John L. Esposito, professor of religion and international affairs and director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, is America's best-known apologist for Saudi Wahhabism, the Turkish fundamentalist Justice and Development Party (AKP), and Islamist ideologies in general. To many, he personifies all that's wrong with Middle East studies in America today.
On July 19, 2010, Esposito contributed a column to the CNN website titled "Islamophobia and the Muslim Center at Ground Zero." In it, he downplays complaints about the project for a fifteen-story Islamic cultural center near the site of the 9/11 atrocities by focusing on angry comments from Manhattanites who see the proposal as an expression of Islamist supremacy. Here's how he sums up criticism of the mosque project: "Islam-bashing charges leveled with no concrete evidence by pundits and politicians."
Esposito claims that "[m]osque construction in the United States has become a catalyst for increased anti-Islam and anti-Muslim sentiment, discrimination and hate crimes in recent years." Discrimination and hate crimes? Where is the concrete evidence to back up that provocative claim? Does Esposito adhere to an academic standard when making such an allegation? In fact, the FBI's most recent statistics on victims of hate crimes motivated by religious bias lists Jews at the top with 66.1% and Muslims at 7.5%.
Esposito asks, "Why should Muslims who are building a center be any more suspect than Jews who build a synagogue or center or Christians who build a church or conference center?" Answer: Neither Jewish nor Christian houses of worship are overwhelmingly financed from outside U.S. borders, and neither the Jewish nor Christian faith communities in America are overwhelmingly dominated by radicals. But too many of the major mosques in America are financed by Saudi Arabia's ultra-radical, fundamentalist, and supremacist Wahhabi sect, while the "Wahhabi lobby" of extremist groups -- the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) at the forefront -- crush American Muslims, suppressing any dissent from radical ideology. For these reasons, as I wrote in the Canadian National Post in April 2010, American Islam is intellectually impoverished. Esposito, as an academic chieftain in Middle East studies, has contributed to this sad condition.
Esposito prefers to ignore reality: The massive structure planned by property owner Sharif Al-Gamal, with Feisal Abdul Rauf of the "Cordoba Initiative" as the imam of its Islamic prayer space, and with the support of former diplomatic and financial operatives for the Iranian clerical regime, has caused doubt among both American Muslims and non-Muslims. While some non-Muslims believe the choice of "Cordoba" -- a city in Spain -- was intended to evoke Muslim reconquest, it is better known, even among Muslims, as an exaggerated but important symbol of interfaith cooperation.
I have been a Sunni Muslim since 1997. I have been denounced repeatedly by radical Muslims and by opponents of Islam. I have expressed my opposition to the Ground Zero Islamic center project in interviews and articles. My criticism of the proposal is based on three issues:
- Insensitivity toward non-Muslims. American Muslims -- especially their leaders and the large body of Islamophile academics led by Esposito -- have a great deal of work to do to convince a significant share of non-Muslims that Islam can function alongside other faiths in the panorama of American religious communities. Traditional Islamic guidance calls on Muslims living in societies with a non-Muslim majority to avoid giving offense to their neighbors. The Koran states (29:46), "Be considerate when you debate with the People of the Book" -- i.e., Jews and Christians. Could anything appear more offensive and less considerate of American non-Muslims than erecting a large Islamic building close to Ground Zero?
- Disregard for the security of American Muslims. Islam teaches that a Muslim's first interest is to obtain security for his or her family and fellow Muslims. Al-Gamal and Rauf have argued that the intent of the Ground Zero project is to further understanding of Islam and to help heal the collective wound inflicted on 9/11. But rather than a patient, calm effort to advance conciliation, the Ground Zero mosque project appears to be a heedless venture that will inexorably increase suspicion of Muslims. What could do more to undermine the security of American Muslims than an insult, intended or not, to the memory of the dead of 9/11?
- Radical and otherwise suspect associations maintained by Rauf. It has become widely known that Rauf is a leading figure in the so-called Perdana Global Peace Organisation, which is headed by one of the Islamic world's most offensive Jew-haters, former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir bin Mohamad. Perdana was instrumental in organizing the Turkey-based attempt to run the Israeli naval embargo of Hamas-run Gaza at the end of May. The group's roster of "Role Players & Contributors" begins with Mahathir, listing Rauf as second below him. Incredibly, the same list includes Michel Chossudovsky, a Canadian leftist professor known for his ardent defense of Slobodan Milosevic, the late Serbian demagogue. What could be more Islamophobic than to join in a public enterprise with such an individual?
Perdana is clearly an alignment of differing extremists, brought together by hatred of America, Israel, and globalization. In that regard, it much resembles Middle East studies in America as guided by Esposito. It includes defenders of Hamas and defenders of Milosevic. How can anybody active in such an effort claim to seek mutual understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims at a location near Ground Zero?
The "Islamophobia" to which Esposito pays lip service is not merely a politically correct label invented to silence criticize of Muslims. Islamophobia exists. It consists of condemnation of the whole religion of Islam as evil. Denunciation of crimes committed by Muslims, such as the 9/11 attacks, or the extremist affiliations of Muslims like Feisal Abdul Rauf, is not Islamophobia. Rather, such repudiation is urgently necessary for the health of American Islam as a faith community and should certainly come before any schemes for ambitious, overbearing mosques or Islamic cultural centers. Given his position in Middle East studies, Esposito should understand that. His apologetics guarantee that he won't.
Stephen Schwartz is executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism. He wrote this article for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.