Georgetown Professor of International Affairs and Islamic Studies Dr. John Esposito spoke to a packed house in Ewell Hall on the evening of Feb. 2. Dr. Esposito is the author of over 35 nonfiction books, the majority of them dealing with the politics of the Islamic world, and is frequently quoted in such publications including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times. The lecture, titled "A Letter to President Obama: What Do One Billion Muslims Globally Really Think and Want?", was sponsored by the Muslim Students Association and the Student Assembly.
Dr. Esposito began the lecture with a slight warning to the audience.
"I will be talking about an important but very controversial topic," said Dr. Esposito. "Muslim is an extraordinarily politicized topic." Dr. Esposito went on to discuss the negative light he saw the American media put Muslims and the Islamic world in during the years of George W. Bush's presidency. "In the past few years, anything could be said about Muslims and people would believe it."
"Early in the Bush presidency," continued Dr. Esposito, "the administration emphasized that they would distinguish between the religion of Islam and the religion's extremists. Their policy seemed to be very different from their words."
Dr. Esposito went on to introduce one of the major points of his lecture: the way America's view of the Muslim world has been distorted in the past eight years.
"You have the experts on the TV telling you what Muslims think," explained Dr. Esposito. "Most of the voices heard by the public are either the voices of this `battle of the pseudo-experts' or the voices of Christian and Muslim extremists. The voices missing are the voices of the very people they're talking about -- the average Muslim. Whereas Muslims are never in the room when they are talked about, the same would never be done for Catholics, Jews, or other groups. "
To emphasize his point, Dr. Esposito cited a recent Gallup public opinion poll on the Islamic world's views on current events, their own countries, and the world around them.
"The vast majority of [polled Muslims] were not talking about any necessary conflict with the west or a clash of civilization," said Dr. Esposito. "Their problems have to do with international policy or political fears rather than religious or cultural tension. That exists among terrorists, not the regular mainstream modern majority."
Citing the statistics from the Gallup poll, Dr. Esposito said that 93% of Muslims polled belonged to the mainstream modern majority (those without any extremist tendencies) and that only 7% belonged to the potential radicals group (those who have strong anti-west political views yet are not terrorists or extremists).
"The poll showed that the potential radicals were better educated [than moderates]," said Dr. Esposito. "They were no more religious, they have good money, and they do want better relations with the West. They however don't believe that the U.S. is interested in promoting democracy in their region. They fear invasion and interference… there is definitely a difference for them between hate of America and hate of America's foreign policy."
"When Arabs were asked about how important Guantanamo Bay was to their perception of the U.S.," continued Dr. Esposito, "they said it was far less damaging than the United States' current international actions."
Dr. Esposito paralleled this statistics by comparing the Gallup poll to another recent poll that gathered statistics from American opinions.
"When asked what they admired in the Muslim world," said Dr. Esposito, "57% of [the Americans] polled said they either admired nothing or did not know anything about Muslims. Muslims, however, said they admired U.S. technology and our democratic government… They were concerned about the westernization of the Muslim world and the West's apparently negative view of Muslims."
Getting onto his next major point in his lecture, Dr. Esposito asked the audience an important rhetorical question: how does the U.S. build a way forward from the past eight years?
"We [the U.S.] need to pressure the governments of our non-allies to open up more," replied Dr. Esposito. "We also need to listen more to the majorities in the Muslim world and also to the reformists and to those 7% potential radicals. They're the folks that can become marginalized and become extremists and terrorists…We need to have a dialogue with the opposition to find out their problems.
Dr. Esposito continued to say our government needed to limit foreign aid, especially military aid, which is typically used for a country's internal affairs. He also recommended that the U.S. end its tendency to "put our guy in" as the head of a nation.
"To move forward," continued Dr. Esposito, "we need to take more advantage of our more ignored allies, such as Turkey and Qatar. Our government needs to transcend the fears of many politicians and take a definite side."
Following the end of his lecture, Dr. Esposito continued onto a brief question and answer session, in which he talked about his thoughts on Pakistan, Obama's position on Gaza, and what can normal citizens do to help change our current policy.
"There is a new movement in America to be more aggressive towards the media," said Dr. Esposito. "We need to be creative and move beyond the McCarthy panic of the past eight years. Time to get back to what we used to have in America."