S. John Esposito

The Rumi Forum presented “Who Speaks for Islam?” with Prof. John L. Esposito, Founding Director, Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (CMCU), Georgetown University.

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Event Summary:

John Esposito, a professor of international affairs and Islamic studies at Georgetown University introduces and discusses his book entitled “Who speaks for Islam?”. While the book received positive reviews and moderate coverage, particularly in foreign press, mainstream outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post and popular talk shows did not pay attention to its publication. Esposito explains this by the fact that media focuses on sales through the creation of conflictual discourse and polarization, a phenomenon he refers to as “shout TV”. The book’s inconvenient message regarding the Muslim world did not fit within American conventional wisdom, and may explain its lack of coverage.

Esposito’s work focuses on explaining the findings of “the most comprehensive and systematic poll of the Muslim world ever done.” During this project, over 50,000 one on one interviews were undertaken in more than 35 countries, focusing on topics regarding democracy, the West, women’s rights, rule of law, government, and foreign policy. In an attempt to represent the various individual discrepancies of the societies interviewed, the survey took into account differences in socio-economic status, gender, age and literacy capabilities. According to polling standards, the survey therefore represents a billion Muslims all over the world.

This project aimed at tackling post 9/11 islamophobia as well as prejudices regarding Islamic political ideologies. One of the first distinctions that Esposito addresses is the difference between hatred of America and anti-Americanism. While hatred is by terrorists and violent extremists who want to destroy or harm the United States, anti-Americanism is an internationally widespread criticism of American politics, particularly its foreign policies. In fact, Muslims, in their criticism of the West make a clear distinction between the United States and the UK as opposed to other Western countries such as France, Germany or Canada. Esposito therefore concludes that the clash between Islam and the West is not about culture but rather focused on policies and that unlike conventional misconceptions, Muslims’ dissatisfaction towards the U.S.A. is not irrational and uncritical.

In order to further demonstrate this idea, the author describes the many aspects of Western society that Muslims admire. Technology, work ethics, rule of law and the protection of liberties are highly esteemed by Muslims in a majority of countries. In fact, when asked what their national constitution should prioritize, most Muslims responded that the protection of freedom, human rights, transparency of government and rule of law should be the focus. Additionally, a majority of men and women in Muslim countries actively support equal gender rights, through the achievement of equal citizenship, and equal rights to education, to the job market and senior positions in government. In many ways, Muslim and Western ideology therefore align. However, Esposito explains that unilateralism, arrogance in foreign policy and the denigrating and condescending attitude towards Islam are factors that are resented by Muslims about the West. This is indeed demonstrated by the fact a majority of Americans admire nothing about Muslims. Surprisingly, over 50% do not even believe that Muslims can be loyal citizens. Esposito, through these statistics attempts to portray how ignorance is a primary factor in fueling these misconceptions, particularly in Western opinion. He further justifies this by explaining that while both sides believe their counterpart are not focused on improving relations, both Western and Muslim opinion indicate that they want improved communication.

The study also attempts to create a distinction between mainstream Muslims and radicals in order to determine the roots of Islamic extremism. To establish this separation, individuals were asked whether the 9/11 attacks were justified. While 93% of mainstream Muslims condemn these actions, the remaining 7% do not and were therefore considered as radicals by the survey. Esposito explains that these radicals are in fact more educated, more internationally aware and more supportive of democracy. They emphasize the importance of relations with the West but are more cynical about it. Radicals tend to believe that the West has a double standard regarding democracy and will never allow democratic governments that it does not approve of. The study also reveals that extremists are not more religious than mainstream Muslims, which allows Esposito to infer that “religion is not the primary driver”. At the root of these opinions is the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which is seen by both mainstream and radical Muslims as illegitimate and counterproductive.

To give further insight, Esposito responded to several questions by addressing the vision of democracy in the Muslim world. While democracy is supported by a majority of Muslims, western secularism is not. Many want to see sharia as a source of law, but its meaning and application in the political process is ambiguous, seeing as a majority of Muslims do not want to see religious leaders involved in political decision-making. Esposito demonstrates the contrast with the United States where around half of the population would like to see religious authorities taking part in policy-making. The author also addresses the issue of changing these western misconceptions about Islam, arguing that this will be a long-term process, due to their omnipresence in American society. He emphasizes the active role that Muslims must play to educate their fellow citizens by establishing themselves in positions of power. Finally, democratization in the Arab world is discussed and Esposito highlights the difficulties that have arisen as a result of Western colonization which has left many nations under the rule of authoritarian regimes. These dictatorships, which have no incentives to liberalize their societies, in fact use the appearance of democratization as a tool to gain more control. Esposito argues that the West must play a role in promoting democracy through economic development and education, what he refers to as “quiet pressure.” He concludes by stating that “we have a perfect right, if we give a lot of aid or protection to a country to indicate where we have problems.”

Abstract:

In a post-9/11 world, many Americans conflate the mainstream Muslim majority with the beliefs and actions of an extremist minority. But what do the world’s Muslims think about the West, or about democracy, or about extremism itself? Who Speaks for Islam?, the recent published book of Prof. Esposito, spotlights this silenced majority. The book is the product of a mammoth six-year study in which the Gallup Organization conducted tens of thousands of hour-long, face-to-face interviews with residents of more than 35 predominantly Muslim nations — urban and rural, young and old, men and women, educated and illiterate. It asks the questions everyone is curious about: Why is the Muslim world so anti-American? Who are the extremists? Is democracy something Muslims really want? What do Muslim women want? The answers to these and other pertinent, provocative questions are provided not by experts, extremists, or talking heads, but by empirical evidence — the voices of a billion Muslims.

Biography:

John L. Esposito is University Professor, Professor of Religion and International Affairs, Professor of Islamic Studies and Founding Director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. Esposito specializes in Islam, political Islam from North Africa to Southeast Asia, and Religion and International Affairs. He is editor-in-chief of the four-volume The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, The Oxford History of Islam, The Oxford Dictionary of Islam and The Islamic World: Past and Present. His more than thirty five books include Who Speaks for Islam, Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?, Islam and Politics, Political Islam: Radicalism, Revolution or Reform?, Islam and democracy (with J. Voll). Many have been translated into Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Bahasa Indonesia, Urdu, European languages, Japanese and Chinese. A former president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America and the American Council for the Study of Islamic Societies, he is currently a member of the World Economic Forum’s Council of 100 Leaders, the High Level Group of the U.N. Alliance of Civilizations and President of the Executive Scientific Committee for La Maison de la Mediterranee’s 2005-2010 project, “The Mediterranean, Europe and Islam: Actors in Dialogue.” Esposito is a recipient of the American Academy of Religion’s 2005 Martin E. Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion and of Pakistan’s Quaid-i-Azzam Award for Outstanding Contributions in Islamic Studies. He has served as a consultant to the U.S. Department of State and to governments, corporations, universities, and the media. In 2003 he received the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University Award for Outstanding Teaching

Esposito is widely interviewed or quoted in the media, including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and network news stations, NPR, BBC, and in media throughout Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

Moderator:

Sayyid M. SyeedDr. Sayyid M. Syeed, Secretary General of the Islamic Society of North America, ISNA, a national community leader, is chief executive officer of this Plainfield, IN – suburban Indianapolis – based national umbrella organization which has more than 300 affiliates all over the U.S. and Canada. Syeed is the first director of the Office of Interfaith and Community Alliances (IOICA), which opened earlier this year. The IOICA works to enhance positive relationships and understandings between Muslim Americans, government agencies and Congressional representatives. Syeed served as secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America from 1994 to 2006, actively working to foster understanding among the world’s religions and developing global interfaith alliances. He has served on the board of advisors for the Council on American-Islamic Relations and on the board of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions. A co-founder of the quarterly American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, Syeed served as the publication’s editor-in-chief from 1984 to 1994. Syeed has appeared on national networks including NBC, CBS, ABC and CNN to discuss Islamic issues in America. A naturalized U.S. citizen, Syeed earned a doctorate in sociolinguistics from Indiana University, Bloomington, in 1984.

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