.- Citing the need for public dialogue, Catholic radio host Al Kresta defended Islamic scholar Shadid Lewis’ invite to controversial critic Robert Spencer to a symposium and debate sponsored by Ave Maria Radio.
“It was Shadid Lewis of the Muslim Debate Initiative who called for a public debate with Spencer,” Kresta said Aug. 7, adding that he “was disappointed that Robert Spencer's participation was treated as a sign of ill will.”
Spencer, the author of the book “Religion of Peace,” is one of several speakers at an Aug. 10 symposium at Eastern Michigan University on the topic “Is Islam a Religion of Peace?”
A Catholic columnist, blogger and bestselling author, Spencer has led seminars for the U.S. Army, the Federal Bureau of Investigations, and other government agencies.
He is scheduled to debate Shadid Lewis, a member of the Muslim Debate Initiative and a former president of a Hampton, Va., mosque.
The invitation drew criticism from those who charged that Spencer spreads anti-Islamic and bigoted rhetoric. However, Kresta - who is the president and CEO of Ave Maria Communications - defended the decision, saying that Lewis had called for it as an opportunity for engagement.
“Have we lost our confidence in honest confrontation?” Kresta asked. “Spencer’s positions are held by millions of Americans and if they are baseless, the competent Muslim apologists will demonstrate it.”
“To those who sit on the sidelines and criticize, I prefer my way of bringing people together to their way of not doing it.”
Lewis told the Detroit Free Press in a recent interview that Spencer “represents true bigotry.” He cited the actions of the U.K. government, which barred Spencer from the country on the ground that his presence would not be “conducive to the public good.”
“It’s a pretty big thing to be banned from a country,” Lewis said.
Spencer said Aug. 7 on his blog Jihad Watch the ban was the consequence of “smears and defamation.”
His blog argues that non-Muslims are facing “a concerted effort by Islamic jihadists, the motives and goals of whom are largely ignored by Western media, to destroy their societies and impose Islamic law upon them -- and to commit violence to that end even while their overall goal remains out of reach.”
Spencer says that violent jihad is “a constant of Islamic history and a central element of Islamic theology.”
Dawood Zwink, executive director of the Michigan Muslim Community Council, charged that Spencer’s presentations are “incendiary” and “not in keeping with American values of civil dialogue.”
“I think it’s sad to see that this group would try to stage this kind of confrontational encounter, when Catholic and Muslim leaders are engaged in an ongoing, cordial dialogue,” Zwink told the Detroit Free Press.
Spencer said his critics were off-base.
“It would be nice for someone to have the courage to say that there is nothing wrong with resisting jihad violence and Islamic supremacism, but that may be too much to hope for in today's politically correct age,” he wrote on his blog.
In January the Diocese of Worcester, Mass., withdrew an invitation to Spencer to speak at its annual Catholic Men’s Conference after Muslim groups raised concerns. In July the Diocese of Sacramento canceled a scheduled speech on church property.
Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing, Michigan is scheduled to celebrate Mass at the end of the symposium, drawing some criticism from local Muslim leaders.
Bishop Boyea’s office said in a statement that the bishop “neither endorses nor condemns any of the featured presenters” and hopes that the symposium can help spur “what Pope Francis last week called ‘mutual respect through education’ between Christianity and Islam.”
Ave Maria Radio’s announcement for the conference cites a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey which found that 19 percent of U.S. Muslims said that suicide bombing or other forms of violence in the name of Islam could be justified.
Kresta said that some critics of Spencer’s appearance seem not to have confidence in the ability to refute him.
“Otherwise wouldn't they want the opportunity to publicly expose his ‘hate-mongering’ and ‘Islamophobia’?” he asked. “It won't do in a principled pluralistic society to hive off into our ethnic or religious ghettos and accuse outsiders of hatred and bigotry when we haven't even confronted them publicly.”
“Those attending will better understand each side and will be less willing to hastily prejudge one side or the other. For heaven's sake, this is a public debate not a one-sided propaganda fest. We must get beyond cliches if we are to live together with irreconcilable differences.”