John Esposito has logged 3 million miles over the past four decades traveling to and from Islamic nations of the Middle East and Asia.
He speaks and reads Arabic. And he thinks Americans misunderstand the religion embraced by a quarter of mankind.
Esposito, who will speak Thursday in Tulsa, is author of 45 books, professor of religion and international affairs and of Islamic studies at Georgetown University, president-elect of the American Academy of Religion, and founding director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding in the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown.
America's exposure to Islam began with the Iranian revolution, he said, when they saw daily televised reports of people chanting death to America and burning the U.S. flag.
"The tendency is to generalize from a narrow experience," he said.
"And there's a deeper rooted issue," he said. Islam has always been viewed as "over there," grouped with Far East religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, instead of as a monotheistic Abrahamic faith that sees itself connected to the great prophets of Judaism and Christianity.
He said that after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Americans' interest in Islam spiked.
But a wave of opposition to mosque construction and Shariah law began with the controversy over building a mosque near ground zero in New York City.
He said Islamophobia, an irrational fear of Islam, is a social cancer that has swept the nation in the last 10 years, spurred by anti-Islamic authors on speaking tours and anti-Muslim web sites.
Major politicians are using language about Islam that they would never use about other religions, calling it a threat to the West, he said.
He called that viewpoint naive and a frustration.
Democracy has never developed in the Middle East, he said, not because of Islam but because when modern states emerged, they were authoritarian regimes ruled by kings and their military.
Residents of the Middle East have functioned under that type of government for decades, but polling shows that most Muslims admire Americans and want what Americans have — political freedom and economic opportunity, Esposito said.
Authoritarian governments are concerned with staying in power. They use religion for their own strategic purposes, but their underlying motive is power, he said.
Even Osama bin Laden appealed to religion to mobilize people, but his primary driver was political, not theological, he said.
Esposito will speak at the 2013 Dialogue and Friendship Dinner and awards ceremony of the Dialogue Institute of the Southwest, formerly the Institute of Interfaith Dialog.