"The dialogue is not proceeding well because of the two-facedness of most Muslim interlocutors on the one hand and the gullibility of well-meaning Western idealists on the other," said Bassam Tibi, in an interview with United Press International.
Syrian-born Tibi, who claims to be a direct descendant of the prophet Mohammed and teaches political science at Goettingen University in Germany, appealed for intellectual honesty between both parties in these exchanges.
"First, both sides should acknowledge candidly that although they might use identical terms these mean different things to each of them. The word 'peace,' for example, implies to a Muslim the extension of the Dar al-Islam -- or 'House of Islam' -- to the entire world," explained Tibi, who is also a research scholar at Harvard University.
"This is completely different from the Enlightenment concept of eternal peace that dominates Western thought, a concept developed by (18th-century philosopher) Immanuel Kant."
"Similarly, when Muslims and the Western heirs of the Enlightenment speak of tolerance they have different things in mind. In Islamic terminology, this term implies abiding non-Islamic monotheists, such as Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians, as second-class believers. They are 'dhimmi,' a protected but politically immature minority."
According to Tibi, the quest of converting the entire world to Islam is an immutable fixture of the Muslim worldview. Only if this task is accomplished -- if the world has become a "Dar al-Islam" -- will it also be a "Dar a-Salam," or a house of peace.
Tibi appealed to his co-religionists to "revise their understanding of peace and tolerance by accepting pluralism." Furthermore, he said, Muslim leaders should give up the notion of Jihad in the sense of conquest -- as opposed to Jihad as an internal struggle of the individual.
Tibi's advice comes at a time when the U.S. government is urging American Muslim leaders to promote understanding for the United States in the Islamic world. To Tibi, this is more of a diplomatic endeavor than the promotion of a more profound theological understanding between Islam and the Judeo-Christian worldview prevalent in the West.
But Muzammil Siddiqi, one senior Islamic scholar the State Department consults with, told UPI he found that his efforts in furthering contacts between Muslim, Christian and Jewish theologians were having some success.
Indian-born Siddiqi is the director of the large Islamic Center of Orange County in California. In consultation with the State Department and in cooperation with the University of Kentucky, he traveled back and forth between the United States and the Middle East trying to convince Muslim theologians and jurists there to meet with American church leaders.
"I have found that many -- though not all -- were ready to welcome visitors from America and also to come here to explore with Christians and Jews what we have in common," Siddiqi said.
Though Siddiqi's center is heavily engaged in interfaith activities, he made it clear that to him, as indeed for conservative Christians, syncretism -- the mixing of religions -- was anathema.
Common values should be sought out, he explained, and the equality of all believers respected, be they Muslims, Christians, Hindus or Buddhists. But the purity of the faith must not be compromised.
In an article in the prestigious Hamburg weekly, Die Zeit, Tibi, gave anecdotal evidence of how daunting a task this dialogue with Islam can be.
The bishop of Hildesheim in Germany paid an imam a courtesy visit in his mosque. The imam handed the Catholic prelate a Koran, which he joyfully accepted. But when the bishop tried to present the imam with a Bible, the Muslim cleric just stared at him in horror and refused to even touch Christianity's holy book.
"The bishop was irritated because he perceived this behavior as a gross discourtesy," wrote Tibi, "but the imam had only acted according to his faith. For if an imam gives a bishop a Koran, he considers this a Da'Wa, or call to Islam."
This, explained Tibi, must be borne in mind when one engages in a dialogue with Muslim scholars, for it corresponds to a verse in the Koran: "And say ... to those who are unlearned: 'Do ye submit yourselves?'" (Surah 3:20).