Interview with John Esposito

John EspositoJohn Esposito is a professor of religion, international affairs, and Islamic studies at Georgetown University. He is the editor-in-chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World and the author of numerous books including The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality and The Future of Islam. His latest book Islamophobia, a collection that he edited with Ibrahim Kalin for Oxford University Press is due out soon. Here he talks with FPIF’s John Feffer about some of the myths of Islamophobia.

John Feffer: The Islamophobia we saw over the summer, was it just related to the U.S. election cycle?

John Esposito: The notion that the Islamophobia we saw in summer 2010 was just a function of the U.S. election cycle is empirically wrong. In 1999, I published the second edition of my book The Islamic Threat, in which I document the rise of Islamophobia in Europe and America, citing particular authors and articles. We in America used to look at Europe and say, “That’s not us.” Europe saw the emergence of anti-immigrant parties, many of them anti-Muslim and we could say, “That’s not us.” But recent events here were just the tip of the iceberg. The phenomenon has deep roots in the United States. Islamophobia is very much out there in the popular media: Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly. They all have huge audiences. And the statements they’ve made on TV: if you took out the words “Islam” and “Muslim” and put in “Judaism” and “Jew,” the networks simply wouldn’t run the stuff.

In contrast to Europe, it’s our mainstream parties who have taken advantage of this. It’s potential presidential candidates like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, it’s Congresspeople. What does this say? They believe that a significant enough percentage of the U.S. population, not just rednecks, could be appealed to with this rhetoric. In the fall of 2010, Time magazine published a cover story asking “Is America Islamophobic” – this was the first time for a major publication. People might have missed it, but in 1994, Kofi Annan held a major international conference on Islamophobia and mentioned this phenomenon specifically in his speech and said that it was serious enough to be addressed.

Contemporary Islamophobia existed before 9/11. But it certainly had a catalytic period after that, not only as a result of the terrorist attacks but also the continued threat of such attacks.

John Feffer: Is the target of Islamophobes Islam or Islamism?

John Esposito: I’m not saying that everyone criticizing Muslims and Islam is the problem. But there are a fair number of folks out there who conflate mainstream Islam with the actions of extremists, for instance, John Hagge and Rod Parsley, who were both strong Christian minister supporters of presidential candidate John McCain. McCain welcomed their support. They have megachurches and get big media coverage. Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly: they go beyond criticizing simply Muslim extremists. Any terrorism expert will tell you that these extremists are a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of Muslims. But these figures will make statements about Islam as a violent religion, about the Koran as a violent document.

There are people who raise criticisms out of fear. But many raise criticisms in the same way that people made anti-Semitic or racist comments in the past, as in “I’m not saying that Black people are inferior, just that there is hard empirical data that they are not like us.”

Islamophobia is nowhere near as widespread as anti-Semitism is today. But the reality is that Islamophobia is to Islam what anti-Semitism is to Judaism. Unless it is nipped in the bud, it will grow like a social cancer and have a big impact. With the Park51 phenomenon, there was a tsunami wave of anti-Muslim sentiment. People vandalized mosques. A church congregation leader stood outside of a mosque shouting “Murder!” and “Jesus hates Muslims.” These creeps came out into the daylight because they felt that they could do it, that it was not politically incorrect to do it.”

John Feffer: Has Obama changed the frame with his Cairo speech or is it just words? The favorability rating of the United States in the Muslim world declined after his speech.

John Esposito: Gallup did a major study and released a report in which we discussed this phenomenon. Obama’s speech was very good, and it got a very good reception. If you look at the numbers in the Middle East and north Africa, they spiked considerably. Even in Turkey, when Obama was coming to speak in April 2009, there was a fair amount of cynicism. The Turks weren’t as enthusiastic as the Egyptians. But after the speech, they turned around.

But it’s not just what you say, it’s what you do subsequently that matters. Obama said that the United States would rely more on diplomacy, not military. He talked about the absolute defense of Israel, but also made a strong commitment to a Palestinian state. He spoke knowledgeably about the Palestinian plight. But if you look at the last year, where are the deliverables? People who support Obama have become more cynical in the region. They might like him personally but they don’t agree with what Congress has done, which has tended to make statements favoring Israel as a result of the continued influence of the Israel lobby. They look at Obama’s attempt to negotiate an Arab-Israeli peace treaty. Initially, the administration talked about Israel’s illegal settlements, illegal according to international law. But Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu felt free to disregard the administration. At the end of day, the administration backed off even that minimal demand, and where are we today with that peace treaty? People in the region believe that Obama didn’t ultimately step up to the plate, that, like all other presidents, he can’t stand up to Israel and the Israel lobby.

Also, look at Guantanamo. He upped the number of troops in Afghanistan. He’s moved to reinstitute military tribunals. Look at the extent to which we use drone attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan. However effective the administration might claim these drone attacks to be, they have increased the number of civilian casualties. People of all persuasions wind up saying that they don’t see any significant difference between the Obama administration and the Bush administration. Even Paul Wolfowitz said that. People who didn’t like Bush, say, “Gee, Obama’s a nice guy, but for whatever reason, maybe because he’s more concerned about being elected or because his party is concerned about the next election, there are no deliverables.”

John Feffer: How would you characterize the conflict between the Pentagon’s “hearts and minds” abroad and the Islamophobia at home?

John Esposito: Obama is caught between a rock and a hard place on this issue. Where the Bush administration fell down on this issue is that it never understood, the way Colin Powell understood, the way hearts-and-minds campaigns work. Its not just exchange programs but addressing deep grievances, and that involves foreign policy. All the nice words aren’t going to do anything unless there are deliverables.

What complicates the issue is that the administration does not seriously address the civil liberties of Muslims in the America, let alone take head on the threat of Islamophobia. And then there’s the segment of the population that believes in the threat. When Obama spoke out on Park 51, the number of Americans who think he’s a Muslim almost doubled.

Obama is our last hope for quite a while. If he doesn’t deliver, then for years or decades, it won’t happen. We need a president who is, yes politically astute, but has a vision and is willing to stand by it. He said at one point in terms of the U.S. economy, it’s difficult to turn it around and he would listen to people. But at the end of day, he would do what he thought best, and the American people would then decide at the polls. He has to do that on other issues and Islamophobia is one of them. He not only has to exercise political but moral leadership. He has to demonstrate that he’s willing to step up to the plate. He has to walk away from what Bush did to compromise American principles and values, and he has to engage Muslim world and be willing to be a one-term president if necessary.

Look at the administration and tell me where you see significant senior Muslim appointments. They’re simply not there. When he was running or after he took office, when significant folks with independent minds were named, after a week or two most of them resigned their position “for the good of the administration,” or they were simply not appointed. So there is a credibility and a knowledge gap in the administration with respect to the Muslim community.

John Feffer: Is the change taking place in the Muslim world a true reformation that goes beyond a handful of people?

John Esposito: When I talk to Muslim audiences, I kid and say, “People say they want a reformation in Islam because they want a genocide.” You see, people didn’t talk about a 100 years of religious war that went along with the Protestant reformation. Political reformation too – the French and American revolutions – comes with bloody war. Reformations are not just based on theological debate. They’re based on killing each other.

Let me speak comparatively from the other example I know well – the reformation in the Catholic church particularly after Vatican 2, the Second Vatican Council between 1962 and 1965. Where Muslims are today, and the nature of reform, is similar to the Catholic experience. Roman Catholicism reacted negatively to the Protestant reformation as a threat to Christianity. For many years, until the mid-20th century, pontiffs issued bulls that denounced modernism – not just regarding Biblical criticism but also democracy, free press, gender equality, all of which was seen as leading to anarchy. I lived during pre-Vatican 2 and that at time, I was in a monastery and I was a young Catholic theologian. In the lead-up to Vatican 2, the reform-minded theologians were totally out of sync with the Vatican leadership and the Catholic leadership around the world that said, “We are the religious authorities, we have control over the churches, so who cares about what the reform-minded theologians think. Let’s silence them.” Many reform-minded people left the field because of this persecution.

Not until Vatican 2 did the Catholic church begin to open up and reform in light of the realities of modernity in terms of theological thought and religious pluralism. The reformers were a minority, a vanguard caught between traditional religious authorities and popular piety influenced by this majority of conservatives.

In the Muslim world, there is a burgeoning group, a significant group but still a vanguard of Muslim religious reformers. It’s not just older figures but also there’s a younger generation who have been educated within their countries or in western countries where much of the thinking on religious pluralism has been going on. Remember, the Catholic discussion of religious pluralism took place as result of the American Catholic experience. The document on religious pluralism came from American Catholics reflecting on their experience in America. You see this with Muslim scholars in America, too. You see it in Indonesia, in Egypt: a vanguard of thinkers.

But we here in America don’t often see this. Look at the issue of religious minorities in Egypt, the situation of Coptic Christians. We see the violence that took place. What we don’t necessarily see is the large sector of Egyptian society that was so appalled at the violence that they began to speak out and take a public stand. They started talking about one Egypt. The government didn’t allow civil society leaders to respond in a systematic way, so people took to the Internet and mobilized thousands of Muslims to show up on January 6 to form vigils outside Coptic churches to show support and be human shields.

In Egypt, in Indonesia and elsewhere, this minority vanguard – professors in university, people who write in the popular media – they’re caught between authoritarian governments and the reactions of extremists.

John Feffer: What do you think of the “golden age-ism” that you can find in the writings of Tariq Ramadan and others that romanticizes some golden age of Islam in the past?

John Esposito: Christians can’t do that because there was no golden age!

The golden age is important for two reasons, a plus and a minus. The plus is that what these writers want to do is remind their own community that Muslims had a good track record relative to their time. Islam provided a space for Jews and Christians and dissenters, more so than what Christianity provided, which was no space for dissent.

You hear the same thing in Egypt with respect to the Coptic problem. When you talk with older people, they’ll say that a couple decades ago, there might have been some tensions, but they lived in neighborhoods with Coptic neighbors, Jewish neighbors, and they got along. Only in recent decades has there been more of an emphasis on religious differences.

There’s got to be a transition beyond that kind of thinking. Ramadan does, but the more traditional or conservative Muslims don’t. They simply want to continue with that past. For them, non-Muslims remain dhimmi, with second-class citizenship. You have to say that this notion has to be reinterpreted, so that we are talking about full equality of citizenship, that non-Muslims have to have the full rights of citizenship. In my book The Future of Islam, I cite examples of thinkers who are doing just this. So does Raymond Baker, in his book Islam without Fear. There are Muslims who are reinterpreting the tradition, who argue that we need to reread the scriptures in light of today’s reality. All religions tend toward triumphalism. All religions ultimately believe that they have the best, that they are the only true faith. But there are also reformers in all traditions — as opposed to the ultraorthodox — who reread the text with a new political context and develop a modern form of religious pluralism. This is not just coexistence but full citizenship based on mutual understanding and respect.

If you look at reform Judaism, what did you end up with? Jews call themselves orthodox, conservative, reform, reconstructionist. The orthodox don’t recognize the reform tradition, but despite the lingering tension there is space for reform-minded Jews. In Catholicism and Protestantism, there are mainline liberal positions but also strong conservative, evangelical strains, and even a resurgence of those positions, for example in Catholicism under the current pope.

There’s a lag time for Islam. The reformation of Catholicism and Judaism came out of western experience. Muslims went through the same period under colonial rule, which makes the community more defensive. After the colonial period came authoritarian regimes that tend to restrict free thinking, religion, and press, and try to coopt conservative religious leaders. So, reformers have had to deal with extremists and entrenched conservatives.

John Feffer: Is al-Qaeda the last gasp of a phenomenon rather than the beginning of a new stage of conflict, as Noah Feldman has argued?

John Esposito: Al-Qaeda is much weaker than it was. It remains a minimal phenomenon. It’s a small group of people. But because of the nature of modern terrorism, it is able to engage in the kind of actions that they’ve engage in. Al-Qaeda has lost its cachet with people who weren’t terrorists but admired the organization for stepping up to the plate on major grievances. Many people have become disaffected with that kind of violence, from the acts of terrorism within Muslim society. We’ve seen that level of disaffection in Iraq, in Saudi Arabia, in Egypt. Because who’s the primary victim at the end of the day? Muslims.

But we still live in a dangerous world where extremism exists. We’re not going to eliminate terrorism. The fight is to limit and contain the growth of extremist groups and the nature of their attacks, to marginalize them. But we should not be unrealistic and say that it will disappear.

The extremist phenomenon is a tiny fraction, but that fraction shouldn’t be taken lightly. Given how people can formulate attacks, all you need is a couple people and they can easily create a terrorist attack. But one has to put this into perspective when dealing with Muslim communities and our foreign policy and how we approach the fight against the dangers of terrorism.

John Esposito is a professor of religion, international affairs, and Islamic studies at Georgetown University. He is the editor in chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World and the author of numerous books including The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality and The Future of Islam. His latest book Islamophobia, a collection that he edited with Ibrahim Kalin for Oxford University Press is due out soon. John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus.