On the 14th of this month, Georgetown University professor John Esposito delivered a lecture at the Florida Southern College. Titling it "Violence in the Islamic Tradition," Esposito's remarks, as reported by the local press, were filled with the kind of misrepresentations and half-truths that mark much of what passes for Middle East studies these days. Among them:
- "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.'"
Esposito here attempts to draw moral parallels between the Axis Powers of WWII--Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and Japan--and the Allies, most particularly America and the U.K. He seems to forget that Japan has only a very small population of Christians, or that the USSR was governed by an atheistic ideology that eviscerated the Orthodox church along with the rest of civil society.
Were these powers all fighting for the same thing? Were all equally the aggressors? To ask the question is to answer it.
Moreover, the Nazis were explicitly neo-pagan in their romantic views of the Norse gods, the Teutonic tribes that invaded Rome, and their distinctly modern beliefs in racialism and secular utopias brought about through state power. Where religious chaplains advocated such views, they erred; where they blessed those who fought the Axis, they surely did the right thing.
Then there's this:
- "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's thoughtful of Esposito to chastise the Pope, poor unlettered German uber-scholar that he is. There's no time to go into this here, but might there not have been a bit more going on in the lecture at Regensberg? And surely the early leaders of Islam weren't so cynical as to see their territorial gains in purely economic and political--i.e. secular--terms. Nor, to be sure, were some early medieval Christian rulers, either. To argue otherwise is to proffer an anachronistic, presentist reading of the past.
As for issuing apologias:
- "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."
As Daniel Pipes has shown conclusively, jihad is not so benign, neither historically nor in its modern usage. This is simply an apologia for those who use the word to mean one thing only: holy war.
These examples of moral equivalency and misrepresentation are from just one lecture--and I've by no means mentioned them all.