Devilish Details -- Part 1

The Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim Christian Understanding (ACMCU) at Georgetown University hosted on April 24, 2013, a conference on "The Boundaries of Religious Pluralism & Freedom: The Devil is in the Detail" (conference video here). Conducted within the framework of the six-year old "A Common Word" initiative of international Christian-Muslim dialogue, this conference offered surprising insights into Islam's aggressive and authoritarian elements. These insights showed that even at an event emphasizing interfaith coexistence with Islam, this religion's darker side simply will not disappear. No number of amiable academic conferences at venues like Georgetown or superficial invocations of Islam as a "religion of peace" can replace the critical measures necessary to overcome Islam's internal barriers to freedom.

Throughout the daylong conference, the participants, many of them declared Christians and Muslims, discussed the theme of freedom for all to practice, preach, and change publicly their faiths, or to have no faith at all. This is a critical sticking point for Muslim/Christian dialogue because of many Muslim-majority country restrictions on Christian worship and evangelization such as Muslim apostasy laws. Panelists included, for example, Thomas F. Farr, a noted religious freedom advocate at Georgetown's Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace, & World Affairs. A committed Catholic who did not refrain from sharing with non-Catholics the evangelistic message that the "door is always open" to the Catholic Church, Farr stressed the importance of what could be called a free market of faith as exemplified historically by the United States. Farr, for example, called "un-American" local opposition to a mosque building in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, on the basis of what Farr judged to be mere anti-Islamic sentiment.

Later in the day the Protestant Chris Seiple moderated a panel on "The Challenge of Religious Pluralism in Christian-Muslim Relations: The Arab Spring." Seiple discussed his leadership of the Institute for Global Engagement's (IGE) international efforts to promote religious freedom and dialogue. As a committed Christian, Seiple openly espoused his belief in the divine and messianic nature of Jesus Christ, a belief that entailed "irreconcilable differences" theologically with Muslims, even those who once appealed to Seiple in Pakistan with an offer to convert to Islam. Yet Seiple stressed that such differences need not lead to conflict. Seiple declared to his Muslim copanelist Dalia Mogahed his willingness as a former United States Marine Corps infantry officer from a family of many Marines (including Seiple's father and fellow religious freedom advocate, Ambassador Robert A. Seiple) to fight and die for Mogahed's right to religious freedom.

The South African Muslim scholar Farid Esack echoed the sentiments of his copanelists Farr and Seiple. Even though Esack vaguely referred to Christian evangelical efforts as sometimes having a "colonialist, imperialist agenda," he stressed the importance of universal religious freedom. Esack quoted the Koranic verse 4:135 calling upon those "who have believed" to "be persistently standing firm in justice, witnesses for Allah, even if it be against yourselves." Thus Esack recognized a divine duty to respect the religious advocacy of non-Muslims, even if contrary to Esack's partisan Muslim interests.

The complete verse cited by Esack, though, makes this demand for impartiality as opposed to "[personal] inclination" in the context of "parents and relatives" and "[w]hether one is rich or poor," calling upon Muslims thereby not to "distort [your testimony] or refuse [to give it]." Thus it is difficult to see the relevance of this particular invocation of equality to religious freedom as opposed, for example, to material matters. Other verses in chapter four of the Koran, by contrast, state that "Allah will collect the hypocrites and disbelievers all together in Hell" (4:140) where they will have a "humiliating" (4:151) and "painful torment" (4:161). If "disbelievers" here means all who have rejected Islam, then this Koranic chapter does not really provide Esack with a solid scriptural foundation for Islamic religious tolerance. Other well-known verses in the Koran (e.g. 9:29, 98:6) referencing Islamic contempt for, and conquest of, non-Muslims such as Jews and Christians would indicate as much.

Accordingly, Esack cautioned that his interpretation of Islam was not universal among Muslims. Esack described Islam as a "triumphalist religion" that "is meant to dominate." Islam therefore had "difficulty" in finding a "convivial space" for peaceful interaction with competing faiths. Esack's Wikipedia entry indeed mentions that several of his fellow students from his years studying in Pakistan later joined Afghanistan's Taliban.

Professor Abdulaziz Sachedina, who holds the IIIT Chair in Islamic Studies at George Mason University, also referenced problematical issues in Islam. Sachedina discussed his role in advising the drafters of Iraq's 2005 post-Saddam Hussein constitution. As analyzed by Sachedina, traditional Islamic law or sharia norms treat non-Muslims as "second-class citizens," something not acceptable in modern free societies of "undivided citizenship." Accordingly, Sachedina described how American advisers were against any reference to Islamic law or sharia in the new constitution, yet sharia was "what the population wants to hear" in Iraq.

Sachedina thus recommended for the Iraqi constitution an understanding of sharia not as a specific set of legal regulations, but rather as a more general "system of Islamic values" that would offer Iraqis "native solutions for native problems." Such a flexible approach would approximate the Tanzanian-born Sachedina's own description of himself as a "Christian-Muslim." He expressed thereby his desire to moderate Islam's "emphasis on jurisprudence" with Christian "spirituality."

In the end, the Iraqi constitution's Article 2 proclaims Islam as the "official religion of the State and is a foundation source of legislation." This article contradictorily declares in three sub-clauses that "[n]o law may be enacted that contradicts the established provisions of Islam" or the"principles of democracy" or the"rights and basic freedoms stipulated in this Constitution." Article 38 also vaguely limits freedoms of speech, press, and assembly in order to "not violate public order and morality." Article 92, meanwhile, stipulates that the Federal Supreme Court would have not just judges, but also "experts in Islamic jurisprudence."

Whatever Sachedina understood under sharia as a "system of Islamic values," Christian-Muslim understanding under this new Iraqi constitution has not been forthcoming. Two-thirds of Iraq's 1.5 million Christians have fled the country, as discussed in this author's review of Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians. The book authors describe an "acute crisis" for Iraqi Christians produced by various Muslim threats in society and government indifference.

Iraq was not an isolated case for Persecuted's authors, but part of a wider trend such that "it is in the Muslim world where persecution of Christians is now most widespread, intense, and, ominously, increasing. Persecuted author Lela Gilbert, for example, stated at a Hudson Institute book launch event that the "Arab Spring" should always be "in quotes." Yet Sachedina's fellow panelist Mogahed seemed to view these regime changes only in positive terms. She described a "new dynamic" as dictatorships dependent upon American support gave way to what Mogahed saw as Arab democracies in partnership with the United States. Curiously, though, Mogahed did not mention any such partnership with the Iraqi republic enabled by the American overthrow of Hussein under President George W. Bush.

In general, Mogahed argued that American relations with Muslim-majority nations had improved since her former boss at the President's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Barack Obama, had assumed office. Mogahed saw a "great shift" in Muslim perceptions of the United States from Bush to Obama. Under the former president, Muslims had developed the impression of an American "religious war... seeking to destroy Islam," whereas Obama had been able to reduce tensions with the world's Muslims to political disputes, however controversial.

2012 polling results from the Pew Research Center, though, do not bear out these assertions. American popularity has dropped below the ratings of the Bush years under Obama in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Pakistan, with only Turkey among Muslim-majority countries showing a slight 3-point increase under Obama. These results suggest fundamental divergences between American policies, whether Bush's "harsh interrogation" techniques, Obama's drone attacks, or bipartisan support for Israel, and global Muslim attitudes. Obama's alterations of rhetoric, praised by Mogahed in the past, entailing, among other things, an elimination of any references to militant Islam, will not change this situation.

In all, informed, critical analysis of the ACMCU conference reveals that, even with some individuals of good will, Islam presents significant challenges to free societies and mutual coexistence of faiths therein. Conference participants such as Kathleen Moore, a panelist on the day's final jargon-laden (e.g. "patriarchy")and rather boring panel concerning "Gender and Religious Freedom in Christian-Muslim Relations," perform no service in dismissing these problems as figments of "Islamophobia" from those who view Islam as an "object of hate." Mere good intentions for religious equality among diverse believers expressed largely unilaterally in free and historically Judeo-Christian societies such as the United States cannot overcome Islam's internal problems from the outside.