One of academia's most renowned experts on Islam, John Esposito, wants everyone to know that there is nothing to fear from Shariah law and that it is not incompatible with democracy. In Shariah: What Everyone Needs to Know, he and Natana J. DeLong-Bas argue that "far-right political commentators and popular Christian televangelists" have "hijacked" the term Shariah in order to perpetuate a clash of civilizations.
During his long academic career, Esposito has focused his attention on a non-specialist readership, rhetorically absolving Islam of any violent or supremacist tendencies by emphasizing the peaceful parts of the Koran, making him guilty of the same cherry-picking and out-of-context quotation he has accused others of doing. He is fond of slippery assertions such as "Islam, like all world religions, neither supports nor requires illegitimate violence."
Most analysts distinguish between Islam (or moderate Islam) and Islamism (also called Islamic fundamentalism, radical Islam, militant Islam, and other names). As Daniel Pipes often puts it, "Radical Islam is the problem and Moderate Islam is the solution." But Esposito mocks this view. He minimizes Islamism by inventing euphemistic neologisms ("Islamic Revival," "Islamic Resurgence," "Islamic Renewal," and "Islamic Reawakening") and advocating for "the right of Islamists to participate in the political process."
Esposito promotes his agenda as editor of the Oxford Islamic Studies Series and through his positions at Georgetown University: professor of religion and international affairs, professor of Islamic studies, and founding director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (renamed after Prince Alwaleed bin Talal following his $20 million gift in 2005) at the Walsh School of Foreign Service. Along with a coterie of like-minded academics and protégées who studied under him, Esposito has spent more than 40 years — lately on the Saudi payroll — misinforming the public.
His most egregious falsehood (made in several books) is that Palestinians adopted suicide bombing tactics in response to the February 25, 1994 massacre of Muslims by an Israeli named Baruch Goldstein. In reality, Palestinians began conducting suicide attacks against Israelis years earlier. On July 6, 1989, the first suicide attack occurred when a Palestinian Islamic Jihad operative commandeered a bus and drove it off a cliff, and the first suicide bombing occurred on October 30, 1989, when a PFLP operative rammed his explosive-laden fishing boat into an IDF patrol boat. Hamas began its suicide bombing campaign in 1993.
Esposito's co-author DeLong-Bas is his former student, whom he introduced to the world after 9/11 as an expert on Wahhabism, the official version of Islam authorized by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Her 2007 book on the topic portrays this strict and militant interpretation — named after the 18th-century firebrand preacher Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab — as a tolerant, reform-oriented, and even feminist version of Islam.
Shariah: What Everyone Needs to Know is in the question-and-answer format that Esposito has used in nearly a dozen books. If the book has a thesis, it is that Shariah, which the authors call "God's revelation," and Islamic law, which they call "a human construct," are not synonymous, but are misconstrued as such both by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Esposito made this point in his 2007 book Who Speaks for Islam? in which he urged readers to "think of Shariah as a compass (God's revelation, timeless principles that cannot change) and Islamic law (fiqh) as a map. This map must conform to the compass, but it reflects different times, places, and geography." Nice metaphor, but it falls short: the compass' needle will always point towards the interpretations of the example of the prophet Muhammad where Islamists find justification for slavery, child marriage, antisemitism, and other phenomena incompatible with democracy.
The argument is reminiscent of a common defense of Marxism that indicts Marxists for their improper application of a venerable system. It allows shortcomings, even atrocities, to be blamed on individuals rather than ideologies. Esposito and DeLong-Bas forgive the excesses and brutalities of Shariah by faulting individuals who have imposed flawed versions of Islamic law. It's a tough sell.
Where the authors take on issues more candidly, they sidestep obvious conclusions. For instance, Shariah's universal renunciation of homosexuality as the sin of zina leads to almost comical understatement: "This creates a serious challenge for same-sex couples today to find ways to both be committed to their lasting relationship and be faithful to Islam." In parts of the Muslim world those couples are thrown off roofs or imprisoned.
Perhaps it's time that everyone stopped believing in the expertise of John Esposito and Natana DeLong-Bas. After all, both have been remarkably wrong in the past. Weeks before 9/11, Esposito told the Fletcher Forum that "Bin Laden is the best thing to come along, if you are an intelligence officer, if you are an authoritarian regime, or if you want to paint Islamist activism as a threat. There's a danger in making Bin Laden the poster boy of global terrorism." In 2006, DeLong-Bas told the Saudi daily newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, "I do not find any evidence that would make me agree that Osama bin Laden was behind the attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. All we heard from him was praise and acclaim for those who carried out the operation."
In reality, Al Qaeda and ISIS are physical manifestations of an ideology, but the authors believe they are reactions to US presence in Muslim lands and US support for repressive Muslim regimes.
Instead of listening to what American academics who are subsidized by Saudi Arabia say about Shariah, everyone should listen to what the Islamists themselves say about Shariah. On June 22, Sayfullo Saipov, the Uzbek ISIS member whose 2017 Halloween truck jihad attack claimed eight lives in Manhattan, told a judge that the "Islamic State is not fighting for land, as some say, or oil. They have one purpose. It's fighting to impose Shariah on Earth."
A.J. Caschetta is a Ginsburg-Ingerman fellow at the Middle East Forum and a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology.