Georgetown University Professor John Esposito is the media's favorite go-to man for questions about Islam. As the founding director of the Saudi-financed Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown, he is also notorious for downplaying radical Islam. Stanford University hosted his latest round of apologetics on May 13.
Esposito, who spoke at Stanford last year, was on campus to promote the film version of his recent book (co-authored with Dalia Mogahed of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies), Who Speaks For Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think. He was joined by the film's executive producer, Muslim convert Michael Wolfe. The 55-minute film claims to present the results of the "largest, most comprehensive study" of Muslim opinion ever done. The crowd's political leaning were evident in the audible hisses that greeted the cinematic image of former President George W. Bush.
A question and answer session with Esposito and Wolfe followed the screening. Don Emmerson, director of the Southeast Asia Forum at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford and an affiliated scholar with the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies, was the first to offer up a challenge. Emmerson pointed out a question posed in the film, "Do you believe a woman should be allowed to work in any job she is qualified for?" is answered affirmatively by large majorities of Muslim men and women, but that the film never clarifies for what exactly the respondents believe women to be qualified. Thus, Emmerson concluded, "No quality control is evident in either the film or, if I may say so, in the book." Esposito had no response.
Emmerson went on to question the film's claim that "[the term] 'jihad' always has positive connotations for Muslims." "I can attest," he said firmly, "that this is simply not true." Emmerson continued, "In Indonesia...Muslims try to avoid the word 'jihadi' because they know that it means somebody who engages in violence, and they don't want to be identified [with that]." Esposito responded with classic academic hair-splitting, claiming that, "If you really listen to what [the woman] is saying when she refers to jihad, she refers to a specific set of data on jihad. And that's referring to a particular poll that was done and the data that comes out of that poll."
In answering the next question, Esposito repeated his decade-old claim that radical Islam poses little to no national security threat to the United States. Citing the allegedly "small" number of post-9/11 arrests that resulted in terrorism charges, Esposito, with palpable disdain, told the audience, "I run into Americans all the time who ask me, 'How many embedded cells do you think there are?'" (In fact, the 9/11 Commission cited inadequate FBI investigation of these very cells as a contributor to the September 11, 2001 attacks.)
Esposito downplayed radicalism in American mosques, recounting a lecture where an audience member brought up the statistic of 80 percent and attributing the figure to a "Muslim basher." A number of counterterrorism experts and Islam scholars have cited the 80 percent figure, but in doing so, they are usually referring to the number of American mosques whose leadership is influenced by Saudi-funded Wahhabi extremism. As an alleged expert, one would expect Esposito to be aware of this fact, even if it is rather inconvenient.
Shifting his focus to Europe, Esposito cited a recent, unnamed Gallup study on European Muslims to make the outlandish claim that, "the vast majority of Muslim Europeans, are far more open to their society and far more pluralistic in their hopes and their aspirations than indigenous, liberal, White Anglo-Saxon Protestants." Assuming Esposito was referring to the May 7, 2009 study by Gallup and the U.K.-based Coexist Foundation, his conclusions were way off the mark. The study merely demonstrates that general European populations tend to perceive "ambiguous allegiances" among Muslims based on the elevated importance of the latter's "religious identities," a suspicion that is hardly without basis. But for Esposito, it comes down to picking and choosing facts that best fit his narrative.
The most memorable exchange of the night occurred between Esposito and a man who identified himself as an Arab Muslim living in the U.S. The latter raised serious problems with the interpretation of the data presented in the film, as when he demolished the film's laughable conclusion that women in Muslim countries wear the hijab (head scarf) because they have an "amazing idea of the distinction between its internal and external meanings."The majority of Muslim women wear the hijab, the questioner said, because of cultural and religious pressure, and he feared that the documentary would, as he put it:
Decrease pressure on movements for women's rights, reforming Islam, and democracy, [because] the image we get from this movie is that there is a utopia in the Islamic world that we don't know about. But the reality is that there is no utopia.
Esposito dodged the question by responding that one must distinguish between religious and secular Muslim women. "It's about what women want," he asserted. "Interviewing secular women who speak good English doesn't mean they reflect what Muslim women want." But, apparently, Esposito's conclusions do?
The views presented in the film, as well as Esposito's answers, reflect an interpretation of Islam and Muslims that does not jive with reality. Esposito's obfuscation when faced with tough questions, his dismissal of the threat of Islamic terrorism, and his refusal to take seriously points of view different from his own reveals an anti-intellectualism that is detrimental to the field of Middle East studies. If Esposito and his ilk are "speaking for Islam," the world's Muslims are in trouble.
Jonathan Gelbart is an international relations major at Stanford University and the current features editor of the Stanford Review, an independent publication. He wrote this article for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.