Tuesday, January 8, 2008

George Weigel's "Faith, Reason & The War against Jihadism" (Part 1)

Weigel begins Faith, Reason and the War Against Jihadism with the basic observation that the overwhelming majority of humanity receives the narrative for life from religious convictions, and for whom religion constitutes a (or, rather, the) dynamic force. To put it another way (borrowing a familiar phrase from American conservatism:) "ideas have consequences." Failure to understand this, warns Weigel, is to commit a kind of "conceptual self-sabotage."

Criticizing the notion of "the inevitable progress of history" which holds many in its sway ("a hypothetical, not a given"), Weigel intends this book as a wake-up call, a reminder that the very future of the West rests not upon material or technological wealth but "whether our spiritual aspirations are noble or base." He sets out "to identify what we should have learned, since September 11, 2001: about our enemy, about us -- and about what must be done to see us through to a future safe for freedom." Writign for a popular audience, he offers 15 brief lessons categorized in three sections: 'Understanding the Enemy', 'Rethinking Realism' and 'Deserving Victory.'

I'm going to divide my post into two parts -- I'll begin by presenting Weigel's diagnosis of the problem (understanding of "the Enemy"), and offering my impressions; in a later post I plan to review the 2nd and 3rd parts (essentially Weigel's prescription in the form of recommmendations for foreign policy). Read More

"Understanding the Enemy"

Weigel challenges the facile equasion of Christianity, Judaism and Islam as "people of the Book" or "the three Abrahamic faiths." To do so, he contends, obscures the very different characterization and roles assigned to Moses and Jesus in Islamic theology, not to mention the unique nature of Muslim's reverence for the Qur'an.

The focal point of this differentiation is Islamic theological supersessionism: Islam's conviction of itself as the final revelation and a necessary corrective to Judaism and Christianity in such a way that, while "no orthodox Christian holds that God's self-revelation in Christ negates God's self-revelation in the history of the People of Israel," Islam, by contrast, "trumps . . . any prior revelatory value that might be found in the Hebrew bible or the New Testament." [p. 20-21].

Consequentially, Islam has built into its theology a "dynamic of conflict" with Judaism and Christianity. However, while the history of Islamic-Christian relations has been one of "almost continuous conflict", Weigel does not think this inevitable ("it should not be thought that Islamic supersessionism necessarily requires violent conflict"). [p. 21]

Another common mistake, according to Weigel, is believing Islam's understanding of the Qur'an as analogous to our understanding of the Christian scriptures:

The Christian theological understanding of biblical "inspiration" -- which would not be foreign to Judaism -- provides for the possibility of interpretation of the sacred texts [and] the development of doctrine . . . the Qur'an by contrast is understood to be dictated, word for word and syllable for syllable, so there is no question of "exegesis" . . . nor is there any possibility of a postscriptural development of doctrine. The priority on Islam is on jurisprudence, the debate of experts in Islamic law on the applicability of texts to circumstances." [p. 26]
Weigel cites as an example the question of women veiling themselves -- the passages in the Qur'an and the Christian scriptures (I Corinthians 11:3-26) are similar in content, but understood in radically different fashions. Paul's advice (that women be decently dressed) was interpreted contextually and adapted to the times. By contrast, the directive to veil one's self in the Qur'an comes literally "from God" and cannot be abrogated. There is no dispute -- only the question of to what manner this order is to be carried out (precise measurements and what garments to be used).

Another important distinction between Muslims and Christians is the Islamic conception of God, and its consequences for each tradition's "theological anthropology." Weigel turns to the French historian Alain Bensacon ("What Kind of Religion is Islam" Commentary May 2004), who observes that:

The one God of the Qur'an, the God who demands submission, is a distant God; to call him "Father" would be an anthropomorphic sacrilege. The Muslim God is utterly impassive; to ascribe loving feeling to Him would be suspect. [pp. 27-28]

In Christian theology we perceive an analogy between God and humanity: men and women are bound to God by speech and argument; in Genesis, Adam names the animals, thereby participating in the divine work of the Creator. To act rationally is to reflect the Father (Here one is reminded of Benedict's citation of Manuel II in his Regensburg Address: "Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God"). According to Weigel, such a conception is not to be found in the world of Islam, whose anthropology is governed instead by "submission to the majesy of God, who neither begets nor is begotten."

What are the consequences of this differentation in conceptions?

"If God is not "Father," it is difficult to imagine the human person as been made "in the image of God." And that, in turn, puts great strain on any idea of intimacy between faith and reason [in the human-divine relationship]." [p. 30]
Christianity and Islam also differ greatly in their understanding of the just society, the latter characterized by the fusion of temporal and spiritual authority. According to Bernard Lewis, "The Islamic state [is] the only truly legitimate power on earth and the Islamic community the sole repository of truth" -- the world thus divided between "The House of Islam" (Dar al-Islam) and "The House of War" (Dar al-harb -- composed of those who have not yet submitted to Islam and his Prophet). Suffice to say this presents a great impediment in creating the cultural conditions for social pluralism between ethnic or religious groups. [p. 31] Considering this impoverishment, Weigel asks:
. . . Christianity's convictions about the rationality built into the world by the world's creator were one important source of "modernity," if by that term we mean the scientific method, historical-critical study, [and] goverment by the arts of persuasion, . . . are there in Islam's theological self-understanding, themes analogous to Christianity's theologically driven convictions about the rationality of the world, themes that could, over time, make Islam's encounter with modernity more fruitful for both Islam and the modern world? [p. 34]
For Weigel, "whether Islam can evolve into a religion capable of providing religious warrants for genuine pluralism" is one of the great questions of our age.

Whom, or what, are we fighting?

Weigel moves on to a proper identification of the enemy with which we are engaged: jihadism - best distinguished from other forms of Islamism by its messianic political aspirations, demanding nothing less than a global Islamic state. Weigel quotes Fr. Neuhaus:

"Jihadism is the religiously inspired ideology [which teaches] that it is the moral obligation of all Muslims to employ whatever means necessary to compel the world's submission to Islam."

To understand jihadism and what motivates these terrorists, one must grasp its intellectual history. Weigel locates this in the writings of several prominent Muslim figures:

  • Taqi ad-Din Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328) - who taught that political power was essential for Islam's survival and the establishment of peace and justice is predicated on Islam's victory worldwide; also, for broadening the targets of jihad to include -- through takfir or excommunication -- fellow Muslims deemed to be heretical and apostate opponents of jihad. According to Taymiyyah: "any group of people that rebels against any single prescript of the clear and reliably transmitted prescripts of Islam has to be fought… even if members of this group publicly make a formal confession of the Islamic faith" (See: "The Preacher and the Jihadi", by Steven Brooke. Current Trends in Islamist Ideology Vol. 3

  • Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703/4-1792) - from whom the term Wahhabism is derived, which influenced the Taliban in Afghanistan and has become the formal religion of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (and via Saudi funding, propagated in madrassas throughout the world).

    Wahab emphasized the radical unicity (oneness) and lordship of God, the absolute lawgiver, and in relation to whom there is only submission:

    True submission, according to Wahhab, requires both a profound disdain for Islamic mysticism and the destruction of any human artifacts that are thought to embody or express divine attributes.
    See also: Stephen Schwartz on Islam and Wahhabism Q&A with Kathryn Jean Lopez. National Review November 2002).

  • Hasan al Banna (1906-1949), Egyptian founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, operating under the slogan “God is our purpose, the Prophet our leader, the Qur’an our constitution. Jihad our way and dying for God’s cause our supreme objective.” According to Weigel, Hassan condemned the "mental colonization" of Islam under colonial rule and urged a wholesale Islamic social reformation, in which the educational, social, economic, religious and charitable activities of the Muslim Brotherhood would be wedded to the sword of Jihad, cleansing the owrld of infidels and unbelievers.

  • Sayyid Qutb (1903-1966), a leading intellectual in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Qutb believed that "the index of whether a state was truly Muslim was the degree to which sharia law prevailed," and stressed that those Muslims who failed to live an authentic Muslim life constituted a threat to Islam alongside Jews, Christians and unbelievers.

    Sayiid Qutb's writings were promoted by his brother Mohammad, a professor of Islamic studies in Saudi Arabia. One of his students, Ayman Zawahiri, would become a mentor to Osama bin Laden and a leading figure in Al Qaeda. (For more on Qutbe, see Paul Berman's "The Philosopher of Islamic Terror" New York Times Magazine, March 23, 2003.)

What is important, says Weigel, is to read history and politics "through the prism of jihadist theological convictions." The "generally feckless" response by the United States to attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000 spurred Bin Laden to new heights of hostility. According to Reza Aslan:

The attacks of 9/11, for example, were by Bin Laden's own admission specifically designed to goad the United States into exaggerated retaliation against the Islamic world so as to galvanize other Muslims to join the jihadist cause. The idea was to mobilize the Muslim world to choose sides in an internal battle over the future of Islam by framing the inevitable U.S. response to 9/11 as a war not against terrorism but against Islam itself.

Economic resentment, the United States' relationship with Israel, and the presence of U.S. troops abroad are peripheral to jihadist ambitions: namely, the overthrow of the West and the consequent subjugation of all humanity under Islam:

As Pope Benedict pointed out in [the Regensburg Address], the key theological move that underwrites today's jihadist ideology (and practice) is the identification by jihadists of God as Absolute Will. If that is what jihadists believe God to be (irrespective of the degree of warrant that concept can find in classical Islam, which is disputed), then jihadists are, within their own frame of reference, justified in belieivng that God can command anything -- even the irrational. And so, in extension of the thought of Sayyid Qutb, contemporary jihadists believe that murder of innocents is not only morally acceptable, but morally required, if such murders advance the cause of Islam. Thus the origins of one of today's most lethal weapons: the so-called "suicide bomber" . . . [p. 48]

The line of Islamic thought from Tammiya and Wahhab that would later influence Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutbe was one in which several struggles were being played out: Islam vs. modernity; jihadists vs. other Islamic reformers,; Islam versus the rest. That line of thought came to one terminus when Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden - an Egyptian and a Saudi . . . joined focus to form al-Qaeda. [p. 50]

The consequence of this union was global jihad. Far from crazy, Islamic jihadists from the perspective of their own defective theology make "a terrible kind of sense."

Dialogue and Islamic Renewal

In Chapter 6, Weigel turns his attention to Islamic-Christian dialogue -- he mentions Benedict's 2006 Regensburg Address, and the first "Open Letter" of 38 prominent Islamic leaders in response. The imperative of future dialogues, says Weigel, should be to "address Islam's ability assimilate, in a critical way, the achievements of the Enlightennment - a question which Christianity has been wrestling with for centuries." The skepticism and relativism that are characteristic of one aspect of Enlightenment thought need not deter Muslims from engaging that which is positive:

... [exploring] the possibility of an Islamic case for religious tolerance, social pluralism and civil society -- even as Islam's interlocutor's (among Christians, Jews and others, including nonbelievers) open themselves to the possibility that the Islamic critique of certain aspects of modern culture is not without merit. [pp. 63-64]

While some have recommended an "Islamic Luther" as a panacea for Muslim ills, Weigel envisions someone along the lines of Leo XIII: "... toward the possibility of a religious leader who reaches back into the deeper philosophical resources of his tradition in order to broker a critical agreement with Enlightenment political thought, and to shape his tradition's encounter with the economic and political institutions of modernity." As Leo's retrieval of authentic Thomistic philosophy led to a development of social doctrine in the Catholic Church and eventually to Vatican II's historic Declaration on Religious Freedom and the disentanglement of sacerdotium from regnum, Weigel hopes that Muslims could accomplish a similar

process of retrieval and development, as distinct from rupture and revolution . . . such an approach, emphasizing the capacity of reason to get at the truth of things, also holds out the possibility of interreligious dialogue.
Weigel does caution that non-Muslims can play no significant role in this process; that it must be resolved internally, "in term of Islamic premises."

At the same time, non-Muslims can shape the contours of this struggle -- first, by refraining from dialoguing Muslim religious leaders who do not first publicly denounce jihadism and terrorism (anti-semites and Holocaust deniers need not apply); secondly, by working with those who are "reviving the tradition of reason with Islam" -- specifically, defending reason against the dual threat of "jihadists and postmodernists who deny the human capacity to know the truth of anything with certainty." Weigel envisions building a cross-cultural grammer of natural law, the recognition of moral truths built into the world and human nature which can be grasped by reflection. In such a way we could have "the first building blocks of a philosophical foundation on which to construct together free and just societies that respect religious conviction."

Weigel closes out the first part of his book with a reminder to his readers that this present war is likely to span "at least 2-3 generations" -- birth rates in Islamic countries are actually diminishing, creating a brief "window of opportunity" for jihadists to accomplish their goals. Nonetheless, while still a minority among Muslims, jihadists "can count on a substantial periphery of sympathizers, more than sufficient to sustain long campaigns of terrorism" (Weigel, citing Walter Laqueur p. 72.)

In his interview with Hugh Hewitt, Weigel expresses his frustration with the United States for losing site of the broader context of this war -- as he put it, this war is being fought on multiple fronts -- in Afghanistan, Somalia, Gaza, Pakistan, North Africa/Maghreb, Sudan and Southeast Asia. There are many facets to the conflict: intelligence, financial-flows, economics, energy, and homeland security.

Al-Qaeda attacks on the United States and on American diplomatic assets were, for example, planned in the Phillipines and other parts of Southeast Asia. Places unknown to the vast majority of Americans are now among the most evil places on earth . . . what happens in locales previously unknown save in the most recondite geography bees -- North Waziristan -- has direct effects on our armed forces in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. What is being plotted in such places could have devastating effects on the homeland.
It's high time that we recognize this threat, that we take it seriously, and that our public leaders, as well as American voters, -- as Weigel put it -- "are not afraid to use the 'J' word." It is not "Islamophobic" to note the historical connection between conquest and Muslim expansion, or between contemporary jihadism and terrorism.

* * *

Impressions of Part I: "Understanding the Enemy"

I admit that when I first heard about Weigel's book I was curious whether he would take an approach akin to Robert Spencer (Jihadwatch.com). His website serves a useful purpose in its daily reports on the activities of jihadists, but goes too far in its fiery rhetoric, tarring Muslims as a whole with sweeping denunciations ("to take the violence out of Islam would require it to jettison two things: the Quran as the word of Allah and Muhammad as Allah's prophet . . . to pacify Islam would require its transformation into something that it is not"). A reader immersing himself soley in Spencer's work might arrive at the conclusion that Islam was nothing more than a violent political ideology and the only authentic Muslim, true to the dictates of his religion, is the radical jihadist engaged in violent struggle against the West. Consider Jihadwatch's response to the question: "If Islam is violent, why are so many Muslims peaceful?":

This question is a bit like asking, "If Christianity teaches humility, tolerance, and forgiveness, why are so many Christians arrogant, intolerant, and vindictive?" The answer in both cases is obvious: in any religion or ideology there will be many who profess, but do not practice, its tenets. Just as it is often easier for a Christian to hit back, play holier-than-thou, or disdain others, so it is often easier for a Muslim to stay at home rather than embark on jihad. Hypocrites are everywhere.

Furthermore, there are also people who do not really understand their own faith and so act outside of its prescribed boundaries. In Islam, there are likely many Muslims who do not really understand their religion

As Dinesh Disouza remarked, such critics -- when following their charge to their ultimate conclusions -- let Bin Laden define Islam. Indeed, the only acceptable Muslim in this perspective would be one who has renounced his faith altogether.

By contrast, Weigel takes care to distinguish jihadism or Islamism from Islam as a religious tradition. For example, it is notable that in his numerous references to Pope Benedict's Regensburg Address, he understands it as a critique of jihadism, as opposed to general Islam (Muslim readers should take note of this).

With over a billion Muslims in the world today, an estimated 5-7 million in the U.S. alone and 10-20,000 serving in our own armed forces, I believe it is important not to adopt the erroneous position of "guilty until proven innocent," regarding everybody in a hijab or carrying a Qur'an as a suspected terrorist. So it comes as a relief to see Weigel taking a less hyperbolic approach to this issue as those who have, post 9/11, made something of a career in racheting up the polemics against Islam.

Fr. Samir Khalil put it best:

The truth is that Islamic terrorism is caused by Islamism that is by a certain reading of the Koran and Sunnah, which has spread throughout the most famous Islamic schools and universities such as Cairo's Al-Azhar. Islamic terrorism is caused by Salafism, that is a blind adherence to the tradition of the ancients, of those who went before us (salaf), a literal and immoveable reading, without life, without soul. This with regards to the Sunni world.

In the Shiite world, the Khomeini theory of the "wilâyat al-faqîh" – according to which the ideal state is that which is governed by the most gifted faqîh, a shariah specialist – opened the door to the all forms of extremism, in the name of shariah, by deciding the daily life of the people and of society.

It is important not to confuse Islam with Islamism, but it is just as important to urge Muslims to reject Islamism as an alteration of authentic Islam and to counter this violent and invasive tendency.

While I am in full agreement with the essential thrust of Weigel's book (awaking the world to the reality of the Islamist threat), I do have some concerns about his treatment of Islam:

"The Muslim God"

In conveying the "Islamic conception of God," Weigel appears largely reliant on the Commentary article by French historian Alain Bensacon. I have to wonder: how many Muslims would characterize their own perception and experience of God in such cold, stark terminology: "distant . . . utterly impassive . . . demanding submission"? -- It may be true that Islam is chiefly characterized by its insistence on God as Absolute, but this is not to say that the Islamic tradition is wholly devoid of love. See, for instance, God and Love, by Dr. Ahmad Shafaat, who disputes the charge; or for more in-depth reading, Perspectives on the Concept of Love in Islam, by Mahnaz Heydarpoor. One would also have to take into account sufism, the mystical dimension of Islam, whose adherents strive to empty themselves of the false self and thereby become a "receptacle for God's love."

Dar al Islam vs. Dar al Harb -- applicable or outdated?

In terms of the separation of the world into the "House of Islam" Dar al-Islam and the "House of War" Dar al-harb, Weigel neglects to point out that this distinction tends to vary and is generally regarded as a matter of ijtihad (independent judgment) by Muslim scholars, given as there is no mention of this concept in the Qur’an or the Sunnah.

Jihadists are quick to identify the non-Muslim world as dar al-Harb (in a state of belligerency against Islam, consequuently making militant jihad incumbent on Muslims). However, other Muslims opt for a more expansive understanding, such as the following from Sheikh `Atiya Saqr, former head of Al-Azhar Fatwa Committee:

Muslim scholars maintain that the labeling of a country or place as being an Islamic country or a non-Islamic one Dar al-Harb revolves around the question of religious security. This means that if a Muslim practices Islam freely in his place of abode despite that the place happens to be secular or un-Islamic, then he will be considered as living in a Dar Islam, meaning that he is not obliged to immigrate from that place.
Curiously, as Dr Zafarul-Islam Khan writes, Muslims may even find themselves more free in non-Muslim countries:
It is evident today that in many ‘Muslim’ countries Muslims’ lives, honour and right to follow Islam are not safe while there are ‘non-Muslim’ countries, like our own country, where Muslims’ lives and properties are safe legally. Moreover, we enjoy legal rights to follow our religion and preach it. Therefore, it is a mistake to apply the old concept of dar al-Islam and dar al-harb on the contemporary world.
("Are the terms of Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb still applicable?" Milli Gazette July 15, 2000).

The Muslim philosopher Tariq Ramadan discusses these concepts in his book Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, rejecting the binary confinement of an "us vs. them" mentality. "We are living in an age of diversity, blending and extremly deep complexity that cannot be understood or evaluated through a binary prism, which is as much simplistic as reductionist. . . . It is becoming necessary today to go back to the Qu'ran and the Sunna and, in lgiht of our environment, to deepend our analysis in order to develop a new vision appropriate to our new context in order to formulate suitable legal opinions." Ramadan proposes instead the world of testimony: "in the sense of undertaking an essential duty and demanding responsibility -- to contribute wherever they can to promoting goodness and justice in and through human fraternity."

Muslim vs. Christian Approaches to Scripture

Also, one can only go so far with emphasizing the differences in Christian and Islamic approaches to their scriptures or the assertion that, because Muslims believe in the divine authorship of the Qur'an, the possibilities for exegesis and dialogue with others is limited. For example, shortly after the publication of a second letter by 138 Muslim scholars, Cardinal Tauran asserted that "Muslims do not accept the possibility of discussing the Qur'an, because it is written, they say, as dictated by God" -- this was construed as an attempt to silence the dialogue, and promptly and directly challenged by Muslim scholar Aref Ali Nayed in a lengthy interview with Catholic News Service's Cindy Wooden:

The Qur’an is eternal (qadim) in essence, origin, and as essential divine discourse competence (kalamullah as kalam nafsi). It is, however, also historical in its unfolding, as revelatory performance (kalamullah as kalam lafzi), and was revealed to the Prophet (peace be upon him) in intimate engagement with the historical and living circumstances and events of the Muslim community (tanzil and tanjim).

Muslim scholars have always based their interpretations and exegeses of the Qur’an on the bases of several historical and philological sciences, including the science of the ‘circumstances of revelation’ (asbabulnuzul), the science of the history of the Qur’an (tarikhulqur'an), and the sciences that carefully study the linguistic modes familiar to the Arabs around the time of revelation (ulumulugha). Muslim scholars developed a comprehensive apparatus of historical-critical-linguistic methodologies for understanding the Qur’an (ulumulqur’an).

Muslim scholars were always aware of the fact that the activities of interpretation, understanding, and exegesis (of God’s eternal discourse) are forms of human strenuous striving (ijtihad) that must be dutifully renewed in every believing generation. Solemn belief in the eternity and divine authorship of the Qur’an never prevented Muslim scholars from dealing with it historically and linguistically. On the contrary, belief in the revelatory truth of the Qur’an was the very motivation for spending life-times in close scholarly study of God’s discourse.

So belief in the divine source of the Qur'an may not necessarily be an impediment to Muslim dialogue.

* * *

All this is not to deny the very real theological differences between Islam and Christianity or the challenges Islam must face in its reconciliation with the Enlightenment -- first and foremost, as Weigel asserts, is coming to terms with pluralism and articulating an Islamic case for religious freedom -- together (I would add) with a prohibition of the death sentence for Muslims who commit apostasy in Islam. (Arguing on the basis of the Qur'an and within Muslim tradition, Dr. Jamal A. Badawi makes a case for such in Is Apostasy a Capital Crime in Islam? IslamOnline.net Apr. 26, 2006).

Finally, when Weigel talks about revival of Islam in terms of "retrieval and development" of Islamic tradition as opposed to "reform and revolution", I'd be curious to what extent he has explored traditional Islamic reponses to jihadism? -- I had discussed this aspect of the debate in a previous post, reviewing the book in which traditional Muslim authors offer a critique of jihadism from within their tradition. Weigel would likely be interested in the contributions from David Dadake ("The Myth of a Militant Islam") and Reza Shah-Kazemi Recollecting the Spirit of Jihad.

Also of interest is Shaykh Mohammad Afifi al-Akiti's "Defending the Transgressed by Censuring the Reckless against the Killing of Civilians" - which disputes the fatwa of a jihadist organization defending suicide-bombings and the proposition that "attacks such as the September 11th Hijackings is a viable option in Jihad" -- the latter gives one a sense of how jihadism might be condemned from the perspective of Islamic military ethics.

In many ways, Bin Laden's struggle against the West is also a struggle for the heart of Islam itself. As James Turner Johnson noted ("Jihad and Just War" (First Things June-July 2002):

“Bin Laden’s jihad not only pits Islam against America, the West as a whole and ultimately the rest of the non-Islamic world; it also seeks to overthrow the contemporary Muslim states and mainstream views of Islamic tradition among the great majority of contemporary Muslims."
It would be helpful, then, to more closely monitor and encourage traditional Muslim responses to the jihadism / Islamicism. (My sense is that Weigel was constrained by his intent on writing a popular, not particularly academic, work).

* * *

While expressing qualified praise for the initial "Open Letter to Pope Benedict XVI" from 38 Muslim scholars and leaders, he went on to convey his disapproval of another call for theological dialogue by the same parties, entitled "A Common Word Between Us & You". In his column "A Disappointing Call for Dialogue" ("The Catholic Difference", November 15, 2007), Weigel questioned:

Do these 138 Muslims agree or disagree that religious freedom and the distinction between religious and political authority are the issues at the heart of today's tensions between Islam and the West -- indeed, Islam and the rest? Would it not be more useful to concentrate on these urgent issues of practical reason (which bear on the organization of 21st century societies) than to frame the dialogue in terms of a generic exploration of the two Great Commandments (which risks leading to an exchange of banalities)? Why not get down to cases?

It is of the utmost importance for the human future that a genuine interreligious dialogue unfold between Islam and Christianity (and Judaism, which is largely ignored in "A Common Word"). Genuine dialogue requires a precise focus, and a commitment by the dialogue partners to condemn by name those members of their communities who murder in the name of God. It is unfortunate that "A Common Word" took us no closer to cementing either of these building blocks of genuine dialogue into place.

While I am sympathetic to Weigel's concerns, I am a little more hopeful in the letter's potential to help Muslims and Christians find common ground and engage each other. Since it's publication, the 138 signatories has grown to 216. The letter has moreover received a number of positive responses within the ecclesial Catholic hierarchy, (including, coincidentally, Cardinal Pell, to whom Weigel dedicates this book).

In December, Pope Benedict XVI responded to the letter by inviting some Muslim delegates to meet with the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue for further discussion (Video Coverage). And inasmuch as Benedict has made reciprocity and religious freedom integral to the Christian-Islamic dialogue, I cannot see the dialogue proceeding without a discussion of these issues.

We will see what the future holds and if Muslims can rise to the challenge Weigel (and Benedict) have placed before them.

Next "Rethinking Realism" and "Deserving Victory" - Weigel's policy prescriptions for the United States and the West.

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