657: Interview with Dr. John Esposito, noted expert on “The Future of Islam”

n the nearly 30 years I’ve been reporting on religion, one name always leads lists of American experts on Islam: Dr. John Esposito of Georgetown University.
    A good friend of mine who is a Muslim writer stopped by Washington D.C. a few years ago for business on Capitol Hill. Even though John Esposito wasn’t in D.C. that week—this writer swung by Georgetown and sat for a while in John’s offices.
    Why? She said, “I just get inspiration being near where Dr. Esposito works.”
    That’s a true story. He inspires that kind of admiration.
    At the moment, in the rough-and-tumble, life-and-death debates over the influence of Islam in global politics, John has taken a few blows. Some activists who prefer to cast Islam as America’s Enemy Du Jour don’t like John’s pragmatic and balanced view of the Muslim world. Some call him an apologist for Islam, although he’s not Muslim himself and a careful reading of his many books shows a realistic understanding of the good as well as the evil potential within this faith.
    After my own decades of reporting on Islam and my own travels not only to the Middle East but to Asian nations where the majority of the world’s Muslims live, I can say: I trust his work and his judgment.
    Whatever your viewpoint on his work, it’s important to know what he’s saying now—because many leading figures follow his conclusions.
    Want a quick summary of his latest conclusions? See Monday’s Part 1 of our 2-part series on “The Future of Islam.” In Part 1, we published several paragraphs from the end of this new book.
    Click Here to visit Amazon to order a copy of “The Future of Islam” now.
    And, here is, Part 2 …

of Our Conversation with John L. Esposito
on “The Future of Islam”

    DAVID: When we publish this interview, I will recommend your new book to our readers myself. But I want to start our interview by mentioning that glowing review your new book received from the Financial Times.
These are sharp-edged skeptics and they called your new book, “the handbook for this new age of engagement. Intolerant of the extremists bent on provoking a clash of civilizations—Western Islamophobes and violent Islamists alike—Esposito’s book is a calculated appeal to the moderate middle ground.”
    Did they get your message?
JOHN: They did. I was very pleased with what they wrote. I heard from a number of people who regularly read the Financial Times and they said they were surprised the Financial Times would publish this kind of review.
Yes, I think they did “get” the book—and it made me feel good, because frankly this was the toughest book I’ve had to write.
DAVID: Why so tough? You’ve written dozens of books.
JOHN: This book was supposed to have been finished before 9/11 and then it was put on the back burner after 9/11, because we wanted to do other books first, like “What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam.” Right after 9/11, it seemed that everything we knew about Islam was turned on its head.
    The Financial Times really put its finger on what I wanted this new book to be about. This book is a bit of a capstone experience for me. I felt I had written so much about the issues within Islam—and engagement with Muslims—in other books and articles that I really wanted to pull it all together in one place. When I was finished wit this, I said: This is my last book.
DAVID: Hmmm. Perhaps not really your last book, but it does feel like a summation of where the Western world stands with Islam, at this moment in this new century.
JOHN: It is a summation in that sense. I did try to bring many things together. If you want to write a book for a broad audience, including policy makers and educated folks, you can’t assume that everyone already has read your stuff. I felt I had to set the context for people who come to this and have no background—but I also wanted to reset the context, for example, by using new Gallup data concerning American Muslims and Muslims in Europe and so on. There is important new material here.
I wanted this guidebook to be rooted not just in my own “take” on things, but also in new data like the Gallup data that give us a much more realistic view of these issues.
    DAVID: Give us an example of something you really hope comes through to readers in this new book.
JOHN: One thing I try to hammer home is: We really have to get to a point where, when we look at Islam and Muslims as Westerners, we operate on a level playing field. If we want to talk about religious ideals, then we need to compare our ideal with someone else’s ideal—not our ideal to the more tragic realities that can turn up in someone else’s religion.
Number 2, if we realize that it’s a tiny fraction of a percent of Muslims in the world who engage in acts of terrorism, then we need to understand the context. We need to look at acting out in other religions like Christianity and Judaism—like Christian attacks on abortion providers or other violent and criminal acts from Christian groups that break out into the news from time to time. If we fairly compare religious experience, we’ll find that extremism is going to show up in every religious tradition over time.

    DAVID: It’s pretty amazing to be talking about these issues nearly a decade after 9/11. I can’t begin to estimate how many times I’ve written and published passages like the exchange we just had.
JOHN: It’s very funny, David, or actually it’s not funny because I find this upsetting as someone who has been working in this field for 30 years or more: People always ask me the same questions.
The problem is—there’s not much learning curve! People always ask me: Is Islam compatible with modernity and with democracy? And I always say: We need to realize that the primary drivers in foreign policy are not religion—but political policies on the ground.
DAVID: We should make it clear, by the way, that you’re not Muslim yourself. So you’re not in the position of defending your own personal faith in this work.
JOHN: That’s right. I am Roman Catholic. I was with the Capuchin Franciscans for roughly 10 years, many years ago. My first degree was in Catholic theology, which I taught for some years before I moved on and did my PhD and Islam became the major focus of my work.

    DAVID: Let’s give readers of this interview some examples of misconceptions that need to be cleared up. Obviously, some of these may seem basic to people who know a lot about Islam—but a surprisingly large portion of readers don’t know things as basic as this: Most Muslims aren’t Arab. In fact, most Muslims don’t live in the Middle East.
When we publish this interview, to underline that point, I think we’ll publish some images from Indonesia and Bangladesh—two very important Muslim nations that don’t show up much on the American radar screen.
JOHN: When I was starting out studying in this field, I wasn’t aware of this fact, either. If you studied Islam back then, it was assumed that you would focus on Arabs. When I had an opportunity to travel around the world, someone said: “Of course you’ll come to southeast Asia.”
That hadn’t even been on my map! The academic training I’d received was so Arab-centered.
In the West, we know that there are various forms of Christianity and Judaism—forms with very different cultures. But most people don’t know this about Islam. African Islam vs. Asian Islam vs. Islam in a country like Saudi Arabia are big differences in many ways.
But think about the way American media show Islam. If there’s a story about Muslim women, it’s likely you’ll see a Saudi woman who is fully covered. But the truth is, for example, in one country, women can’t drive a car. In another Muslim country, they’re out in the streets driving motorcycles! The implications of this diversity are quite large.

    DAVID: Here’s another major misconception that you debunk in your book—the idea that Muslims hate the West in general or that Muslims hate Christianity or democracy. We’ve heard that kind of claim thrown around by TV preachers and political activists.
You actually dig into Gallup data from a whole range of countries around the world and you make the case that Muslim populations actually are fairly nuanced in their viewpoints. Generally, their attitudes are shaped by political policies, you write.
    Here are a couple of lines from your book: “Majorities of Muslims globally clearly do not see conflict with the West as primarily religious or civilizational. Rather, they distinguish Western powers by their policies.”
JOHN: I’m glad you asked about this. Yes, this is very interesting—and it’s one reason I’m so glad we have this Gallup data. You don’t have to take my viewpoint on this—or the viewpoint of someone opposed to what I’m saying. We can actually look at the Gallup data on what’s happening in many different countries.
What you find is that Muslims distinguish very carefully on these government policies. The majorities of Muslims clearly judge countries in the West individually. The data show, for example, that Muslims gave very poor marks to policies of Bush and Blair—in contrast to the marks they gave to other European rulers.
Or, you can see this in Muslim attitudes toward Canada. In terms of culture, we might call Canada—America without the foreign policy. What attitudes do we find among Muslims about Canada? For example, in one Muslim country only 3 percent of people were critical of Canada, while 60-some percent were critical of the U.S. Why? The cultures are quite similar. The reason is: They were making a distinction based on foreign policy. Muslims do make these distinctions and the data show this.

    DAVID: I don’t think we can describe your book as rosy about the future. You describe a sort of global crossroads—and you do outline some nuanced policies that could make a positive difference in the future. But how do you feel yourself at the moment: Hopeful?
JOHN: That’s hard to answer. Most of us like to see things done, like, yesterday. I can appreciate that because my own personality type is not always: Ready, aim, fire. Sometimes, it’s: Ready, fire—aim. So, I do feel a little down right now because of my sense of immediacy. I want to see things improve. But, if one has the patience to think in terms of historical cycles, then I do think positive changes will unfold.
It’s going to take several decades. There are all kinds of powerful, entrenched forces—forces of resistance to change, resistance to moderation. But there are people around the world who are doing some creative new thinking.
In terms of the immediate future of Islam and the West, I think the jury is still out on where our relationships are headed. I think Obama does have a shot at improving these relationships. Brown in Britain hasn’t done well, though. And even with Obama, I think the jury’s still out on how he will be regarded worldwide by Muslims.
It’s too early to tell whether Obama will have the grit and take the
risks to do some of the stuff he needs to do to strengthen relationships
in the Muslim world.
We’re living in an extraordinarily fluid and difficult time. Overall, things are moving forward, but we live in a world in which the actions of a minority—even the actions of an individual—can become a major setback.
This is why we need to know so much more about these forces unfolding all around us. Most Americans still are asking the same questions we were asking after 9/11. It’s time to learn more and look deeper.

Here to visit Amazon and order a copy of “The Future of Islam” now.




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