A much touted conference in Bahrain, dedicated to promoting "interfaith dialogue" and "coexistence," recently came to a close. Featuring many leading Christian and Muslim figures — including Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar — the conference's purpose was "to build bridges of dialogue between leaders of religions, sects, thought, culture and media, in cooperation with Al Azhar, the Catholic Church, the Muslim Council of Elders, and other international institutions concerned with dialogue, human coexistence and tolerance."
While this sounds splendid on paper, in reality, it often amounts to little and arguably exacerbates matters.
Put differently, this and all other such conferences between Christians and Muslims that are sponsored by "official" channels are often dedicated to one thing: exonerating Islam of all the misdeeds committed daily in its name.
For example, not only did the Grand Imam — who smiles, hugs, and preaches brotherly peace to the pope while sponsoring radicalism and even death for apostates when speaking to Muslims — repeatedly insist that Islam has nothing to do with terrorism, but so too did Pope Francis, blaming "erroneous interpretations" of Islam for the violence and intolerance committed in its name.
To be sure, the pope and imam have long been committed to whitewashing Islam during their many interfaith initiatives. In 2019, they signed a document that blamed jihadist terrorism on "incorrect interpretations of religious [Muslim] texts and to policies linked to hunger, poverty, injustice, oppression and pride."
Not only do all of these conferences and initiatives conceal the truth, leaving complications to fester and metastasize beneath the surface. They are great but missed opportunities. After all, interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims has great potential — but only if it is honest and sincere, addressing the differences and sources of conflict, rather than continuously stressing (superficial) commonalities.
And, for a millennium, they were.
Sincere Dialogue Speaks What is True
For instance, around 718 — less than a century after Islam's prophet Muhammad died — Caliph Omar II called on Eastern Roman Emperor Leo III to embrace Islam. This led to a frank exchange in letters. Rather than diplomatically praising though politely refusing Islam, Leo scrutinized its claims as heaven-sent. Among other things, he openly criticized Islam for circumcising and treating women as chattel and for teaching that paradise will be little more than a brothel, where Muslim men copulate in perpetuity with supernatural women.
Leo further contrasted Christ's peace with Muhammad's jihad: "You call 'the Way of God' these devastating raids which bring death and captivity to all peoples. Behold your religion and its recompense [death and destruction]. Behold your glory ye who pretend to live an angelic life."
Far from being a godsend, Islam was at war with God's people, concluded the emperor: "I see you, even now ... exercising such cruelties towards the faithful of God [Christians], with the purpose of converting them to apostasy, and putting to death all those who resist your designs, so that daily is accomplished the prediction of our Savior: 'The time will come when everyone who puts you to death will believe he is serving God' (Jn 16:2)." [Sword and Scimitar pp. 63-65 has the complete exchange between the emperor and caliph.]
Meanwhile, and even though Christians are being persecuted all throughout the Islamic world, Pope Francis refuses to utter a single word about it. Even at the recent conference, although he passingly mentioned the persecution of Shiites in Sunni-majority nations, he uttered no word concerning Christians, even though millions are savagely persecuted throughout the Islamic world.
Saint Francis Didn't Mince Words
Or consider St. Francis of Assisi, whom Pope Francis so idolizes as to take on his name. While St. Francis (b.1182) did meet and peacefully dialogue with Sultan al-Malik al-Kāmil of Egypt — as the Vatican often reminds us in an effort to position Pope Francis as walking in the saint's "bridge building" footsteps — he was no less forthright than Leo. He did not ignore Islam's violent reality nor apologize for Christian truths to accommodate Muslim sensibilities, as Pope Francis often does. Rather, the saint engaged in true dialogue — and, if the Muslim clerics he debated had their way, would have cost him his head.
Or consider Eastern Roman Emperor Manuel II (b. 1350). As a man who spent his entire life defending against invading Turks, Manuel was well acquainted with Islam. He understood the three choices Islamic law (shari'a) imposed on conquered non-Muslims: in his own words, " they must place themselves under this law [meaning become Muslims], or  pay tribute and, more, be reduced to slavery [an accurate depiction of jizya and dhimmi status], or, in the absence of either,  be struck without hesitation with iron," [Sword and Scimitar, p. 217].
In 1390, Manuel was a ward — more realistically, a hostage — of the Turkish sultan, Bayezid, whom contemporary Europeans described as "a persecutor of Christians as no other around him, and in the religion of the Arabs a most ardent disciple of Muhammad."
At Bayezid's courts, Muslim clerics regularly accosted Manuel to embrace the one "true" faith. He responded with blunt honesty: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." He too was lucky not to lose his head, as he managed to abscond back to Constantinople.
Interestingly, in 2006, when Pope Benedict passingly quoted Manuel's aforementioned assertion about Muhammad, Muslims around the world, as if to prove Manuel correct in his assessment, rioted, burned churches, and attacked Christians; an Italian nun who had devoted her life to serving the sick and needy of Somalia was murdered there.
Insincere Dialogue Puts on a Good Show
Pope Benedict's successor, Pope Francis, has obviously learned the lesson: the only "interfaith dialogue" acceptable to Muslims is the sort that, instead of asking sincere but tough questions of Islam, covers for it. Hence why Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb — who had severed all ties with the Vatican after Pope Benedict quoted Manuel in 2006 — has embraced Pope Francis as a fellow "brother."
Sadly, and believe it or not, some Muslims actually need to hear the aforementioned criticisms and concerns to be shaken from their complacency and truly evaluate their religion. Reasonable polemics against Islam, as captured by the words of Leo, St. Francis, Manuel, and many other historical personages, have caused not a few Muslims over the centuries to search their scriptures in order to respond to the charges, only to end up seeing things the infidels' way. (Indeed, if Christian chroniclers are to be believed, the frank and sincere words of Emperor Leo III and St. Francis to Caliph Omar II and Sultan al-Malik, respectively, caused the latter two Muslims to apostatize from Islam, if only in secret.)
Be that as it may, one thing is certain: sincere dialogue ultimately empowers that which is true, and thus good — even if it leads to temporary friction; insincere dialogue ultimately empowers that which is false, and thus evil — even if it leads to temporary but artificial cooperation in the now, as in the good show recently put on by Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb in Bahrain.
Raymond Ibrahim is the Judith Friedman Rosen Fellow at the Middle East Forum.