One could mention several different reasons for influential actors from the West to systematically engage religious institutions and scholars in the Muslim world. The first is for the purpose of interfaith dialogue and cooperation. An example of this kind of engagement is the recent “joint statement on human fraternity by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmad Al-Tayyeb.”
A second purpose is for business interests seeking to legitimize commercial products as sharia compliant. One prolific provider of this kind of service is Justice Mawlana Taqi Usmani, a leading scholar from South Asia.
A third purpose for strategic engagement is for governments to advance geopolitical interests. An example of this kind of engagement is the mobilization of madrasas in Afghanistan and Pakistan for jihad against the invading Soviet Union in the 1980s.
And a fourth purpose may be to reform madrasa curricula in order to make the scholarly tradition more current and relevant for today’s world. Examples of this reform approach are the Madrasa Discourses project at the University of Notre Dame and the madrasa enhancement initiative of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD) in Washington, D.C.
The first two kinds of engagement take place in the relatively free marketplace of inter-group relations and commercial transactions, propelled by mutual trust, goodwill, and human and financial capital. The two other approaches, on the other hand, take place in the uneven terrain of military, political, or epistemological asymmetry. During the Afghan War, local actors became pawns in a “great game.” Students of sacred knowledge (which is where the word “Taliban” comes from) were first weaponized in a so-called freedom struggle, and then were rejected and discarded after the war was won. The strategic imperative switched dramatically from military alliance to containment and outright hostility because the partnership between the United States and the Mujahideen was merely instrumental, based entirely on a negative objective—the repulsion of Soviet aggression—rather than any kind of positive vision of the world.
Calls for curricular reform can be problematic as well because they tend to come across as thinly veiled attempts to westernize Islam and Muslims. The approaches of ICRD and Notre Dame are different. Both operate on the basis of genuine partnerships. The IRDP model of “madrassa enhancement” presumes that the Islamic tradition as taught in madrasas contains the resources to prevent and counter violent extremism. The IRDP serves as a kind of consultant, helping its client, through its own free will, to rediscover, rearticulate, and actualize its deeper aspirations for peace. The Madrasa Discourses project at Notre Dame partners with scholars who wish to tackle current theological and ethical challenges on terms that are familiar to the Islamic scholarly tradition. Through what is called the elicitive approach common in peace studies, Madrasa Discourses relies on expertise that is native to the tradition rather than imposed uncomfortably from the outside
The two projects also have some key differences. Whereas the IRDP has a limited objective fostering peaceful coexistence, Madrasa Discourses promotes foundational rethinking in areas of gender equity, human rights, and political theology in Islamic thought. As a result, while the efforts of IRDP may succeed in operationalizing benevolent patriarchy for the benefit of women, or improve the treatment of non-Muslim minorities in Muslim societies (not an insignificant achievement), Madrasa Discourses invites participants to re-evaluate patriarchy and re-conceptualize the idea of citizenship in a pluralistic world.
Both of these approaches are important and necessary. Whether one or the other is adopted in a given setting depends entirely on the context of engagement, the resources available, preferences or agendas of sponsors, and the content expertise of the drivers of the conversation. Irrespective of whether one prefers diplomacy or critical academic exchange, goodwill and mutual respect are essential ingredients for successful engagement. The key to mutual understanding and dialogue is respect for local actors and for their religious, cultural, and social traditions.
Mahan Mirza is Professor of the Practice and Executive Director of the Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion. He is also an advisor to the Madrasa Discourses project.