I've come to realize there are two opposing and possibly irreconcilable approaches taken by non-Muslims in their interaction with Muslims and discussion of Islam. For want of a better one-word summary, I will call the first confrontation and the second conciliation.
Let's begin with the second, which is by far more popular, better funded, socially acceptable, academically approved, and media favored than its awkward country cousin. The word conciliation has a nice ring to it. A conciliatory person is someone who is nice, non-offensive and not judgmental, the kind of person you like to work with or have as a next door neighbor. The word is closely related to reconciliation, a term rich with meaning in contexts as varied as Christian theology, American military policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, rebuilding Ruwanda, and marriage counseling.
As I see it, the basis of conciliation in a Muslim-non-Muslim context is to initially agree on a series of rules that are to be kept by both sides as they work towards a stated objective. This objective can be anything that is of interest to one or both sides: minarets in Switzerland, cartoons in Denmark, Bible verses on rifle scopes in Afghanistan, or burkas in France are just a few of many possibilities.
The rules are quite simple. Each side looks for values that are shared with the other, elements of agreement and commonality of belief. Each side externally (a very important word, since neither knows what the other is really thinking) expresses acceptance and understanding of the other's core elements of belief. Each side seeks to understand the others definitions of its religious terms (the non-Muslim tries to understand Allah's mercy as explained by the Muslim; the Muslim listens to the Christian's explanation of the Trinity). The Muslim states that Islam worships a God of mercy and justice, reads a Quran that is God's perfect revelation, and obeys a Prophet who values human rights and respect to women. If the other side is represented by a Christian (a Jew, atheist, or Hindu would obviously present different core beliefs), the Christian posits that Christians also believe in a God of mercy and justice (he might throw in love as well), have a divine revelation that includes the New and Old Testaments, and follow a Jesus who was God incarnate and died for the sins of the world.
Having reached agreement that each side has a God and a book and a hero, and that these have many shared characteristics, the discussion continues with a (big) emphasis on "listening to and understanding" the other. Almost by definition, this involves putting on kid gloves and not asking questions that are too challenging or (guess what!) confrontational. The Christian asks about verses in the Quran that advocate violence, and the Muslim responds with verses in the Old Testament that do the same. The Christian asks about Muhammad's raids, and the Muslim asks about the Popes' crusades. The Muslim asks why Americans hate Muslims, and the Christian asks why Pakistanis hate Americans. The Muslim asks why mosques in Switzerland can't have minarets, and the Christian asks why the international church recently built in Qatar doesn't have a steeple. Each side listens carefully to the other, decides they really like each other and should do this again, and all leave feeling good about themselves.
I could be wrong, but I have the distinct impression that most non-Muslims involved in this conciliatory approach learned most if not all they know about Islam from Muslim friends, teachers, and current writers. Very few of them are skilled in Arabic (it's a lot easier to get a PhD in Islamic studies from any American University than it is to really learn both the language of the Quran and Arabic as spoken today), and I suspect many of them have not critically (that is not devotionally; there is a big difference) read the translations of the Quran, the Hadith, and the Sirah that are available in English and other European languages. Given that the Bukhari Hadith alone contain over 700,000 words and Guillaume's translation of the original and most authentic Life of Muhammad by Ibn Ishaq is 800 often tedious pages, it is understandable although not excusable that many "Islamic experts" prefer lighter fare.
I probably have little in common with Dr. John Esposito at Georgetown University who is perhaps the leader of the conciliatory approach to Islam and is considered by his admirers to be America's leading non-Muslim scholar of Islam. He's world famous, has written dozens of books, and I - well, I started a blog. We do share one thing, however; we both studied Islam at Temple University in Philadelphia with the late Dr. Ismail al-Faruqi. I was there several years after Dr. Esposito and had the opportunity to study as well with Dr. Sayiid Husayn Nasr who was forced to leave Iran as a refugee after the Islamic Revolution. Both were dynamic, charasmatic teachers and I looked forward to each class. One was a fundamental Sunni Palestinian, the other a Sufi Iranian Shiite, and I still look back at those days as a wonderful opportunity to learn Islam from such different perspectives.
But I realize something now that I didn't know then. I was deceived, whether deliberately or not I can't say. I was given one side of Islam. I hesitate to say that either Dr. al-Faruqi or Dr. Nasr were propagandists, although an essential element of propaganda is giving only the side of an argument that advances your case and ignoring the rest. Muhammad's problems with the Jews of Medina? It was their fault for reneging on the concordia he made with them. That a large, prosperous community who had lived there for centuries was beheaded (literally; you can read about it here) or expelled within a few years of his arrival simply for not believing he was the Prophet he claimed to be did not even enter into the equation. We somehow believed the Copts of Egypt, whose church had thrived for 600 years, welcomed the Muslim invaders who arrived after their Roman Vicegerent gave the wrong answer to Muhammad's invitation to accept Islam or else. We didn't learn their tongues were cut out for continuing to speak Coptic. We never learned that the only reason Persians still speak Farsi and Turks speak Turkish, rather than have their languages disappear as did those of North Africa, is that they were strong enough to fight off Arabization even though they could not defeat Islamization. And we certainly never learned about Asma bint Marwan and Umm Qirfa.
European Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan was recently personally granted a visa to the United States by Secretary of State Clinton after his visa had been denied for many years. If he chooses to reside in America, he will certainly be offered a chair at a leading American university and become involved in the conciliatory movement. How many people will be knowledgeable enough to listen to his lectures and read his books and separate what is true from what is deceptive? I wrote here about doing that with one of his books, "The Footsteps of the Prophet".
Now for the other side. Who are those involved in the confrontational approach to Islam, and what is their approach? First of all, many of them are self-taught. They've learned Islam by spending years pouring over texts written over 1000 years ago, or living for years as Muslims in Islamic countries. Many don't have PhD's in Islam, or in anything at all for that matter, and as a result are denigated by those who do as not being "real scholars". They understand that even though there are many kinds of Muslims, from non-religious to radical, there is only one Islam; that of Muhammad. They've come to the conclusion that Islam, as envisioned and practiced by Muhammad, is incompatible with the values of the 21st century. And they are not afraid to ask hard questions about Muhammad and his morality, the Quran and its validity, and Allah and his credibility.
Some of them who are best-known have price tags on their heads and travel with bodyguards. A former al-Azhar University Professor who has changed his name to Mark Gabriel cannot return to his family in Egypt. Aayan Hirsi Ali lives under death threats. Noni Darwish has speaking engagements cancelled at American Universities because Muslims complain. Robert Spencer does not publish information about his family or residence. Geert Wilders is being tried for hate speech in Holland.
The interesting thing is that as I listen to some of these, I get the distinct impression they are the ones who really care about Muslims. I join millions of Arabs each week to listen to ex-Muslim Rashid's program Daring Question on the Arabic al-Hayat TV channel. It's impossible to misunderstand his love for his people. Wafa Sultan was his guest for three 90-minute interviews, and she also clearly communicates her care for Muslims. The fact that he is now a Christian and she follows no religion is irrelevant. Zakariya Boutros, a Coptic Priest originally from Cairo, begins each of his weekly programs that are also watched by millions of Muslims, with a prayer for God's blessing upon his audience.
My conviction is that change in the Muslim world towards greater freedom, including the freedom for every Muslim to believe whatever they want (including the freedom to leave Islam), marry whomever they want (including Muslim women allowed to marry non-Muslim men), and live their lives however they want (including not having to hide being gay or lesbian), and for each non-Muslim living in a Muslim country to be accepted as a citizen with all the rights and privileges of the Muslim majority, will not take place without a great struggle. I also believe that the "confrontationalists", not the "conciliatorians", will be most influential in bringing about that change.
One of the most courageous men I know is Anglican Bishop Andrew White, pastor of St. George's Church in Baghdad. I often heard him preach during my two years in Iraq. He has dedicated his life to his Iraqi congregation and to trying to bring reconciliation between Iraq's Sunnis and Shia. I would describe him as a member of the conciliation camp, and it was as I read his book Iraq: Searching for Hope that I realized I was not. At one point in the book he wrote that when meeting with Shia and Sunni leaders he urges them to pursue reconciliation "in the spirit of the Prophet". The phrase broke my heart, as I realized I saw "the spirit of the Prophet" as the cause of the problem, not the solution.
I wish Bishop White the best of success as he continues his efforts to bring Shia and Sunnis together, although the suicide bombings killing dozens of people on both sides even in the last few weeks indicate the opposite is taking place. But I need to ask a question. Is it Bishop White urging Muslims to come together "in the spirit of the Prophet" that will really bring change, or is it the voice of Rashid on al-Hayat TV challenging them to leave Muhammad behind?