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The 10th Parallel: Where Christianity And Islam Meet
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Eliza Griswold, has been writing about the collision of Christianity
and Islam over religion, world views, land, food, oil and water. The area she's
reported on is the 10th parallel, the line of latitude 700 miles north of the
She's reported from the 10th parallel in Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Indonesia,
Malaysia and The Philippines, visiting places where wars in the name of
religion have been fought from village to village and street corner to street
corner. Her new book is called "The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault
Line Between Christianity and Islam."
Griswold grew up in a rectory in the 1970s and '80s. Her father, Frank
Griswold, was the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in America in 2003,
when Gene Robinson became the first openly gay person ordained as a bishop in
the church, creating an international split in the larger Anglican Church.
Eliza Griswold, welcome to FRESH AIR. You began your investigation of this
faith-based fault line in December, 2003, when you traveled with Franklin
Graham, son of the famous evangelist Billy Graham, who's now very famous
himself. Where did you travel with him to, and why did you want to go with him?
Ms. ELIZA GRISWOLD (Author, "The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line
Between Christianity and Islam"): We went to the northern capital of Sudan,
which is Khartoum, and we went to meet with a man who Franklin considers the
devil: Hassan Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan.
And we met with him. This was the first time Franklin had met with Bashir, and
he wanted it to do a couple of things, one of which was to convince him,
convince Bashir to allow him, to allow Graham, to reach out to Muslims who
lived in Khartoum and in the north.
GROSS: But Christian proselytizing to Muslims is banned there. It's illegal.
Ms. GRISWOLD: That's exactly right. Northern Sudan, like many of the countries
along the 10th parallel, is what's considered a closed country, which means
that it's either the letter of the law says it's illegal to proselytize there,
or culturally, it's simply not allowed.
And so Graham was asking Bashir for the right to preach to Muslims there.
GROSS: And did President Bashir give him that right?
Ms. GRISWOLD: Indeed not. What President Bashir did was try to convince Graham
to convert to Islam. And the two men engaged in this faith-based one-upsmanship
where each tried to convert the other to his respective faith.
And what happened then was that Franklin remembered that in his pocket, he had
a W 2004 re-election pin for the re-election of George W. Bush. So he reached
into his pocket, and he handed it to Bashir, and he said: Mr. President, you'll
be speaking to my president later on today, and I think you should tell him
you're his first voter here in the Sudan.
GROSS: Why did he say that?
Ms. GRISWOLD: In one way, to read what that situation really meant, was for
Graham was definitely showing Bashir that he had the ear of the administration,
that here's where faith and foreign policy were really intermingled because
Graham was not an emissary of the U.S. government in any way, yet the pin,
which he'd taken from the desk of Karl Rove's secretary, indicated that he had
access to the very â the uppermost echelons of power.
And, by the way, Bashir only met with Graham because he was afraid that his
country would become the next country, after Iraq and Afghanistan, to face U.S.
GROSS: So was Franklin Graham President George W. Bush's personal minister?
Ms. GRISWOLD: He was. That's a term â you know, he was his personal pastor, and
there, when I was with Franklin Graham in his office in Boon, North Carolina,
there was a picture of him praying with George W. Bush and Laura Bush, holding
their hands, on the wall, hanging on the wall.
GROSS: I guess, you know, I'm wondering, when Franklin Graham, who was
perceived in the United States by a lot of people as very extreme, when he goes
to a place like Sudan, establishes hospitals there, meets with the president,
is he seen as representative of what Americans believe?
Ms. GRISWOLD: Very, very much so. And that is one of the more dangerous
realities of how conservative evangelicals abroad can shape the perception of
Especially, this is especially sensitive in the Muslim world. And this is not
new. You know, I mean, this really goes back to post-World War II and the
foundation of the Muslim Brotherhood, which largely came out of trying to be a
Muslim YMCA because the only Westerners Muslims saw at that time were Christian
evangelicals coming to spread their faith.
So this kind of defensive posturing of Islam, Islam is under threat by the
West, unfortunately, a handful of evangelicals can misrepresent what the West
is about and make Muslims feel very much under threat.
GROSS: One of the things you write about in your book is the 10/40 window. I
want you to describe what that is.
Ms. GRISWOLD: The 10/40 window is really a mission strategy that dates back to
the end of the 20th century, which comes out of the thinking of a man named
Luis Bush. And this is one of the curious...
GROSS: No relation to the President Bushes.
Ms. GRISWOLD: None at all. None at all. It's one of the curious confluences of
technology and belief. What Luis Bush did, he used to work at Anderson, at
Arthur Anderson Consulting.
And what he did was set on a map, using satellite technology, where the world's
poorest people and the fewest numbers of believers â that means of born-again
Christians â actually lived.
And what he found when he plotted this point is that these numbers coincided
with what he termed the 10/40 window. He came to that title with his wife's
The 10/40 window lies north of the 10th parallel and south of the 40th, and the
40th is Greece and sort of Southern Europe, right? So within this red
rectangle, if you look a map, you're looking at a long square. And on his map,
this is red.
This is the majority of the world's Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and the
majority of the population lives on less than $500 a year. So it's this nexus
between the world's poor and the world's â what he would call the world's
And it's where he and many others believe Christians should focus the efforts
of their evangelism.
GROSS: And how is that playing out today?
Ms. GRISWOLD: That is a good question. You know, I myself have spent time in
many of those countries and in Iraq with missionaries who work what some people
would call creative access, and this is Northern Sudan, as well, which means
going into a country under other guises, right, as either maybe you're running
a clinic, maybe you're running a fabric store, maybe you're teaching English.
And what I have found overwhelmingly, I mean, at first I thought, well, maybe I
will write about what these people are doing, you know, what it means to go
into a country that is against the law, the letter of the law, to go preach
What I found time and time again is that no matter what the people's beliefs
were, what the practical reality of their work was is they were doing all kinds
of NGO work, whether it was teaching English, making - giving people jobs,
teaching people computer skills, things that no matter what their aim might be,
the actual result in the moment was pretty benevolent.
And that's â so that's a long answer to say that what's going on within that
window is really unclear. And most times I've seen mission working, it's been
to the good.
GROSS: Let's talk about your trip to Nigeria, where you investigated the
collision between Christianity and Islam. Let's talk first about a church you
visited that's part of a network of churches that dates back to a missionary
named Karl Wilhelm Kumm, a German missionary who was important in Nigeria in
spreading Christianity. Would you describe the network of churches that he
Ms. GRISWOLD: Sure. He created a network, it's really tens of thousands of
churches in Nigeria. He came with the idea of expressly stopping Islam's spread
And his idea was to build a string of thousands of churches like military forts
- that's his language â across the 10th parallel, across where he saw the
Islamic world end and the world's pagans â at that time, that was the common
usage or, you know, those who follow traditional religions - began.
He wanted to make this bulwark in order to stop Islam from â again, his
language â winning Africa. And today, the churches he built, these frontline
churches because he himself walked from Nigeria to Sudan, almost died, almost
drowned along the way, these churches do serve in their understanding as the
bulwark against Islam's spread in Africa.
CONAN: And why is it so important to him and the people in his churches to stop
the spread of Islam in Africa?
Ms. GRISWOLD: Well, you know, that â the question of Islam as the enemy of
Christianity didn't begin with our contemporary times, our contemporary
evangelical sort of firebrands talking. It's a much older confrontation. It's a
much older contest that really dates back to the late 19th century.
And Kumm was not alone in this position that, you know, Islam was going to â
and basically, it was the Industrial Revolution, roads, telegraphs, the forces
that spread the West and Christianity could equally be used to spread Islam.
And it was convenient thinking, because it sort of whipped up fervor around the
spread of a rival faith. But it was also very much the fear at the time that if
the Christian West didn't take over these blank spaces on the map, then the
Islamic world would.
GROSS: So you visited one of these churches in the Kumm network of churches, in
a town called Yelwa. Just tell us a little bit about Yelwa and the specific
Ms. GRISWOLD: Yelwa has been the site of some of the bloodiest massacres
between both Christians and Muslims of the past decade. In fact, some of the
bloodiest happened around September 1, 2001, and because of the timing with
9/11, what would probably have been picked up by the foreign press just got
Thousands killed eventually. Again, with the trouble with numbers, it's hard to
know. In one case, Christians surrounding the town, encircling the town â these
are all reprisal attacks. So they begin in, you know, one begins the other
counterattacks, Christians surrounding the town and killing every Muslim they
found within the town.
On another attack, the church that you mentioned, this church which is in Yelwa
was also surrounded, and Muslims surrounded the church and massacred everybody
coming outside after morning devotions.
So the history of bloodshed is very, very deep, very, very painful, and both
sides have mass graves very close to places of worship that are hard to believe
when you see the numbers, you know, 100 men in this hole, 200 children in this
hole. It's painful, and it's visceral, and it's a daily reality.
So, you know, here, one of the things that I really learned in the course of
this book was that we need people's understanding of religious conflict as
visceral and daily, is very, very real.
And that certainly is one thing that I took away from Yelwa, where, you know,
more than coincidentally, Yelwa is largely peaceful now, and the reason is
because fighting has cost each side so much, so many cows, so many children, so
much land use, that neither side fights anymore because they see it in their
interest to be peaceful now.
GROSS: Now, I know you talked to people who were nearly victims and witnessed
massacres. Did you talk to anybody involved with massacres who justified their
Ms. GRISWOLD: Yes. The first person - many is the answer. I talked to many. The
first person who comes to mind is a man named Farheen Ibnuamid(ph) in
Indonesia, who had gone to training camps in Afghanistan and come back. He is
He had come back, and when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who's one of the architects
of 9/11, had come to the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, Farheen had been his
emissary, had taken him around.
So this guy, this guy has some pretty strong ties within the militant world.
When it comes to Indonesia, he had led a massacre on the island of Sulawesi,
where Christians and Muslims had been fighting, among other things, over a
local election, and their real grudge against each other was the cacao boom,
money coming from the spiking prices of chocolate around the world.
Anyway, so Farheen had led a group of Muslims down a hill to attack a town, and
he had wiped out a Christian village. And I went back to that village with him
to see what was going on. And that was a pretty illuminating experience.
GROSS: What did you see?
Ms. GRISWOLD: Well, for one thing, one of the ways in which â the village was
now Muslim because the Christians didn't want to live around Muslims anymore.
They had moved up to the top of this mountainside, to a nearby town called
Tentena. So all the Christians lived on the mountain; all the Muslims lived
along the coast.
So people were rebuilding this village when we went back. And, you know,
Farheen had been tortured quite badly in the course of his interrogation. So
that's what he said, and that's what some of the Indonesian security people I
talked to said, as well.
So he'd had a lot of electric shock. He said his mind was like a broken
computer. He kind of came and went. So not everything he said was totally
clear. But sitting with him, we were sitting in a Land Rover, he was slumped
down in the back of the car, and he just kept saying, you know, the Christians
wanted to kill the Muslims, they wanted us out of here. This is divine holy
war, as if all he could do â he couldn't face what he'd done.
And all he could do was kind of rely on these scraps of broken ideology, which
is really all he had left.
GROSS: So we've been talking about your trip with Franklin Graham to Sudan,
where he met with the president of Sudan, President Bashir, with the goal of
getting permission to convert Muslims to Christianity, and that kind of
proselytizing is against the law in Sudan. He didn't get the permission.
But the things that you were talking about, I think the conflicts between
Christians and Muslims lead us to what's going on in the United States right
now, which is the controversy surrounding the proposed Islamic community center
a few blocks away from ground zero in Manhattan.
And I'm wondering how your studies, your investigation of the collisions
between Christians and Muslims in the 10th parallel helps you understand what's
going on now, if it helps you understand what's going on now, surrounding that
proposed Islamic community center.
Ms. GRISWOLD: Sure. I mean, what I see in this is the â beyond the demonization
of the other, is a fight really inside of let's say the West, but we could say
the Christian West or the Judeo-Christian West, between what people's rights
And the principal take-away for me from this experience along the 10th parallel
was that the real conflicts shaping the future of the world's religions are not
between the religions, they're inside of the religions.
And so that means the fight over who gets to speak for God, whether that's a
liberal or a conservative, whether that's, you know, Franklin Graham or Obama,
both of whom are Christians, consider themselves to be, follow Jesus Christ,
those are the real flashpoints. Those are what we need to watch.
GROSS: So you see it as an internal dispute in the United States between
whether it's liberals or people on the right who speak for the faith, who speak
Ms. GRISWOLD: I do. I mean, this whole thing came up, you know, largely
overlooked, until it became politically expedient to do so, you know, by a
blogger to say oh, now we're going to oppose this.
At first, you know, even, you know, FOX News didn't oppose the idea of the
Islamic center. So everyone has weighed in on their position not so much about
the Islamic center, but about where they see Islam in American society. And
that really reflects â that really is a political issue that one could
substitute in homosexuality, gay marriage. There are lots of other issues that
would push the same buttons.
GROSS: Eliza Griswold, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. GRISWOLD: Thank you so much.
GROSS: Eliza Griswold is the author of the new book "The Tenth Parallel:
Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam." You can read an
excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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Finding the Root of Anti-Gay Sentiment in Uganda
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross.
My guest Jeff Sharlet recently traveled to Uganda to meet David Bahati, the
Member of Parliament who introduced the draconian anti-homosexuality bill.
Bahati is a leader of the Ugandan parliament's branch of The Fellowship, which
is connected to the secretive American evangelical group, The Fellowship, that
is also known as The Family.
Sharlet is the author of the bestseller "The Family," about this fundamentalist
group and the influential senators and congressmen affiliated with it.
Sharlet's follow-up book, "C-Street" will be published in September.
He went to Uganda at the invitation of David Bahati. Sharlet's article,
"Straight Man's Burden: The American Roots of Uganda's Anti-Gay Persecutions,"
is published in the September issue of "Harper's." Sharlet is a contributing
editor of the magazine. He's also an assistant professor of English at
Jeff Sharlet, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Before we talk about your trip to
Uganda, just give us a little refresher course on the anti-homosexual bill and
where it stands now.
Professor JEFF SHARLET (English, Dartmouth College): Well, the anti-
homosexuality bill was introduced in 2009. It's a bill that essentially seeks
to eradicate homosexuality from Uganda and become a model for the rest of
Africa. Homosexuality is already illegal but it would make the penalties much
stiffer, including death penalty for whatâs described in the bill as Serial
Offender, and that can be someone who has gay sex more than once.
That also is aggravated homosexuality, if you're HIV-positive and you have sex,
even with another consenting adult and you're aware of things - death penalty.
If you have sex with someone who's disabled - again, consenting adult doesnât
matter - death penalty. There's also a life sentence for a one time act.
There's a seven-year sentence for the promotion of homosexuality, and a three-
year sentence for failure to report a known homosexual - whether it's a
relative or anything with that - and you have 24 hours to do that.
GROSS: What's the present status of the bill?
Prof. SHARLET: Well, the bill as introduced in 2009 had overwhelming popular
support in Uganda. I mean you could hardly imagine a sort of more popular
initiative at that moment. It just sort of seized this kind of - this frenzy.
And then there was a lot of international pressure against it. And you had
Sweden threatening to cut off foreign aid; you had Germany saying we'll give
you a lot more money if you don't pass it. And it's sort of now gone into this
kind of holding pattern. .
The dictator, a guy name Museveni, had a sort of presidential commission say,
look, we can achieve all these ends with current laws. Didnât advise against
it, just said we can do it in a different way. And it's now waiting a second
reading in the parliament.
And essentially what it is right now is sort of a tiger on the leash. It's
something that the dictator can - if he feels he's threatened and he needs to
rally public support and distract them - he can get this thing passed in
probably about four weeks. So it remains incredibly dangerous.
GROSS: But there have been reports that President Museveni said he would sign
this bill only if the death penalty was removed from it.
Prof. SHARLET: Yeah, I think thatâs actually a real possibility, that the death
penalty will be removed from it. And unfortunately we have this situation right
now, where there's, especially some of the American groups that have sort of
been involved and are supporting it, they're going to declare that a human
rights victory - a law that provides life in prison for homosexuality - long
prison terms for even this conversation we're having right now, they're going
to call that a human rights victory.
The death penalty might be stripped out. I spoke to the author of the bill and
he said, you know, this is democracy; step by step, we'll get there. He's very
confident that one day, democracy will lead to killing. Yeah.
GROSS: You keep referring to Museveni as a dictator. Is he commonly regarded as
Prof. SHARLET: It's a little bit debated, but he's been in power for - since
1986 - 24 years. He changed the constitution to keep being re-elected. If he
doesnât like you, you get killed, you get thrown in prison. It's a much more
softer dictatorship. But yeah, he's pretty commonly referred to as a dictator.
I mean, you know, this is not like a, you know, this is not like Gadhafi, the
sort of crazed kind of thing. But yeah, he's a dictator and he's been there
forever. And no one expects him - there's an election next year, which what a
lot of this has to deal with, and he's not likely to give up power. He's
surrounded himself with a sort of Republican Guard style separate military, led
by his son. Yeah, he's a dictator.
GROSS: Jeff, youâve been reporting on this Ugandan anti-homosexual bill from
the United States. But recently you actually went to Uganda. What did you hope
to learn there?
Prof. SHARLET: Well, I went, really, to meet with David Bahati, the author of
the bill. Because I'd been reporting on it, we ended up speaking. And he
invited me to Uganda. He said, look, if you come here, you'll see yourself
whatâs really going on. For instance, you'll see that homosexuals from Europe
and America are luring our children into homosexuality by distributing cell
phones and iPods and things like this - that no Ugandan on his or her own would
ever become gay, but they're sort of bribed into it.
And he says, and I can explain to you what I really want to do. And because
Iâve been reporting on it, and here was, really, the author of this really
potentially genocidal bill, saying come on over and Iâll tell you what it's all
about. I thought I had to take him up on that invitation.
GROSS: How did he know your work?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. SHARLET: FRESH AIR, actually.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. SHARLET: Because we had spoken about this before and a sort of a report
on that interview was on the front page, I believe, of major Ugandan newspaper.
And it sort of amped things up a little bit.
But I mean David Bahati knew my work, partly because I had been writing about
this organization called The Family or The Fellowship. And he's one of the
leaders of the group's presence in Uganda, which is one of their strongest
countries in Africa and a place where theyâve invested millions of dollars in
And David Bahati has been over to the United States to the study the sort of
the Christian leadership principles of The Family or the Principles of Jesus,
as they call them. And here I was reporting about this organization, and he was
upset because he had come into sort of a schism with the group.
When the bill became publicized, the American Family - which organizes
something The Annual National Prayer Breakfast, the president always speaks
there - really tried to distance themselves from Bahati, and at first said that
he wasnât invited. And Bahati was very emphatic and said, no, Iâm invited - in
fact, I was there in 2007, I was there in 2009; I helped organize the Ugandan
National Prayer Breakfast in Uganda, to which American politicians come.
And I think he saw me as a journalist who could tell his story in a little bit.
He wanted it known that he did have these connections, that he wasnât some kind
of rube out there, back-bencher. That he was a guy who had international
connections and had done this bill, he believed - and I should emphasize that,
that he believed - in concert with the goals of his American allies.
GROSS: So when you met with David Bahati, the Member of Parliament who
introduced the anti-homosexuality bill in Uganda, what were his explanations
about why homosexuality is such a threat, so dangerous as to warrant the death
Prof. SHARLET: Well, this is - I mean this is fascinating and I think this is
where we really need clarification, because homosexuality doesnât really mean
the same thing in Uganda as it does here. They donât see homosexuality as
something native to Uganda. They see it as something imposed from the West, it
becomes a symbol for Western interference, for neocolonialism, and...
GROSS: So, wait. Wait. So they see homosexuality as an expression of
neocolonialism, something that came from the West?
Prof. SHARLET: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly, they see - I mean and this is again,
talk... Bahati, for instance, is obsessed with the Netherlands. And he said the
Netherlands is funneling homosexuality into Uganda. And he says, of course,
Americans are doing the same.
And what this actually is really kind of in response to - is sort of deeply
ironic. You go back to the early part of the decade when the Bush
administration created this massive fund for fighting AIDS around the world -
PEPFAR. And a lot of PEPFAR money went to Uganda, which actually ended up
developing, for a while, a very successful anti-AIDS program.
And the AIDS workers said okay, we need to talk to the homosexual community.
And it was the Ugandan government officials said, oh, no problem; we donât have
one. And of course, you know, these international health workers said, no, we
really need to talk to these people and these bridges got built.
And I spoke to a homosexual activist - gay activist in Uganda - who said, you
know, that was really the sort of this political moment for us. And that seeing
that, you know, we could be recognized by the international community. We had
human rights, that this was a part of it. We could organize.
And so both some of the gay activists, and some of the anti-gay crusaders,
point to that moment in the early part of the decade, as one of the real
catalysts for this battle.
GROSS: Now, David Bahati - the Member of Parliament who introduced the anti-gay
bill in Uganda - also has religious reasons for opposing homosexuality. Didnât
he tell you that it was demonic, a modern form of witchcraft?
Prof. SHARLET: Yeah, everything he does is for religious reasons. He was raised
the kind of sort of nominal Anglican, had a Born Again experience, came to the
United States to study at something called the Leadership Institute in
Arlington - which is a conservative group - and got involve with The Family
Research Council; he was very impressed by their work, and then got involved
with The Family and that was his real connection.
And what he explained to me, he says, look, homosexuality, in itself, is very
bad. He says it is terrible. But he says, ultimately - and this is something he
felt that he learned from the Americans. He says ultimately, it's a symbol for
the wrong kind of government. A government that allows homosexuality is a
government led by people. In other words, we pass laws and we say homosexuality
He says we need to have God-led government. And United States may have strayed
too far away from that but Uganda, thatâs still possible. So eradicating
homosexuality from Uganda is just really part of this larger vision for what
both he and his American allies a God-led government, although they might
differ on what that would look like.
GROSS: My guest is Jeff Sharlet. His article, "Straight Man's Burden: The
American Roots of Uganda's Anti-Gay Persecution," is in the September issue of
"Harper's." We'll talk more after our break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Jeff Sharlet, author of the bestseller "The Family," about
the secretive American fundamentalist group known as The Family or The
Fellowship. Sharlet's article in the September edition of "Harper's" is about
David Bahati, a leader of the Ugandan's parliament's branch of The Fellowship.
Bahati introduced Uganda's draconian anti-homosexuality bill.
So one of the reasons why you went to Uganda was to try to understand what, if
any, influence conservative Christians in the U.S. had on the writing of the
anti-homosexual bill in Uganda. Specifically you wanted to know if members of
the conservative Christian group, The Family, had influence.
So what did Bahati tell you about input from the U.S.?
Prof. SHARLET: On the one hand, Bahati says: No, there's no input from the
United States; this is entirely Ugandan effort. On the other hand, he said we
did it through our Fellowship group, our Family group in parliament. And I
said, oh, so there's a connection between this American-supported group and the
bill. And he says, I donât know what you mean about connection; there's no
connection - the bill is The Fellowship. This is what we do.
So I discovered, you know, thinking that there was sort of a more distant chain
of relationship, that there was actually this very direct relationship - even
though a lot of the Americans strongly oppose the bill. This wasnât what they
had in mind and they are emphatic, and I think they're right to say, look, you
know, we haven't killed any gay people in Uganda. This isn't what we had in
mind. You know, we didn't pull the trigger. And that's true.
They didn't pull the trigger. But there's a sense in which they built the gun,
which was this institutional idea of government being decided by small groups
of elite leaders, like Bahati, getting together and trying to conform
government to their understanding of Biblical law. And that this is what was to
be done and that this was what their American benefactors wanted them to do.
Because you had people like Senator Jim Inhofe, former Attorney General John
Ashcroft, Rick Warren - all visiting Bahati's Fellowship group in parliament,
and all talking about what a God-led government would look like.
GROSS: So you actually, at David Bahati's invitation, went to his home, had a
meal with him and his family. What was it like to be at his home? He knows how
much you oppose the anti-homosexuality bill that he introduced in Uganda. He
knows that you, more than anyone else, has been writing about it and
investigating it. So what was it like to be in his home?
Prof. SHARLET: It was very frightening. You know, the first time I met him we
met in a very, very upscale hotel. And to give you a sense of the wealth of
this place, you know, we spent I think about $100 on lunch in a country where
that could take months and months - you could live on that, practically.
And we would meet again and again in this hotel. And soon, he was saying I want
to talk to you more. And every time I spoke to someone who he thought was
giving away what he called unnecessary truths, he would call me up and request
a meeting. And finally, on a Saturday night of my visit there he say - we're
meeting in the hotel - he says, you know, you have to come to my home tomorrow.
And I was a little nervous about that and I said, in fact, Iâm leaving on
Monday. He says, perfect, just in time. So with a Ugandan journalist who sort
of helped me get around, we went out to his house which is way high up in the
hills outside Uganda. And this journalist who had said, look, you know, the
worst that ever happens here if you're a journalist, you get thrown in prison
for a day or two - it's not that big a deal.
He says this, he was a little worried about. But we went. And here's this
beautiful home. You could see Lake Victoria. There was a rainbow over Lake
Victoria. His two little boys are playing in the yard. And it's a compound.
There's barbed wire all around it. There's a guardhouse. There's big steel
But once you're in you're in this sort of David Bahati peaceable kingdom. And
he was incredibly gracious and shared this lunch, and just sort of calmly spoke
more bluntly than he had before, about what he wanted to do.
And what he wanted to do was kill every last gay person. And this came up
because he said, well, the death penalty may come out of it but, you know,
democracy will bring it back, will do this. And I challenged him. I said,
David, by your standards this bill isnât biblical, because you believe that the
Bible calls for killing gay people - and he said this many times...
GROSS: This is Leviticus.
Prof. SHARLET: Leviticus, he cites Leviticus. And he kind of miss cites
Leviticus, as saying that it calls for the execution of all gay people. And he
sighs and he says - and I said, well, your bill doesnât go that far. And he
sighs and he says: It's not a perfect world but this is what democracy is.
So we go step by step. And it was a very chilling moment, 'cause we're sitting
there with this man who is talking about his plans for genocide, and has
demonstrated over the period of my relationship with him that he's not some
back bender. That this is a real rising star in the movement - and that was
something I hadn't understood before I went to Uganda - that this was a guy
with real potential and real sway, and increasingly a following in Uganda.
GROSS: Just to clarify. He doesnât really have plans for genocide. He doesnât
have plans to execute all gays. In his heart of hearts, he might feel that
homosexuality is worthy of death, but he's not proposing that. He's not
planning on proposing that. He's not preparing for genocide.
Prof. SHARLET: When you speak to his allies, they're pretty clear that this is
a project to eradicate homosexuality from Uganda, and they hope it will become
a model for all of Africa. They're not saying this is like a reform. They say
we can do this; we are at the crux.
And they have these - you know, while I was there, an American Pastor, Lou
Angle - leads a big Christian right group called The Call, came in and said
this is ground zero of the Great War with homosexuality. And so they're fired
up by this rhetoric and they think they can do it.
But you're right. The real threat is of genocide - and when I spoke to
Ugandans, they, you know, they were aware of this, too - the real threat of
genocide is not so much killing all the gay people in Uganda - because their
homophobia is deep, in a lot of ways, they can't see homosexuality.
So I would travel around sometimes, in these circles, with gay activists. And
we'd speak to anti-gay crusaders who are very certain that they could spot a
gay person anywhere. They, you know, they missed the guy standing right in
front of them - this activist I was with.
But the real danger of genocide is Uganda is a very sort of loosely knit
together country of a lot of different ethnic groups. It's right next door to
Rwanda, which, of course, did experience genocide. Uganda has experienced
terribly killing. First under Idi Amin, and then the war that brought the
current dictator to power, killed hundreds of thousands.
It's always sort of simmering just on the edge of ethnic conflict. In 2009,
there was a huge riot and four radio stations were taken off the air for
incitement to genocide. The real danger is if one ethnic group or another - for
political purposes - gets charged with being overly accommodating to
homosexuality or too connected to the West.
And the horrible irony is, whatâs holding that at bay, is the dictator, who is
holding this country together. And if for one reason or another, he leaves and
you did face a prospect of civil war, I think there would be the real
temptation to demagogues like David Bahati, other politicians who are his
allies, to use that rhetoric to pursue political gain that could lead to
GROSS: After David Bahati invited you to his home, served you a meal with his
family, he also told you that if you returned to Uganda he'd have you arrested
for promoting homosexuality. Did he mean that?
Prof. SHARLET: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Here's this - I almost hesitate to say this - I
rather liked David Bahati. Not to say that his heart is good or anything like
that. Bahati is a funny guy. He laughs a lot; it's kind of a giggle that
sometimes is sort of terrifying, but nonetheless, you're engaged in this
And I found myself having this much more straightforward conversation with him
than I do with many of the American Christian conservatives who have been, sort
of, in the orbit of this issue.
And he said, yeah, of course Iâll have you arrested. And, you know, he sort of
made that clear to the Ugandan journalist I was with, too. And at the same
time, he was saying, I'd like to come to the United States; can you help me
organize a lecture tour? So...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. SHARLET: You know, it was a little bit we're in this moment of civility
and everything was very, very civil. And, you know, I think thatâs the
horrifying thing when you encounter people like this whose hatred is so deep.
And I think a lot of times people have a misconception of what thatâs going to
look like. And when, you know, when someone like Bahati comes out, they think
he's going to have horns. You know, horns and a tail and he's going to be this
devil. He's going to look like what Bahati thinks gay people look like.
And instead, along comes this very polished man. He's studied in the United
States. He's studied in Wales. His education was partly paid for by this
Norwegian foundation. He's this very sophisticate, thoughtful guy. You can be
almost lulled into forgetting that there's enormous fury thatâs within him and
thatâs whatâs driving him. And that he has been able to, unfortunately, convey
to a lot of the Ugandan public.
GROSS: My guest is Jeff Sharlet. His article about Uganda's anti-homosexuality
bill is in the September issue of "Harper's."
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Jeff Sharlet, author of the bestseller "The Family," and the
forthcoming book "C-Street." Sharlet's article in the September issue of
"Harper's," is about Uganda's draconian anti-homosexuality bill and the man who
introduced it, David Bahati.
Do you think that the anti-gay bill in Uganda is being watched by other African
Prof. SHARLET: Oh, yeah. The anti-gay bill in Uganda is definitely being
watched by other African countries. There's about seven nations in the world
that have death penalty for homosexuality. Most of them are in Africa; it's
very rarely enforced. And now, here is this country that has long been held up
by the West as a beacon of democracy, pursuing the most aggressive version of
David Bahati says he's been invited by members of the Zambian government to
come and give a presentation on this. Theyâve had copies of the bill requested
by different governments. We've seen a real up tick in the political uses of
homophobia. And I do emphasize that the political use of homophobia - we donât
want to make that mistake of saying Africans are somehow more hateful than
It's a political moment right now, where a lot of government in Africa are
seeing that they can deflect the public from the really serious issues that
they face, by drumming up this sort of fear of an alien contagion that builds
on this traditional taboo.
GROSS: So a committee that was formed by President Museveni recommended that
this bill be withdrawn by parliament - that they donât have the power to insist
So do you think this bill is eventually going to be passed in its current form
or in another form?
Prof. SHARLET: The only thing holding it back, right now, is Museveni, who is
afraid of losing support from Western donors. If there was a vote on it
tomorrow, it would pass almost unanimously. To vote against it would be
political suicide in Uganda.
But that said, Museveni is holding it back. He's trying to kind of play both
sides. On the one hand, says we got to go slow on this; may be this isnât the
right way. And then he'll go and give a public talk about the gay menace. His
wife, who is also very powerful, the first lady, has also talked about sort of
So right now, they're really holding it very much in a holding pattern. It's
threat. It's a politically useful weapon. You know, as if it they're walking
around with a bomb with a very long fuse. But the fuse has been lit.
Whether or not this bill passes or its pieces of it are worked into other
elements of Ugandan law, thatâs yet to be seen. The witch hunt is on.
But there is some hope because, frankly, the sort of international outcry did
have an effect. Not only in scaring Museveni, but in waking up a lot of Ugandan
Christians. And I should say, devout Pentecostal and evangelical Ugandan
Christians, who at least turn against - turned the death penalty because of
And also building support for Ugandan gay activists, who suddenly have a
visibility. And, you know, gay groups all over the world want to say, look, you
are on the firing line there: How can we help. So it's not a done deal.
The violence has already started and it will probably get worse. It could get
much worse. But there is some hope.
GROSS: Jeff Sharlet, thank you so much for talking with us.
Prof. SHARLET: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Jeff Sharlet's article, "Straight Man's Burden," is published in the
September issue of "Harper's." You'll find a link to an excerpt of the article
on our Web site, FreshAir.NPR.org. Sharlet is the author of the bestseller "The
Family." His follow-up book, "C-Street" will be published in September.
Iâm Terry Gross.
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