally concerned with us. Kamal closed with his conversion story, and a reminder that since converting, Saudi Arabia, the PLO, and the Muslim Brotherhood had all put a price on his head.

All the friendly diversity from Friday night, the warm and smiley openness, had vanished. Love and freedom were convenient catchphrases justifying the identification of nearly one-quarter of humanity with the demonic. It’s one thing to say that you’d like Muslims to convert to Christianity. Fair enough. Many Muslims want Christians to convert to Islam. It’s another thing to so brazenly misrepresent Islam. Conflicts in the past could be safely broached, but when it came to today’s war on terror, the disingenuousness and ill-spiritedness of choosing a former Muslim with the worst possible perspective on Islam revealed Engle’s agenda and its overlap with fearmongering Islamophobes.

After Kamal, there was mostly prayer and music, and prayerful music, until 6 a.m., at which time the first prayer of the day came in (I prayed at the hotel, just to be safe). Afterwards I took a long nap and came back to TheCall by late morning. But by then much had changed. Ford Field, which at best was half full, was empty and dulled. And it was hard to talk to people. Folks were friendly, but rarely chatty—though to do them justice, most of them were fasting, and probably hadn’t slept the night. The conversations I had with participants and performers were generally rushed. I didn’t want to be too obvious by raising the topic of Islam, and so it never came up.

Meanness of Spirit

Even back at the hotel, I didn’t get much traction. Most folks focused on the intensity of the experience, although my coming all the way from New York intrigued some. While taking a shower on Sunday morning, I heard a man in the room next door passionately scream Jesus’ name, but on reflection, that might have been something else entirely. There wasn’t much else to do, and I wanted the other side of the story. Saturday afternoon, I headed for Dearborn’s giant mosque, the Islamic Center of America, where I spent an hour asking the folks I met what they thought about TheCall. One activist noted that he hadn’t made any initiative to reach out to Engle; as an African American, he noted, he wouldn’t reach out to David Duke. For him, Engle was another piece of the Islamophobia puzzle.

After praying at sundown—the first time, incidentally, I’ve prayed in a Twelver Shi’a mosque (this trip was full of new religious experiences)—I visited a mosque in Rochester Hills, this one mostly South Asian and Sunni, where I was also able to get some local Muslims’ reactions to TheCall. There was of course concern, and some surprise. Many had heard, but many had not. More of the Muslims were more interested in hearing what it was like to be there. I’d live-tweeted TheCall and issued far too many Facebook updates, so some looked for clarification or explanation of certain points. I went back to the hotel by midnight and fell asleep fast, and didn’t begin to reflect on the whole experience until Sunday morning.

I was naturally disheartened, considering that the participants probably thought Kamal Saleem represented Islam. But on the drive to the airport that disappointment lifted. America is in crisis, as Engle warned, but its solution can be intimated in the popular energy that has animated engagement from Wisconsin to Wall Street to Tahrir—on the way to the airport, I drove past Occupy Detroit.

Our imaginations are once more open, as we consider the incompatibilities of unchecked capital and genuine democracy. In this time of reconstructing the way our world works, a polarizing and exclusive religious vision is not particularly relevant. America is also inescapably and increasingly diverse, and its domestic and foreign policy requires finding a method of engagement with difference that is reasonable and respectful.

But there is a more inescapable truth about Engle’s “Dearborn Awakening.” He chose a speaker who lied, obfuscated, and confused. Should any of the participants want to learn more about Islam, if even to bring Jesus to Muslims, they have already heard the worst of the worst. And they’ll quickly find out that Islam is very different from what they were told it is. All the passionate music, jubilation, and spiritual energy cannot hide the meanness of spirit that would perpetrate this kind of fraud.

As much as TheCall prayed for “Jesus to cover Dearborn in light, and cast out the darkness,” Kamal Saleem was the one speaking in the dead of night. Engle should pay more attention to his own moralizing etiology of America’s crisis. Democracy, like a free-market economy, operates on trust, and when that trust is lost, it is very hard to recover. The relationship of the faithful with their leaders is much the same. Those many thousands who were clearly lied to on Saturday morning will find out. Perhaps not immediately. But eventually. And then they’ll begin to wonder what else was a lie.

Be careful, Lou Engle.