Conversation and Conversion

by John Mark Reynolds [author, academic]

Islam has succeeded in much of the world partly because it is intellectually interesting, culturally potent, and has spiritual power. One can acknowledge this while also believing Islam to be fundamentally wrong and knowing the darker side of Islamic history.

President Obama was right to reach out to the Islamic world at his inauguration. Given his background, Obama has a unique chance to promote what is good about the United States while distinguishing those virtues from our problems and failures.

Prejudice sometimes blocks dialogue and, unfortunately, serious thought about Islam has suffered from two sorts of it in the United States.

Extreme secularists cannot engage in real dialogue or a sympathetic study of religions like Islam, because they cannot admit the possibility that any religion could be true. Any American approach to the Islamic world that refuses to talk about religion or treat it seriously is doomed to failure. One can go to the Super Bowl and refuse to talk about the game, there will be quite a few people there just for the “event,” but the majority will think, and are entitled to think, that they are missing the point. It would be even more foolish to go to many football games with ardent fans and never bother to learn a single thing about football.

In the same way dialogue about politics will inevitably bring moral and religious ideas into the discussion, but much of our leadership is educationally ill prepared to start. Much of our elite educational programs ignore serious treatment of religion. Their graduates often don’t even know the names of the players!

Other narrow-minded Americans act as if open- minded dialogue and study of a religion not their own couldn’t possibly be of benefit. Of course, being right about one thing has never been a very good guarantee that you are right about everything else! Even if your religion is correct, a humble and open-minded approach to other perspectives is always valuable. You might after all be wrong and if you are right such an approach makes it more likely that your dialogue partner will listen to you.

Real dialogue begins with both sides acknowledging they might have something to learn and being willing to listen and change. Like former President George W. Bush, President Obama has the right approach to this topic, but unlike Bush he has the global popularity and perceived credibility to advance American interests.

It is obvious that non-Muslims will benefit from this exchange.

Islam has formed important, beautiful, and long lasting human cultures. These have produced orderly nations that have made important contributions to world culture. Order and the rule of law are basic requirements of higher civilizations that Americans are fortunate enough to be able to take for granted. We have sustained them for a very short period of time compared to many Islamic people groups.

Order in Islam comes with charitable activity and a commendable concern for the poor and disadvantaged. For the most part Islam is part of the modern monotheistic moral consensus that dominates most of the world. Most branches of Islam encourage private and public moral behavior that most non-Muslim Americans would also encourage.

Americans too often see the obvious failures of nations where most people are Muslims and simplistically attribute all those failures to Islam. We forget that much of the leadership class in those nations for the last one hundred years was educated in Western socialist economic ideas and were encouraged to adopt totalitarian forms of government from places such as Moscow and Berlin. It is unjust to blame Islam for the relative poverty of nations like Egypt and Indonesia when socialist and nationalist economic policies, put in place by men who were not particularly religious, is a more likely explanation.

Ironically, so-called “Islamic” terrorist groups adopt economic and political policies that have historical roots in European secularism rather than the Koran. Marx is often a better guide than Muhammad in predicting their political and economic behavior!

Dialogue will benefit both sides.

Philosophers and theologians already benefit from the exchange. For example, non-Muslim philosophers of religion currently use arguments such as the kalaam argument for the existence of God that have roots in Islamic philosophy. Any philosopher hoping to understand Platonic and Aristotelian thought will benefit from reading Islamic thinkers. Scholars in many other fields, ranging from law to the arts, gain from careful study of Islamic ideas and achievements.

Of course, this dialogue goes both ways and must take ideas seriously enough to admit the possibility of both sides fundamentally changing their minds. If a scholar becomes convinced that Islam, Christianity, secularism or any other idea is wrong, they must have the right to pursue their ideas to their logical conclusion in the public square without fear.

Many dominantly Christian nations and many dominantly secular nations allow this freedom, but it cannot be taken from granted in much of the Islamic world.

Clergy and laity of my church who argue that Christianity is right and Islam is wrong have been murdered or face credible threats of death. Their governments do not protect them. This is not ancient history, but is happening now. Conversation must carry the possibility of change and conversion to be meaningful. Conversion from one faith to another must not carry a death sentence!

Terrorism also stops all discussion. We cannot listen to the ideas of a terrorist over the screams of their victims. There can be no dialogue with a person, religious or secular, who will not denounce terrorism. There should be no dialogue with those who will not admit the right of Israel to exist or who wish to exterminate the Jewish people.

Our President is right to show no tolerance for any person who despises American virtues. American society allows for a great deal of individual liberty and this is remarkable and good given world history. Surely, however, the hundreds of millions of people in the Islamic world who see our excesses and vice also have a point. When thoughtful external critics say that the American lifestyle has become too associated with instant gratification, a lack of community values, and hedonism, we should listen.

When terrorists use our vices as an excuse to attack us for our virtues, we should fight and win.

President Obama has said these things more eloquently than I can, but now must implement them. President George W. Bush was successful in keeping America free from further terrorist attacks after 9/11. This was an enormous accomplishment for which he has received too little credit, but Bush failed to successfully communicate our ideals to the rest of the world. President Obama must build on the success of the Bush administration while correcting this failure. All patriots hope he does so. ExileStreet

copyright 2008 John Mark Reynolds

John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Biola University.His personal website can be found at and his blog can be found at

Leave a Reply