We live in an extraordinary transitional period in the history of Muslim-West relations. Islam and Christianity are the two largest and fastest growing world religions; as they engage each other globally and domestically, they
impact religion, politics and international affairs.
In 1992 I was invited by Georgetown University’s administration to discuss a proposal from the Foundation for Christian–Muslim Understanding in Geneva to create a center that would focus on Muslim–Christian relations in international affairs. The initial vision for the Center came from the concerns and vision of Hasib Sabbagh, a prominent Palestinian Christian businessman and philanthropist, and a small group of similar-minded Arab Muslim and Christian corporate leaders. The Iranian Revolution and Khomeini’s call for a global “Islamic Revolution” led to a belief by some, including President Ronald Reagan, that Qaddafi’s Libya and Khomeini’s Iran constituted a Green Menace, the next global threat after the Soviet Union. These fears fostered a climate of fear and suspicion, talk of clashing civilizations, and of an impending confrontation between the Muslim world and the West.
Founded in 1789, the nation’s oldest Catholic and Jesuit university, Georgetown offered the Center a location in a major university with high visibility in the United States. Georgetown’s religious heritage, ecumenical character, engagement in international affairs and location in Washington, DC offered an incomparable vantage point both nationally and internationally.
The Center for Muslim–Christian Understanding: History and International Affairs officially opened in September 1993. Its mission was to foster the study of Muslim–Christian relations and to promote better understanding and dialogue between the Muslim world and the West. Given the political, military, and cultural influence of the United States in the Arab and broader
Muslim worlds, the Center’s audience was to be not only the academic and religious communities, but also actors in international affairs, policymakers, government officials, journalists and corporate leaders.
Response to the creation of the Center was immediate and almost overwhelming. The growth of our faculty and staff was quick and our impact exponential. By our eighth anniversary in 2001, we were an established and thriving Center, building bridges of mutual understanding in the US and internationally. Like so many others, we looked forward with great expectations to the 21st century. All of that was shattered on 9/11.
The terrorist attacks on 9/11, which impacted so many lives and came to symbolize the global threat of Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, also dealt a major blow to Muslim-West relations and to our mission. As one of the members of our international advisory board noted, it set us back nearly two decades.
In the aftermath of 9/11, Center faculty were inundated with media requests from major newspapers, radio and TV outlets. We traveled across America and the world addressing many of the fears, questions and issues being raised: “Why do they hate us?” “Is the war against global terrorism a war against Islam and an excuse for the US to redraw the map of the Middle East?” “Is Islam a particularly violent religion?” “Is Islam incompatible with modernity and democracy?” Center faculty participated in conferences across the US, Europe and the Muslim world and published books, articles, and blogged on key issues. They played a significant role speaking to religious, academic and government leaders and communities, and were among the leaders in international initiatives with the World Economic Forum, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Building Bridges program, the UN Alliance of Civilizations, and The Common Word project between major Muslim and Christian religious leaders.
Given the many opportunities that outstripped our resources, we were especially fortunate in 2005 to receive a generous gift from Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, a global entrepreneur and philanthropist. The $20 million endowment has guaranteed the permanent existence of the Center and enabled us to significantly expand our activities.
Today we face historic transformations from the Arab Spring—the toppling of authoritarian regimes, the emergence of new more democratic governments, and demands for democratic reforms in many Gulf countries. In the midst of these challenges, the Center is able to play an important role, working with outstanding staff. As we approach our 20th anniversary, drawing on the networks of scholars, religious and political leaders and communities we have established across the world, we look forward to the next decade of realizing our mission at home and abroad.
John L. Esposito
University Professor and Founding Director
Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim–Christian Understanding