In February of 2002, the Institute for American Values brought together a diverse group of 60 distinguished U.S. intellectuals to author and publicly release What We're Fighting For: A Letter from America, arguing in the name of universal morality that the use of force against the murderers of September 11 and those who assist them is not only morally permitted, but morally required. The Letter from America — along with two follow-ups, Is the Use of Force Ever Morally Justified? (addressed to 103 German interlocutors) and Can We Coexist? (addressed to 153 Saudi interlocutors) — generated intense debate in the Middle East and elsewhere, including a Letter to America from al-Qa`idah, purportedly authored by bin Laden.
Carl Gershman, the president of the National Endowment for Democracy, said: "Of all the millions of words written about September 11 and the war against terrorism, What We're Fighting For has been the only statement to initiate an authentic and honest exchange of views across the Atlantic and between intellectuals in the U.S. and the Middle East. Its appearance was a moral watershed that defined the debate that has only just begun and is likely to continue for generations."
The strong international debate generated by What We're Fighting For: A Letter from America is the primary basis on which some prominent leaders and organizations from the Arab and Muslim world expressed the desire to create and help to lead the Malta Forum.
In particular, Radwan El-Sayed, a prominent professor of Islamic studies at the Lebanese University in Beirut, and Hassan Mneimneh, a Lebanese-American who writes frequently for Al-Hayat and who co-directed (with Kanan Makiya and Rend Rahim) the Iraqi Research and Documentation Project in Baghdad and at Harvard University, played important leadership roles in contacting the leaders of the U.S. effort and initiating a wide-ranging dialogue with them. These conversations led in turn to our meeting in Malta in May of 2004.
The first Malta Forum meeting was convened and led by David Blankenhorn, Hassan Mneimneh, and Radwan El-Sayed. The meeting was attended by 22 leaders and scholars — 11 from the U.S. and 11 from the Middle East and North Africa. Unlike almost all other meetings of this type which we have experienced, the first Malta meeting (and subsequent meetings) was not fundamentally a U.S. meeting to which some Arabs and Muslims were invited. Nor was it fundamentally an Arab and Muslim meeting to which some Americans were invited. Instead, in every area, from who was invited to what was discussed to how we planned for the future, decision-making and power in Malta were evenly shared. In some ways, this distinctive feature was a weakness. Coordination was often difficult and many miscommunications occurred. Yet ultimately, we all felt that this feature was also our greatest strength and the bedrock achievement, so rarely realized, upon which we could build for the future.
Substantively, the central achievement of the Malta meeting is that the participants left Malta convinced that something important had happened, and that this initiative should and must continue. It might have turned out otherwise. There were important and continuing disagreements on basic issues, and frustration often ran high. But by the end of the three-day meeting, two important things had happened. First, we began to get to know one another as individuals. We took the first steps toward building trust and even friendship. Second, we began to identify some areas of common concern and potential agreement. We began to formulate an agenda for our future work together. In particular, we identified the topic of religion and the state as the focus for our next meeting and our first set of commissioned papers.
For most of us, Malta was a remarkable personal and professional experience. We believe that we did something unusual. We took a modest but concrete step toward meeting one of the great challenges of our generation.
In November 2005 the Institute for American Values convened the second meeting of the Malta Forum in Casablanca, Morocco. The theme of the Casablanca meeting was: "Religion and the State in Comparative Perspective." The following papers were commissioned and discussed, and participants left Casablanca knowing that the Malta Forum is a solid project with positive potential for real change.
In May 2007 the Institute for American Values convened the third meeting of the Malta Forum in Fueringola, Spain. The Forum members agreed that Muslim-U.S. relations had deteriorated over the past few years and were at or near an all-time low. This situation, they felt, had the ominous potential of turning the limited conflict between jihadists and moderates everywhere into much broader violence between Westerners and Muslims.
At the conference, participants discussed launching an international journal — Ijtihad/Reason — as a way of opening a direct line of communication between Muslim and American intellectuals and leaders. Such a journal would provide a forum to discuss, in a civil and reasoned fashion, agreements, disagreements, and shared challenges. The Malta Forum members agreed that this effort might help to combat our slide into mutual isolation and polarization, and ultimately have a small but significant positive impact on Muslim-U.S. relations.
In March 2010 the Institute for American Values convened a meeting of The Malta Forum at The Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia. Unlike previous years, the meeting began with a public session that was streamed live on IjtihadReason.org. The agenda and the archived videos from the conference can be viewed here.