A senior Pentagon official under fire for his comments about Islam said Friday that he never intended to denigrate the Muslim faith, and that he is not a “zealot or an extremist.”
In his first comments on the controversy, Lt. Gen. William G. “Jerry” Boykin, deputy assistant secretary for intelligence, said that his earlier statements had been misconstrued. He said he did not believe that the Bush administration’s “war on terrorism” was a conflict between Christianity and Islam.
“For those who have been offended, I offer a sincere apology,” he said in a statement.
A highly decorated Special Operations specialist and born-again Christian, Boykin has spoken about his faith and Islam in a series of appearances before Christian groups. The comments, first reported this week by The Times and NBC, appeared to undermine President Bush’s arguments that the American anti-terrorism effort is not aimed at Islam.
Last year, for example, relating how he had fought a Somali warlord, Boykin told an audience: “My God was bigger than his ... I knew that my God was a real God and that his was an idol.”
In another speech, he said some Muslims hated the United States “because we’re a Christian nation, because our foundation and our roots are Judeo-Christian ... and the enemy is a guy called Satan.”
Boykin also told a gathering that Bush was in the White House although “the majority of Americans did not vote for him. Why is he there? He’s in the White House because God put him there for a time such as this.”
But Boykin said Friday that he had been misunderstood.
When he spoke of the Somali warlord, he did not mean that the Somali’s god was Islam, but rather “his worship of money and power -- idolatry.” Boykin said he did believe that “radical extremists have sought to use Islam as a cause of attacks on America.”
As for his statement that God had installed Bush in the White House, Boykin said he meant that God had done the same for “Bill Clinton and other presidents.”
Though he defended his comments, Boykin has told others at the Pentagon that he will stop making speeches to religious groups and will try to tone down his remarks on the sensitive subject of religion. Defense officials said his job was not in jeopardy.
While senior Pentagon and White House officials have sought to minimize damage from the episode, it is clear that some Muslim audiences are angry.
Adel Al-Jubeir, a foreign policy advisor to Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, told reporters in Washington on Friday that Boykin’s comments were “outrageous” and “certainly unbecoming of a senior government official.”
White House spokesman Trent Duffy, asked to comment on the general’s remarks, referred questions to the Pentagon. Duffy noted that Bush has said the United States is not at war with Islam.
Boykin spent much of Friday with Pentagon lawyers and public relations officials fashioning his statement. One official said he had seen five versions of the statement, which was released in Washington at 6:45 p.m.
Boykin’s earlier comments brought new criticism from Democratic presidential candidates.
Addressing the Arab American Institute in Dearborn, Mich., Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut called on Bush to condemn Boykin’s “hateful remarks.”
“The war on terrorism is a war on terrorists, not on religions,” he said. “The Bush administration, which claims to understand that, needs to condemn anyone who says otherwise.”
Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts told the same gathering that Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld “needs to go.”
Eugene Fidell, a military law specialist in Washington, said he was unaware of any law or rule that Boykin had broken. But he said the general’s comments posed a “management problem” for Boykin’s superiors because they appeared to reflect “profoundly poor judgment.”
“Can this genie be gotten back in the bottle, in terms of its effect on foreign listeners?” he asked. “What to do is a challenge.”
In his 33-year military career, Boykin has been involved in some well-known special forces operations.
Among them were the abortive attempt to rescue Americans held hostage in Iran in 1979, and the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia. In the 1970s, he was one of the first officers to be part of the famed Delta Force commando organization.
Rumsfeld declined to comment Thursday on Boykin’s reported remarks, saying he had not read them. He praised Boykin’s “outstanding record” as a military officer.
Though one American Muslim group called for Boykin’s resignation Thursday, Boykin’s comments did not draw much media attention in the Arab world Friday.
Several newspapers in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Kuwait reported his statements without commentary or analysis. In Baghdad, few papers publish on what is the Islamic holy day.
Times staff writer Greg Miller contributed to this report.