I recently attended John Esposito's Common Word conference at Georgetown University. Listening to charismatic and eloquent speakers took me back three decades to being mesmerized by the lectures of Dr. Ismail Al Farouki and Sayyid Hossein Nasr as a student of Islam at Temple University. And now as then, it was only afterwards that I realized I was left with many more doubts than assurances.
One of the speakers was Bob Roberts, who blogs here and is pastor of the Northwood Church in Dallas. He engages the Muslim community there, and is going turkey hunting with the Imam this Saturday. He informed us that when he meets Muslims who remind him that according to their religion he is going to hell, his response is that according to his religion they are hellbound as well. "Now that we've gotten that behind us," he urges them, "Let's be friends."
Does Pastor Roberts really believe that, or was he just being cute? If he does, it stands to reason that his desire is for Muslims to escape hell by accepting what he believes about Jesus. I wonder how successful he has been. How many of his 2000-plus congregation are ex-Muslims? What would happen to his vaunted relationship with the Muslim community were he to appoint an ex-Muslim from that community to a position of leadership within his church? Would he have the courage to do so?
Another participant was Nigerian diplomat John Gana, a Christian whose ancestors converted from Islam as a result of Christian missionaries. Emphasizing the fluidity of Muslim and Christian relationships in his country, he informed us that his younger brother had converted to Islam to marry a Muslim woman. He seemed not at all concerned that his brother was forced to change his religion to marry the woman he loved, nor that their children would be raised Muslim without the freedom to change their religion back to Christianity even if they wanted to.
Henry Izumizaki, a Japanese American who is CEO of the One Nation Foundation, told us about the millions of dollars his foundation spends to improve the image of Muslims in America. He said he is neither a Muslim nor a Christian, and that one of the early productions of his company was the movie Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet.
Am I the only one who found it ironic that the man who produced the Legacy of a Prophet does not believe that Muhammad was a Prophet? As not even part of the Ahl Al Kitab, the People of the Book, does Henry Izumizaki know what Muhammad said about him? Does he realize that none of his Muslim co-panelists would allow their daughters to marry his sons?
Shamil Idriss of Soliya described the Muslim-non-Muslim relationship as akin to people throwing sparks into a tinder dry forest. He was not the only person to bring up the TJ factor - no, that is not Terrorist Jihadi but Pastor Terry Jones. Shamil did not bring up the more appropriate analogy that a spark dropped in a tropical rain forest causes no reaction at all. Why is attention focused on the person dropping the spark rather than changing the nature of the forest?
"As I condemn Terry Jones for burning the Quran," continued Shamil, "I condemn President Karzai in Kabul for exacerbating the situation." It seems that even when Muslims criticize the response of other Muslims, they draw a moral equivalence between the initial act and the riposte. I draw a cartoon you don't like, you respond by killing my son, but in your mind the two acts are morally equal? Ya Shaikh!
Other panelists assured us that "studies all show" that poverty breeds extremism, and that "nobody in America" wants Sharia law. It is simply not true that the hundreds of Jihadi foreign fighters in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and a host of other locations are there because of poverty. And if the panelists truly do not want the path of Allah and his Apostle to be followed in the West, it is only because they have become "Westernized, Christianized Muslims" who have strayed a long way from their Prophet.
Three freedoms I grant my daughters are to be whoever they decide to be (including lesbian), believe whatever they want to believe (including atheism), and marry whomever they choose (regardless of religious creed or lack thereof). Islam grants women none of those choices. If the panelists truly granted their daughters those freedoms, I might believe they were free from the binding grip of Sharia. I might question, however, if they were still Muslim.
Professor Bart Ehrman at the University of North Carolina grew up as an evangelical Christian. He attended the best fundamental and evangelical Christian schools, the Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College. Somewhere along the way he lost his faith. He no longer describes himself as a Christian, and does not believe the Bible is the Word of God nor that Jesus is the Son of God.
Would John Esposito have the courage to bring a "Muslim Bart Ehrman" unto the staff of his Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding? Someone who like Bart Ehrman had really believed and attended the best Muslim universities, but who like Ehrman "let the scholarship take them where it would" and reached the conclusion that Muhammad was not a Prophet of God, the Quran was not a book from God, and Islam was not true? I would like to believe the answer was Yes, but I have my doubts.
In spite of the considerable amount of money spent to bring in speakers from all over the country the conference seemed sparsely attended with many empty seats. Was the lack of attendance due to a lack of interest, or did others sense as I did that conversations would only go in one direction and not very far at that?
If I were to summarize my take-away for the entire day, it would be that there is an increasing problem in America betweeen Muslims and non-Muslims, but always to be blamed is the ghayr Muslim - the non-believer. It's the fault of Pamela Geller, Newt Gingrich, Barack Obama for flipping on Afghanistan and Guantanamo, birthers and anti-mosquers, Tea Partyers and Terry Joneses. The list is endless. Am I the only one asking the question, "Who's this big guy sleeping in the hallway that everyone is gingerly stepping around but no one is talking about? I think his name is Muhammad."