Outside each conference room at the Times Square Hilton one July morning, waiters set up the requisite tables with croissants, fruit, coffee, and tea. But outside one room, guests help themselves to harira soup, a spicy mix of chick peas, lentils, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and celery. Those seeking a less tangy option try the chopped feta over tomatoes.
Nickelodeon, the children's cable network, has set up this menu. George Soros, the international financier, is backing Nick Jr. (Nickelodeon's division for younger viewers) in developing a new show in which the lead character will be a Muslim-American child between 2 and 5. Soros' idea is that kids in the United States will watch, and learn that Muslims are not bad people. In predominantly Muslim countries, the show might teach children that some Americans share their beliefs.
For Nick Jr., a key task was figuring out just how to present a Muslim child in a way that would be accurate. Producers learn, for example, that a Muslim child's pet would be a cat, not a dog, because cats are considered clean animals suitable for living with a family. Since most Nickelodeon shows don't have to worry about such issues, the network has assembled some leading experts on Islam to explain the faith and its practice. The first speaker is Georgetown University's John L. Esposito, and he captures the audience by mixing serious information (defining words like "Islam" and "jihad") with jokes about his family.
One of his big themes is the diversity of Muslims. A Muslim in Bangladesh would probably not look like or believe the same things as a Muslim in Saudi Arabia or in Sudan, he says. But many Americans tend to view all Muslims based on a few Muslims they know about, quite likely as terrorists. To illustrate the danger of such stereotypes, Esposito turns to his own background as an Italian-American.
Esposito, 63, is a star – sought out by reporters, foreign governments, corporate groups, and federal agencies. One of his summer trips was to brief the Chicago office of the FBI on Islam in America. He is the author or co-author of 37 books — all but one still in print. Some of his books sell upwards of 30,000 copies, a J.K. Rowling-type achievement for academic publishing. His claim to fame is that he was among the first to point to the rising influence of political Islam – the groups in many countries that seek to apply various parts of Islam (or as much as possible) to political life. Post-9/11, calling political Islam an important force is obvious. But Esposito started talking about political Islam in the 1970s, when many experts and the U.S. State Department didn't take political Islam seriously at all. They expected secular Arab nationalism to be the key force for the United State to contend with in the Middle East.
Esposito's career took off after the Shah of Iran fell in 1979, and everyone could see the power of political Islam. "I owe my Lexus and my career to the Ayatollah Khomeini," he tells his students at Georgetown.
Since 9/11, Esposito has been in great demand as an author, teacher, and speaker. But he is also experiencing more scrutiny than ever before. He has been attacked as an "apologist for militant Islam," accused of being naïve about Osama bin Laden, and blamed for the State Department's approach to Muslim extremism during the Clinton administration. Web sites and commentators – many of them affiliated with strong supporters of Israel – pick apart his writing. His critics see him as an exemplar of all that is wrong with academe while his defenders see an "intimidation campaign" against those who truly understand Islam.
Esposito's views represent "the consensus" of experts, says Lisa Anderson, president of the Middle East Studies Association and a dean at Columbia University. His critics have "a high-pitched, hysterical quality, with a lot of hyperbole and insult," she says.
So is John Esposito a hero or a dupe?
THE UNLIKELY EXPERT
Many American experts on Islam historically are from Islamic countries themselves or are Jewish or are products of the missionaries who worked in the Middle East. John Esposito is none of those things.
Born May 19, 1940, Esposito was raised in Brooklyn in a neighborhood that was almost all Italian. Roman Catholic faith – of the pre-Vatican II variety — was all-important. "I remember many days that I was in church from 6 a.m. through much of the day, as an altar boy and student," he says.
Growing up, Esposito remembers learning "absolutely nothing" about the Middle East or Islam. Everything was "domestically focused," he says. Unlike many of his colleagues in the field, who were world travelers from young ages, he didn't leave the United States until he was 31.
Post-seminary, Esposito tried corporate life (a management training program at Prudential) and high-school teaching before returning for graduate study in theology. Still the good Catholic, he applied only to Catholic colleges and was accepted at St. John's, where he earned a master's degree. But for his Ph.D., he did something unusual for a would-be theologian: He enrolled at Temple University, a secular institution in which the religion program included many world faiths.
At Temple, he focused on Hinduism and Buddhism, and agreed to take a course on Islam - at the urging of his adviser – thinking that one semester would be plenty. But his professor, the late Ismail R. Al-Faruqi, was trying to build his program. Al-Faruqi begged Esposito to apply for a summer fellowship to study Arabic at the University of Pennsylvania. Esposito wasn't excited about the prospect "but I was doing nothing, and the fellowship paid good money." After struggling for many weeks, Arabic clicked "and I became fascinated with Islam."
Another fellowship – for study in Lebanon – sealed the shift and by the time Esposito earned his Ph.D. from Temple, in 1974, his focus was Islam. But if Esposito found his focus, the world of academe couldn't have cared less. He landed a job teaching religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross. But Esposito primarily had to teach about Hinduism and Buddhism. "When I was hired, Islam was on no one's screen."
Outside of the college, no one cared either. "I would send out book proposals and 95 percent of them weren't answered, or they would say, ‘good idea, but there's no market.'"
"I was the Maytag repairman," says Esposito of this period.
All of that changed when the Shah of Iran fell, in 1979. "I'm at this meeting out of town and my wife calls and tells me that I have 3 publishers trying to reach me with book contracts" for proposals he had submitted that were suddenly relevant.
UNDERSTANDING POLITICAL ISLAM
The fall of the Shah is central to understanding what Esposito thinks about political Islam. In a seminar on religion and international affairs at Georgetown, he tells students about the post-World War II mindset that developing nations needed Western culture, technology, and secularism. "The view was that to be modern was to live in a human-centered universe, not a God-centered universe."
That view left Americans vulnerable to surprises like the Iranian revolution. Esposito asks his students to imagine watching television news broadcasts in the 1970s. Viewers would see the Shah holding press conferences, dressed in a Western-style military uniform, speaking English, and accompanied by a glamorous wife. Viewers also might see images of a Saudi king, who would never have held press conferences or spoken English, who would have dressed in flowing robes, and whose wives would never have appeared in public. Americans assumed that these images suggested that the Shah represented the future of the Muslim world and the Saudi king was the old guard, Esposito says. Today of course, the Shah is long gone and the Saudi royals face challenges by traditional forces even less telegenic than themselves.
In Iran in the 1970s and in many Muslim countries today, Esposito says, the story is the same. "When you have repressive regimes that do not allow for opposition, Islamic groups will gain force. And they will not only have their own supporters, but others who are joining them to oppose the government."
The point isn't that Esposito likes Iran's leaders or their brand of Islam. "The clergy there hijacked the revolution," he says. But Americans can't just assume that Iranians were duped into abandoning Western ideals. At the time of the revolution, Esposito says, many Iranians, not all of them religious, "agreed with a reassertion of one's identity and authenticity, and history and values and culture."
But rather than "learning the lessons of the Iranian revolution," Esposito says, Americans "viewed all Islam through the lens of Iran and the fear of export of the revolution."
And in the years since – in the first and second Gulf Wars, in responding to terrorism, in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian dispute – Esposito says Americans have consistently failed to understand the roots of Muslim anger. Even today, recent polls have shown that most Americans believe Iraq played a key role in the 9/11 attacks – despite no evidence at all to back up that view.
To many experts on Islam, Esposito is a hero for being one of the first and most prolific in making the point that Islam was a political force and would continue to be a political force – regardless of American preferences. "John is the single most important pioneer in bringing this idea to the American public," says Graham Fuller, a retired foreign-service officer who was vice chairman of the CIA's National Intelligence Council in the 1980s.
When Esposito talks about political Islam today, he is even more controversial. It is an article of faith to many policy makers, for example, that Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood are terrorist groups who should be denied any role in political discussions or civil society. Esposito – while condemning suicide bombings and attacks on civilians as "immoral" – says these groups cannot be written off.
Since the end of the Lebanese civil war, for example, Esposito says that he sees Hezbollah as a "guerilla" group in the south of Lebanon, but as "a participant in mainstream society" in the north. Hamas, he says, is split between its political and military wings. And the Muslim Brotherhood has strong grassroots support in Egypt for its stands on a variety of issues.
"There is no nuance in the view that these groups are all terrorists," he says.
And if you let that nuance into policy, he says, that means that the United States may well have to negotiate with groups that have wings engaged in violence, or that used to be engaged in violence. And it means that the U.S. should not block groups from participating in the political process – even if that means that Islamist groups gain power.
"If we believe in self-determination, then the people of a country have to be able to decide on the nature of government and the parties," Esposito says, even if democracy may not look like the American model.
Americans also must recognize that Islamist groups – while united in seeking to have their faith influence public life – are diverse, Esposito says. Unfortunately to his way of thinking, Americans like to focus on single figures – at one time the Ayatollah Khomeini and more recently Osama bin Laden – to represent Islamist thought.
In an article in The Fletcher Forum in 2001 that had the misfortune to be published just before 9/11, Esposito wrote: "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."
If Bin Laden is the best thing to come along for people seeking to say certain things about Islamic movements, quotes like that are the best thing to come along for people who like to attack John Esposito. The attacks come on several fronts. A Web site created last year, Campus Watch (http://www.campus-watch.org), provides dossiers on professors who are accused of being critical of Israel and/or soft on terrorism.
The Georgetown section features a bunch of column headlines about Eposito, such as "Esposito: Apologist for Militant Islam" and "Exposing Esposito." Esposito is also regularly trashed in conservative magazines and he was criticized at length in Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America, published in 2001 by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Martin Kramer, author of Ivory Towers, says that the problem with Esposito is that "he sees only moderate Islam and moderating Islam," and refuses to acknowledge the importance of radical Islamic groups that pose a threat to the United States and other nations. "He is the champion of distinctions, but he doesn't really make any."
Kramer and others also say Esposito's talk about democratic principles ignores the way some Islamic political movements win power at the ballot box, but immediately deny rights to women, minority groups, and political opponents.
Stanley Kurtz, a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, is another frequent critic of Esposito. In one piece for National Review Online, Kurtz suggests that Esposito may share some blame for what Kurtz sees as State Department inaction about Bin Laden during the Clinton Administration. Noting that Esposito advised the State Department and quoting from the article in The Fletcher Forum, Kurtz writes, "There is reason to believe that the reigning multiculturalist foolishness of the American academy may be directly connected to the intelligence failure that led to September 11." Esposito doesn't receive a lot of State Department invitations these days, but those who invited him in the past scoff at the way his role was described. Robert Pelletreau was Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East from 1994-97 and served at various points in his career as U.S. ambassador to Bahrain, Egypt, and Tunisia. He calls Esposito "a guru who people listened to because he had contacts with and understanding of people that we in government did not know."
Pelletreau says that Esposito's critics "confuse John's understanding of the phenomenon of political Islam with sympathy for it." Esposito looks at Islam "without blinders or preconceived points of departure," Pelletreau says, but that doesn't mean he endorses militant Islamic groups when he says that they must be acknowledged as players in various countries.
As for Esposito, he says that he tries not to spend too much time thinking about the criticism. He has visited the Campus Watch Web site only once. Of his critics, he says, "They tend to make statements without substantiating, or out of context. I always tell people that I'm not going to go after them. I tell people to see what they say, then go to my writing and see where it is. And if you do, you'll see that where they say I said something, I do, in a paragraph. They will not then mention the rest of the work."
Of the bin Laden quote, he says that he still believes that there are dangers in focusing on Bin Laden alone. "We run the risk of distracting ourselves from the fact that there are other extremists."
THE GOOD LIFE AT GEORGETOWN
While Esposito has plenty of critics, Georgetown's administration is solidly behind him. Since he was recruited in 1993, to create the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Esposito has been a top professor. His office overlooks the old Jesuit cemetery in the center of campus, which Esposito notes ensures that the university will not be building outside his window.
The funds to set up the center were generous. The main gift was $6.5-million from a foundation of Arab businessmen led by Hasib Sabbagh, a Palestinian refugee who made a fortune with his engineering company. And the generosity shows. There are hard wood floors and small Oriental carpets. The seminar room that adjoins the center features black swivel chairs more common in a corporate suite than in a classroom. The center's main office features intricate, mother-of-pearl carvings symbolizing the three monotheistic faiths of Islam (with the Dome of the Rock), Christianity (with the Church of the Nativity), and Judaism (with a menorah).
Esposito also lives well off campus. A mile away, in a gated neighborhood, his home is full of art from Muslim nations. (He is quick to note that his wife's corporate career, not his academic career, is responsible for their residence.) The mix of religions and faith is evident there too. In his home office, his prize possessions are a collection of Santa Claus dolls from around the world and a replica of the Orient Express that runs on a track suspended from the ceiling.
In August, the Islamic Society of North America gave Esposito a special award to honor his contributions to the understanding of Muslims. Sayyid Syeed, secretary general of the association, compared Esposito to Abu Taleb, the uncle of Mohammad. For a non-Muslim to be compared to a relative of the prophet is the highest of honors and one that is fitting for Esposito. Abu Taleb, who never converted to Islam, is known for defending the new faith nonetheless.
Even this honor is viewed skeptically by critics – one of whom suggests privately that it may be a sign that Eposito plans to convert to Islam. He isn't.
But despite the fighting that goes on about his work, and among Muslims, Esposito is optimistic about the future. He believes that, gradually, Americans are learning that Muslims are not all alike, and that the violent nature of some Muslim group or country does not represent the entire faith. So his recent trip to Nickelodeon was heart-warming to him.
He remembers growing up, and seeing media images of Italian-Americans as Mafioso or blue collar workers. "We either worked with cement or put people in it." As the media changes, Esposito says, so does American society. He hopes this new Nickelodeon show will "get beyond stereotypes" of the "extremist or criminal minority" and focus on the mainstream Muslim-Americans.
And so after writing thousands of pages of books and giving countless lectures, Esposito waits with high hopes for a new kid's show.