Sunday, April 10, 2005

Islam and the West

John L. Esposito, Georgetown Univ.
Welcome to a Conversation with History. I'm Harry Kreisler of the Institute of International Studies. Our guest today is John L. Esposito, who is 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.

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."
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.
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.

I see.

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.
For the full-text of the conversation, please click the title.

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