In the wake of international criticism of high-profile Christian preachers for their harsh depictions of Islam, evangelical leaders in America are striking out in a new direction. They have taken a stance against negative public rhetoric about Islam, and are encouraging widespread conversation with Muslims.
A set of guidelines for Christian-Muslim dialogue - which seeks increased mutual understanding but also calls for engaging over theological differences and other serious issues - is now circulating for comment among evangelical and other Christian denominations. The guidelines (www.ird-renew.org) were proposed earlier this month in a meeting sponsored by the National Association of Evangelicals and the conservative Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD).
"Evangelicals have not engaged in public formal dialogue in the way old-line Protestant churches have, and we want to spur involvement, especially churches talking to their neighbors in local communities," says Diane Knippers, IRD president.
While to some Muslims the guideline language suggests another bid to evangelize, others are responding positively.
"This is very, very welcome. We've been waiting for this kind of approach for about a thousand years," says Sayyid Syeed, secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America. "The fact that hard-core evangelical Christian leaders are saying that we will talk to each other with respect, and have identified areas of common interest - this is a very auspicious development."
Evangelicals for the most part have stood apart from such dialogue in the past, leaving it to liberal Christians - Protestant and Catholic - and have even rejected participation in interfaith prayer meetings that might call for inclusive language.
But according to Mrs. Knippers, dialogue is now important for several reasons: If Muslims interact primarily with liberal Christians, she says, they will get an unbalanced and distorted view of Christian faith and ethics. Dialogue offers Christians an opportunity to learn about worldviews of non-Christians and to share their own deep convictions about Jesus. And, there are issues that need to be discussed beyond theological concerns.
"There are things we may have in common and on which we could become political and cultural allies - defending the unborn, upholding marriage, caring for refugees, advocating religious freedom," Knippers adds. "Then, we have crucial concerns about human rights internationally, particularly in Muslim nations." Evangelicals are keen to open Muslim nations to evangelism, and are in the forefront on issues of religious liberty and persecution.
Dr. Syeed acknowledges those concerns and the need to talk about them, but adds a caution. "In many Muslim nations, there are no human rights - the ruling regimes don't represent the people or Islamic tolerance," he says. "We need to work together to see how human rights can be promoted in the Muslim world, but to select only one group's rights [Christians] would be counterproductive, cause a reaction, and lose credibility - we need long-term cooperation on rights."
During the national meeting of evangelicals, leaders also rebuked the negative remarks made over the past year by the Rev. Franklin Graham, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, and others.
This public distancing by conservative leaders is also seen as significant.
"It has both religious and political implications, within the US but also in sending a signal to the Arab and Muslim worlds," says John Esposito, director of the Center for Christian-Muslim Understanding at Georgetown University. "I've found in the last year significant interest in the Muslim world in 'this thing called the Christian Right,' which has such an influence on Congress and the administration - and the tendency of those statements has been to reinforce the idea that this may be partly a Christian war."
This is healthy in that it sends the message that those statements don't represent the entire Christian Right, he says. At the same time, "one shouldn't underestimate the significant role that that element - what some call Christian Zionists - continues to play," adds Dr. Esposito, author of "What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam."
Given the ambivalent or negative views of Islam held by most evangelicals, the emphasis on active dialogue on the part of local churches may seem surprising. A recent poll found that 77 percent have an unfavorable view of Islam; 52 percent agree that "Islam preaches justice and moral values;" and 83 percent consider it "very important" to evangelize Muslims in the US. This suggests that many might get involved in the dialogue as a means to evangelize.
"Some say we have a secret agenda," Knippers responds. "We want to share our faith but it's not our only concern. Muslims will also want to share their faith - both sides know this is important and will be on the table."
Esposito says covering common ground and differences is feasible. "But at the local level, it's critical some have an understanding of the other tradition beforehand, that some have established a working relationship, and ... agreed on questions," he says. "Otherwise, conversations can break down quickly."
Syeed is hopeful. "We pray that this works," he says. "They've had to struggle against an age-old negativity toward Islam, and if they have been able to overcome that, then this is a major change. It's good for Christians, for Muslims, for America, and for the world."