Christian and Muslim leaders from around the world met this summer at Yale University for the first of four conferences to discuss “the foundational principles” of the two faiths. The willingness of Islamic authorities to engage in dialogue with their Christian counterparts is, to be sure, a welcome development. Whether the religious leaders involved in these meetings will confront the thorniest issues dividing these faith communitieswhile avoiding the historic mistakes of other inter-faith dialoguesis an open question.
The Yale conference will be followed by meetings between Muslims and Anglicans at Cambridge University in October; with Catholics at the Vatican in November; and at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. next year. The effort grows out of a challenge issued by Pope Benedict XVI that Muslims grant the same freedoms to Christians living in their countries that they receive in the democratic West. Last fall, 138 Islamic leaders from forty nations sent a letter, “A Common Word between Us and You," addressed to the pope and other Christian leaders worldwide. The twenty-nine-page letter invited Christians to meet with Muslims on the basis of “what is common to us and most essential to our faith and practice: the Two Commandments,” i.e., love of God and love of neighbor.
Many are ready to dismiss this appeal as mere piety or naivete. They should reconsider: The history of democracy in the West owes a great debt to these two commandments. Secular-minded historians and political scientists would like us to believe that democratic ideals emerged from the triumph of Enlightenment thoughtin opposition to Christian doctrine. In fact, the Biblical concepts of human dignity and equality supplied the philosophical pillars of liberal democracy, especially in the Anglo-American tradition. Ministers on both sides of the Atlantic, for example, regularly cited the golden rulewhat they called “the great rule of equity”to argue for religious toleration and equal justice under the law.
Are the Christian leaders who gathered at Yale familiar with this history, and are they willing to press its lessons upon their Muslim guests? Participating groups such as the liberal National Council of Churches have shown scant interest in defending the persecuted church, the principle of religious freedom, or the democratic institutions that sustain it. Yet if Muslims are serious about the golden rule, they must explain why the governments of most Islamic states represent such a brutal contradiction to its democratic expression.
Another potential problem with “The Common Word” dialogue is its implication that the Christian Church must reform itself no less so than the Islamic community. There’s no doubt that reform is needed. Whether the issue is materialism, hypocrisy, or the politicization of the gospel, there are real problems in the Church. Yet the danger here is the trap of moral equivalencythe assumption that modern Christianity is as prone to terrorist violence as Islam. As the Muslim letter put the matter: “The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians."
The future of the world depends on no such thing. The existential threat to international peace and security is not a religious war between Islam and Christianity. The global threat today is a faith-based version of European fascisma re-emergence of the totalitarian impulse, animated by the theology of radical, Islamist jihad. This ideology of bloodlust and martyrdom claims millions of adherents worldwide, inspires terrorist cells across entire continents, and is obsessed with acquiring the world’s most destructive weapons to unleash against civilian populations. “Why were millions of people astounded by what happened to America on September 11?” writes Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s second in command. “We have the right to kill four million Americanstwo million of them childrenand to exile twice as many and wound and cripple hundreds of thousands.”
There is simply no equivalent to this perverted religion anywhere in the Christian worldit is a crisis within Islam, a moral and spiritual malaise that has grown unchecked for decades. It is incumbent upon the Christian leaders engaged in this dialogue to ask why this is the case, and what their Islamic interlocutors intend to do about it.
They might take a cue from a Muslim reformer, Abd Al-Hamid Al-Ansari, the former dean of the law faculty at Qatar University. He argues that terrorism is the result of a “culture of hatred” in Arab countries and “a discourse of denial” about its homegrown sources. "How can this miserable creature called the Arab and Muslim individual not turn to extremism, when he is surrounded by an overall atmosphere of extremism, bound by the shackles of repression and prohibitions, and girded by the ideas of intimidation and terrorization, and of almost endless torment?” he writes. "Go to hear a Friday sermon, and you will find a preacher who is enraged at the world, angry at civilization, spreading the poison of hatred and enmity.”
Ironically, a similar rhetoric of denial about Islamist radicalism, fed by a sense of self-loathing, has infected much of the Christian community in the Westfrom the political rants of Anglican bishops to the moral agnosticism of Ivy League theologians. Whether the Christian leaders assembled at Yale and beyond possess the clarity and courage to overcome these besetting sins remains to be seen.
Joseph Loconte is a senior fellow at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy and the editor of The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler’s Gathering Storm.