Since the attacks of last fall, Americans' thirst for knowledge has increased exponentially on subjects germane to Islam and the Middle East. Naturally, many people have turned to this country's professors and academic specialists for information through books, articles, lectures and interviews. But who exactly are they turning to? Specifically, who is the most authoritative voice among American academics?
Many would point to the famous professor of Islam at Georgetown University, John Esposito. A former president for the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), he now heads the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown. Author of several popular books on Islam, he was also editor of the prestigious Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World .
So, what does academia's go-to man say about contemporary Islamic movements?
In one of the more memorable lines of early 2001, Esposito suggested that "focusing on Usama bin Laden risks catapulting one of the many sources of terrorism to center stage, distorting both the diverse international sources and the relevance of one man."
This was probably not the only sentence he wishes he could retract. Here are a few more:
The 1990s, he said, would "be a decade of new alliances and alignments in which the Islamic movements will challenge rather than threaten their societies and the West."
In 1994, he supported the notion that Hamas, the suicide-bombing Palestinian terror group, is also a community-focused group that engages in "honey, cheese-making, and home-based clothing manufacture."
Esposito also claimed on NPR that Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasir Arafat's call for Jihad is comparable to a "literacy campaign" or the "fight against AIDS."
Clearly, Esposito accepts a rose-colored version of militant Islam that has little connection to reality. But rather than damaging his reputation, this approach has served him surprisingly well in both academic circles as well as government. Indeed, he was a leading source of information on Islamic movements for the Department of State during the Clinton years.
While the government no longer consistently seeks his advice, Esposito continues to dispense it elsewhere. Lately, he's appeared on television in defense of Sami al-Arian, the University of South Florida professor with links to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. In fact, he has supported al-Arian since the mid-1990s, casting him as a "consummate professional" rather than a supporter of Palestinian terror.
In recent weeks, Esposito has also thrown his weight behind a University of North Carolina requirement for all freshmen to read parts of the Koran, but that failed to address the parts that justify violence.
While Esposito has emerged as one of the foremost apologists for Islamism in recent years, at least he is consistent. His message has been unwavering — before and after the attacks of last fall.
In fact, rather than admitting error for his own failed judgements, Esposito actually blamed America in the aftermath of the attacks. "September 11," he said, "has made everyone aware of the fact that not addressing the kinds of issues involved here, of tolerance and pluralism, have catastrophic repercussions."
Understating the Dangers
What Esposito has clearly missed, however, is the catastrophic repercussions of militant Islam. Indeed, a clear pattern has emerged.
In 1979, Iranian militants took 54 American hostages for more than a year. In 1983, militants blew up the U.S. embassy in Beirut. In 1996, they bombed the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 American servicemen. In 2000, radicals killed 17 U.S. soldiers on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen. The list goes on.
Esposito, all the while, insists that equating Islamist movements "with radicalism and terrorism becomes a convenient pretext for crushing political opposition."
Esposito also minimizes the damage that Shari'a, or Islamic law, has done in the countries that have implemented it – including Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. Freedom House, a watchdog group, ranks all of these countries as the worst offenders of human rights in the world. Their economies are all on the brink of destruction, and each one is undeniably linked to the export of international terrorism.
Still, Esposito writes that "contrary to what some have advised, the United States should not in principle object to implementation of Islamic law or involvement of Islamic activists in government."
Esposito in Context
Esposito's record makes better sense with the understanding that he truly believes that one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter. He claims that the "line between national liberation and terrorism is often blurred." Actually, he blurs it.
Interestingly, he accuses those who have identified Islamism as a strategic enemy of having a "secular bias" toward Islam. He claims that their "analysis has been shaped by a liberal secularism that fails to recognize that it too represents a world view that, when assumed to be self-evident truth, can become a ‘secular fundamentalism.'"
To be sure, Esposito's moral relativism is better suited for political activism and propaganda. This is why Martin Kramer, in his book Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America, dubs Esposito a "scholar activist" — a politically motivated scholar with an axe to grind.
While Esposito works for a center designed to create Muslim-Christian understanding, he only creates obfuscation. And unfortunately, many others take his lead. The American university system, therefore, should reexamine their Middle East specialists' explanations of modern day Islam – particularly, the violence associated with its radical and extremist interpretations.
John L. Esposito , "Political Islam and the West," Military Technology, Volume 25, Issue 2, Feb. 2001, pp.89-97. See also: http://msanews.mynet.net/books/threat/6.11.html
"Extremist Group, Hamas, Said to be Community Oriented," with Daniel Zwerdling on All Things Considered, National Public Radio, October 22, 1994 (4:30 pm ET), Transcript # 1643-2. Also see: Andrea Levin, CAMERA Media Report, October 2, 1995 at http://world.std.com/~camera/docs/oncamera/ocmm.html
"'Jihad' not Necessarily a Call to Religious war," with Robert Siegel on All Things Considered,National Public Radio, May 18, 1994 (4:30 pm ET),Transcript # 1486-9. Also see: Andrea Levin, CAMERA Media Report, October 2, 1995. http://world.std.com/~camera/docs/oncamera/ocmm.html
Jane Lampman, "Faith Groups Gather in Assisi to Seek Peace, The Christian Science Monitor, January 24, 2002. www.csmonitor.com/2002/0124/p16s02-lire.html
John L. Esposito, "Political Islam: Beyond the Green Menace, Current History, January 1994, www.iiu.edu.my/deed/articles/espo.html