Patrick Archbold is co-founder of Creative Minority Report, a Catholic website that puts a refreshing spin on the intersection of religion, culture, and politics. When not writing, Patrick is director of information technology at a large international logistics company in New York.
News is the Pope Francis wrote to a Muslim leader in Egypt to express respect for Islam and calls for mutual understanding.
First off, this is not entirely accurate reporting. The article at Vatican Insider says Pope expressed respect for Islam but the substantiating quote of the Pope actually says respect for Muslims. “respect for people of every religion and the safeguarding of human dignity and the highest values described in the Quran and the Sunnah.” That is an important distinction and I am glad the Pope made it.
I, like the Pope, have respect for some Muslims. I respect anyone who peacefully and earnestly seeks after the will of God by practicing their religion. That is different than respecting their religion. I don't respect any religion that teaches error, but I can respect any elements of that religion that conform to the revealed truth safeguarded by the Church.
I am sure there are numerous Muslims who earnestly seek after the will of God through the practice of their faith. I can only pray that they find the way, the truth, and the life, Jesus.
All that said, I think we should be honest with ourselves about the efficacy of such outreach to Muslim leaders. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying not to try. But I think we should be honest about what we hope to achieve with such outreach and honest about its limitations.
The first thing to recognize, the is no one leader of global Islam (Lord help us if there ever is) with whom to dialogue. It is not like dialoging with Protestant groups or Orthodox patriarchs. There are individual Imams, but their influence is quite limited. So we should have no expectation that were we to come to some understanding with a particular Imam that it would have any global effect. The religion of peace is actually a religion of pieces.
In this particular case, the Pope corresponded with (actually responded to) the Imam of Cairo’s Al-Azhar University. Since in and around Cairo, persecution of Christians by Muslims is a clear and present danger, this seems well placed. If any such dialogue can do anything to mitigate the persecution, it is worth trying.
Generally, I think that outreach to Islam should be directed in two ways. The first is like above, outreach to particular leaders in particular places to deal with particular problems. The other way is to reach out to Muslims directly with the Truth that is Jesus. I believe that "interfaith dialogue" aimed at coming to some general understanding between Christianity and Islam is a fool's errand. There is no one unified Islam with which to come to understanding. Global Islam is sectarian and highly tribalized. Remember, nobody kills or persecutes Muslims more than other Muslims.
I also think that is unhelpful to issue meaningless platitudes about respect for Islam as if this has any effect on anyone. In fact, for many Muslims paying attention to such things, this is merely a sign of weakness.
If we keep our 'dialogue' focused on these things, I believe it can be fruitful.