Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding

This profile was last updated in 2005

Overview

Relations between Christians and Muslims in the West continue to be a critical social issue in the public square, particularly as the private media and government foreign policies shape general imaginings of the “other.” One organization in particular, Georgetown’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (CMCU), stands out in its continued effort to bring differing religious parties together. This case study will provide a brief background both on the socio-political climate charged with Muslim-Christian discourse and on the CMCU; it will conclude with open-ended questions for the best path forward.

Muslim-Christian Relations in the West

Muslims and Christians have a mixed, shared history. At times they have co-existed peacefully, joining in common causes of mutual benefit. Others times, their relations have been strained, broken and seemingly irreparable. The chasm is growing between many non-Muslims in the West and many Muslim immigrants from parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Recently, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan pointed to factors that are widening this gap, leading to increased “Islamophobia” in the public sphere. He hinted that a number of foreign policies from Western countries may be based on inaccurate stereotypes of Muslims. Images and perspectives represented by the media certainly perpetuate assumptions about the Muslim world. As a result, public discourse often misuses the labels “Muslim” and “Christian” and misinterprets each religion’s symbols and rituals.

Founding Director John Esposito at CMCU

Today, one organization in particular, the CMCU, is making significant headway in bridging the divide between Muslims and Christians. A brief history of its founding director, John Esposito, helps one understand the present cross-roads at which the organization stands. John Esposito was invited to Georgetown in 1993 to be the founding director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Relations (CMCU) after serving as a full Professor of Middle East and Islamic Studies for four years.(1) Because of his various publications, his teaching, and his reputation, by 2000 Esposito had become one of four faculty members to hold the rank of University Professor. Few contemporary scholars have edited or written more books on Islam than Esposito. As of Spring 2005, John L. Esposito had no less than forty-four edited and authored books attributed to his name, many through Oxford University Press. He explains his zeal in publishing books on modern Muslims as fueled by his desire to be a “bridge builder between the Muslim world and the West” (Sanoff 2005). Occasionally, he speaks pro bono to audiences with less financial resources. In other more lucrative venues, Esposito has been known to receive $30,000 in speaking fees. Some audiences have topped 250,000, such as a conference for Muslims in Malaysia in 1997. Others hold Esposito in high regard. Bill Moyers regarded Esposito as “the world’s most respected scholar of Islam.” Most introductory courses on Islam in America assign at least one book by Esposito. He carefully addresses the Islamic roots of jihad-terrorism but focuses more on the compatibility of Islam with universally accepted ideas of human rights. For example, he may highlight that many Muslim nations signed the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights in 1981, and the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam in 1990. A few years ago, the American Academy of Religion awarded Esposito the prestigious Martin E. Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion for his global impact, his published works and contributions as editor-in-chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World. Many scholars say Esposito’s efforts to reach out to the world beyond academia have made CMCU distinctive. As the founding director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, Esposito managed to surround himself with prominent Middle Eastern historians, a leading scholar of feminism and Islam, scholars of religion in Southeast Asia, and a number of elected officials and policy makers in Washington DC. He and his administration were able to attract notable visitors to the center including: Karen Armstrong, Mahmoud Ayoub, John Donohue, Majid Fakhry, Nasrin Hakami, M. Kamal Hassan, Vladimir Koshelev, Roy Mottahedeh, Ahmad Moussalli, Mohamed Fathi Osman, Samir Khalil Samir, Alamgir M. Serajuddin, Jack G. Shaheen, Fatma al-Sayegh and Saloua Zerhouni. Thus, during his first eleven years as director, Esposito used his widely known works, his international networks, and his interpersonal skills to develop a world-renown academic and religious center of interreligious understanding. Few centers in the world provide more practical and theoretical resources for bridging the gap between Muslims and Christians. According to their website, the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding functions within Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, the oldest and largest school of international affairs. They claim that Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service has more graduates who have served as ambassadors and diplomats than any other university. They also say that among its graduates are a host of world leaders, as well as diplomats, corporate leaders and academics. Linked with their Department of Foreign Service, many graduates of CMCU begin influential careers in the State Departments around the world, changing the social enterprise of cross-cultural relations with Muslims. In terms of degree programs, the center offers several masters degrees and helps coordinate doctoral work including a new Ph.D. in Muslim-Christian Relations through Liberal Studies. The courses offered are more than any one student can possibly take during their time at Georgetown.(2) Furthermore, the center has hosted conferences bringing together scholars, political leaders, and journalists from Muslim nations with their counterparts in the West. Currently, five full-time faculty members are associated with the center, though none receive extra financial compensation.

New Leadership, New Chapter at CMCU

Recently, John Esposito stepped down as director to focus on research and writing. In his place is an equally qualified leader, John Voll. After receiving a Ph.D. at Harvard, he began his career writing on the Middle East and the political expressions of Islam throughout the world. From a distinguished 30-year career at the University of New Hampshire, he moved to DC to teach Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. According to his faculty profile, he has lived in Cairo, Beirut, and Sudan and has traveled widely in the Muslim world. In 1991 he received a Presidential Medal in recognition of his scholarship on Islam from President Husni Mubarak of Egypt. In addition to leading academic societies and boards, he has published numerous articles and book chapters on modern Islamic and Sudanese history. He continues to be a leading voice in his field. During the summer of 2005, the institution found itself standing at a cross-roads. As Voll himself said, “The trick now, in this second chapter of the center, is to see if we can continue and duplicate our model. First, we have to distinguish the center from my good friend, the well known John Esposito, and his almost celebrity-status. If not, our team cannot continue leading the discourse of Muslim-Christian relations. Secondly, we have to ask ourselves if the center can be replicated in other places. I fear it is easier said than done. For instance and perhaps by coincidence, three of the center’s faculty were at one time the President of MESA.(3) I imagine other schools would be fortunate to have one, and the expertise and connections they bring to such a center. Furthermore, which other university has as many professors interested in spending unpaid time devoted to Muslim-Christian relations, on top of their responsibilities as a professor or pressures of achieving tenure? Right now, only the director and a staff administrator are on the payroll (besides Esposito and his part-time Assistant). Thus, several of our professors attend meetings, conferences and help with our broader vision without financial compensation. Lastly, few other colleges are near cities like the nation’s capitol, with its rich resources of the US government and international leaders.”

Challenges of Continuity at Georgetown and Expansion Beyond

There are several challenges at this current cross-roads. First, how should CMCU move forward under their new director? At issue is separating specific personalities from the overall identity of the center. How should this be accomplished? Should the new director modify or clarify their current measures of success for interreligious understanding and relations? How and where should the center measure increased understanding or “good” relations between faith communities? How should recent international events affect the center’s strategies? Secondly, the center has pondered the possibility of duplicating their efforts in other locations. Some cities, such as Boston or New York/New Haven may be comparable to DC in that they offer top-tiered schools which train future leaders in Muslim countries (plus the latter hosts the United Nations). But, would it be possible for other types and levels of dialogue to be fostered in other environments? Could Detroit or Houston offer a less political climate but perhaps more vibrant Muslim community for such dialogue? Should some centers be located more around places of worship instead of the university? What about cultural centers or places of employment? Addressing these issues carefully, the center hopes to more forward with a more promising future than its distinguished past, and introduce its vision to other communities.

Footnotes

1) Though he would eventually find his niche in Islamic studies, his first job involved leading a variety of courses on world religions at the College of the Holy Cross in Worchester, Massachusetts in 1975. Teaching these required classes helped Esposito understand non-Muslim religions and avoid making any one religion exceptional. Not far from Harvard, Tufts and Boston University, he also took advantage of discussing his interests with scholars in the region. In the 1970s, he continued to travel internationally, visiting nations with Muslim majorities. When others were writing on Arab nationalism, Esposito focused on Islamic fundamentalism and revivalism. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, his expertise was needed. The Arab oil embargo in 1973, the Iranian Revolution in 1978-79, and the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia in 1979, according to Esposito, “contributed to an explosion of coverage of events in the Muslim world … [from which] … Americans became progressively more aware of and concerned about stability in the Middle East” (Gale 2004). Esposito also points out, “Frustrated by our ignorance of Islam and contemporary Muslim societies and convinced of the importance for both the public and policy makers to better understand the nature of Islamic revivalism and its implications, I brought together a number of leading Islamic leaders and intellectuals with Americans from academia, government, and the corporate world. As a result, Voices of Resurgent Islam was published” (Gale 2004). As a result of the impact of the Iranian revolution, Esposito was offered several book contracts. During 1979-80, he was a Visiting Scholar at Harvard’s Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard University. By 1986, he served as an Adjunct Professor at Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Returning to Holy Cross as Director of the Center for International Studies from 1987-91 further crystallized his pairing of religion and politics.
2) According to their website, the following courses will be taught at the center during Fall 2005: The Islamic World, Islam In The West, Revolutionary Thought In Islam, Religion and International Affairs, Coalitions and Confrontations: Christianity and Islam, Islam and Global Terrorism, Contemporary Islamic Activist Intellectuals, Religion and International Affairs, Middle East Politics: Comparative Perspectives, The United States and the Middle East, Arab-Israeli Conflict/Peace Process, Middle East Civilization, Conservative Islam In 20th century, Empires of the Greater Middle East, The Caucasus:1801-2004, Democracy and Human Rights in Southeast Asia, Papal Diplomacy and International Affairs, Security Problems in Middle East/Persian Gulf, Power and Politics in Biblical Tradition, First Christians and Christianity Today, Religion In America, Womanist Theology, Islamic Religion Thought and Practice, Catholic Ritual and Spirituality and Justice, Modern Islam, Religion and Violence, History of Christian Thought and Readings in Sufism.
3) MESA stands for The Middle East Studies Association and remains probably the most influential academic, American society devoted to Islamic Studies.

Works Cited

-Gale, Thomson. Contemporary Authors Online “John L. Esposito,” Farmington Hills, MI: Thomson Gale, 2005 (Also see: Directory of American Scholars, 10th ed., Detroit, MI: Gale, 2001).
-Sanoff, Ivin P. “Unveiling Islam,” Middle East Studies in the News, Georgetown University, Washingtonian, January 1, 2005.