War in the Middle East. The Western invasion of an Islamic land. Muslims routinely demonizing Christians and vice versa. One energetic leader who, rather than perpetuate the violence, starts a dialogue.

 Not much has changed since 1219.

Nearly 800 years ago, without regard for life or limb, St. Francis of Assisi walked straight into the enemy camp during the horror of the Crusades to meet with Islam’s leader, caliph Malik al-Kamil. No one knows exactly what happened during the meeting, but the fact that it happened at all speaks volumes about the two participants. 

In particular, it speaks of dialogue. Lawrence Cunningham, in his book Francis of Assisi, writes that the saint “dared cross enemy lines at the risk of painful death in order to speak face to face with someone who was demonized by the crusaders.” In the caliph, writes Rev. Dominic Monti in Francis and His Brothers, Francis did not “encounter the ‘fierce beast’ of crusading propaganda, but a man open to dialogue.” 

Why does this matter now? Precisely because so little has changed—right down to the presence of an energetic leader who started a dialogue. Barack Obama is hardly St. Francis, but as Monti points out in a recent article, the two share a willingness to set aside violence whenever possible for an honest exchange of views. The president’s Cairo speech serves as a welcome invitation to such a dialogue. 

But how do we, as ordinary citizens, take up the invitation? The example of Francis is instructive here too, especially in its simplicity. He laid aside the stereotypes about the “fierce beast” of Islam and instead uncovered the truth in the most direct way possible: firsthand, face to face. 

The same goes for us. It’s harder for us to call Islam “an evil religion” if we personally know good, compassionate, thoughtful Muslims. It’s harder for us to believe the typecasting if we talk face to face with Muslims and read their books. This goes the other way too: people who think that all Christians fit a narrow stereotype—particularly a stereotype of uncompromising rigidity—might spend time with a few and realize it ain’t necessarily so. 

By hearing the perspectives of others firsthand, we learn to appreciate the thought behind them and see their validity. Just as important, we come face to face with the human being behind the “opposing” belief system. That cannot help but foster compassion and peace. 

If enough of us have these dialogues, maybe the peace for which St. Francis prayed so ardently may finally come to pass.