More troubling questions about how benign Islam actually is arise from examining the background of participants in Georgetown University's April 24, 2013, conference on "The Boundaries of Religious Pluralism & Freedom: The Devil is in the Detail" (conference video here). Hosted by Georgetown's Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim Christian Understanding (ACMCU) under the auspices of the six-year old "A Common Word" initiative for international Christian-Muslim dialogue, this conference was the subject of a previous American Thinker article. While the conference itself ultimately did not convincingly demonstrate how orthodox Islamic faith could function within a framework of freedom, analysis of the conference participants provokes doubts about just who is promoting interfaith dialogue with Islam.
Behind their invocations of interfaith harmony, various Muslim conference participants had links to Islam's darker sides. Former Barack Obama adviser Dalia Mogahed, for example, has a long history of associations with, and apologetics for, Muslim supporters of sharia and militant jihad. She even once tweeted that Bashar Assad's Syrian regime was not worthy of support given its insufficient "resistance to Israel."
Mogahed's questionable past prompts consideration of other dubious Islamic influences on the conference. Abdulaziz Sachedina's current George Mason University professorship, for example, receives its funding from the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), a Herndon, Virginia, entity with Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic terrorist ties (see here and here). The ACMCU's namesake (since 2005, when he gave the then-existing CMCU $20 million), moreover, is a Saudi prince and businessman memorable for having had his 2001 $10 million donation to New York City rejected. At the time, Mayor Rudolf Giuliani returned bin Talal's contribution to Gotham's recovery from the September 11 attacks because of his exculpatory linkage of them to American support for Israel.
While the conference's Muslim participants drew attention, however inadvertently, to Islam's difficult and indeed dangerous aspects, Christian participants such as Chris Seiple have in the past been exceedingly forthcoming towards different faiths. A recent article by Seiple, for example, at his Institute for Global Engagement's (IGE) website based upon his comments at a January 2013 conference in Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar (Burma), called for finding "common values rooted in different theologies" despite "irreconcilable theological differences." Seiple stated that "followers of Christ must walk in the shoes of the other, if only because He first walked in ours. Take the time to understand and engage the holy scripts of another faith, and what they teach of reconciliation, as understood by a practitioner of that faith."
Yet Seiple, both then and later, has failed to indicate just what Islam specifically has to reciprocate in terms of reconciliation. With respect to religious equality under Islam, therefore, Seiple's own warning remains relevant that "[y]ou can change all the laws and rules, but if the ideas and beliefs behind those laws/rules are not transcendent, or at least socialized and internalized among those who implement the law and/or policy, then they are nothing more than a bunch of words."
While Seiple has failed to find any clear Islamic enunciation of religious tolerance, his own words at times are rather naïve and suggest a questionable watering down of the bold Christian witness demanded by Christian orthodoxy (e.g. the Great Commission of Matthew 28:20). Such is the case in another IGE article by Seiple derived from his March 14, 2013, presentation to "twenty-four Salafi political leaders from seven countries in the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region" in Istanbul, Turkey. Seiple, an avowed Protestant "evangelical" follower of Jesus, discussed with these Salafis how "can one engage in democracy (the sovereignty of the people) without dishonoring the sovereignty of God, especially if one's faith commands that it be shared all the time, worldwide."
To begin with, the editorial notes for this article are bizarrely benign in describing Salafis. In contradistinction to the "Muslim Brotherhood," the notes state, Salafis have "never organized politically" before the "Arab Spring," even though "many of them were imprisoned and tortured by" Arab dictatorships. Yet most analysts such as the Israeli professor Barry Rubin actually consider the less-organized Salafis in Egypt (where Salafis were responsible for Anwar Sadat's 1981 assassination) and elsewhere to be even more radical than the Muslim Brotherhood, with differences among these similarly motivated Islamist groups being attributable to different practical histories.
The notes describe a Salafi belief "that their interpretation of Islam remains relevant to their countries" and corresponding Salafi attempts "to participate in the political life of their country." To this end Salafis would "build political coalitions with different Salafi, Islamist, and secularist groups -- without losing their belief and identity in God -- that promote the values they believe to be common to humanity." Yet as NPR online explains, these "values" espoused by Salafi "ultra-conservative Muslims" supposedly "common to humanity" entail a "rigid form of Islamic law" often drawing upon Saudi Arabia as a role model. Such policies are wildly divergent from Seiple's desire to follow St. Francis of Assisi by "engaging the public sphere with excellence" in order to exemplify the loving "core values of my faith." Seiple's wish to "not impose them on others, but propose them as a common basis for serving all people" is diametrically opposed to the Salafi mindset.
Seiple's ecumenical desires for harmony also seem to get the better of him when he describes to the Salafis "two choices: I can be arrogant and ignorant and focus on counting how many converts I have made -- which is not about God but about me, and therefore idolatry. Or, I can submit to the will of God, as our common father Abraham did, and obey His commands." Yet as Seiple's other comments suggest, Christianity teaches that exemplary behavior is also a form of evangelization, something that in turn is not any way idolatrous.
Seiple's reference to Abraham as a "common father," moreover, glosses over the "irreconcilable theological differences" between Islam and Judeo-Christian beliefs concerning this commonly claimed patriarch and his understanding of divine commands. As Robert Spencer elaborates in his recently published Not Peace but a Sword: The Great Chasm between Christianity and Islam, the Koran's verse 60:4 declares Abraham to be a uswahasana for Muslims or "good example... only when he declares his everlasting enmity and hatred for those who do not follow what Muslims believe to be the true religion." Analyzing common conceptions of "[s]hared roots of the world's Abrahamic faiths," Spencer counters that "[a]lthough it is clear that Islam emerges from the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, it so radically recasts that tradition as to render the value of any common-ground appeals dubious at best."
Similarly, the namesake Koranic verse (3:64) of the Common Word initiative cited in its inaugural 2007 letter actually entails according to Islamic understanding that Christians deny a triune God, condemned as polytheistic by Islam, and "essentially become Muslims." Spencer would expect nothing else, for "virtually all attempts at Muslim outreach to Christian are actually thinly veiled invitations to accept Islam, not genuine efforts at dialogue and mutual understanding." Islam considers Christianity to be "deliberately twisted" and therefore any "bridgebuilding" towards Christians should guide them into Islam.
What critical awareness of such troubling theological nuances exists at IGE (2011 budget: $739,089 in government grants, $1,435,459 in other contributions) is questionable given its board of advisers. Introducing the conference was the ACMCU's founding director, Georgetown professor John L. Esposito, who also advises IGE. A leading figure internationally in the study of Islam, Esposito appears to Islam's more skeptical observers such as Spencer as an "Islamic apologist." Indeed, the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT) has compiled a 20-page online report on Esposito documenting his "outspoken defense of radical Islam." The South Asian-American Muslim apostate and writer Ibn Warraq, meanwhile, described in his 1995 book Why I am Not a Muslim, Esposito's 1992 tome The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality as being based on the same dishonesty as soft-core pornography.
Despite its apparently daring title, it promises more than it can deliver, and we know in advance what its answer will be without opening the book. We know perfectly well that, since the Rushdie affair, the Oxford University Press would never have accepted a book that dared to criticize Islam, nor would Mr. Esposito have cared to incur the wrath of the entire Muslim world. What Esposito and all Western apologists of Islam are incapable of understanding it that Islam is a threat, and it is a threat to thousands of Muslims.
IGE's Senior Fellow for Christian-Muslim Understanding, meanwhile, is Suhail Khan, also of South Asian-American Muslim descent. Khan, however, has become a center of suspicion with respect to Islamist subversion in the United States. This is due to a perfect circumstantial storm of his parents' role in Muslim Brotherhood (MB)-linked organizations in the United States, his controversial pre-September 11, 2001, statements before Muslim audiences, and his recurring interactions with dubious American Muslim figures such as convicted terrorist financier Abdurrahman Alamoudi. The Center for Security Policy's (CSP) ten-part online series The Muslim Brotherhood in America: The Enemy Within, for example, devotes its entire fourth segment to Khan, whom CSP director Frank Gaffney describes as a "princeling of the Muslim Brotherhood." Similarly the website Suhail Khan Exposed extensively collates internet articles and YouTube videos about all troubling aspects of Khan's past.
Hoover Institution Media Fellow Paul Sperry summarizes well the suspicions surrounding Khan in a January 9, 2011, New York Post article reprinted at Suhail Khan Exposed. In response to his accusers, Sperry observes, "Khan may plead 'guilt by association' -- but he's done a lot of associating with a lot of guilty people and groups over the years. At a bare minimum, he's completely failed at identifying the bad guys -- contrary to the record of those he brands as 'anti-Muslim bigots.'"
Suhail Khan Exposed archives one such failure, namely the appearance of the self-professed conservative Khan with the leftwing television host Rachel Maddow following the November 5, 2009, Fort Hood shootings. While all evidence has since shown that the perpetrator Major Nidal Hasan engaged in an individual Islamic terrorist attack, Maddow during this interview compared the 13 murders at Fort Hood to a recent Florida "workplace shooting."
Referencing those who "lash out at their coworkers" as well, meanwhile, Khan suggested the additional motive of "post-traumatic stress syndrome" for violent acts by military personnel such as suicide, even though Hasan had never seen combat. All the while Khan condemned those who would "exploit this tragedy for their political partisan and, worse, for their racist ends," by, for example, associating the deeply troubling Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) with Al Qaeda.
As these two articles on this ACMCU conference show, it is not so much Christians and Muslims who need a common word, but rather Muslims amongst themselves about what their faith will be and who will possess legitimate authority therein. Even with external assistance, only Muslims can ultimately conquer their faith's devils with an understanding of Islam supportive of universal human dignity broadly accepted by Muslims. Christians like Seiple, on the other hand, need to offer Muslims not so much common as contrasting words, challenging thereby Muslims to compare and evaluate critically different understandings of faith in a universal search for the one true God. Only this combination of multifaceted dialogue and debate can offer a way forward for Islam and other faiths.