I was pushing my way through the crowd at the Batha Souq in Riyadh Saudi Arabia, known locally as the Filipino Souq, headed for Manila Plaza to buy a pair of jeans when my attention was drawn to a khutbah, or Muslim sermon, blaring out in English over loudspeakers from the Dawah Center strategically placed on the corner of the main street where thousands of TCN's (Third Country Nationals) from countries such as the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Pakistan pass by to do their afternoon shopping. I decided to stop in for a visit, and was greeted by a smiling young man from Indonesia who informed me his name was Yusuf; it had been Joseph before he converted from Catholicism to Islam eight years before. Before I knew it I had a shopping bag full of gifts including a free Quran, books with titles such as "Islam is your Birthright", and a DVD containing a sermon by "Former Christian Minister from Texas USA Sheikh Yusuf Estes".
As soon as I got back to my house I put the DVD in the player and settled back on the couch to watch. It was recorded in the same Dawah Center I had just visited when Yusuf had himself been in Riyadh. Like most American converts to Islam, he opened his sermon with a few ringing accented Arabic phrases. Assalam alaykum wa Rahmat Allah wa Barakatahu! Bismallah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim, Rubb al-Aalameen! As soon as his Arabic ran out he switched to English for the rest of his sermon punctuated periodically with a Ma Sha Allah or Subhan Allah At-Ta'alah!
It was probably good that he spoke in English, because the young men listening to him likely did not know much more Arabic than he did. They were among the thousands of migrant workers who find their way to Saudi Arabia to do the menial jobs the Saudis are unwilling or unable to do. Often separated for years from their families, they work long days to send a hundred dollars or so each month to even poorer families in the countries they come from. Many of them are Muslim, but others are also from Hindu and Christian backgrounds - hence the Dawah or Muslim Evangelization Center.
Yusuf began his sermon by giving the Muslims a question to ask their Christian friends. The question was, "How many sons does God has?" If the unsuspecting Christian replied that God had one Son, Yusuf quoted a few verses from the Bible describing God as having "many sons" and - voila! - the Muslim had stumped the Christian.
I thought it was rather silly. The New Testament uses many metaphors to describe Jesus - he is the Bread of Life, the Good Shepherd, the Light of the World, etc. How many lights does God have? How much bread? How many shepherds? Gotcha!
Yusuf then moved on to his next point, which is that Islam is an easy religion. God did not want to burden mankind with multiplied regulations that were impossible to keep, so he kept it simple. All he requires is that we repeat the same prayer five times a day in a language most Muslims don't understand, spend one month of the year eating all night instead of during the day, give some of our money to feed the poor, and fly to Mecca once during our lives. Gone forever are the much harder challenges to love your enemies, treat everyone else the way you would like them to treat you, and not even bother to say your prayers if you have an unresolved conflict with another person that you have not tried to settle.
At the end of his sermon, Yusuf reached his moment of glory - he himself would initiate a Christian into Islam! Just like the old-time evangelists he must have seen in Texas during his youth - and for all I know was one himself - Yusuf called a young man to the front of the audience to "repeat this prayer after me". It's just that the words were different. Instead of repeating, "Jesus, forgive my sins and come into my heart", the new message was, "I testify there is no God but God and Muhammad is his Apostle".
As I watched this, I felt extremely sad. I compared it with the many stories I had heard and read of the intense spiritual struggle Muslims go through when they decide to leave Islam. The decision often costs them their jobs and families, and many are forced to leave their countries for the safety of their own lives. To watch the reverse seemed shallow to me.
Yusuf did say one thing that made me smile. He warned his audience to stay away from the chat room Paltalk. That's the site where Father Zakariya Boutros and his associates have led an untold number of people away from Islam. I can understand Yusuf wanting his admirers to avoid that site!
A few days later I was in a car with one of the drivers for the company I was working with, a Christian from the Philippines. I asked him if he knew any Filipinos who had converted to Islam in Saudi Arabia, and why they did it. He replied that life was much easier in that country if one converted. Money was given, apartments were found, jobs were secured, and brides were available. I asked him if he had ever thought of converting. "How could I leave Jesus?" was his reply.
I asked the same question to another of our drivers, a Hindu from India. He said when he first came to Saudi Arabia he had worked for several years for the same Saudi employer. The day after a Hindu-Muslim confrontation in India resulted in loss of life, his employer told him he was fired. He could have kept his job if he had converted to Islam, but he also had too much character to do that.
I would imagine that Yusuf Estes is quite pleased with the number of people he has persuaded to become Muslims, and would claim that these conversions were all based upon a sincere conviction that Islam is true and Muhammad is indeed a Prophet of God. Personally, I'm not so convinced.