Last Thursday I spoke as part of a panel of religious leaders to a Monotheistic Religions class at the University of Toledo. There was an Episcopalian priest, myself, and the Imam of Greater Toledo.
The Imam, who struck me as a very nice man, was - in my opinion - trying to put an unreal positive spin on Islam. After listening to his answers to the students' questions one could get the impression that there has never been a kinder, gentler religion than Islam.
He is from Egypt, and told the class that in Egypt Coptic Christians live side by side with Muslims. I made the point that Coptic Christians are persecuted in Egypt. He shook his head "No," and I told him and the class that I am friends with a high Coptic leader in Egypt who was in my doctoral class at Palmer Theological Seminary. In addition I had two pastors from Cairo in another class. All three of these Egyptian Christians told us personally about the persecution and oppression they face in Egypt. Two of them even said that it would be better to be a Christian in Saddam's Iraq than in Egypt.
The Imam disagreed with me, but he is wrong. The persecution of Coptic Christians in Egypt is and has long been international news. (For example, see here.) My feeling is that the Imam has to know about the very public persecution of Christians happening in Egypt.
Why did he deny this? My guess is that he is concerned about the negative image Muslims have in America, and was trying to counter this to the U-Toledo students. (See, as an example of Islamic counterpoint, this from today's Washington Post.) To many in Europe and North America Muslims are viewed as violent. There is now a great debate as to whether real Islam is intrinsically violent. The Koran has troubling statements in this regard, and Muhammed himself was engaged in acts of violence. Some of the pre-questions we received included questions re. Islam, jihad, and violence. No student asked the Imam these especially relevant questions.
In addition, the Imam told the class that Islam embraces all religions, including Christianity, since Islam sees Jesus as a prophet. I responded that Christians themselves see Jesus as far more than a prophet. Indeed, we believe Jesus is God the Son. Such a view is scandalous to a Muslim. But to reduce Jesus to a mere prophet because the Koran says so, and then to claim that Islam embraces Christianity, is insulting to Christians and prevents real dialogue because it fails to understand and misrepresents its dialogical partner.
We were all asked what was distinctive about our particular religion. I told that class that C.S. Lewis was once asked this and he responded, "That's easy, it's grace." Throughout the evening the Imam talked about "deeds," and I responded by explaining the Christian idea of salvation by the grace of God and not by deeds. "Grace" is the Christian distinctive, and is a basic reason why Christianity is the only true global religion.
The Imam made the point that, if you want to learn about Islam, invite a Muslim to speak to you. I agree. I'd say the same to him re. Christianity. To think that Christians like myself will feel good about Islam's inaccurate portrait of Jesus shows that we are not being listened to.
Real, fruitful dialogue requires clear understanding of essential differences. Only then can "tolerance" kick in, since to "tolerate" something means precisely to love the other in spite of thinking them wrong.