One of the chief reasons I wrote my book, Facing Islam, was to warn against Orthodox Christians carelessly and naively engaging in inter-faith dialogue with Muslims. Robert Spencer has a new book coming on the subject, and in this post highlights some of the serious problems with the idea, concentrating on the pernicious 'A Common Word' initiative. (For further analysis of 'A Common Word', see Dr. Mark Durie's excellent resource site.)
The Pitfalls of “Dialogue”
By Robert Spencer
Robert McManus, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Worcester, Massachusetts, recently dropped me from a scheduled appearance at a Catholic conference in Worcester on the grounds that “Mr. Spencer’s talk would impact negatively on the Church’s increasingly constructive dialogue with Muslims.”
In the name of interreligious dialogue, it’s not uncommon for Muslim spokesmen to visit churches with the stated goal of clearing up “misconceptions” about Islam. Such sessions often include the Muslim speaker’s downplaying the reality of jihad activity and Muslim persecution of Christians, and offering his Christian audience bland assurances that such things have nothing to do with authentic Islam.
On a larger scale, Muslims have engaged in several high-profile attempts at dialogue with Catholics in recent years, to which Catholics have generally responded with enthusiasm. Yet, there is less to these attempts at outreach than meets the eye. The two most visible and well-publicized attempts by Muslims to reach out to Catholics turn out, on close examination, to be thinly veiled exercises in proselytizing. All of these attempts at “dialogue” share several common characteristics, including most notably a downplaying and glossing-over of the differences between Christianity and Islam, an over-emphasis on the similarities between the two religions, and a call to Christians to abandon or modify certain of their core beliefs, while never budging an inch on Islamic doctrines.
One notorious example of this came a few years ago, when 138 Muslim leaders and scholars from all over the globe issued a more extensive appeal to Christians for mutual understanding, entitled A Common Word Between Us and You. The “Common Word” initiative is quite extensive, with ongoing conferences and other mutual endeavors between Muslims and Catholics, as well as between Muslims and other Christian groups. The Common Word website describes the project in enthusiastic terms: “Never before have Muslims delivered this kind of definitive consensus statement on Christianity. Rather than engage in polemic, the signatories have adopted the traditional and mainstream Islamic position of respecting the Christian scripture and calling Christians to be more, not less, faithful to it.”
Following a pattern that’s common in documents like these, data contradicting the assertions in A Common Word Between Us and You are not addressed and refuted but simply ignored. Nothing is said, for example, about the Islamic claim that the Christian Scripture has been corrupted. While claiming they want to respect Christian Scripture and build on common ground, the Muslim scholars (despite copious Qur’an quotes) never mention Qur’an 5:17, which says that those who believe in the divinity of Christ are unbelievers; or 4:171, which says that Jesus was not crucified; or 9:30, which says that those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God are accursed; or 9:29, which mandates warfare against and the subjugation of Jews and Christians. Why should they mention these unpleasant passages in the midst of trying to build bridges? Because they are precisely the obstacles to such bridges. For there to be any true and honest dialogue, verses like these must be addressed in some way, even if only to give them a benign interpretation.
When Pope John Paul II died, the Washington Post reminded its readers how “during his long reign, Pope John Paul II apologized to Muslims for the Crusades, to Jews for anti-Semitism, to Orthodox Christians for the sacking of Constantinople, to Italians for the Vatican’s associations with the Mafia and to scientists for the persecution of Galileo.” In reality, he never apologized for the Crusades; the closest he came was on March 12, 2000, the “Day of Pardon,” when he said, “[W]e cannot fail to recognize the infidelities to the Gospel committed by some of our brethren, especially during the second millennium. Let us ask pardon for the divisions which have occurred among Christians, for the violence some have used in the service of the truth and for the distrustful and hostile attitudes sometimes taken towards the followers of other religions.”
Though it’s hardly an “apology for the Crusades,” nonetheless one would be hard pressed to find a similar statement from any Muslim leader, still less one of the pope’s stature, acknowledging any wrongdoing on the part of Muslims individually or of any Islamic state. The idea of a Muslim asking pardon and forgiveness from a non-Muslim is anathema to Islamic theology. But some kind of reciprocity of this kind would seem necessary for genuine dialogue.
Reading the entire Qur’anic verse from which the phrase “a common word between us and you” was taken makes clear the Common Word initiative’s agenda: “Say: ‘People of the Book! Come now to a word common between us and you, that we serve none but God, and that we associate not aught with Him, and do not some of us take others as Lords, apart from God.’ And if they turn their backs, say: ‘Bear witness that we are Muslims’” (3:64). Since Muslims consider the Christian confession of the divinity of Christ to be an unacceptable association of a partner with God, this verse is saying that the “common word” that Muslims and the People of the Book should agree on is that Christians should discard one of the central tenets of their faith and essentially become Muslims.
Not a promising basis for an honest and mutually respectful dialogue of equals. The Common Word document’s explanation for this was disingenuous, not mentioning that according to the mainstream Islamic understanding of what it means to “ascribe a partner to God,” the Christians were guilty of this sin:
The words: we shall ascribe no partner unto Him relate to the Unity of God, and the words: worship none but God, relate to being totally devoted to God. Hence they all relate to the First and Greatest Commandment. According to one of the oldest and most authoritative commentaries on the Holy Qur’an the words: that none of us shall take others for lords beside God, mean “that none of us should obey the other in disobedience to what God has commanded.” This relates to the Second Commandment because justice and freedom of religion are a crucial part of love of the neighbour.
The Common Word document suggests its true intentions in its Qur’anic epigraph: “Call unto the way of thy Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation, and contend with them in the fairest way. Lo! thy Lord is Best Aware of him who strayeth from His way, and He is Best Aware of those who go aright.” This verse (16:125) is a curious choice to head up a document that is ostensibly devoted to finding common ground for dialogue and mutual cooperation—unless the intention is actually only to proselytize.
The use of this epigraph recalls the words of the Egyptian Islamic supremacist writer Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), the great theorist of the Muslim Brotherhood: “The chasm between Islam and Jahiliyyah [the society of unbelievers] is great, and a bridge is not to be built across it so that the people on the two sides may mix with each other, but only so that the people of Jahiliyyah may come over to Islam.”
Muslims in the U.S. and Europe often term their outreach to non-Muslims “bridge-building,” but to Muslims this expression has a very different meaning. Bishop McManus, and those like him, should take careful note.
Robert Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch and author of the New York Times bestsellers The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) and The Truth About Muhammad. His upcoming book, Not Peace But A Sword: The Great Chasm Between Christianity and Islam, will be available March 25.