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Remarks by President John J. DeGioia

D.C. Rollout of Islam and the West: Annual Report on the State of Dialogue

Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC
April 3, 2008

Thank you, Tom. It is always a pleasure to engage with you, and it is an honor to collaborate within the Community of West and Islam Dialogue of the World Economic Forum.

We are here today to discuss a topic of increasing significance—Islam and American politics. This year, of course, the Presidential race has captured national—and even international attention. On the news every night—and really, on the Internet every minute—new issues arise and new aspects of the campaigns are dissected with vigor and insight. In terms of West-Islam dialogue and West-Islam understanding, this presents a wonderful opportunity… …We have the chance to ask questions about the role that Islamic issues and concerns will play in our country’s politics and in forming our national agenda.

Some of these questions will be contentious. They will cause us to confront some of the darker sides of our national character. When Presidential candidates talk about Islam and terrorism in the same breath, what impact does this have on our national opinion about Islam? When a candidate’s Muslim grandfather is mentioned in an attempt to cast doubt upon his patriotism, what damage does this do to the state of interfaith relations? 

These are sensitive questions to confront, but they are also extremely important ones. They get to the heart, or the underlying source, of the major tensions between the American Muslim minority and American society at-large…

Other questions, however, can help us discover our common ground—our shared values, our shared desires, our shared perspectives. For example, how important is West-Islam interaction to us? How committed are we to improving this interaction? What do we think about compassion and service? Violence and oppression? Such questions enhance our intercultural and interreligious understanding, and lay the foundation for peaceful coexistence.

This is why an ongoing West-Islam Dialogue is so important. We do live at a time when the lack of understanding between Western and Islamic cultures has led to misconceptions, distrust, and inexcusable acts of intolerance—even violence. Aside from being an affront to our very humanity, this poses a great threat to our global stability. I cannot stress this enough, that the only way to achieve a more peaceful and tolerant world is through a greater understanding of both our differences and our commonalities. 

At Georgetown University, we have long recognized the necessity and importance of improving dialogue and interactions—of building bridges of understanding between faiths and cultures. In 1968, we were the first Catholic university to hire a full-time rabbi…and nearly a decade ago, the first American university to hire a full-time Muslim Chaplain. More recently the Dean of our College, Jane McAuliffe, served as Editor of the new five-volume Encyclopedia of the Quran.

Other efforts include our Prince Alwaleed Bin-Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding—led by Professor John Esposito who also just published Who Speaks for Islam; our Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs—led by Professor Tom Banchoff; our Program for Jewish Civilization; our doctoral program in religious pluralism and theology; and our distinguished lecture series on interreligious dialogue.  

Most recently, we joined with The Washington Post –Newsweek Interactive in a collaborative online effort, “On Faith,”— a global conversation on religion. Georgetown scholars and students act as regular contributors, and by engaging our scholarly resources in this web based conversation, we bring together intellectual leaders and the public for vibrant exchanges to provide knowledge, inform debate, promote greater dialogue across religious traditions, and enrich discussion.

The need to build bridges is also why we’ve been involved with the World Economic Forum’s “Council of 100 Leaders” groundbreaking Report—the first Islam and the West: Annual Report on the State of Dialogue, a collaboration between Georgetown University and the World Economic Forum. I had the privilege of being the lead author of the Report, and both the Berkley Center and the Prince Alwaleed Center provided academic oversight for the project. 

I’d like to note a few of the Report’s major findings, just to underscore the importance and urgency of our quest for dialogue and understanding:

  • By clear margins, majorities in Muslim majority countries think that Muslims respect the West—but that the West disrespects them.
  • Three quarters of the respondents in the think that the Muslim world is not committed to improving relations with the West.
  • A significant majority of Americans view greater interaction between Muslim and Western worlds as a benefit.

Hopefully this Report—in its systematic overview of Muslim-West relations in their political, social, economic and cultural dimensions—and by forcing us to confront our prejudices and pre-conceived ideas—will help us address the questions that confront us…will help us to build bridges between communities and countries…and will help to advance and promote interfaith and interreligious dialogue.

Today’s roundtable gives us the opportunity to examine Islam and American politics within this larger context, this shared goal. On behalf of Georgetown, I’d like to express how delighted we are to be involved in this endeavor—and how deeply we are invested in its success.

I am now happy to give the floor to Sherif El Diwany, Director of Middle East and North Africa for the C-100, he certainly has extensive experience in this area. I am confident that his expertise will enrich today’s discussion—and help us address questions about Islam and American politics….

* * * * *

…Well, this has certainly been a fascinating and thought-provoking discussion. I can’t help but feel that despite the great challenges ahead of us, we will be able to rise to meet them.

The key, of course, is to cultivate meaningful dialogue between the vast and varied peoples, communities, and nations who make up “Islam” and “the West.”

In this country, this year, our Presidential election certainly presents an opportunity to ask many questions regarding the status of Islam within our politics. We are fortunate to have such an opportunity, and we must seize it. But we must also search for other forums—other catalysts and occasions for intercultural and interfaith dialogue.

As we all know, there is no single road map for success, and our future is quite uncertain. I can confidently predict one thing, however—that the strength of our communities—and really of our human family—will only be enhanced by greater dialogue and understanding. To this shared goal, we must steadfastly and vigorously commit ourselves.  So, I will leave you with that charge…Thank you again to everyone for joining us today. And until our next discussion, I wish you all luck in your endeavors.

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