Early in his scholarly career, Georgetown University religion professor John Esposito submitted countless proposals for books and journal articles about Islam to academic publishers. Most didn't respond to his proposals. A few did. Though he had great ideas, they told him, there was no market for them, because "no one [was] interested in the topic," he said.
That was the early 1970s. Then the Iranian Revolution of 1979 happened -- and "that's when America became interested in the least, and Americans discovered Islam," Esposito said.
He published his first book on Islam in 1980, and has since gone on to author and edit more than 45 books and become one of the nation's leading experts on Islam. On Tuesday night, he was at Campbell University to headline the Department of Religion and Philosophy's 14th Annual Lecture Series, which several hundred people attended in a nearly full Butler Chapel.
Here are four highlights from Esposito's talk on "The Challenge of Pluralism: Christian-Muslim Relations in the 21st Century":
1. Esposito backed into the field of Islamic studies. Esposito said he was an Italian-American Catholic born in Brooklyn who decided at the age of 14 to become a priest. He spent 10 years living in a Catholic monastery before heading to St. John's University, where he earned a master's in theology, with plans to be a Catholic theologian. But when he started pursuing a Ph.D. at Temple University, an academic advisor encouraged him to take a course in Islamic studies. "I agreed to take one course, and I backed into the field [of Islamic studies] by accident," he said. When the College of the Holly Cross hired him to teach world religion immediately after finishing his Ph.D., a colleague told him he would never last because no one would sign up to take a course in world religions. Why is Esposito's biographical background relevant? Because, he said, it sheds light on how much the world has changed in the past 40 years. Today, there's no shortage of interest in world religion courses and in Islamic studies. What changed? Islamic countries emerged as major imperial power after the Iranian Revolution of 1979. There was also the fallout from 9/11, he said.
2. Islam is the second-largest religious group in the world. There are about 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, while there are about 2.8 billion Christians, making them the largest religious group. In the U.S., Muslims are the second or third largest religious group, and they have one of the most diverse religious profiles among the different faiths, Esposito said. Consider, he said, that Muslims in the U.S. are from 68 countries, about one-third are African Americans, and about 28 percent are Caucasians. He added that 77 percent of Muslims believe they worship the same God as Christians and Jews, and 84 percent say Muslims should emphasize their shared values with Jews and Christians.
3. Though the U.S. has become more multi-ethnic, it has also become more fractured. "We have become far more multi-ethnic, but . . . we have ended up in a polarized situation," Esposito said. Why has this happened? A big reason: because many American still encounter Islam through the media and through events like the Iranian Hostage Crisis or 9/11 instead of through direct encounters, he said. "If you've never dealt with a religion or an ethnic group and you suddenly encounter it in a kind of direct cataclysmic way, your natural tendency is to think this is the way they are. . . . The point is that we generalize," he said. "For Americans [who] had never engaged with Islamic Muslims, what did they see every day? They saw people yelling 'Death to America.' For many that was the engagement and still for many Americans it has been through the lens of . . . that fraction of a fraction of 1 percent of extremists and terrorists. . . ."
4. The challenge of the 21st century is religious inclusion. Because the U.S. has become more fractured, Esposito said, the differences among religious faiths often overshadow similarities. This can perpetuate misperceptions and promote exclusivity instead of inclusivity. "Our challenge in the 21st century is while we retain belief in our specific faith [and] vision, be not one of religious exclusion but of religious inclusion," he said. "Religion inclusivity does not mean you sacrifice what you regard as the heart and soul of your faith. . . . It means respecting other faiths and being inclusive. . . . You recognize distinctions. You hold to what you cherish the most. Don't deny the differences, but look at the shared values, what your shared beliefs are, and what your shared interests are." One of the similarities among Christianity, Judaism and Islam, he offered as an example, is that they all share the same two great commandments. Jews, Christians and Muslims also all believe in God, have similar ideas about war and peace, and share concerns about ecology, he added. "We have to [practice religious inclusion] in a multi-ethnic, multi-faith society in a globalized society -- that is our challenge when it comes to pluralism," he said. "It's seeing that, however much our differences, there are similarities. . . .
"Where we are today is a need for a global sense of pluralism."