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The Islam Challenge By: Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, July 28, 2005

Questions About Faith, a show broadcast by a Europe-based Christian satellite station called Life TV, is creating a stir throughout the Middle East. The show, a vehicle for Christian apologetics, directly addresses issues that lie at the heart of the Islamic faith, such as Muhammad’s life and the Koran’s authenticity. Given the monopoly that Islam has had on religious discourse in the region, the show is notable for this fact alone. But even more novel is the fact that the program’s most frequent host is a convert from Islam to Christianity. Such open speech by a convert is an unheard-of challenge to Islam in its heartland.

The convert, who for security reasons uses the pseudonym Ramsey Abdullah, and Zakaria Botros, a former Coptic priest, are the two major figures on Questions About Faith. When Botros served as a priest, he drew unwelcome attention by actively seeking to convert Muslims to Christianity, something that the politically feeble Egyptian church shies away from. Sources close to Botros say he retired from the priesthood to avoid placing the Coptic church in danger. Botros now lives in the United States, where he still ministers to believers and engages in theological debate via the Internet.

Abdullah, on the other hand, is a businessman whose family hails from Saudi Arabia. After he converted to Christianity in 1980, he was cut off from the family fortune, lost his business, and had to start over from scratch. He recovered handsomely; he’s now a principal in a flourishing new business and regards his fellow Christians as his true family. But he’s also painfully aware that the controversy generated by Questions About Faith may again force him to make sacrifices.

This controversy has produced a slew of attacks on Abdullah, Botros and Life TV (known as al-Hayat in Arabic). A representative article from the al-Osboa newspaper in Egypt claims that the show is part of an American conspiracy against Islam: “Who is behind the funding of al-Hayat—the satellite television channel that is a sister channel of the dubious American al-Hurra? Who is protecting Zakaria Botros? These questions come at a time in which America is doing her utmost best to force her religious patronage upon the world, as well as to divide the Arab world.”

The same article implies that Botros may be part of a Zionist plot, noting his “frequent visits” to Israel and claiming that the mere fact that he had once appeared on an Israeli television channel “proves that he is a mercenary.” Some of Abdullah’s contacts in the Middle East have told him that people in the streets are talking about him. Abdullah recounts, “Some of them are saying, ‘We’ll get this son of a gun.’”

Questions About Faith is mainly comprised of arguments for the Christian faith, but the speakers also point to perceived problems with Islam. In one episode translated by the invaluable Middle East Media Research Institute, Botros discusses such difficult topics as the spread of Islam by the sword, the punishment of apostates from Islam and polygamy. Ahmed Paul, an Egyptian Christian and a theology student in America, comments, “While these may be difficult topics to broach, it’s necessary to analyze what Islam holds in order to present an honest picture to viewers interested in the difference between the two religions.”

Although the show covers controversial topics, Questions About Faith’s on-air personalities make a distinct effort to remain civil. Abdullah usually begins episodes by greeting the viewers and thanking them for tuning in. He and Botros then pray on the air. “I try at the start of every program to say we’re seeking the truth,” Abdullah says. “If you’re seeking too, we pray that you find the truth with us.”

Abdullah functions as the host on each 28-minute episode in which he appears. He typically guides the show by asking Botros theological questions that a Muslim might have. Ahmed Paul says, “It makes sense for Abdullah to ask these questions because he was a Muslim, and once had the same questions himself.”

Botros answers Abdullah’s questions from a Christian perspective, attempting to point out problems with the Islamic position. For example, 20 episodes of Questions About Faith focused on the life of Muhammad, questioning whether his life—including his marriage to 6-year-old Aisha—reflected the actions of a prophet of God. Other episodes argued that the idea of abrogation (the belief of Muslim scholars that some Koranic verses supersede verses that were revealed earlier) disproves the Koran’s divinity because, as Abdullah put it, God does not change his mind.

In large part, Questions About Faith has met with a strong reaction in the Middle East because of Islam’s privileged position in the region. No fewer than 11 Arab states outlaw proselytism by non-Islamic faiths, and at least 9 Arab countries outlaw apostasy. But the greater threat comes from vigilantes. According to statistics obtained from Compass Direct News Agency, 23 expatriate Christian workers have been killed in the Muslim world since 2002. While it’s difficult to estimate the number of apostates who are killed for their new faith, Paul Marshall, a senior fellow at Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom, estimates that dozens have been killed in the past year.

This context helps to explain the vituperative attacks on Questions About Faith and the courage that it took for Abdullah to appear on satellite television as a convert out of Islam.

Ahmed Paul says, “The Middle East hasn’t before seen free debate about Islam in which an apostate shows himself.” According to Abdullah, no convert from Islam to Christianity had shown his face on TV in the Middle East before and spoken in his own voice. Before Questions About Faith, converts had always been concealed behind screens.

Because of the novelty of an apostate appearing on television, Abdullah has been accused of being a fake—of having never been Muslim in the first place. “They’re trying their best to challenge the integrity of the program,” he says.

The controversy that Questions About Faith generated has caused many Christian groups in the Middle East to distance themselves from the show. The Coptic Church, for example, publicly denied any connection to Questions About Faith.

Even though he now lives in New Jersey, many of Abdullah’s friends are concerned for his safety. Some fellow Christians have even advised him to back off from the show. Abdullah is now considering taking serious security precautions. T.J., an Algerian convert from Islam to Christianity who is familiar with the show, states that the danger to Abdullah is real. “Because there are no answers to the questions he asks on the program, it creates a danger,” he says.

Life TV has broadcast Questions About Faith for about a year and a half, since a few months after the station was launched. Although Life TV receives funding from a major U.S. Christian organization, its broadcasting activities are based in Europe. However, for security reasons, station management didn’t want to reveal the country from which it broadcasts.

With a staff of predominantly Arab descent, Life TV currently broadcasts only in Arabic, but the station hopes to expand soon to both Turkish and Farsi. The station can be watched throughout Europe and in all 22 Arab countries. With its immense potential audience, Life TV has generated not only bizarre conspiracy theories but also some very positive reactions. Many Arab Christians are overjoyed to see hard questions being asked about Islam, but there also has been a positive response from some Muslims. The show receives an estimated 30 letters a day, many of which are encouraging and even inquisitive.

In the future, Abdullah plans on using the medium of video to further challenge the stigma of apostasy in the Middle East. He has the names of almost 30 converts from Islam to Christianity who are willing to go public. His next project: English and Arabic videos featuring their stories.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a counterterrorism consultant and an attorney with Boies, Schiller & Flexner. He is a 2002 graduate of the New York University School of Law, and clerked on the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit following law school.

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