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?

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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 inviting website 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.

The “we-are-not-criminals” tenor of the statement might lead those of a suspicious nature to conclude that rather serious charges have been leveled at ISNA. And such is the case. In the 2007-2008 Holy Land Foundation trial, prosecutors entered into evidence a Muslim Brotherhood document calling for a “civilizational jihad” against the West and listing ISNA as part of a network of Muslim Brotherhood organizations in North America. This and other evidence persuaded the jury to name ISNA as an unindicted co-conspirator in a large-scale terrorist funding scheme. According to former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy, “the Justice Department had shown ISNA to be complicit in ongoing Brotherhood conspiracies to sabotage the West and to fund the terrorist organization Hamas.” More recently, the Canadian Revenue Service revoked the charitable status of the ISNA Canada Development Foundation on charges that it was providing support to terrorist groups.

“Those of a suspicious nature,” however, does not seem to include the authors of the USCCB’s “Dialogue with Muslims” statement. Consider this section:

Perhaps most importantly, our work together has forged true bonds of friendship that are supported by mutual esteem and an ever-growing trust…Through dialogue we have been able to work through much of our mutual ignorance, habitual distrust, and debilitating fear.

Judged by this and other CEIA documents, “habitual distrust” is the last thing the bishops need to worry about. They seem, rather, to suffer from a bad case of habitual trust. Keep in mind that the majority of dialogue partners for whom they feel an “ever-growing trust” are members of ISNA. It’s good that the bishops have managed to overcome “debilitating fear,” but shouldn’t they retain a little healthy fear about an organization with such a shady past?

And it’s not just ISNA’s past activities that should concern them. When they are not dialoguing with bishops, ISNA activists seem to spend a lot of time criticizing our national security apparatus. While most Americans worry that the government is not doing enough to protect us from terrorists, ISNA and other similar Islamic groups accuse the government of being too vigilant. Together with the Muslim Public Affairs Council, ISNA has been in the forefront of activist groups pressuring the government to root out a supposed Islamophobic bias in the FBI and the nation’s intelligence agencies. In 2012, as a result of this pressure, counter-terrorism training manuals in seventeen agencies were purged of any materials that drew a connection between Islam and terrorism. According to one national security expert, the new policy “effectively neutered FBI counter-terrorism training and blinded our nation’s intelligence agencies to the threat from Islamic terrorism.”

Naturally, ISNA doesn’t see it that way. They claim they are merely protecting the civil rights of Muslims who, they say, are victims of widespread anti-Muslim sentiment. ISNA is active in fighting “discrimination” against Muslims on the local level as well. One of its initiatives is the Shoulder-to-Shoulder campaign—an organization of twenty-eight, mostly liberal, religious groups “united in their dedication to ending anti-Muslim sentiment forever.” The Shoulder-to-Shoulder campaign was recently instrumental in forcing the New York Police Department to shut down much of its highly effective counter-terrorism program, which included surveillance of suspected places and individuals in the Muslim community. New Yorkers who worry about overly inquisitive police can now relax. New Yorkers who worry about bombing attacks, not so much.

One of the member organizations of Shoulder-to-Shoulder is the USCCB. Which brings us back to the issue of trust. Could it be that the USCCB’s dialogue partners have other objectives besides overcoming ignorance and forging “true bonds of friendship”? Have the bishops ever considered that the dialogue process is very useful to ISNA in terms of establishing its legitimacy and its moderation? After all, if Catholic bishops declare their “esteem” and “ever-growing trust,” what does it matter if a handful of “Islamophobes” have their doubts?

A certain level of trust is necessary for conducting dialogue, but the CEIA needs to consider the possibility that ISNA is using its relationship with the bishops in order to further causes that have nothing to do with the ostensible aims of dialogue. Critics of ISNA say that its main business is stealth, jihad, and the eventual establishment of sharia law. According to Steven Emerson of the Investigative Project on Terrorism, ISNA “is a radical group hiding under a false veneer of moderation.”

That’s not to say that ISNA is in the business of planting bombs. However, in the name of fighting Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment, it has managed to put a sizeable crimp in the ability of the NYPD, the FBI, and other agencies to ferret out the bombers. In a Fox News interview with Gretchen Carlson, Ray Kelly, the former police commissioner of New York, pointed out that the NYPD managed to uncover and stop sixteen terrorist plots during the tenure of Mayor Bloomberg. That was when its monitoring program was still in effect. It remains to be seen whether politically correct policing will be as effective.

Meanwhile, the USCCB’s Interreligious Affairs Committee seems to have fallen in line with the ISNA party line on Islamophobia. In a September 2 statement, Auxiliary Archbishop Denis Madden, the chairman of the committee, bemoaned the “tragic” rise of Islamophobia in America. And in speaking of the ISIS terror campaign, Bishop Madden wrote, “Our response to evil and violence cannot be fear. Fear destroys everything it touches.” Well, I’m not sure I agree. Sometimes an ounce of well-founded fear can save a ton of trouble. In his statement, Bishop Madden speaks favorably of the Islamic Society of North America and the Muslim Public Affairs Council— two groups that have played a central role in hamstringing our security agencies. The rest of us might have less to fear if we could be assured that the bishop and his committee realize that there are greater dangers than Islamophobia lurking over the horizon.

Is the bond between the USCCB and ISNA indissoluble? Or is it time to change partners?


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