Unfortunately, significant Christian institutions and people also engaged in gross oversimplification about Islam and Muslims--oversimplification that undermine honest dialogue, accurate education, and genuine Christian mission.
On the religious left, the oversimplifications are idealistic and even fawning. For example, a 2001 document distributed by the World Council of Churches asserts that interfaith differences are "a manifestation of divine wisdom." Motivated by a desire to be peacemakers with perceived enemies of our nation and faith, many liberal Christians are quick to minimize the theological differences between Christianity and Islam and the political conflicts between Christians and Muslims in various parts of the world.
But this approach thwarts honest dialogue because it takes off the table the very issues that most need to be discussed, including human rights. That same WCC statement dismisses the responsibility for international human rights advocacy as "uncritical responses to calls for solidarity." The liberal approach thwarts accurate education because it distorts Islam in an effort to make it appear almost totally compatible with Christianity. It thwarts true Christian mission by averting Christians' gaze from the deep physical, social, and spiritual deficits within the Islamic world - including the treatment of women and religious minorities - that need to be addressed.
On the right, the oversimplifications are pessimistic and hostile. Motivated by a desire to uphold the Gospel of Jesus Christ, many conservative Christians are quick to draw the strongest possible lines between Christianity and Islam, polarizing relations between Christians and Muslims. They fail to take into account the complexities in the Islamic world, and the important differences (both positive and negative) between Islamic teaching and the actual experience and conduct of Muslims. This approach thwarts true dialogue with gratuitous insults that can lead to conflict and violence. When the Rev. Jerry Falwell called Muhammad a terrorist last fall on 60 Minutes, for example, Muslims rioted in India and an Iranian cleric pronounced a fatwa on Falwell. Falwell was commendably quick to apologize and acknowledge the need for greater care in public statements.
An exclusively hostile approach also thwarts true education by lumping all Muslims together under a single caricature. And it thwarts true Christian mission because it undermines the efforts of Christians to find points of contacts and share their faith with Muslims in any credible way. That hostility ignores an essential component of the evangelistic methods of the New Testament apostles, which emphasized speaking positively of Jesus Christ rather than evaluating other religions. In II Corinthians 2:14-16, St. Paul says that God "through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him [Christ] everywhere."
And I'm also on the board of directors of the National Association of Evangelicals. On May 7, the NAE and the Institute on Religion and Democracy co-sponsored a consultation on Evangelical Christian-Muslim Relations. We wanted to examine Christian public rhetoric about Islam and to explore better ways to speak about Islam and about our own faith. We also wanted to encourage responsible interactions between evangelicals and Muslims. So we released a set of guidelines to help Christians engaged in Christian-Muslim dialogue.
Mainline Protestant churches have reached out, especially since September 11, to interact with Muslims. Perhaps it has been their often lowest-common-denominator approach to interfaith dialogue that has led some evangelicals to reject the idea altogether. (I must add, however, that I've been pleased to discover more responsible and respectful dialogue in which evangelicals are involved than I first suspected.)
It is urgent that evangelicals see interfaith dialogue with Muslims as a critical task. Here are at least four reasons:
1. Evangelicals are always concerned with sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ. Interfaith dialogue offers a splendid opportunity to learn about the worldviews and concerns of non-Christians and to share our deepest convictions and commitments with them.
2. If Muslims primarily interact with more liberal Christians, they will receive an imbalanced and distorted view of Christian faith and ethics.