Professor Esposito, welcome to Berkeley.
Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Where were you born and raised?
I was raised in Brooklyn, New York.
In looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?
My parents gave me an appreciation for education and a sense of being curious. They didn’t so much get me into the area of international affairs; that came much later in my life. My first track was to go off to a monastery for ten years. That was part of my background; it was only later that I got on with my real life. I should mention, parenthetically, I’ve been married thirty-seven years. So there are two sides to my life.
So what did turn you on to international affairs?
I was finishing what I thought was a degree in world religions with a focus on Hinduism and Buddhism. I had already done graduate work in Catholic theology and was teaching that at the college, and the chairman of the department, a man named Bernard Phillips, said to me, “You really should do a course on Islam. We’re hiring Muslim scholars.” I politely declined. This was 1967. I had very little interest in the Arab world and Muslims. In many ways, I typified a lot of Americans: what I did know was a group of stereotypes. But he convinced me to take one course with a Muslim scholar, and it turned me on to the whole area. That led me into my interest in the Muslim world, relations between the West and the Muslim world, and international affairs in general.
Where were you at school then?
Temple University, in Philadelphia.
Did you have any educational mentors, in addition to the one that you just mentioned?
Yes, my main mentor was Ishmael al Furuqi, who was a Palestinian Muslim scholar. We also had, during that time, an Egyptian, Hasan Hanafi, who is back teaching at Cairo University. Those were the people in my formative years, I would say.
Your works convey a very strong sense of the way that we misperceive the Islamic world. I thought I’d begin talking about your work by asking you when a Muslim thinks about the West, what does he see? Just the typical Muslim. I feel that we don’t have a sense of their perception of us.
The Muslim world can be as diverse as when we talk about the Western world — [like] the difference that we see today between France and America. But in general, whether sophisticated or unsophisticated, educated or less than well-educated, many Muslims have a sense of, on the one hand, admiring America. That’s why so many have come here, or want to come here.
They come to study, they come to live, they buy property, etc. But even though that’s the case, there is a sense among many Muslims who feel close to America (let alone extremists), that there’s been a long history of rivalry. There’s a strong memory of a militant Christianity, the Crusades, and of European colonialism, and, more recently, a sense that in general, as great as America is in terms of its principles, when it comes to its foreign policy and its application in the Muslim world, a double standard is seen.
The most generic observation is that many simply believe that despite the number of Muslims and their visibility across the world, and now in Europe and America, Islam still tends to be a misunderstood religion, often seen through caricatures or through the headline events that focus on the acts of extremists.
And on the other side, what stands out in the way we misperceive the Islamic world?
We often fail to see the diversity. We know that [we encompass] a diversity; when Muslim say “the West” we will say, “Wait a minute, there’s a difference between Europe and America.” Or when they say “the West and Christianity,” we will say, “This is isn’t Christendom any longer.”
We tend not to see the diversity of the Muslim world. Over the years, until recently, we tended to continually equate Islam with Arabs, when they constitute only 23 percent of the Muslims. In the past, when we talked about, for example, women, we always had images of women in Saudi Arabia; we talked about the fact that they can’t drive cars, or that there is sexual segregation, or that they have to be completely covered in public.
We often equate that with the reality, let’s say, of Muslims in Egypt or Muslims in Indonesia and Malaysia.
But the other thing is that we tend to equate the minority of extremists, who are in fact out there and are dangerous, with the majority religion. When an extremist Jew assassinates a prime minister of Israel, or an extremist Christian commits an action, in our gut as Americans we distinguish that from mainstream Judaism and Christianity. The average person doesn’t say, “There go those Christians and Jews again.” And we use the word “extremist” meaning “veering from the norm.” When Muslim extremists do it, that distinction doesn’t occur. Even when we use the word “extremist,” we don’t really necessarily mean that they’re extremists relative to the [Muslim] norm. Of course, that perception gets reinforced by certain voices in the Christian right — Franklin Graham, and [Pat] Robertson — who, in fact, don’t make the distinction themselves. They don’t say “extremists are evil.” They say, “Islam is evil.” I think that that post – 9/11, it’s become exacerbated exponentially.
Is it ignorance that is the root cause here, or that the part is taken for the whole?
It’s ignorance and reality. It’s ignorance of the diversity of the whole. But it’s also the impact of reality. The fact is that if you don’t know a lot about a people, you are going to generalize about them from the realities that you see. Most Americans engage Islam with the Iranian Revolution and the Americans held hostage, and with extremist events after that — the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and, certainly, the impact of 9/11. And that makes it that much more difficult.
When we created the Center for Muslim – Christian Understanding in 1993, we were to address these issues. At our last meeting, one of the people on my board said, “It’s phenomenal what you’ve achieved in the first eight or nine years. But, regrettably, 9/11 has put us back twenty years.”
What should the average American know about Islam? What are its central tenets as a religion that we don’t look at in the context of these misperceptions?
There are two things. One is an awareness that there is, in fact, not just the Judeo-Christian, but a Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. That’s what got me interested in Islam. I had studied Christianity;
I had studied Judaism. I had studied Hinduism and Buddhism. And when I studied Islam, I thought that I was going to be studying the religion that was “over there.” Because in those days, in graduate school, and even in undergrad, you talked about Judaism and Christianity, and then you put Islam with Hinduism and Buddhism. Suddenly, I discovered a religion that, in fact, recognized the revelation of the Torah and the New Testament; recognized Moses and Jesus; traced itself back to the patriarch, Abraham, and back to the “one true God”; shared a vision of moral accountability, human responsibility; had a vision of God, human beings, angels, devils, judgment, etc. That was beyond what I could appreciate.
The second thing is for Americans to realize the similarity, in many ways, in emphasis of Islam and Judaism. Islam and Judaism, in contrast to Christianity, emphasized religious observance. You talk about an observant Jew, an observant Muslim, more than dogma or doctrine. In Islam, recognizing the Five Pillars and what they call upon a Muslim to believe in — absolute monotheism, belief in God, prophecy, and revelation; prayer five times a day; fasting; pilgrimage; paying the tithe to support those that are poor — all of that is there, along with dealing with the issues of violence, radicalism, and extremism.
Why do you think, as a social scientist, this was such a sudden awakening for you? It suggests that the work had not been done to see these kinds of comparisons before you came along. Why do you think that was the case?
There were a number of things operating. The history, the encounter of Christians and Muslims, while there were many points of cooperation, there were many points of conflict, and a long process of demonization — it’s reflected in Dante’s Inferno, for example. Ironically, Dante borrowed from Muslim writings, but in the end, he put Muhammad in the lowest of the hells. There was at the points of conflict of almost mutual Satanization, and there was a lack of any real appreciation from a scholarly point of view, and full knowledge of Islam. We knew a lot more, not only about Judaism and Christianity, but Hinduism and Buddhism. And this was clearly the case in America.
In America, the study of eastern religions came in during the sixties and seventies. But the last religion often to be studied, or the last faculty members to be hired in those early days, were in Islam. The interest tended to be in Hinduism, Buddhism — Zen Buddhism. We had a tendency in terms of our own religion and culture to say, “We are Jews and Christians, and the rest are over there.” And immediately that implies that Islam shares an awful lot with Hinduism and Buddhism, and not that much with Judaism and Christianity.
3-“Clash of Civilizations”
This sets the ground for the susceptibility to an argument about there being an inevitable “clash of civilizations,” which is the argument that Huntington made at the end of the Cold War. What is wrong with that argument, and how do we move beyond it?
Sam [Huntington] was right in identifying points of conflict. But Sam, first of all, came at it — as indeed, most social scientists of his era — with a certain kind of bias. To begin with, Sam was one of the founders of the “modernization and development” school, which he has since moved away from. But the implications of that school at that time would have put Islam on the back burner, in the backfield. Also, Sam comes from that period, the Cold War period, where you are seeing the world in terms of us and them, and therefore constantly looking for the next threat. Post – Cold War people were looking for the next threat. I think, also, one could look back at that history of conflict, and that would reinforce it — the Gulf War.
But where he was wrong was that he talks about civilizations — not just Islamic, but Chinese — as if they’re this monolithic block. Compared to what? Christian civilization? First of all, what does Christian civilization mean? Can we say that Britain and France, which are very secular countries today, have a great deal of religious commonality, let’s say, with America? And look at the difference of civilizations among us. The block of Chinese: what do Chinese in Mongolia share with Chinese in Singapore? Even Islamic civilization: while religiously Muslims see themselves as connected, look at the centuries-long conflict between Iran and Iraq, the conflicts between Egypt, Libya, and the Sudan. So along with any kind of unity, there’s always been this enormous diversity. I think that’s where Sam was wrong.
He was right in saying that the post – Cold War [world] is not state-to-state; that religion and ethnicity become stronger; that there is a growth in numbers of youth in areas that are economically deprived. All of that is there.
In many ways, today, his theory would be right because we run a risk today on both sides. This is what I worry about, that if the Bush administration (or any administration in this post – 9/11 period) isn’t careful in the way that it pursues the war [against global terrorism], it, along with the extremists on the other side, can in fact promote what will be seen by both sides as a clash of civilizations. Indeed, that’s the way in which many on both sides now see it.
4- Islam and Modernity
Let’s talk a little about Islam and this question that you touched upon, which is the relation of Islam to modernity. One of the bones of contention is that in the history of Western civilization, what emerged over many years, hundreds of years, was a separation of church and state. We see this as a key element in modernity. And then we look at Islam and say, “That hasn’t happened there, and that is a problem.” Help me understand what’s wrong with that kind of reasoning.
It is true that it hasn’t happened, but there are number of reasons for that. First of all, on the one hand you can say, yes, there are many Muslims who see Islam holistically, that religion is related to politics and society. But if we look at pre-modern times, this was true of most major world religions to one extent or another. Hinduism related religion to a social system. Christianity talks about separation of church and state, but it certainly stopped existing after Constantine. It was never an absolute separation, from the Holy Roman Empire and right down through the ages.
In modern period, yes, you have that modern transition. But where has the space been for any kind of debate about the relationship of religion to state and society in the Muslim world? The Muslim world didn’t have a period of transition. You went from centuries of Islamic rule of Islamic territories to European colonialism. Colonial powers weren’t addressing these kinds of issues. Post-colonialism, post-independence, let’s say, in the mid-twentieth century, you wind up with modern nation states emerging, most of them authoritarian states. So where is the open debate about the relationship of religion to politics?
Then the late sixties and seventies come, and with the experience and perception of the failure of modern states you see the resurgence of religion. And in that resurgence of religion, there’s a discrediting of the modern Western secular model and the reclaiming of the Islamic model. But often the Islamic models reclaimed are, in fact, new creations said to be resurrections of some sort of pristine model.
The discussion and debate that has gone on in the West hasn’t begun to happen in the Muslim world. It’s begun, but it’s been severely restricted. There are now Muslim thinkers across the Muslim world talking about issues of Islam and modernity, pluralism and democracy. But clearly, it is a process that is only at the beginning. The problem is, there hasn’t very much time to do it, and the nature of regimes will have to change in order for there to be the openness of the educational system, in the media, etc., for the debate that needs to be held.
When we have this misperception of the Islamic world, which sees everything as boiling down to terrorists hijacking a religion, one misses this whole realm of what you called the revivalist phenomenon. Help us understand that a little, because in most of your books you’re grappling with and trying to help us understand the different ways that Islam is trying to change itself as it confronts both the constraints posed by the West, on the one hand, but also by the local political situation on the other.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as Muslims engaged colonialism, but also looked to the future, [asking themselves] what independence might look like, you had a number of schools of thought. You had secularists who emerged and said, “There has to be a separation of religion and the state.” You had a large body of more conservative sectors, led by many of the religious leaders, in effect, circling the wagons [against] colonialism, becoming more entrenched, and saying, “Don’t borrow from the enemy. Islam is fine the way it is.” You had Islamic modernists, thinkers who were saying Islam is compatible with modernity, and defining it. And then you had the beginnings of Islamic revivalist groups, who basically said, “We don’t want to be completely Islamic modernists because they define themselves in terms of Western standards, so they wind up with a Westernized Islam or, if you will, a Protestanization of Islam.” Parenthetically, Roman Catholics used to fear that in the mid-twentieth century when one talked about liberal reform within Catholicism.
But in the late sixties and the seventies — the Arab-Israeli War, the ’67 War, the Six-Day War; riots in Malaysia in ’69; in 1971 the Civil War in Pakistan, what became Pakistan and Bangladesh; the mid-seventies in Lebanon; and then the Iranian Revolution — you find across the Muslim world, for differing reasons, a sense that modernity is failing us. The modern nation state isn’t working; these Western models aren’t working. And a push from a minority, but a very strong minority, that says, “We need to get back to our religion to reclaim our identity and values.” What emerges from that is both governmental reform movements and opposition movements appealing to religion, or using religion to buttress their various forms of nationalism, etc. And what emerges, also, is on the one hand a mainstream Islamic activism, but, also a strong, virulent, extremist activism. For example, when the Iranian Revolution came along and the confrontation with America, we see this as militant Islam personified. We also saw it in Lebanon, with hijackings and hostage-taking.
The situation becomes exacerbated with the Soviet-Afghan War. In the Soviet-Afghan War, you have, in fact, what I call a global jihad. That is, the sacred struggle to the defense of Islam was not only taken up by the Mujahadin in Afghanistan, it was taken up by America, by Europe, as well as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Now, post-Afghan War, a lot of these Mujahadin, those who came from other Muslim countries (who are called Afghan-Arabs, whether they were Arab or Afghan) go back to their countries. Having had a chance to struggle for what they believed in, they go back to many of their authoritarian regimes and suddenly find themselves in confrontations with the state. And then a whole set of issues emerges post- Gulf War that leads to the kind of radicalization of people like Osama bin Laden, and many of these other groups.
You’re touching on something that’s very interesting about Islam, which is this notion of the global versus the local. One of the roots of our misperception, which you touched upon, seems to be that we are not subtle in seeing the diversity that comes about by the local situation transforming Islam and creating [regional variations] in the religion. So we lose sight of that interplay.
Is it fair to say that, on one hand, there’s a global identity and the global religion, but on the other hand, there is this mosaic created by all the local situations in which Islam comes into being and essentially changes and is changed by the locality?
That’s right. There’s an enormous difference between Islamist practice in Saudi Arabia and Islamist practice in many parts of Africa, and certainly in Malaysia and Indonesia. I did my studies, but most of my teachers were Arab, so my focus was on the Middle East. I remember when a Muslim colleague invited me to Southeast Asia, I kept thinking, “Who needs to go? I know what I need to know about Islam.” And when I got to Malaysia and I went through Kuala Lumpur, the first thing I couldn’t believe was how many signs were in Chinese! I wasn’t prepared to even deal with that. Also, it was during Ramadan, and what I couldn’t believe was that you could walk into a restaurant and you could have a meal during the hours of fasting, because, of course, for the Chinese, restaurants were open, society was moving around. I had focused on Arab Islam, particularly; and especially if you’re dealing with the Gulf, you will see a far more restricted notion when it comes to the use of music in religion.
You then see the way in which in Africa, even the Shahada, the Confession of Faith, will be chanted to an African beat. I remember a colleague of mine who had only dealt with the Arab world, and we were in an African country, and he was watching this mass demonstration and he said, “My God, this would never be allowed in the Arab world.”
That appreciation of the local for the average American simply isn’t there, nor is an appreciation for the the average Arab or Muslim. What we know are the leading political leaders, the talking heads. We have this other term we use, the “Arab street.” Most people think the “Arab street” is sort of the … I don’t know what … the hoi polloi … the mob. When, in fact, by “Arab street,” you really mean a cross-section of society. But how many Americans engage your average Arab or Muslim successful businessperson, professional? That’s only been happening very much in recent years. It wasn’t on our screen.
When I began to study Islam, people said to me, “Why are you going into that abracadabra field? You’ll never get a job.” Islam was invisible in the academy, in general, except for some major universities, and in our landscape. Today, Islam is the second or third largest religion in America and Europe. That wasn’t the case in the past. So, again, how do we generalize? It’s a bit like my youth, raised in Brooklyn in a totally Italian neighborhood, and then I encounter my first Irish person. That Irish person happens to be a classmate who’s an attractive young woman, great personality, but gets left back three times in grammar school. What conclusion do I draw? Irish people seem to be nice, but not all that bright. Or people who engage Italians and conclude that all Italians are emotive people like myself, when, in fact, there are all kinds of personalities. I think that that’s it. Certainly, if you just take a look at the movies and the TV and media in the last few years, who are the bad guys? How are they portrayed? They’re terrorists. They’re people that like to slap their women around. Even on more prominent shows. You look at a show like JAG and go back and look at the way in which Arabs and Muslims have been portrayed on that show and other shows, and it’s pretty astonishing. Post-9/11, it’s an open field in terms of what one can say and get away with.
There are many experiments with democracy, despite the dilemma in Islam about whether you have the rule of the Koran and Sharia versus the rule of people. But there is a lot of diversity there, and an attempt to come terms with democracy in an Islamic setting. Talk to us about that.
In a book that a colleague of mine, John Voll, and I did a few years ago, called Islam and Democracy, one of the things we try to say is that the first thing you have to remember is that democracy has taken many forms of the West — from the Greeks to today, from direct to indirect, etc. And there are enormous differences in terms of the relationship of religion and the state, if you look at the United States vis-à-vis Canada or Germany. The issue of Islam is often, “How come there is no democracy, or very little? Isn’t it that there’s a contradiction between Islam and democracy, or democracy and Arab culture?” What I try to say to people is, distinguish between pre-modern and modern. Judaism and Christianity and all world religions that began in pre-modern times legitimated divine forms of government — kings and feudal systems of government. Then they reinterpret themselves. Whether or not and to what extent Muslims will do that remains [to be seen]. But what we do see in recent years are countries that have experimented with democracy — Pakistan, Malaysia, Turkey.
Now, why the limited forms of democracy? Again, you go from the pre-modern to modern. Modern, you have European colonialism. Colonial powers were not about creating strong civil societies and democratic institutions. Independence comes. You have modern nation states, artificial boundaries, therefore, fragile. Who are the rulers? Kings, military, ex-military. Therefore, what we have in most Arab and Muslim countries are, in fact, governments that create a culture of authoritarianism, not of democracy.
On the other hand, in recent years, along with some of the experiments, the push from below on the part of many critics of regimes is to criticize them by what you might call democratic standards — to call for more political participation, more accountability, rule of law. Iran is a perfect example of that struggle within a society. How well that will move ahead is very much up for grabs. A lot of it has to do with the nature of regimes. If you continue with the kinds of regimes we have, it means that that impacts on your educational system, both secular and religious, the seminaries. It impacts on your media. It impacts on your public space, on your civil societies. In some Muslim countries, political parties and trade unions are banned or restricted. And so a lot of it has to do with how do these societies develop and what role do European, and let’s say American, governments play in terms of either reinforcing authoritarian regimes or reinforcing the need for broader, political participation.
One could make the argument that our hands are not completely clean with regard to some of the regimes that we support in the region, because of national security concerns, rightly or wrongly.
I remember after the Gulf War, several of us were on a panel at the Kennedy School at Harvard, and a colleague whom I often debate with and strongly disagree with made the statement, “I don’t understand. Why didn’t Muslims turn more against the Soviet Union? Why is there more anti-Americanism? After all, the Soviets are unbelievers and we’re believers.” A member of the State Department said to the person, “The reality of it is our foreign policies, what government have we been associated with.”
Why was there such a strong reaction on the part of many Iranians during the Iranian Revolution? There was a memory of the role that the United States played in keeping the Shah on the throne; when the Shah was driven into exile, bringing him back; the role of the CIA; the role of our military. Anti-Americanism in the Muslim world today has to do with a lot of our foreign policy, it has to do very much with the roles that we play, the support that we give to governments, whether it’s the Israeli-Palestinian [conflict], or today in terms of Russia vis-à-vis Chechnya. President Bush was very clear, before he became president, in chiding Russia with regard to the Chechens.
You look at the policy today: Where are we in terms of our attitude toward Iraqi sanctions, whether it’s Clinton or Bush? Where are we when it comes to talking about the problems with Pakistan, but not sufficiently India, when it comes to Kashmir? We support many authoritarian regimes, in terms of military support. In many of these countries, they see our aid as not an aid that is given for a country to defend against the outside, but an aid that it often used against its own population. We often have played a role not only with our aid but also in selling the equipment and in training security forces, military, etc. So that’s not lost sight of.
Let’s talk about some examples, as you do in your book, Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam. You focus on three moderates, who in different settings — in Indonesia, in Malaysia, in Iran — are trying to come to terms with modernity. The president of Iran is trying to deal with some of these issues of democracy, trying to bring democracy even in the context of clerical rule.
Again, we don’t focus on that. We don’t see the constraints that these leaders are operating under, what they’re trying to achieve.
Iran provides an interesting case, because we know the reign of the mullahs. We know what happened in post-revolutionary times, both immediately under Khomeini and under his successors, in terms of restrictions. But what we lost sight of was, however restricted, Iran moved to a point where there were regular parliamentary elections — again, restricted, but regular parliamentary elections. After a struggle about women’s role in society — and it has been an ongoing struggle — in fact, women are visible in public space: they function in jobs, etc. Khatami is a reflection not just of this reformist thought (many would say that he increasingly has failed as a reformer, in terms of being able to get the right leverage); he’s a reflection of the society itself. A significant number of Iranians, young people, women, and other [groups], want a more open society, more political participation, more accountability. Indeed, some want it with a religious flavor or character, and some want religion to be pushed into private space. But we certainly see, during the Khatami period, a real attempt to open up a debate and to press for greater democratization.
Similarly, if we jump over to Indonesia, it’s interesting that after Suharto went, you had democratic elections, and in those first democratic elections, Abdurrahman Wahid, the leader of one of the largest Islamic organizations in the world, the Nahdatul Ulama (NU), that has maybe 35 million people, was democratically elected. Indeed, when he was somewhat pushed out, the democratic process continued in Indonesia. Now it’s in fits and starts, it’s fragile, but it’s clear that it’s there. That is what becomes important.
Same thing is true in Malaysia. I wrote about Malaysia five years ago and saw a far more rosy picture. It’s gone through a more limited form of democracy in recent years. But there are pressures within the society to move forward.
The same is now happening in Turkey in the recent elections. A group called Justice and Development — a party which has Islamist roots but now casts itself more broadly, almost as one talks about Christian Democrats, sort of “Muslim Democrats” — they, in fact, succeeded in elections. They now have their own prime minister in control of the government, and they are the predominant force in the Parliament.
These experiments are taking place. The reality of it is that while there are reformers that are pushing for these reforms, democracy is a messy game, as I try to tell people. We forget that the American Revolution was followed by the Civil War, even bloodier. We forget the French Revolution and the post-French Revolution. So we shouldn’t be surprised, particularly when coming out of authoritarian cultures, to see a lot of failures along with gradual success. It’s going to be a struggle both at the intellectual level and at the political level. We forget when we talk about the Reformation and the Enlightenment, we tend to think that it was just intellectual conversation — “Luther, and the Pope, and Calvin sat around….” There were religious wars!
5- U.S. Foreign Policy
At the national level, at the level of a Turkey or Iran, very interesting, complex things are going on, sometimes more subtle than we can understand. But at the global level, do the extremists, the Osama bin Laden types, have a monopoly on the global identity of the Islam, or is that just the way we’re perceiving it? How has all of this come together where Islam as a force internationally is perceived or misperceived in the form of bin Laden and al Qaeda?
There are a couple of things. Number one, in general, Islamic movements, whether mainstream or extremist, particularly in the past, grew up within a particular country, and they’re responding to their countries, to their regimes. We see that certainly in the case of the right-hand man of Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian. Both grandparents were university rectors, the father the dean of the pharmacy school, Ayman, a physician. He joins one of the most extremist groups in Egypt. His enemy is the state. Later on, he goes global.
The reality today is that you have movements that are both national, but also you have movements that are international. And, certainly, what 9/11 pointed out to us was that many of the movements were going global post – Gulf War, local as well as global, and it really exploded with 9/11.
The risk post-9/11 is that, in fact, bin Laden has and continues to be a symbol. There’s a certain lure in terms of the attraction. Bin Laden is seen by many as somebody who came from a privileged family, a wealthy family, who had a good education, and gave it all up to go off and fight the good war in Afghanistan. And who later on, at the Gulf War period and post-Gulf, took on his own government when he saw that this armada was coming and warned that it would come and not leave, that it would become a disproportionate influence in its presence it the Gulf.
Bin Laden played to many of the grievances, not only of extremists but grievances of the mainstream, in what they see as the double standard, in which they see the West not living up to its own standards when it comes to the Muslim world — whether it’s promotion of democracy, Arab-Israeli conflict, Iraqi sanctions, you name it.
Now, what do we see post-9/11? Post-9/11, initially, we see a Muslim world, even the mainstream Muslim world, that sees an America that is leading the war against global terrorism. However, having taken a move against bin Laden and al Qaeda, and then decided that now we’ve got to expand the war to Afghanistan, it doesn’t stop there. In the name of the war [against terrorism], we begin to talk about second frontiers. Then the “Axis of evil” kicks in, then we get Iraq, and now we talk about, also, suddenly moving from disarmament to regime change, to saying that it’s really to promote democracy, and so that means that we also become critical of our allies, albeit authoritarian regimes, but our close allies. What happens is that that can play into the [hands of] extremists who say, “It’s an unfocused war. It’s a unilateral. It’s a new empire. Look at what’s happening: the agenda is not simply to address this issue or that issue, it’s open-ended, and it’s going to be one country determining or redrawing the map of the Muslim world.” It’s interetsting that that concerted criticism is also coming out of some of our European allies.
So what we see, then, is the extremists, if we’re not careful, playing to this, and perhaps attracting from the mainstream those who become more and more disenchanted, marginalized, and alienated. This is one of the risks of an attack against Iraq, and [afterward], depending on what we do in Iraq.
We also see emerging, which should be troubling to America in terms of its future, the fact that when you look at polls, not just in the Muslim world, but in the non-Muslim world, in Europe and other places, a high percentage of anti-Americanism and a strong sense or fear that America is and sees itself as an imperial power, even an imperial power with a religious destiny. This is one of the concerns that some have in terms of President Bush and the role of the Christian right.
How can we have a foreign policy that is subtle enough to understand the complexities of this world? You’re suggesting that in a unipolar world, the U.S. decides that it will determine where to preempt, where we perceive there’s a threat (a lot of these places may be in the Muslim world), where to intervene; and after intervening will seek to democratize in terms of the way we see democracy as opposed to [how]the Islamic world [may see it]. So what is the answer in bringing a more subtle understanding to our foreign policy in this part of the world?
First of all, we need to be more focused in defining what it is we’re doing, what that global mission is. A war against global terrorism could be an unending war. There’s always going to be some global terrorism out there. We also have to be much more focused. Supposedly, initially it was to go after bin Laden and al Qaeda. The danger now is that we will simply conflate that with regimes that we don’t like or that don’t like us, and say that this means that we need to ratchet that into regime change.
But an initial, positive signal was given by the secretary of state a few months ago. Actually, it was a policy that he announced about a year, a year-and-a-half ago, but it wasn’t announced all that publicly. It was a policy that did say that our public diplomacy is not just going to be about public relations and telling people what America is about or why they misunderstand us, but will deal with foreign policy issues. He admitted that the United States had not often listened when it came to the issue of democratization. It hadn’t listened to many people in the area. He also said that we would be open to seeing more democratization, even if that meant that parties would be elected that might not be our preferred party, that parties that might be quite independent in terms of the way that they dealt with us. He also said that part of that, therefore, would mean that we would deal with political, economic, and educational reform, because these are the conditions that encourage extremism. And he said, in light of the Turkish elections, I believe, that the United States was open to Muslim parties or activists; again, the presumption being as long as they’re functioning within the mainstream society.
To what extent we will actually pursue that as a policy, and how we’re going to do that, is the real challenge. Will it simply be seen by cynics as a rationale being laid down as we move from saying “disarmament” to “regime change” and then suddenly, “No, no, the real purpose is to liberate Iraq, establish democracy, and let that be an example to the rest of the Middle East” and then to go on and promote it there? I think these are very tricky waters that the United States will be in for the foreseeable future.
What are the key resources for the extremists to the extent that they attempt to monopolize the Islamic identity, to hijack the religion? It seems to be tied up with the Israeli-Palestine conflict and our inability to see this as a problem for the Islamic world, separate from the radicals who want to hijack the religion. Talk a little about the sensitivity to that issue as [moderates] try to create a global Islamic identity that’s separate from what the terrorists might want it to be.
What extremists do is they exploit real issues. That’s always been the case — real issues that both mainstream Muslim societies are concerned about as well as extremists. Those issue have everything to do with political participation as well as American foreign policy, and, certainly, the Arab-Israeli conflict has been there. In fact, what extremists would say today, but the mainstream would say it, too, is that the Bush administration backed away from the real conflagration, the real violence and terror that’s being committed by both sides in Israel and Palestine, and turned to Iraq in the interim.
Extremists play off that. Extremists play off a long resentment among both the mainstream as well as extremists with regard to not what America stands for and the West stands for, but the difference between that and what is seen as a lack of balance in our foreign policy with regard to the Muslim world in general, and the Arab-Israeli conflict in particular. They say, “Look, there is not a balance or a parity in terms of American foreign policy when it comes to this region.”
For example, extremists can say that when Sharon and the military went into the West Bank in Gaza, the secretary of state and the president were very quick to say, “This must stop in a matter of days” — three, four days, eight days. And, in fact, the United States did what it hadn’t done in the past, it moved in the UN, working on two resolutions to say, in effect, cease and desist. But at the same time that happened in New York, President Bush in Washington is saying, “Arafat is responsible for terrorism” — and certainly, Arafat should be held responsible for the failures of his regime — but [the president] says, “Sharon is a man of peace.” And in the interim, they would say, months have gone by and no longer is there an attempt to put any restraints. There is an attempt to limit, as it should be limited, the suicide bombing, and the killing of the innocent. But there isn’t an attempt to limit the violence and terror on the other side that is being perpetrated in Israel-Palestine.
That is an issue across the Muslim world, and that is what Muslims know about and see. We forget that in recent years, they often see more than we see. That is, in the Arab and Muslim world, you no longer have to depend on the American media or the European media to tell you what’s going on. You have AlJazeera and similar news outlets. And every day, people can watch, whether they’re having coffee in the morning or tea in the afternoon, they can be watching live what’s going on. What we tend to see in America are the horrendous scenes of the effects of suicide bombing. We don’t see the horrendous scenes in the West Bank and Gaza. We don’t see the use of Apache helicopters and F-16s and American bulldozers to bulldoze homes. Those images and visions go out, and the extremists can seize upon that sense of outrage that many feel, and play to it. And you see this.
I’ve come back from the Gulf and other places. It’s not just among young Islamists. In fact, if anything, it’s often among the young discontented in the next generation, who look at their own governments and see them as corrupt, see many people as not standing up for something. And they look at somebody like bin Laden, and he becomes a Robin Hood character — wrongly, but he is perceived as somebody who takes on, with his mouth, but also with his actions. And that’s what we are dealing with today.
We began this discussion talking about your discovery of the third faith, Islam, alongside Christianity and Judaism. I’m curious, as somebody who’s thought a lot about religion, is it fair to say that in some ways fundamentalism, extreme fundamentalism in all three religions, is a major problem of modernity these days that is across the board?
Absolutely. Absolutely. We forget in recent decades there’s been a religious resurgence, and it’s mainstream in most faiths, but you have this fundamentalism. I like to put it as follows: Those people we call fundamentalists are generally people who subscribe to a rather exclusivist theology. They see themselves as right, and, therefore, “If I’m right, you’re wrong. We’re the forces of good; [you’re the] forces of evil. Forces of God; forces of Satan.” And that exclusivist theology tends to be weak on pluralism and on religious tolerance. That doesn’t mean they’re going to kill other people. They just know other people are wrong. Often for many of them, they know that when you die, you’re going to go to hell. Doesn’t mean I feel I have to dispatch you to hell. You see?
The extremist is the one who takes this exclusivist theology, this polarized world view, harnesses it into a “should” and says, “No. If we have the truth, and you represent untruth, we’re the army of God, and you’re the army of Satan, then we have an obligation to pursue.” That struggle is not just a struggle of words and of missionaries, etc., it becomes an armed struggle. And, of course, they dovetail it with political, social, and economic grievances. And that’s what you see.
So, for example, the assassin of Mr. Rabin would pore over religious texts to find a way to legitimate his grievance.
And he was Jewish, actually.
He was Jewish.
Your institute is addressing some of these problems on the domestic side, looking at the promotion of a Christian – Islamic dialogue. Tell us a little about that agenda and what it is attempting to achieve, and the possibilities there.
Our center was created in 1993, within the Walsh School of Foreign Service. The full title of the center is the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding: History, and International Affairs. So although we do some of it, we’re not primarily interested in theological dialogue.
We address the whole issue of the relationship, therefore, in history of international affairs past and present. We run programs domestically and internationally.
We run them in the United States, we run them in Europe, we run them all over the Muslim world. We speak and write about contemporary issues. We write briefing papers. We write books that deal with the role of Islam in Muslim politics, with regard to gender issues. We work with think tanks, we work with religious groups, universities, and even governments running workshops and conferences all over the world. And we do an awful lot with the media, domestically and internationally. For many of us, our writings are translated not only into European languages, or Chinese and Japanese, but into Muslim languages. We attempt an engagement not only in Washington and across America, but in fact, we attempt this kind of engagement internationally.
So what you’re really talking about is elevating the consciousness in the same way that your consciousness was elevated as you began your pursuit of scholarly studies?
Precisely. Our whole idea is to open up that window, to say to people, “Yes, you know something, but often it’s that something that’s coming through what I call the ’explosive headline’ events.” Because the media is about grabbing your attention and selling newspapers, it’s not about what the average person is doing, or where the average person is coming from. And trying to, for example, say to people, “Anti-Americanism is broad-based in the Muslim world. But it’s also broad-based outside. Anti-Americanism in Europe and in the Muslim world does not mean hatred of America. However, that anti-Americanism does, in the hands of extremists, become a hatred of America that, in fact, advocates violence.” We make those kinds of distinctions.
In a way, we’re doing what post-9/11, the Bush administration tried to do in some of its public diplomacy. Regrettably, it didn’t address sufficiently the foreign policy issues. But when it said, “We want to explain to people, because we believe that people out there really don’t understand the whole picture. They don’t really know what America is about.” Well, we’re trying to broaden that picture on all sides to the extent that we can.
One final question requiring a short answer. How would you advise students to prepare for a future where international politics is going to be important, the Islamic world is going to be important, and we have to deal with the challenges posed by America’s enormous power in the world?
I think students are positioned today in a way that they weren’t before. Post-9/11 has meant, whether it’s the curriculum or our media, a far more visible set of opportunities to learn more. And students ought to be more motivated. America was attacked, and it is part of their future. This isn’t a war that’s being fought “over there.” So, I say to students: “You have an obligation as a citizen, let alone the opportunity as a student, to explore international affairs and to attempt to make your contribution.”
Well, on that note, we’re very pleased to have had you here today, and thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.
Thank you. It was fun.
1- John L. Esposito. is an university Professor of Religion and International Affairs, and Founding Director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. A past president of the Middle East Studies Association, he is editor-in-chief of the four-volume Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, editor of the Oxford History of Islam, and the author of numerous books, including Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality, and most recently, the Oxford Dictionary of Islam