What is—or rather should be—the purpose of interfaith dialogue?
When the Vatican and Pope Francis announce, as they recently did, that they are engaged in interfaith dialogue with leading Muslims, what exactly are they conveying to the world? What are they accomplishing?
The answer to these questions is the difference between what true interfaith dialogue is—namely, an excellent thing that acknowledges and tries to overcome complications—and what most modern day interfaith dialogue amounts to: soothing but false panaceas that serve only to suppress, leaving complications to fester and metastasize beneath the surface.
As an example of the latter, consider the “historical” document signed by Pope Francis and his Muslim counterpart, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb of Al Azhar. Far from even hinting that Islam has any connection to all the terror and havoc caused in its name, the document pins all the blame on “incorrect interpretations of religious [Muslim] texts and to policies linked to hunger, poverty, injustice, oppression and pride.”
Of course, one of the reasons such “interfaith dialogues” are common is because their reverse—honest and straightforward dialogues—make for rather awkward experiences. They would go something like this: We—believers of this and that religion—acknowledge that we have differences and, rather than kill each other over them, we are here to lay them out in the open for discussion.
That, after all, is precisely what dialogue among Western and Muslim peoples historically meant.
For instance, around the year 718—less than a century after Islam’s prophet Muhammad had died—Caliph Omar II called on Byzantine 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’ [sabil Allah, code for jihad] 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 “dialogue.”)
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 in an effort to position Pope Francis as walking in the saint’s “bridge building” footsteps—he was no less forthright than Leo (as closely discussed here). He did not ignore Islam’s violent reality nor apologize for Christian truths to accommodate Muslim sensibilities. His was true dialogue—and, if the Muslim clerics he debated had their way, would have cost him his head.
The historical example most relevant for our times (to be explained in its proper place) concerns another Byzantine 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: “ 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 wither,  be struck without hesitation with iron,” he once wrote (Sword and Scimitar, p. 217).
In 1390, Manuel was a ward—more realistically, a hostage—of the Ottoman 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.
Here are some lessons imparted from these historical anecdotes:
First and contrary to popular belief, dialoguing between Western and Islamic peoples is not some new endeavor created by “progressive” men of Pope Francis’ ilk. Medieval and “backward” Europeans who supposedly were always more eager to fight than talk regularly and sincerely employed it.
But whereas premodern Europeans saw it as an opportunity to highlight contentious differences that needed addressing before establishing a true peace, their modern day counterparts see it as an occasion to pretend there are no differences and nothing but “misunderstandings” in the way of peace.
Second, although contemporary champions of interfaith dialogue no doubt cringe at and find the blunt words of men like emperors Leo and Manuel completely counterproductive, the reverse is true. Today, when any critical talk of Islam—especially its prophet—prompts “outraged” Muslims to riot and destroy, this may seem a counterintuitive claim. Here is where Emperor Manuel II’s haunting words are relevant. In 2006, Pope Benedict passingly quoted Manuel’s assertion that Muhammad had brought “things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Muslims around the world 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.
All Pope Benedict had to do was merely quote Manuel—in the context of the emperor’s greater point, that “to act unreasonably [by forcing people to convert by the sword] is foreign to God”—for Muslims to respond with unbridled madness and violence.
That is not dialogue; that is proof that men like Manuel were/are correct in their assessment of Islam. This is especially the case when one understands that past and present non-Muslim critics say what they say about Islam, not to be “mean” to Muslims, but to say, “here is the problem; here is why we are at odds; here is what needs to be fixed.”
At any rate, Pope Francis 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” (in whitewashing Islam).
This is a great pity. Believe it or not, some Muslims actually need to hear the aforementioned criticisms and concerns to be shaken from their complacency and place themselves in the other’s shoes (as well explained by one Muslim and political activist in Egypt).
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 in disappointment. Little wonder “blasphemy”—understood in Islam as any criticism of Muhammad/Islam—is punishable by death: it has led to the disaffection—that is, apostasy, also punishable by death—of many a Muslim.
This is well captured by yet another medieval era debate between a Christian monk and a Muslim cleric. As the former continued reciting the misdeeds of Muhammad, wondering how anyone could accept him as a man of God, the Muslim accused him of “blasphemy” against “our Prophet Muhammad,” whom “you mock with insolence!” The shocked monk replied: “Upon my life, we do not bring anything from ourselves but from your Book and your Koran” (Sword and Scimitar, p. 51) In other words, because non-Muslim criticism of Islam is often rooted in Islam’s own authoritative texts, honest Muslims have no choice but to reevaluate.
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 his Muslim wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing.