The Cosmos Club in Washington, DC was frequently referred to during World War II days as "the most significant concentration of Washington's public policy intellectuals -- unless it was at Union Station when the night train from Boston arrived." The Club prides itself as providing an atmosphere conducive to the free exchange of ideas. So, when I was invited to attend a program there after the cocktail hour on October 24th, I accepted with pleasure. The program was labeled: "Struggle for the Mind of Islam".
The principal speaker was Professor John Esposito, advertised in the program as professor of religion, international affairs, and Islamic studies at Georgetown University, and author of the post 9/11 book Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam. I was particularly interested to hear Dr. Esposito as he had been the president of the Middle Eastern Studies Association (MESA), a group which claims to number some 2600 academics worldwide, that is reputed to have a significant pro-Arab tilt as detailed in Martin Kramer's excellent analysis in his book Ivory Towers on Sand. He was accompanied by Dr. Azizali Mohammed, previously director of external relations of the International Monetary Fund, and Dr. Zachary Abuza, associate professor of political science and international relations at Simmons College.
Professor Esposito is an excellent speaker. But I had some real doubts about the substance of his talk.
When questions were permitted, one club member noted that in one of Professor Esposito's books written prior to 9/11 entitled Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality Dr. Esposito had concluded that the threat of Islamic terrorism was a myth and not reality. But in his post 9/11 book Unholy War, and in his presentation that night, Esposito conceded that Islamic terrorism really exists but identified the cause as American foreign policy. At one point, for example, Dr. Esposito characterized American foreign policy as approving the rape and murder of Arabs in Palestine by Israelis and then, to make it OK, offering a little foreign aid to build houses for those who survived.
Others, who had warned of Islamic terrorism prior to 9/11, but had been marginalized by MESA, have stated one cause of terrorism as funding of maddrassahs and mosques by the Saudis where Islamism is preached. You can find many examples of such preachings on the internet translated by MEMRI.
When Professor Esposito responded to the question, he denied his post-9/11 views had changed; he flatly denied that in his earlier book he had concluded Islamic terrorism was a myth. He claimed that he had in fact found such a threat in radical Islam and suggested that the questioner should reread the pre-9/11 book.
But the questioner was not alone in believing that Dr. Esposito had changed his tune; Dr. Esposito stated during his talk that he had been giving the same answers for many years. Patrick Clawson, Deputy Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in reviewing Unholy War in Commentary, remarked that in his pre-9/11 book Esposito "argued that Islamic fundamentalist groups did not present a menace." Esposito had written "Many Islamic movements have turned from revolution to reform, and have "joined the rising chorus of voices calling for political liberalization". As a result, Dr. Esposito had concluded "while they are a challenge to the outdated assumptions of the established order and to autocratic regimes, they do not necessarily threaten American Interests."
During the Q & A session, Edward Kane, Chairman of the club's International Affairs Committee interrupted the first questioner, who had referred to Dr. Esposito's two books, and pressed him to "get to the question." He was looking fixedly at the questioner as if his question were inappropriate. Kane, who served as the CIA deputy station chief in Iraq from 1963 to 1965, was one of the former Ambassadors and other high level American employees who urged in 2004, in a well publicized letter to George Bush, that the US tilt its policy more toward the Arabs.
After being pressed, the questioner stated his question concisely: "If one were to apply Occam's Razor, would it not be likely that the proximate cause of Islamic terrorism was the funding from Saudi Arabian petrodollars of madrassahs and mosques world wide that are used to spread the pernicious doctrine of Islamism?" Dr. Esposito was quick to deny that also. Esposito's response was, no, that if you ask a man on the street in these countries they will say that they object to American foreign policy aiding Israel and supporting repressive regimes in the Middle East.
The member raising the question was not permitted to respond to Esposito. Professor Abuza supported his fellow academic by claiming that only a few of the madrassahs in the area he was familiar with were dominated by radical Islamists. In contrast, some who have investigated the situation here claim that 80% of the mosques and madrassahs in the US were either built by Saudi money or taken over with it.
At least three of Dr. Esposito's arguments on behalf of the Muslims struck me as odd:
Esposito equated the violence of terrorism and murder of innocent civilians as resistance of the same kind that we Americans used during our Revolutionary War.
How bizarre. I couldn't help but think that we were just across Massachusetts Avenue from the headquarters of the General Society of the Cincinnati. Had he declaimed there that there was no difference between the American revolutionaries at Bunker Hill and the Islamist terrorists murdering school children at Beslan and Ma'alot, or blowing up civilian buses, he might have been lynched.
Second, he said jihad is always defensive, in defense of Muslim land, and so on. A person with his background should have known that Islamists divide the world into the Dar al Islam, the domain of Islam, and the Dar al Harb, the domain of war. He surely should know that radical Islamists such as Sheik Abdullah Azzam say there is a collective obligation to extend the domain of the Dar al Islam until shar'ia law is supreme over the entire world.
Third, he argued that since the Israelis admit they are using reasonable violence, they are no different than the Islamic terrorists who believe their violence is reasonable. But "terrorism" is "the use of unlawful force and violence to achieve a political objective when innocent people are targeted" such as bombing a civilian bus, or murdering schoolchildren. It seems to me that, contrary to Professor Esposito, there is a significant difference between the Arab use of unlawful force and violence and the Israeli use of reasonable force which is lawful when used in self-defense.
It came to me finally that the program was dedicated more to the struggle for the American mind than the mind of Islam. Another person at the program evidently thought so too and asked why the club could not have a more balanced program. He suggested inviting Dr. Daniel Pipes.
The Chairman, however, insisted that the program was balanced; it had a "geographical balance" as each of the participants discussed a different Muslim area. If this means swallowing Professor Esposito's misrepresentations of jihad, or terrorism, and American foreign policy, then the Cosmos Club has a very different notion of balance than those of us who care passionately about the threats facing America.
Cincinnatus wishes to remain anonymous. This article was written for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum that observes and comments on Middle East Studies at North American colleges and universities.