Though our clandestine night flight to Libya was one of the strangest, most dramatic and most humbling experiences of those years, it was not the height of my struggle with Jesus’ actual teachings and the extent to which I was willing and able to put them into practice. That experience came during a visit, right here on American soil, with yet another leader in America’s pantheon of global enemies. In fact, it happened mere miles from my home, in a Washington, D.C. suburb. And though I was in no physical danger this time, the struggle was far more difficult and cut far deeper. It was my first face-to-face encounter with my old nemesis, Yasser Arafat—an encounter that so strongly evoked feelings I’d held for years that I almost refused to let it take place.
Much as Qaddafi’s position in the West has shifted dramatically over the years, so has Arafat’s, only more so. The Reagan-era label of “international terrorist” softened considerably during the years that Bush senior was in the White House; by the time Clinton was in office, the PLO chairman had completed his transformation from militant to statesman and, incredibly, peacemaker.
In an address in December, 1988, Arafat renounced terrorism “in all its forms, including state terrorism,” and pledged recognition of Israel’s right to exist.
“Arafat is coming to America next month! We want to throw a private dinner in his honor. Would you be willing to host the dinner?” I felt my breath catch. Me, host a dinner for Arafat? Out of the question!”
That night I had a terrible dream. It was as if God were showing me a PowerPoint presentation tracing the story of all those who were the targets of arms I had helped secure for Cold War allies during my tenure in Congress. No doubt, many of those arms were used to kill the innocent. How often had I bragged about my support for what we back then termed freedom fighters? The faces of the women and children I dreamt about that night, who may well have been killed by the weapons I promoted, were burned into my mind’s eye.
I awoke with an awful thought: Siljander, you’re a hypocrite! I had condemned Arafat for having blood on his hands. But what about the blood on my own? Was forgiveness truly possible—for him, for myself? For any of us? I didn’t see how, in good faith, I could refuse this occasion to build a bridge of friendship with this old enemy of mine. If this wasn’t the ultimate opportunity to live the values of Jesus’s teachings, then what was?
Yes, but the whole “love thine enemies” idea was all very well when it was still played out to some extent in an abstract context. I had no family killed in Sudan’s civil war, no personal friends who had died at Qaddafi’s hands. As much as I hated to admit it, none of my many encounters with Muslim statesmen over the years had challenged me to my core the way the prospect of hosting this dinner was tearing at me now. Al-Bashir, Qaddafi, and the others had been America’s enemies. Arafat was my personal enemy. The man had tried to have me killed!
“After fifteen or twenty minutes, Chairman Arafat’s speechwriter and confidant, Saeb Erakat (who also held the rank of prime minister), took me aside and mentioned that Arafat was scheduled to speak the next day at a large luncheon to an audience composed mostly of Christians who were there as part of the National Prayer Breakfast. He had heard through Nassim that I “knew something about Jesus in the Qur’an” and wondered if he could beg my assistance.
Well of course, I ventured. In what way could I possibly assist him?
“In Chairman Arafat’s address, he said, he wanted to discuss the common bond that Muslims and Christians share in the person of Jesus—or Isa, as he was called in the Qur’an. (I nodded. Yes, I was familiar with the Arabic nomenclature.) He wondered, could I perhaps help him find a few appropriate suras to use in his talk?
I glanced over at Arafat, who was talking with the guests and glancing over at me every now and then. Here he was, my Muslim enemy. And his aide was asking me for my help—with the Qur’an. I looked back at Saeb. “Of course,” I replied, trying not to betray how dazed I felt. “What have you got so far?”
He showed me a selection of a few suras he had gotten from Nassim. We reviewed them. I made some suggestions. We settled on six suras for the chairman to choose from.
The next day I attended the luncheon. When Arafat got up to speak, I was on the edge of my seat, wondering which of the suras he might use or whether he would remember to use any of them. He did—in fact, he quoted all six of them, and when he came to those points in the text that referred directly to Isa, he substituted the phrase “Our Lord Jesus Christ,” causing quite a few murmurs of astonishment in his audience. This surprised me, too: Muslims almost never use “Lord” as a title for anyone other than Allah.
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