On July 7, Georgetown University announced that Nader Hashemi, former director of the University of Denver's Center for Middle East Studies, would replace John Esposito as director of the Prince Alwaleed Center for Christian-Muslim Understanding (ACMCU) as of July 1. Hashemi is the genius who speculated that Salman Rushdie's would-be assassin was likely tricked into the attack by a Mossad agent posing as an IRGC operative. That ridiculous claim makes Hashemi a logical successor as the ACMCU director, but filling Esposito's shoes will be a Herculean task.
For decades, John Esposito has reigned as academia's high priest of Islamic apologetics, promoting political Islam and demonizing anyone who objects to his views as "Islamophobic." He was a professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross before Islam came into the orbit of American life and therefore well-positioned to capitalize on the opportunities that came with the Iranian Revolution in 1979. And capitalize he did, climbing the academic ladder and ultimately landing at Georgetown University where he became professor of Islamic studies and founded the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, later renamed the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding for its chief patron after he donated $20 million.
In a gushing 2005 profile published in The Muslim Weekly, Scott Jaschik (co-founder of Inside Higher Ed) breathlessly pronounced him "a star – sought out by reporters, foreign governments, corporate groups, and federal agencies."
By 2019, the star was dimming, publishing less, making fewer appearances. He had stepped down as director of the ACMCU and began calling himself "founding director." When his acolytes and admirers published a festschrift in his honor in 2021, it seemed to be a sign he was ready to retire.
Esposito and Sami Al-Arian
But in 2023 John Esposito has returned, sitting for obsequious interviewers, participating in online colloquia with his protégés and admirers, and collaborating with Al Jazeera in Qatar. While he is no longer running the ACMCU, he still directs Georgetown's Bridge Initiative. Perhaps most dramatic, Esposito continues to celebrate and promote his long-time BFF, the notorious Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) shura council member and financier, Sami al-Arian.
As a professor of computer science at the University of South Florida (USF) beginning in 1986, al-Arian co-founded and directed two of the most consequential terrorist front groups in history – the World and Islam Studies Enterprise (WISE) and the Islamic Concern Project (ICP), later renamed the Islamic Committee for Palestine. He turned the USF Tampa campus into the diasporic epicenter of the Palestinian "resistance" in the 1990s. His conferences brought together jihadists from around the world, including one of America's first Jihad enemies, Omar Abdel Rahman, "the Blind Sheikh."
One WISE board member, Tarik Hamdi, travelled to Afghanistan in May 1998 and hand-delivered a battery to Osama bin Laden for his satellite phone. Another WISE board member and adjunct professor of Middle East studies at USF, Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, became the leader of PIJ when its founder Fathi Shikaki was assassinated.
It's unclear when Esposito met al-Arian, whose PIJ connections were first exposed to the public in Steven Emerson's award-winning documentary Jihad in America (1994). After 9/11, when Bill O'Reilly brought new scrutiny to al-Arian, Esposito came out as a friend of Sami. As USF president Judy Genshaft contemplated firing al-Arian (who was tenured), Esposito very publicly cancelled his lecture scheduled for October 17, 2002, on the Tampa campus, announcing that he would not visit "a university that so clearly violates the academic freedom of one of its professors."
Also unclear is when Esposito became aware of al-Arian's terrorist activities, but when the evidence came to light, he continued to support his embattled comrade. Even after the FBI revealed thousands of hours of taped conversations of al-Arian discussing how he funneled money to PIJ, Esposito stuck by his pal. When al-Arian pleaded guilty in February 2006 to financing PIJ, Esposito stuck by his pal. And after al-Arian was released and deported to Turkey in 2015, Esposito still stuck by his pal.
Further cementing the connection between the two, Esposito's former student and protégé, Jonathan A.C. Brown (also a professor at Georgetown), married Sami's daughter Laila, an Al-Jazeera producer. Sami's son Abdullah received his Ph.D. from Georgetown and is now a history professor at Georgetown's campus in Qatar.
It makes sense that al-Arian would choose to live in Recip Tayyip Erdoğan's Muslim Brotherhood-friendly Turkey, where real academics and journalists have been purged or silenced. He reinvented himself as a policy man, repeating Erdoğan's propaganda on TRT television and became professor of public affairs at Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University (İZU) where, in 2017, he launched yet another pseudo-academic Islamist organization, the Center for Islamic and Global Affairs (CIGA).
One Erdoğan mouthpiece, The Daily Sabah, praised al-Arian as a "scholar with a purpose" and heralded CIGA's first global conference in 2017 by name-dropping participants: "a range of scholars including Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University; Tariq Ramadan, professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University; [and] John L. Esposito, professor of religion and international affairs and Islamic studies at Georgetown University." That's some company.
Of all Esposito's recent post-pandemic appearances, his keynote address to al-Arian's 4th annual CIGA conference on March 11 stands out. The lecture itself was unremarkable to anyone familiar with Esposito, but the chummy banter and esprit de corps between the two pals distinguished this performance.
Zooming in at 2:00 a.m. from Washington, D.C., Esposito was introduced by his friend as a scholar who "defines intellectual rigor when it comes to Islam and Islamophobia." The praise fell somewhat short of Esposito's 2008 character-reference letter to U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema calling al-Arian, "an extraordinarily bright, articulate scholar and intellectual-activist, a man of conscience with a strong commitment to peace and social justice."
Unaware of the distractions in his background, the drowsy Esposito read from a screen, plodding his way through old jokes and boasts, including his well-worn humble brag about being an obscure religious scholar prior to the 1979 Iranian Revolution which made him relevant and therefore famous and rich, quipping that the Ayatollah paid for his first Lexus.
As usual, Esposito complained that since 1979, media attention paid to Islam is overwhelmingly devoted to "stories about militant Muslims" and ignores "stories about ordinary Muslims." He seemed immune to the irony of implying that Muslims not attacking non-Muslims, not taking hostages, and not carrying out suicide attacks is newsworthy.
That intellectual rigor so admired by al-Arian was on full display as Esposito accused the media in one breath of, "brush-stroking all Muslims as terrorists," and then in the next breath claiming that, "Israelis believe the 1 billion Muslims are part of a monolithic, insular, violent, inherently backward, and inferior culture that cannot be changed."
Normalizing American Islamists
His casual attempts to normalize the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) culminated in the exclamation that, "CAIR is a mainstream organization – Obama said so." CAIR, of course, is a Hamas front group. Many of its members have been tied (some convicted and some confessed) to terrorism-related crimes. At a CAIR banquet in Dallas in 2007, Esposito regaled the audience with, "God help Sami al-Arian in terms of this administration and many others who have lived through this."
He also tried to normalize the International Institute for Islamic Thought (IIIT), an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation terrorism case, which he casually and familiarly called "the triple I-T" and implied that it's a credible source of information from good people trying to combat Islamophobia. A 1991 Muslim Brotherhood memorandum refers to the IIIT it as one of "our organizations." On an October 2003 search permit application to the U.S. District Court, one FBI agent wrote that "IIIT transferred money to WISE precisely because WISE was a front receiving money for PIJ."
Following a bit of softball Q&A, al-Arian presented his pal with a shiny CIGA plaque, and the mutual-admiration display came to a close. But then something strange happened.
The once-fiery speaker, who in 1990 celebrated the "march of the martyrs" and praised "the river of blood that gushes forth ... from butchery to butchery and from martyrdom to martyrdom, from Jihad to Jihad," looked like a feeble, even pathetic, version of himself.
The PIJ warrior who in 1991 whipped his audience into a frenzy, shouting "Jihad is our path. Victory to Islam. Death to Israel," didn't look all that different from any other post-middle age academic.
His transformation from PIJ terrorist to professor of public affairs complete, al-Arian seemed the embodiment of Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil" as he dutifully reminded the conference attendees in Turkey that they must first retrieve their coupon from him in order to avail themselves of the free CIGA lunch.
Sami al-Arian might look deflated and impotent to an open-minded observer, but to his adoring fans, he is a Jihad legend, likely inspiring future Jihad legends. And his vile influence on academia would not have been possible without John Esposito's help and Georgetown University's name. Shame on them both.
Part 2 of this examination focuses on Esposito's often underestimated influence on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
A.J. Caschetta is a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a fellow at Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum, where he is also a Ginsburg-Milstein fellow.