She wasn't a Muslim, but she would do for now. Last March, at just about the time American troops were massing outside Baghdad, she shuffled, dressed in a dark burqa, into a cramped schoolroom in the New York City borough of Queens. The class she was addressing was organized by the U.S. Center for World Mission and packed with eager evangelical Christian students wanting to learn how to be missionaries in a foreign country. The black-clad "Shafira" was gamely trying to explain her faith.
"It is not in the heart of all the Muslims to have violence," she said in broken English, alluding immediately to Sept. 11. "So sorry that people having dying. I'm wanting peace for my children. I'm thinking you wanting peace. It's the same." She listed Islam's five pillars of faith and reminded her audience that holy war is not among them. "We have a lot in common," she said, but she did wonder about the Trinity: "God Father plus God Mary equals God Son?"
A student, thrilled at the opportunity to explain, jumped in. After listening patiently, Shafira peeled back her garments and admitted that "I am not a true Muslim." Hardly. In fact, she was a longtime Christian missionary in Muslim lands. She had been hired to explain at several of 150 annual "Perspectives" classes how such evangelism should be done. She gave her real name. (Throughout this article, for the safety of missionaries working in potentially hostile environments or returning to them, pseudonyms are used. They will be indicated on first usage by quotation marks. Many locations will also be omitted.)
Over the next three hours, "Barbara," minus her burqa, dispensed lists of comparisons between Jesus and Muhammad ("Jesus arose from the dead and is alive. Muhammad is dead.") and of dos and don'ts of ministering to Muslims. (Do listen to their story. Don't argue about Israel.) She projected a statement by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft on a screen: "Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him. Christianity is a faith in which God sends his son to die for you." After his comment was publicized in late 2001, Ashcroft said it referred to terrorists and not to mainstream Muslims, but the point seemed lost on her. "Islam is the terrorist," Barbara asserted. "Muslims are the victim." The class ended in prayer. "We mourn the loss of life" in Iraq, someone said. Added Barbara: "We pray that the weapon of mass destruction, Islam, be torn down. Lord, we declare that your blood is enough to forgive every single Muslim. It is enough."
For 21 months now, Americans have been engaged in a crash course on Islam, its geography and its followers. It is not a subject we were previously interested in, but 9/11 left no choice, and the U.S. military in two countries continues its on-the-job training in sheiks and ayatullahs, Sunni customs and Shi'ite factionalism. Yet there is one group that has been thinking--passionately--about Muslims for more than a decade. Its army is weaponless, its soldiers often unpaid, its boot camps places like the Queens classroom. It has no actual connection with the U.S. government (except possibly to unintentionally muddy America's image). But in the past few months, its advance forces have been entering the still-smoldering battlefield of Iraq, as intent on molding its people's future as the conventional American troops already in place.