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When Muslims come to the Jewish-Christian table

(RNS) — I spent the 16th anniversary of 9/11 at the 16th annual meeting of the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations, held under the joint auspices of the Union and Jewish theological seminaries in New York City. Appropriately, the central question before the group was how best to expand long-standing Jewish-Christian interfaith encounters in America to include Muslims.

My assignment was to discuss the use of “Judeo-Christian” language to reinforce the idea of a clash of civilizations. As in when Tony Perkins said on the Family Research Council’s “Washington Watch” in 2014, “We are a nation that was founded on Judeo-Christian principles, that’s the foundation of our nation, not Islam, but the Judeo-Christian God.”

Or when, last year, retired Air Force Col. Tom Snodgrass, a contributor to a website called Right Side News, referred to “the overt and covert war being conducted by the political forces of Islam in order to subjugate the Judeo-Christian religions and their societies.”

A fellow panelist was Columbia’s distinguished Middle East historian Richard Bulliet, who spoke about his “Islamo-Christian” conception, first published in 2004 as “The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization.” Bulliet’s idea is that theologically, doctrinally, and historically, Islam and Christianity have far more in common than most adherents of either faith tradition realize.

Interestingly, while his book has provoked considerable interest abroad — including two separate translations into Persian — it laid an egg in America, receiving no media attention despite being written to engage general readers. He was, he said, criticized for having excluded Judaism from his account.

I suspect this goes some way to explain the book’s lack of success here. Since World War II, American Christians have been so acclimated to thinking of themselves as “Judeo-Christian” that they unconsciously resist the notion of having a different religious partner at the civilizational dance.

Indeed, it is no simple matter even to bring Muslims into the Jewish-Christian discussion. Two years ago, Baltimore’s free-standing Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies (ICJS) decided to go for it.

It hired a full-time Muslim scholar to join its Jewish and Christian scholars and changed its name to the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies (with the same ICJS acronym). But getting the terms of the discussions and the power dynamics right will take a lot longer, said Executive Director Heather Miller Rubens.

Using the metaphor of interfaith “tables,” Miller Rubens said it was not just a matter of asking Muslims to pull up a chair. Including them meant creating no fewer than three new tables: Islamic-Jewish and Islamic-Christian as well as Islamic-Jewish-Christian. Each table involves its own particularities and sensitivities — and requires as well sophisticated knowledge of another tradition.

ICJS aims to be an organization with equal participation among all three faiths — including on its board of trustees and in sources of financial support. As of now, those goals remain aspirational.

“We are swimming in a sea of Islamophobia,” Miller Rubens said. “You have to take account of that.”

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service