The Downside of Dialogue
Dialoguers say the darndest things. The conclusion to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ document, Revelation: Catholic and Muslim Perspectives, contains the following: “Both Jesus and Muhammad loved and cared for all whom they met, especially the poor and oppressed.”
Would that include the seven hundred men of the Qurayza tribe who were beheaded on Muhammad’s order after they surrendered? Would it include the women and children of the same tribe who were sold into slavery? Muhammad may have cared for some of the poor and oppressed he met, but many people became poor and oppressed precisely because of him. And many others never survived their encounter with the prophet.
What leads Catholic prelates to sign off on a statement that portrays Muhammad as just an earlier version of Will (“I never met a man I didn’t like”) Rogers?
Part of the answer may be simple ignorance. USCCB statements often hold up dialogue as a way to overcome ignorance, but one sometimes gets the impression that the Catholic dialoguers themselves are ignorant of many important Islamic sources. The Koran, for instance, contains only a vague and indirect reference to the Qurayza tribe. For a full account of the slaughter, one would have to read Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah (The Life of Muhammad). That’s not as daunting as it sounds, since a fully indexed English translation is readily available.
But ignorance of the sources only goes so far in explaining the willingness of some Catholic dialoguers to believe the best about Islam. A simpler explanation is that some dialoguers may lack a keen sense of sin. They seem to subscribe to what economist Samuel Gregg calls “sentimental humanitarianism”—the belief that sin resides not in the individual, but in unjust structures. On this view, the causes of evil can be found in poverty, ignorance, or oppression, but not in human nature itself.
I’m sure that the bishops on the Interreligious Affairs Committee don’t consciously hold to the humanitarian doctrine, but some of the things they say, including the generous assessment of Muhammad cited above, suggests a rather optimistic view of human nature. It seems safe to say that there are very few people of whom it can be said they “loved and cared for all whom they met.” It seems equally safe to say that Muhammad is not one of them.
If the bishops can get it so wrong about Muhammad, can they also be mistaken about the contemporary representatives of the religion Muhammad founded—in this case, their Muslim dialogue partners? Do the Muslim dialogists act solely from pure and spiritual motives, or do they—like most humans—act from mixed motives? It may seem like a mean question to ask. At the same time, it is an essential question. Just who are the bishops’ dialogue partners? And to what extent can they be trusted?
Judging from a recent statement on “Dialogue with Muslims,” the question is not likely to be entertained by the USCCB participants. The statement, which seems to have been prompted by the ISIS atrocities, is essentially a defense of dialogue in the face of criticism that the dialogue has been fruitless. Rather than taking the criticism as an occasion for rethinking the dialogue process, the authors of the statement have taken it as an occasion to double down. There is no indication that they think a course correction might be in order, only an expression of sadness that some Catholics have rejected the call to dialogue out of “confusion and deep emotions.”
Some Catholics, as the bishops say, reject the call to dialogue, but for other critics it’s not dialogue per se that is worrisome, but rather the manner in which it is conducted. Perhaps the biggest worry concerns the bishops’ counterparts. For most of the last two decades, the main Muslim dialogue partner of the CEIA (the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs) has been the Islamic Society of North America—a group that is part civic organization, part civil rights advocate, part Washington lobbyist, and part interfaith partner. They have a very invitingwebsite which gives the impression that they are as American as apple pie—with one exception. About half of the “who we are” statement is devoted to denying that they were ever under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood, that they were ever part of a criminal conspiracy, or that they accept money from foreign governments.