The first in a three-part series on the Catholic Church and Islam: U.S. BISHOPS’ CATHOLIC-MUSLIM DIALOGUE
New Oxford Review
By Timothy D. Lusch: An attorney and writer. His work has appeared in Saint Austin Review, New English Review, and Chronicles, and at Catholic Exchange and Crisis.
“It is neither a culture of confrontation nor a culture of conflict which builds harmony within and between peoples, but rather a culture of encounter and a culture of dialogue; this is the only way to peace.” — Pope Francis, Sept. 1, 2013
“All the pure blood that has been shed in Iraq for decades…. Against whom are they waging jihad? They are waging jihad against the Christian American presence in Iraq…. In general, I consider them to be mujahedeen for the sake of Allah, who are driving out the infidels who invaded their lands.” — Sheik Muhammad Al-Suhaybani, imam of the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia, Aug. 30, 2014
For some time now, Catholics have been told that terrorist violence has nothing to do with Islam and that Islam is a religion of peace. To insist otherwise, even with irrefutable evidence from sacred Islamic texts and proclamations of Muslim clerics, is to risk being maligned as bigoted, Islamophobic, or prejudiced. Our collective witness of Muslim-perpetrated beheadings, bombings, mass shootings, vehicular assault of crowds of bystanders, gang rapes, infibulation of young girls, tossing of gays off buildings, burning alive of captives, and slaying of Catholic priests at Mass is explained away as an enigmatic nexus of mental illness and the ever-popular yet undefinable “violent extremism.” One expects to hear this sort of thing from a religiously ignorant news media. But, as practicing Catholics, to hear it from our Church hierarchy is disconcerting. One expects more from a highly educated clerical class. Perhaps one expects too much.
How can so many Islamic texts and clerics be wrong? How can so many Catholic bishops with little or no education in Islam be right? We are directed by our bishops and our Pope to disregard Sheik Muhammad Al-Suhaybani’s praise of the mujahedeen fighting for the sake of Allah in Iraq — and this includes soldiers of the Islamic State (ISIS) — in favor of a more pleasant, euphemistic, and postmodern narrative about Islam. Tellingly, this falsehood is predominantly bandied about in the West. There is no need to elide the nature of Islam in countries where it is practiced, often violently, by the majority. Consider the ongoing war between Sunni and Shiite factions throughout the Middle East. It is only in the West, where mass Muslim migration intersects with secularized societies and pluralistic populations, that explanations are necessary.
And so we increasingly hear platitude-filled narratives from bishops that sound a lot like official statements from the Hamas-linked Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). High-level interreligious dialogue between Catholics and Muslims has devolved into a monologue that is neither Catholic nor Islamic. It has become an exercise in what former Joint Chiefs of Staff intelligence analyst Stephen Coughlin calls “interfaith delusion.” It is time for the Catholic faithful to question the Church’s interreligious efforts, particularly those of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), vis-à-vis Islam, with respect to its goals and choice of dialogue partners.
In February 2016, the USCCB inaugurated a national dialogue with Muslim partners. The initial event, a public discussion held at the University of San Diego’s Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice, included Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego and Sayyid M. Syeed, national director of the Islamic Society of North America’s (ISNA) Office for Interfaith and Community Alliances. An outgrowth of three regional dialogues, the national effort is overseen by the USCCB’s Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.
According to a Catholic News Service report (Jan. 10, 2017), “The creation of the dialogue was motivated by the call of Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on the relations with non-Christian religions.” What does Nostra Aetate call for? While declaring that the Church holds Muslims in esteem, and mentioning some core teachings of Islam as the Church understands them, the portion of the declaration regarding Muslims concludes rather ominously:
Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.
Forget the past? That’s an impossible task when the past is still present. The murder and harassment of our Coptic brothers and sisters in Egypt persist, to say nothing of Muslim extermination of Christian communities in Iraq and Syria. The Catholic Church has arguably kept her end of the bargain. Muslim leaders and clerics? Not so much.
The USCCB is no doubt motivated also by the teaching of Pope Francis. In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (2013), the Holy Father issued a call to the Catholic faithful: “Faced with disconcerting episodes of violent fundamentalism, our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalizations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence.” Francis recently reiterated this view of Islam. “Muslim terrorism does not exist,” he said rather matter-of-factly (Message to World Meeting of Popular Movements, Feb. 17, 2017).
As Catholics, our respect for the truth should deter us from naïve and misleading generalizations about other religions. Pope Francis lacks the authority to declare what constitutes “authentic” Islam and a “proper reading” of the Koran. Such erroneous statements lead to the ridiculous conclusion that ISIS and other terrorists are not real Muslims or that they have nothing to do with Islam. This conclusion was rejected by Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, who refused to declare members of ISIS apostates (Asharq Al-Awsat, Dec. 13, 2014).
The USCCB uncritically adopts the Holy Father’s misleading generalizations of Islam and the Koran. The focus of USCCB efforts is tainted by the same sentiment expressed in Evangelii Gaudium — that somehow, despite regrettable and recurring violence, Christians misunderstand Islam and are just too scared or too angry to have a dialogue with Muslims. This is evident in “Dialogue with Muslims,” a statement issued by the USCCB’s Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs (July 2014):
Sadly, in recent years, there has been a deliberate rejection of this call to engage in dialogue with our Muslim brothers and sisters by some in the Catholic Church…. We understand the confusion and deep emotions stirred by real and apparent acts of aggression and discrimination by certain Muslims against non-Muslims, often against Christians abroad. We, and increasingly our Muslim partners in dialogue, are concerned about these very real phenomena.
Yet the newly created national Catholic-Muslim dialogue seems more concerned about the “confusion and deep emotions” of fearful Catholics than about the “real acts of aggression” against Christians worldwide. Anthony Cirelli, associate director of the USCCB’s Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, told Catholic News Service that although “our meetings will still have as a central component the all-important theological conversation, right now there is an urgency to engage more in a kind of advocacy and policy in support of the Muslim community” (Jan. 10, 2017). Specifically, Cirelli said, “The bishops’ priority at the moment is to listen to [Muslims’] concerns, their fears, their needs…and so discern how we as Catholics can help them achieve their goals of full participation in their communities.”
Cirelli further notes that the U.S. bishops are “coming to stand with our Muslim colleagues in their own difficult work of addressing the fears of ordinary Americans with respect to Muslims as well as their work in trying to change the negative narrative surrounding Muslims in our popular media.” Apparently, the bishops don’t like the topic of Muslim violence against Christians, despite its frequency and brutality, so they’ve decided to change the conversation. The USCCB-approved topic is now fighting the specter of negative publicity about Islam.
Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, speaking at the incipient national dialogue event said, “As the national conversation around Islam grows increasingly fraught, coarse and driven by fear and often willful misinformation, the Catholic Church must help to model real dialogue and goodwill.” Indeed, as Bishop McElroy said at the same event, Catholics need to take an active role in fighting “the scourge of anti-Islamic prejudice.”
Setting aside Bishop McElroy’s unsubstantiated hyperbole (scourge is more aptly applied to Islamic terrorism here and abroad than to reaction to it), the replacement of a truly Catholic witness in interreligious dialogue with the specious postmodern narrative of Islamophobia is simply disgraceful. The term Islamophobia, according to French philosopher Pascal Bruckner, was coined in the late 1970s by Iranian fundamentalists, and it has been used to great effect by the Muslim Brotherhood, CAIR, ISNA, and other Islamic entities. It was formed in likeness to xenophobia and its aim is “to declare Islam inviolate.” The term, Bruckner argues, “is worthy of totalitarian propaganda,” such that “whoever crosses this border is deemed a racist.” Despite being notoriously vague and lacking in consistent definition, it is used effectively to shut down legitimate criticism of Islam.
The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna and is an Islamist organization dedicated to worldwide Islamic governance under Sharia law. The Muslim Brotherhood’s public motto, until recently, was “Allah is our objective. The prophet is our exemplar. The Qur’an is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.” The links between the Brotherhood and ISNA, the USCCB’s chosen dialogue partner, are well established. For example, ISNA was named an unindicted co-conspirator in the 2007 Holy Land Foundation terror trial (in which HLF leaders were found guilty of funneling $12 million to Brotherhood-affiliated Hamas terrorists). Given these links (easily searchable on the Internet), one would think the bishops might reconsider dialogue with ISNA. Not so. The result of this failure inheres in the bishops’ acting as a mouthpiece for the Brotherhood-directed Islamophobia narrative. Whether the bishops are naïve or ignorant hardly matters. Neither absolves them of the responsibility to educate themselves about Islam and ISNA’s motives. ISNA simply cannot be judged outside the Islamist context. Robert Reilly, author of a penetrating assessment of modern Islam, The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis (2010), as well as a monograph, The Prospects and Perils of Catholic-Muslim Dialogue (2014), recently described the USCCB’s efforts this way:
The problems are several: like most Americans, the bishops know almost nothing about Islam. Therefore, they don’t understand the context in which their Muslim interlocutors are speaking. As a result, they engage in mirror imaging, i.e., understanding the Muslims as the good bishops understand themselves. A big mistake. (TheCatholicThing.org, Mar. 21, 2016)
The Catholic faithful have a right to expect their bishops to do their homework. Even if the bishops do not take up the study of Islam, it is reasonable to think that they would at least familiarize themselves with the content of their own website. It is obvious that they have not. The “Interreligious Documents and News Releases” page of USCCB.org, under “Islam,” hosts a fifty-page primer titled “What Catholics Should Know About Islam,” produced by the Knights of Columbus. In it, Sandra Toenies Keating, Ph.D., discusses the ideological roots of the Islamic revivalist movements Wahhabiyya and the Muslim Brotherhood. Of the latter, she writes:
The Muslim Brotherhood is a modern Egyptian movement that reached its high point in the 1960s with Sayyid Qutb, who was executed in 1966. The radical movement emphasized the righteous minority within a corrupt and ignorant society dominated by unbelievers. According to Qutb, the only way to overcome the oppressors was for all true believers to engage in armed struggle, jihad, against the repression of Islam.
After the Muslim Brotherhood was suppressed in Egypt, the ideas of Qutb continued to spread. Other revival and extremist movements have drawn on his writings to fashion a response to what they perceive as the anti-Islamic trends of secularism, materialism and feminism. Recent decades have seen revolutions in Muslim dominated areas, such as Iran and Afghanistan, which have attempted to remove all foreign influences. Other countries have moved towards establishing Islamic law since the end of the Cold War, much to the concern of the international community.
A basic Internet search for the Muslim Brotherhood in North America reveals several organizations with Brotherhood ties, including the aforementioned ISNA and CAIR, the Muslim Students Association, the North American Islamic Trust, and the Fiqh Council of North American. There is no excuse for the bishops’ failure to discern the true identity of ISNA and its accompanying motives.
On the same page of the USCCB website, one can click on an address Muzammil Siddiqi delivered at the West Coast Dialogue of Catholics and Muslims titled “How an Islamic Leader Views Dialogue” (May 2001). Dr. Siddiqi is a past president and current board member of ISNA, a member of the Supreme Islamic Council of Egypt, and director of the Islamic Society of Orange County. He is also known for equivocating about Muslim involvement in the 9/11 attacks, publicly endorsing capital punishment for homosexuality in certain countries, and advocating for the implementation of Sharia worldwide. He has been widely quoted as saying, “We must not forget that Allah’s rules have to be established in all lands, and all our efforts should lead to that direction.”
If that is not disturbing enough, Siddiqi brashly dissembles the motive of ISNA and other Muslim organizations for entering into interreligious dialogue in the first place. In his USCCB-linked address, he asserts:
Allah did not force people to accept his prophets and messengers. The prophets were told to communicate the message to their people. Da’wah, Tabligh, Hiwar, etc., are all ways to communicate the message. These are the basic ways of communication, and they are the only ways permissible. Aggression is never allowed in matters of faith.
Taking this statement at face value, as the bishops clearly do, it isn’t objectionable. It sounds a lot like the oft-cited Koranic passage, “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256). But this only means that true faith is not compelled. Submission, the spiritual and political goal of Islam, can be compelled. After all, Muhammad rode at the head of an army and is reported in the canonical hadiths of Sahih al-Bukhari as saying, “I have been ordered to fight the people till they say: ‘None has the right to be worshipped but Allah.’ And if they say so, pray like our prayers, face our Qibla and slaughter as we slaughter, then their blood and property will be sacred to us and we will not interfere with them except legally and their reckoning will be with Allah” (Book 8, Hadith 387).
Aggression, per Dr. Siddiqi, might not be allowed in matters of faith, but fighting for the sake of Allah is not aggression. And fighting for Allah is not merely permissible; it is desirable if one is to emulate Muhammad. For Islam, the goal is not the conversion of non-Muslims, since anyone can believe inwardly whatever he wishes. The goal is outward submission to Sharia, the law of Allah. Therein lies the danger in the USCCB’s prioritization of listening to Muslims’ “concerns, their fears, their needs” so as to “discern how we as Catholics can help them achieve their goals of full participation in their communities.”
Stephen Coughlin argues in his devastating critique of Catholic-Muslim dialogue, “Bridge-Building” to Nowhere: The Catholic Church’s Case Study in Interfaith Delusion (2015), that “the problem isn’t that Jewish and Christian entities work with Muslims, but that they work with the Muslim Brotherhood.” The bishops’ time would be better spent advocating for persecuted Christians in Muslim countries and fighting for the reciprocity that would give our brothers and sisters in the faith the freedom to worship and practice our religion. Neglecting their cries, the USCCB fails in its mission of interreligious dialogue. By uniting its voice with that of ISNA, dialogue becomes a monologue that threatens to confuse the faithful and lead to dislocation of faith. This weakens the Body of Christ and bolsters the advance of Islam.