My research going into the second phase of our grant keeps taking interesting turns. The latest dovetails with both the conceptual metaphor and storytelling parts of our grant research. The background question is trying to determine what influences shape evangelical understandings of other religions, Islam in particular.
I've been trying to figure out what the best data set is for identifying the conceptual metaphors evangelicals use as they think about other religions, particularly Islam. I ran across a chapter by Shaheen Pasha in one of the volumes in the two-volume set, The Electronic Church in the Digital Age (Praeger, 2015), that touched on evangelical post-9/11 portrayals of Judaism and and Islam. I got in touch with Pasha and her response indicates that rather than just looking at evangelical media or pastoral sermons, we might need to consider the overlap if not blending between evangelical treatments of the issues and the secular through places like FOX News and conservative talk radio. Pasha mentioned that Walid Shoebat is a frequent source cited by evangelicals on Islam. His story is intriguing. He says he is a former PLO terrorist, now Christian convert, that he firebombed a bank in Israel, was jailed with others, and had a conversion experience. Now he speaks frequently in churches, at prophecy conferences describing how Islam is anti-christ and will usher in the Beast and the last days, but he does even more. Shoebat also shares his expertise with police departments and other law enforcement, including the military. He has been paid by the US government through Homeland Security to speak on terrorism at places like the Air Force Academy. (Here is a video clip of Shoebat on the 700 Club with Pat Robertson.)
What could be wrong with someone with this experience providing such training? Quite a bit, as it turns out. Investigations by CNN and the Jerusalem Post revealed that there is no evidence supporting the claims of Shoebat. His family claims he was never a terrorist, there are no records of such a bombing, or his arrest and release. It would appear that he falsified his story so as to take advantage of the booming post-9/11 anti-Islam and terrorism cottage industry. (A clip from CNN's two-part expose.)
Years ago I used to be involved in counter-cult apologetics, and Shoebat fills a similar niche for evangelicals in regards to Islam. There were several alleged ex-witches, ex-Satanists, ex-Illuminati, etc., who spoke at churches and in conferences who turned out under investigation to be fraudulent. Mike Warnke as an alleged ex-Satanist is a prime example. I helped expose an alleged son of Satanist Anton LaVey in response to Charisma magazine years ago, and they retracted the story. The appeal here is twofold. First, evangelicals, like most people, love stories. The stories of former members of groups that found liberation in Christ and which confirm our worst suspicions and fears of these groups are gobbled up by evangelicals. Second, ex-members are assumed to have a special level of knowledge and experience that makes them experts. Who better to turn to for an understanding of Islam, than an ex-PLO member?! Certainly not Muslims themselves, or academics who study the religion!
Shoebat has a large audience and a substantial influence. He not only speaks in churches, and before law enforcement and military audiences, but he is also frequently a guest in conservative media, and appears alongside other anti-Islamic personalities like Brigette Gabriel in both secular and evangelical media venues.
All of this relates to our work. Figures like Shoebat, as well as Gabriel and others, are shaping evangelical perspectives on Islam. They are presenting a powerful narrative that will be difficult to counter. But we need to provide an alternative. In addition, it reminds us that we face not only a theological challenge in addressing evangelical figures, but also secular political ones given evangelicalism's interest in right-wing politics, emboldened in light of the Trump administration.
While we pursue our research and consider how this will be incorporated in our grant project outcomes, it's important for us to understand the challenges we face in a well-funded and almost omnipresent conservative media inclined toward negative views of Islam that is part of a large Islamophobia network. This has a tremendous influence on evangelicals. Jordan Denari Duffner spearheaded a study of Islamophobic media shaping Roman Catholic perceptions for the Bridge Initiative. Perhaps it's time for Protestant evangelicals to fund and study the media that shape our perceptions of Muslims and members of other religions.