"I have the world's greatest job because I've been saying the same thing for 30 years," said Esposito, who spoke about "Understanding Islam" at MU on Thursday evening. "Can anybody else make that claim?"
A renowned Islam expert and professor at Georgetown University, Esposito spoke at Keller Auditorium about the difficulties American foreign policy sustains and creates in the Islamic world. His speech, sponsored by the College of Arts and Science and the department of religious studies, was part of Islam Awareness Week on campus.
Speaking with a mild Brooklyn accent and wearing a blue blazer and tennis shoes, Esposito said his job title has changed often, but his message has remained the same.
"We've learned about Islam through threatening events, starting with the oil embargo and the Iranian revolution," he said. "We've never had context to see (the religion) in."
Speaking to a diverse audience of college students in sweat pants and community members in suits, Esposito did not avoid controversy. He drew a distinction between what he called "hatred of America" and "anti-Americanism."
"When we say, ‘They hate America,' that means they hate the people of America," Esposito said. "That's different from anti-Americanism, which means they hate our foreign policies, not us."
Esposito grew up in Brooklyn in an Italian, Roman Catholic household. He said his choice to study Islam was regarded with the same derision as if he were announcing his intentions to become a sheepherder.
After graduating from Temple University in 1974 in religious studies, Esposito said he was hard-pressed to find work until the Iranian revolution in 1979.
"I owe my career and my Lexus to the Ayatollah Khomeini," Esposito joked.
The nation's interest in Islam skyrocketed in the early 1980s, Esposito said. However, he said that the 1979 Afghan War, between Afghanistan and what was then the U.S.S.R., should have drawn greater attention to relations with Islam.
Esposito said that jihad, as defined in the Quran, is a struggle in the name of Islam. He said the Afghan War was the first global jihad.
"When we were fighting there, the U.S. couldn't get enough jihad," Esposito said.
Esposito said while U.S. relations with Islamic countries grew and decayed during the Cold War, they came to a head with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Speaking about American foreign relations and American acceptance of Islam, Esposito said, "Nine/eleven set us back 20 years."
He added that the line has been blurred between members of Islam and extremists. He divided the current method of thought on Islam into two schools. He said the first school differentiated between political actors and extremists. The second school, he said, regards all Muslims as extremists and calls moderates "wolves in sheep's clothing."
Esposito has detractors, many of whom point to his views as a reason that America was caught unguarded before Sept. 11.
Stanley Kurtz, a contributor to the National Review, wrote, "Surely John Esposito's advice must have contributed to the climate that led the Clinton State Department to reject vital intelligence on (Osama) bin Laden's activities when it was all but handed to us on a silver platter."
That's nonsense, Esposito said in an interview after the lecture.
He said his point in 1999 was that once bin Laden was removed, terror cells would still exist and operate.
"Look at the situation now," Esposito said. "(Vice President Dick) Cheney just said that with bin Laden gone, the fight isn't over."
Esposito added that he was not a direct adviser to Clinton and has never been to the White House.
Omar Waheed, a sophomore at MU and social chairman with the Muslim Student Organization, said the lecture reaffirmed some of his beliefs and brought new issues to his attention.
"It helped me understand what people are thinking," Waheed said. "The speech mentioned things I've seen living here, but also things I haven't heard about."
Steve Jacobs appreciated Esposito's explanation of how perceptions are altered through tragic events.
"He made it easy to understand, including some of his discussion of interfaith relations," said Jacobs, who works at St. Francis House for the homeless.
In his closing remarks, Esposito commented on the future of American relationships with the Islamic world.
"You want to learn more? Interact with people of different faiths, and do it personally," he said. "I've traveled, been interviewed, written books, all to put this way of thinking in full view."