LAKELAND -- John Esposito said he gets asked the same questions repeatedly these days, one of them being, "Why is Islam such a violent religion?" In a lecture, "Violence in the Islamic Tradition," at Florida Southern College on Friday, he posed a question in response: "Why is it we have so much of a problem distinguishing between what a majority of Muslims do and what extremists do?"
Esposito, professor of religion and international affairs and Islamic studies at Georgetown University in Washington, delivered the Warren W. Willis Lecture in Religion at the college to an audience of about 150. The author of more than 30 books on Islam and a consultant to the U.S. State Department, Esposito stressed in his lecture that Islam, like other religions, including Christianity, has been misused to justify political and economic goals.
"There are transcendent and dark sides to religion. Religion is about a transcendent reality but also helping those who follow it to transcend themselves and their baser instincts. It also is used, abused and misused to justify all kinds of things," he said.
As an example, Esposito pointed to a quote by former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski that the 20th century was the bloodiest in human history. He asked, "Who was it that engaged in and perpetuated the violence? Not Muslims, but America and Europe. It was not waged in the name of religion, but it was fought by religious people and legitimated by religious chaplains."
Christians fail to notice their own complicity in such violence while reacting with shock to violence inflicted by Muslims and wrongly seeking to characterize Islam as a whole as a violent religion, he said.
Even Pope Benedict fell into this trap, he said, in a recent speech in which he quoted a medieval emperor who castigated Islam as a religion that was spread by coercion. After the death of Muhammad, subsequent Muslim rulers did forge an empire by use of war, but this was for reasons of political and economic gain, Esposito said.
"It was legitimated as spreading Islam. They got religious leaders to legitimate what they were doing," he said.
An Islamic term that is often used in connection with violence is jihad, but the word usually means to strive or struggle to be a good Muslim, Esposito said. It is also used to refer to the defense of oneself or one's religion.
"That's defensive warfare, but, like beauty, it's in the eye of the beholder. . . . The struggle is, when is it just, when is it defensive, when is it offensive?
"For mainstream Muslims, it's a very central term. It's understood in a nonviolent way, but it is used by terrorists," he said.
Esposito is helping conduct a worldwide Gallup poll, "Can You Hear Me? Listening to the Voices of Muslims," which he said dispels many stereotypes held in the West about Muslims.
"A majority of Muslims admire the West for its scientific achievements, its freedoms of speech and assembly. They say, `We believe in greater political participation, but we don't think we're going to get it,' " he said.
The proper relationship between Islam and political authority is the subject of a major debate among Muslims around the world today, he said.
"Is it moving as fast as it should? No. Authoritarian regimes -- and most Muslim countries are ruled by authoritarian regimes -- and extremists are not interested in that debate," he said.
But the West bears some responsibility for conditions that produce violence within, and the violence is fostered by Middle Eastern countries, Esposito said. In the 20th century, the colonial powers of Europe created nation-states there and installed leaders without regard to the future stability of the region.
"The last thing they were concerned about was political modernization," he said.
When the colonial era ended, these nations were run as authoritarian military or plutocratic regimes, whose oppression led in turn to cycles of violent resistance and repression.
"As long as you have authoritarian regimes, you're going to have levels of violence that are political and legitimated religiously," he said.
Asked about possible reconciliation between Muslim religious groups, such as Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq, Esposito said the problems are basically political and economic but have historical roots that include religious differences.
"There is tribalism and sectarian division. It's a very fluid, very dangerous situation," he said.
Further commenting on the situation in Iraq, Esposito said America cannot impose democracy in Iraq lest it is seen as a new colonial power manipulating the political process. It is up to Iraqis to bring democracy to their country, he said.
"I don't think we should have gone into Iraq, but we did. I don't think we should simply pull out overnight. We have to devise a plan . . . that includes a phase-out of our major military presence and includes development and a major economic package. And it ought to be sooner rather than later," he said. "Iraq is already in a state of civil war."
The war in Iraq and fight against terrorism has implications for average Americans, Esposito said.
"We as Americans are faced with trying not only to understand global terrorism but its implications in America. When we pass legislation that violates civil liberties, we have a problem," he said. "Some of us wonder if America in 10 years will be the America we knew."
Cary McMullen can be reached at email@example.com or 863-802-7509.