2015-2016 ACTIVITIES

2015-2016 Activities

April 20, 2016— roundtable lunch: "Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan," featuring Afghan artisans from the Turquoise Mountain exhibit at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery. Cosponsored by Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, the U.S. Afghan Women's Council and the Berkeley Center. The Turquoise Mountain Institute is Afghanistan's premiere arts vocational training institution, giving students a world class education in woodwork, ceramics, jewelry & gem-cutting, calligraphy & miniature painting. Afghan jeweler Saeeda shared her story of finding her voice, passion and purpose amid chaos and uncertainty. 

Turquoise Mountain exhibit in DC, March 2016 - January 2017

April 19, 2016—briefing: “Family does matter: Muslim – non-Muslim kinship ties in the early and Classical Islamic periods" with Uriel Simonsohn. Images of religiously-mixed family ties in the early Islamic period, specifically of ties that endured the religious conversion of a family member or the choice of individuals to marry outside the confessional fold, tend to remain on the margins of historical records. In turn, modern scholars have been inclined to conclude that religious conversion to Islam and religiously exogamous marriages resulted in the severance of family ties and communal bonds. Moreover, this notion of separation finds support in the ideals and legal principles that dominate the narratives and legal records composed by those who sought to sustain communal demarcations, namely communal authorities of discrete religious affiliations. In his talk, Dr. Simonsohn discussed cases of religiously-mixed family ties as they show up in early Islamic narratives of diverse kind and diverse confessional provenance. His aim was to elucidate not only an historical phenomenon, but also to contemplate the endurance of family ties despite the privileged image of communal affiliations.

April 14, 2016—panel discussion: “Race, Religion and U.S. Presidential Politics", a Bridge Initiative event. The 2016 U.S. Presidential election cycle is shaping up to be one of the most divisive in recent history, fueled by alarmingly irresponsible rhetoric.  Traditionally, discussion of race and religion in the context of U.S. presidential politics revolves around candidates' individual faith choices and perhaps, aspects of their racial or ethnic identity. Currently, however, politics targets American voters and others based on race and religion. The dangerous normalization of Islamophobia - at a time when American Muslims, South Asians and Arab Americans struggle with hate crimes, employment discrimination and bias-based bullying - is arguably one of the most pernicious resulting outcomes. A diverse panel of experts explored this intersection and discussed how these issues are used and misused, today.


April 13, 2016—briefing: "Religious Relationships in South Asia - A Bird's Eye-view" with Fr. Vincent Sekhar, SJ. Fr. Vincent, S.J., of the Institute of Dialogue with Cultures and Religions at Loyola College in Chennai, India, explored the complexity of relationships among diverse religious communities in India, including Hindu, Muslim, Jain, and Christian, through the lens of recent events. He discussed how attitudes have changed and identities have formed and solidified, as well as the challenges of dialogue and hopes for building bridges.

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April 6, 2016—briefing: “Mecca, Its Description and Sovereignty in the Sixteenth-Century Indian Ocean: Jar Allah Ibn Fahd and His The Best of Joy of the Time for the Construction of Mecca by the Kings of the Ottoman Dynasty” with Guy Burak. In 1542, a quarter century after the Ottoman conquest of the Arab lands, the famous Meccan jurist and chronicler Jār Allāh Muḥammad Ibn Fahd (d. 1547 or 1548) completed a fairly short and quite unique work devoted to the construction projects the Ottoman sultans, the new “Custodians of the Two Holy Mosques,” undertook in Mecca since the Ottoman conquest of the city. Ibn Fahd, however, was not the only author who wrote about the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. The renowned author Muḥyī’l-Dīn Lārī (d. ca. 1526) wrote about the pilgrimage (ḥajj) and the Ḥaramayn for the Gujarti sovereign Muẓaffar Shāh II (r. 1511-1526). By looking at these texts and their circulation, the talk explored the interplay between political claims over the Ḥaramayn, the physical construction projects, and their representations across the Indian Ocean, from Istanbul to Gujarat, in the first half of the sixteenth century. More specifically, the talk examined the relationship between the political reorganization of the Indian Ocean in that period and the emergence of new pietistic and visual sensibilities across the Ocean.

March 17, 2016—briefing: "The Myth of a Universal Islamic State" with Mohammad Shafi and Khalid Blankinship. Since its foundation, Islam presupposed some vision of political order.  In the past century, however, religious reformers in countries as diverse as Egypt, India and Indonesia have advocated for establishing an idealized, universal “Islamic State.”  The acquisition of territory in Iraq and Syria by ISIL, (also known as ISIS or Daesh), in 2015 has brought the issue increasingly to our collective thoughts and to media headlines. This group’s claims are often presented by diverse media outlets and others, including academics, as an established fact in Islam. Such presentations give a monopolistic legitimacy to groups such as ISIL (or ISIS) and lock out traditional religious views and historical realities from the public square.

Dr. Mohammad Shafi presented an argument that there is no claim for a universal Islamic State in the Qur’an or the normative practice and tradition of the Prophet.  Furthermore, the lived history of the Muslim peoples over the centuries shows that the idea is not practical or feasible.

March 15, 2016—panel discussion: "Islamic Political Thought after the Arab Spring" with Usaama al-Azami, Emad Shahin and Andrew March. In the roughly two decades prior to the Arab Spring in 2011, Muslim clerics, intellectuals and political activists had developed frameworks for envisioning and explaining the relationship (actual and desired) between Islam, the state and society.  These frameworks were often in competition, but by 2011 they had all become standard features of Islamic political thought.  The Arab Spring of 2011-13 exploded this stasis, inverting power relationships and making the theoretical seem possible.  The sudden collapse of the Arab Spring and the violence and repression that have dominated many Arab states since has again shocked the manner in which the political is perceived.  This panel explored how Muslim scholars, intellectuals and activists have sought to reconstitute or adapt their conceptualizations of Islam and the state since the dramatic end of the Arab Spring.  

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March 2, 2016—briefing: "Double-Truth and its Discontents? Ibn Taymiyya and the Pragmatics of Late-Abbasid Ḥanbalī Hermeneutics" with Dr. Rodrigo Adem. The Ḥanbalī school of Islamic legal interpretation is most commonly associated with theological "literalism."  However, this characterization fails to acknowledge key developments in the history of Islamic theology to which Ḥanbalī theology was not impervious.  Most central here are contentions on the pragmatics of human communication and divine revelation as formulated in the discourse of uṣūl al-fiqhand kalām: The implications of such discursive turns for late Abbasid Ḥanbalism provide a window into understanding controversial theologian Ibn Taymiyya's break with that school and his supposed "rejection of metaphor" in language.  As can be shown, rather than reject metaphor, Ibn Taymiyya argues for the incoherence of "literal meaning" as semantic category.  This lecture reorients our understanding of Ibn Taymiyya's thesis with broader reference to Muslim social and intellectual history, as well as the controversy of "double-truth" in its Islamic context.

February 24, 2016—book talk "The State and Muslim Minorities Today: Lessons from Europe, Africa and Asia" w/ Robert Mason. To mark the launch of Muslim Minority - State Relations: Violence, Integration and Policy, Dr Robert Mason discussed the most pertinent lessons from Europe, Africa and Asia in his talk at ACMCU, Georgetown University. His frame of reference is taken from work with leading scholars on case studies as diverse as the UK, Austria, Kenya, Russia, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, each highlighting areas of either best practice in state - Muslim community relations or contentious issues which have yet to be resolved. His remarks were made within the context of often ill-informed or divisive responses to violent Islamist attacks, the international refugee crisis driven by ongoing conflict in the Middle East, and the alleged 'Islamization' of western societies propagated by some leading political and media figures and far-right groups.      

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February 10, 2016—briefing: "The Challenge of Covering Ambiguous Wars" with Nancy Youssef. In today's modern wars, there are no front lines. Rather, wars are fought in cities, in the sky, and with secretive forces. How can the public better understand the wars we cannot see? And what does it mean for reporters when they have to follow battle lines that have become blurs within communities? 

January 27, 2016—book talk: "ISIS vs. Al-Qaeda: What's the Difference and Does it Matter?" with Daniel Byman. Cosponsored with the Center for Security Studies. Although the Islamic State and Al Qaeda both grew out of the broader jihadist movement, their objectives, strategies, and organizational structure differ considerably. Professor Daniel Byman contrasted the two organizations as a way of understanding the terrorism threat today. 

December 2, 2015—briefing: “Berets are OK, Headscarves are Not: How French Cultural Norms Distort Religious Freedom” with Rim-Sarah Alouane. Relations between the French state and public visibility of religion, particularly Islam, became openly confrontational in the late 1980s with the infamous “headscarf affair” in public schools, where Muslim students were expelled from school for wearing a hijab (Islamic headscarf). With respect to public displays of religion, the initial response of public authorities was a lenient application of laïcité towards the general public but a rigid one towards civil servants. In the 2000s, there were escalating public struggles between public manifestations of religious affiliation and politicians increasingly fighting for a restrictive application of laïcité that regards religious displays as a violation of public order. This increasing politicization of laïcité, where religious freedom was seen as an assault on cultural and republican values, has resulted in a toughening of the legislative speech on religious signs, particularly against Muslims who were seen as more openly violating French cultural norms. While restrictions of expression of religious affiliation of students began in public schools, we are now observing an extension of this control to people in public spaces. This expansion of repressive policies will end badly not only for Muslim minorities in Europe, but also the overall legitimacy and integrity of modern European liberal values.

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November 23, 2015—cosponsored event: “Live Calligraphy and Exhibition” with Master Haji Noor Deen. Cosponsored with Georgetown University Arabic Department, Arab Society, Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Center for Muslim Christian Understanding, and Muslim Life. Fusing Arabic and Chinese styles, Chinese-Muslim calligrapher Haji Noor Deen is considered one of the greatest living masters of Islamic calligraphy. 

November 19, 2015 — Bridge Initiative Program: American Muslims: Facts vs. Fiction Film Premiere and Panel Discussion w/ Dalia Mogahed, John Esposito, Tarek El-Messidi, Linda Sarsour & Alex Kronemer. Unity Productions Foundation (UPF), in partnership with the Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University, hosted a panel and film screening that looked at the growing Islamophobia and anti-Muslim rhetoric in the US election season and beyond. From Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson’s statement that American Muslims should take loyalty oaths, to the planned anti-Muslim rallies in over twenty cities, Islamophobic statements and sentiment have managed to capture attention and cause alarm on near a weekly basis. 

This event showcased a new 11-minute film produced by UPF entitled, American Muslims: Facts vs. Fiction which presents groundbreaking research from public opinion surveys and studies of the American Muslim community. The event also launched a nationwide set of screening events with the film at different universities and communities, and panelists were asked to reflect on proactive strategies Americans can use to respond to this rising Islamophobia.


November 14, 2015 — cosponsored event: “Post-modern Muslim Feminism: A Journey In Female Spiritual Leadership” with Usthadha Tahera Ahmad. Ustadha Tahera Ahmad reflected on the challenges of female spiritual leadership and her narrative as a Millenial Muslim activist.

November 12, 2015 — cosponsored book launch event: HarperCollins Publishing Book Launch of The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary. Drawn from a wide range of traditional Islamic commentaries, including Sunni and Shia sources, and from legal, theological, and mystical texts, The Study Quran conveys the enduring spiritual power of the Quran and offers a thorough scholarly understanding of this holy text. With an introduction by its general editor, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, here is a nearly 2,000-page, continuous discussion of the entire Quran that provides a comprehensive picture of how this sacred work has been read by Muslims for over 1,400 years.

October 30, 2015 — Book talk: "Interpreting Islam, Modernity, and Women's Rights in Pakistan" with Dr. Anita Weiss. In Pakistan, myriad constituencies are grappling with reinterpreting women's rights. This book analyzes the Government of Pakistan's construction of an understanding of what constitutes women's rights, moves on to address traditional views and contemporary popular opinion on women's rights, and then focuses on three very different groups' perceptions of women's rights: progressive women's organizations as represented by the Aurat Foundation and Shirkat Gah; orthodox Islamist views as represented by the Jama'at-i-Islami, the MMA government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (2002-08) and al-Huda; and the Swat Taliban. Author Anita M. Weiss analyzes the resultant "culture wars" that are visibly ripping the country apart, as groups talk past one another - each confidant that they are the proprietors of culture and interpreters of religion while others are misrepresenting it.

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October 14, 2015 — Briefing "Islam in Turkey: the Case of Said Nursi" with Dr. Faris Kaya. In his presentation, Dr. Kaya began with a short introduction to the life of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (1876-1960) and the historical context in which he lived and wrote his magnum opus the Risale-i Nur, a thematic commentary on the Qur’an. This was followed by presenting Nursi’s perspective on living in a secular environment as an observant Muslim, his understanding of jihad, political Islam, and Christian-Muslim relations. Finally, Dr. Kaya focused on the legacy of Nursi in Turkey and around the globe. 

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October 5, 2015 —Briefing "Rais Bhuiyan: A World Without Hate". Rais Bhuiyan is a peace activist and an IT professional. His life was unimaginably changed after 9/11 when he was attacked by a lone gunman seeking revenge for a crime committed by someone else. Rather than seek his own retribution, Rais decided to end the cycle of violence and hate. Rais devotes much of his time to touring the globe giving talks about the regenerative power of forgiveness in pursuit of a WORLD WITHOUT HATE. His amazing story is told in the New York Times bestseller True American. A film adaptation of this story starring Tom Hardy and directed by Academy Award winning director Kathryn Bigelow is currently in production.

October 1, 2015 —Briefing “The Austrian 2015 Islam Law: Effective security or Institutionalized Islamophobia?” with Farid Hafez. Austria was the first Western European country to legally recognize Islam in 1912 and was for a long time known for its tolerant policies towards the Muslim community. After 9/11, the far right has discovered the topic of Islamophobia and used it strategically in election campaigns. When the 1912 Islam-law was renewed in 2015, the dominant Islamophobic discourse had made its imprint on public debates about the 2015 Islam-law. In this talk, Farid Hafez gave an overview over the most contested issues throughout the debate, the various stances of the parties in power and in opposition as well as the many possible implications of the law for the future of the Austrian Muslim community.

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September 28, 2015 "Christians in Contemporary Syria: What does Minority Mean?" with Najib George Awad. In the light of the present barbaric violence and drastically destructive war that devastates Syria and Iraq by the Syrian regime, on one side, and all kinds of Islamist jihadi phalanges, on another, many local Middle Easterners and Western decision-takers and opinion-makers call for protecting the minorities in the region and encourage them to form a united front of ‘alliance of minorities’ to defend themselves and grant their survival in the region. In this presentation, Dr. Awad attempted to pause at the use of the term ‘minority’ and scrutinized its factual meaning in the light of the real context that originated the revolution in Syria. He demonstrates that in the Syrian sitz im leben, the notion of ‘minority’ is definitely neither numerical nor confessionalist in nature. It is the outcome of a minoritization policy that was exerted on Syria by the ruling regime.  In the light of perceiving the ‘policy of minoritization’, which Dr. Awad sheds light on, he ends the presentation with an assessment of the ‘alliance of minorities’ trend that stems out of the above mentioned call for protecting the minorities, calling the Christians and other minorities in the region to avoid this trend and beware of its dire danger.  


September 25, 2015—Cosponsored event: African World Leaders and Scholars: "African Renaissance and Afro-Arab Spring" with Charles Villa-Vicencio, Ebrahim Rasool, Fathali Moghaddam, Ibrahim Sharqieh, & Scott Taylor. Cosponsored with the President’s Office, ACMCU, The Berkley Center, Conflict Resolution, & World For All Foundation. "Anyone who wants to understand what is going on in Africa today needs to read this book.  The birth of the African Renaissance and the Afro-Arab Spring has projected hope and produced its disappointments.  The continent's future is uncertain.  I suggest, however, that future generations will look back to this time as a crucial turning point in African and global politics.  This book plumbs the depths of Africa's quest for rebirth, often against overwhelming forces of resistance—with tentacles reaching deep into the West, the Middle East, the Arabian Peninsula, and elsewhere."  

–Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus, Cape Town, South Africa

September 25, 2015—Panel event: "Christians in the Holy Land" with Jonthan Kuttab & Naim Ateek. In the endless stream of coverage on the Israel/Palestine conflict, Palestinian Christians receive scant attention. This is surprising in light of the overall concern for Christians in the Middle East in American society and politics. This panel featured prominent Palestinian Christian leaders who discussed the condition of those descendants of the original followers of Christ who remain in the holy land.

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September 23, 2015—Briefing: "American Foreign Policy and Christians in the Middle East: Modern Roots" with Karine Walther. In 1914, after the Ottoman Empire joined the axis powers, German leaders convinced Ottoman rulers to declare a “Holy War” that sought to incite colonial subjects in European territories to rebel against their colonial rulers. The holy war call went out in the first weeks of November 1914 and targeted over 130 million Muslim subjects living under French, British and Russian imperial rule. These colonial territories stretched from South Asia to North Africa, including Egypt, Persia, and the Muslim populations of the Russian Empire. Although the United States was still officially neutral in the war, some Americans worried that this call for a unified Muslim rebellion would incite Muslim subjects in their own colonial territories in the Philippines to rebel against American rule. Having just recently succeeded in ending its protracted war against Filipino Muslim insurgents the previous year, Americans both in the Philippines and in the United States were particularly sensitive to any threats to this precarious and newly-won peace. This talk examined these reactions but also analyzes how these concerns drew American imperial rulers into larger global discussions about Islam, empire, self-determination, global security, pan-Islamism, and Orientalist narratives of difference. This talk concluded by analyzing how such historical fears came back to resonate once again as Americans feared that Filipino Muslims were contributing to international terrorism in the period after 9/11.  It also analyzed the links between earlier and later global discussions of imperial rule over Muslims, surveillance, and the global “threat” of pan-Islamism. 


September 9, 2015—Briefing: “Islam & Gay Marriage in the US” with Asma Uddin, Muqtedar Khan and Daayiee Abdullah. Gay marriage and the issue of homosexuality overall continue to be controversial in the US, raising important questions about the role of government in private life and the tension between offering equal protection before the law and respecting the freedom of religion.  This panel offered different perspectives on Islam's approach to homosexuality and the way in which Muslims in the US understand the legal and social issue of gay marriage.