In 1922, Elihu Root wrote of the importance of “popular education in international affairs” so that citizens may participate in “the conduct of nations toward each other.“
Root, who had been Secretary of War and Secretary of State under President Theodore Roosevelt, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1912, was convinced that there is “something wrong about the conduct of diplomacy under which peoples have so often found themselves embarked in war.” Popular participation through democratic processes would help allow citizens avoid “being led, without their knowledge, into situations where they have no choice.” But in order for citizens to be effective participants in the conduct of international affairs, they “must acquire a knowledge of the fundamental facts and principles upon which the relations of nations depend.”
Root’s views reflected the spirit in which the School of Foreign Service had been founded, just three years earlier. Now, as we commemorate the centenary of the founding of SFS, it has become clear that citizens must be trained not only in the conduct of nations’ governments, their economies and militaries; citizens must also be trained to understand the implications of “non-state” discourse – the discourse of civil society, including religious discourse. Portents of the dramatic political developments that have profoundly challenged U.S. relations with many Muslim-majority countries over the past century were clearly evident in the writings of religious actors, as well as in the works of poets, fiction writers, playwrights, and musicians. Citizens must be trained to understand and analyze the popular sentiments expressed in these discourses.
That is the spirit in which the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding: History and International Affairs was founded in 1993. Since that time, the Center (renamed the Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding in 2005) has focused on course and program offerings and research that help students understand civil society discourse in Muslim-majority communities across time and space, particularly as it has affected international affairs.
As we move into SFS’s second century, ACMCU looks forward to working with other programs to provide students with the tools to recognize the political implications of the popular discourse of Muslims, Christians, and all those who share what Root identified as the “democratic instinct for unhampered self-government” — because it has also become clear that Muslims and Christians share social space and political destinies. SFS was founded in the wake of World War I – a conflict so cataclysmic that it led historian Oswald Spengler to speculate about what was causing “the decline of the West.” Spengler’s artificial separation of “the West” from other regions took root and sprouted grand theories of an impending “clash of civilizations” between societies alleged to share neither histories nor values. That, in turn, has spawned an appalling Islamophobia, which has joined the panoply of other communal hostilities that continue to plague our societies. We now know that Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and other religious communities have been interconnected since the 7th century and that they, in fact, share not only history but values and cultures.
On the occasion of SFS’s centenary celebrations, as the new Director, I pledge to continue ACMCU’s efforts to provide students with opportunities to experience, understand, and articulate those interconnections and prepare them to use those skills in their service to our global community. Working with faculty across SFS and the University, we will train students to recognize that religious discourse is diverse, even among those who share a single religious identity, that it is dynamic, evolving frequently as a function of identifiable historical experience, and that it involves not only doctrinal issues but, critically, social concerns that frequently lie at the root of both inter-communal and political conflicts. The ultimate objective is understanding that addressing those critical social concerns is essential for effective conflict resolution. Reflecting Provost Robert Groves’ 12 June 2019 vision of Georgetown’s combined education mission and mission to promote the common good, our shared goal is to train students to address the causes of conflicts, rather than just manage their effects.
Let us also take this opportunity to thank Jonathan A. C. Brown for his four years of service as Director of ACMCU. I look forward to working with all of you.
Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor in the History of Islam
Director, Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding