Excerpt from the Introduction to Leonard Swidler, ed., Muslims in Dialogue: The Evolution of A Dialogue (Lewiston/Queenston/Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992):
A special word of caution to Jews and Christians entering into dialogue with Muslims is in order. They will be starting such a venture with several disadvantages: 1) the heritage of colonialism, 2) ignorance about Islam, 3) distorted image of Muslims, and 4) culture gap.
The vast majority of Muslims trained in Islamics are non-Westerners, which means they very likely come from a country that was until very recently a colony of the West. Many Muslims are still traumatized by Western colonialism and frequently identify Christianity, and to a lesser extent, Judaism, with the West. Jewish and Christian dialogue partners need to be aware of this and move to diffuse the problem.
Jews and Christians will need to make a special effort to learn about Islam beyond what was required for them intelligently to engage in the Jewish-Christian dialogue, for in the latter they usually knew at least a little about the partner’s religion. With Islam they will probably be starting with a negative quantity compounded from sheer ignorance and massive misinformation.
Most often the current Western image of a Muslim is a gross distortion of Islam. Indeed, it is frequently that of some kind of inhuman monster. But the Khomeini distortion of Islam is no more representative of Islam than the Rev. Ian Paisley of Northern Ireland is of Christianity in general or Richard Nixon was of the pacifist Quaker tradition.
Most difficult of all is the fact that a huge cultural gap exists between the great majority of Muslims and precisely those Jews and Christians who are open to dialogue. In brief, Islam as a whole has not yet really experienced the “Enlightenment” and come to terms with it, as has much of the Judeo-Christian tradition, although obviously not all of it. Only a minority of Muslim Islamics scholars will share the “deabsolutized” understanding of truth needed to be able and want to enter into dialogue with “the other,” that is, to converse with the religiously “other” primarily to learn religiously from her or him-which means that many efforts at dialogue with Muslims will in fact be prolegomena to true interreligious dialogue. Frequently such attempts will be not unlike “dialogue” with many Orthodox Jews or evangelical Christians-or with Catholics before Vatican II.
But the prolegomena must be traversed in order to reach authentic dialogue. In this case surely the words of the Vatican and Pope Paul VI apply to all Christians and Jews, who “must assuredly be concerned for their separated brethren ... making the first approaches toward them .... dialogue is demanded nowadays... by the pluralism of society, and by the maturity man has reached in this day and age.”* It is toward that end all Christians and Jews must strive, first among themselves, then with each other, and then with their quasi “offspring,” Islam.
*Ecclesiam suam, no. 78, quoted in Austin Flannery, Vatican Council II (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1975), p. 1003.