RELIGION - Interview - The Forgotten Children of Abraham :
Islamic Scholar John L. Esposito Talks about Faith, Pluralism, and the Challenges Facing Islam Today
Islamic Center of America, Dearborn, Michigan
Photo by Jahan Hamid, Hamid Photography. Allahu Akbar! An American Mosque Series ©
“It is compulsory both in the West and the East to move beyond stereotypes and demonization, to educate the next generation to be global citizens who have a healthy respect for other cultures and religions.”
John L. Esposito
There is the well-known Qur'anic verse: A goodly word is like a goodly tree (24:26, Yusuf Ali trans), which my late aunt, Annemarie Schimmel, scholar of Indo-Muslim cuture, religion and Sufism, used as the title of her acceptance speech for the 1995 Peace Prize at the Frankfurt Book Fair because she believed the verse spoke to the importance of pure intent and the power of words to change the world.
But she also believed that if words could spring forth from the heart and embrace fair truth, their impact is like fruit-bearing branches with a reach so all-encompassing they touch heaven.
In the interview that follows, John L. Esposito, friend and colleague of Annemarie, takes us on a journey from his Catholic childhood in Brooklyn to devoting his life to understanding and changing the negative dynamic between the Abrahamic traditions. One of the world's foremost experts and interpretors of Islam, Esposito, humanitarian and ambassador of East-West understanding, provides a rare glimpse into Islam and underscores the persistent biases within Western culture against it. May this interview provide the words that when “fully watered,” (an expression Annemarie loved to use) will blossom into a most good tree.
Carol Armstrong ©
As an Italian American born and raised in what was a predominately Roman Catholic section of Brooklyn, New York, John L. Esposito might seem hardly the candidate to devote forty years to the field of Islamic studies. He not only did just that, but he has helped shape the field itself, dedicating his life’s work to building bridges of East West understanding along the way.
Even a quick summary of Esposito's titles, posts and awards, makes it immediately clear just how focused he has been and why the Wall Street Journal called him: “America's foremost authority and interpreter of Islam.” Currently, he holds the distinguished position of University Professor of Religion and International Affairs and of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University (only a few have been awarded this Presidential title) and the Founding Director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.
He has served as a consultant to the U.S. Department of State (amongst other US Agencies), European and Asian governments and corporations, universities, and the media worldwide. He is a former President of the Middle East Studies Association of North America and the American Council for the Study of Islamic Societies, Vice Chair of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, and member of the World Economic Forum’s Council of 100 Leaders. He is currently Vice President (2012) and President Elect (2013) of the American Academy of Religion and is the Editor-in-Chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World (6 vols.); The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World (4 vols.), The Oxford History of Islam, The Oxford Dictionary of Islam, The Islamic World: Past and Present (3 vols.), and Oxford Islamic Studies Online.
John L. Esposito
WRR: When someone is as passionately immersed in his or her subject as you are, I have to ask what first brought your field of study into your line of vision?
John L. Esposito: My encounter with Islam and Islamic studies was accidental. It reflected and was affected by America’s encounter with Islam.
“Why study Islam?” That was my initial response more than 30 years ago when Bernard Phillips, Chair of the Religion Department at Temple University in Philadelphia first suggested I take a course.
It is difficult today to appreciate how much the religious landscape of America and our awareness of Islam and the Muslim world has changed since the late 1960s. In less than forty years Islam and Muslim politics have moved from nowhere to everywhere, from obscurity to center stage in international politics, media coverage and our neighborhoods, schools and the workplace. This all stands in stark contrast with the demographics and expectations in America in the mid-twentieth century.
Religion in America, as reflected in the title of Will Herberg’s popular best- selling book in the mid-1950s, meant Protestant, Catholic and Jew. America’s landscape was dotted with churches and to a lesser extent synagogues. Courses on religion were taught only in religious schools and religiously affiliated colleges and universities.
By the mid 1960s, many Christian theologians were speaking of the triumph of secularization. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), who was hanged by the Nazis for his membership in a Protestant resistance group, wrote in His Letters and Papers from Prison, of a world “come of age.”
The world had changed dramatically. Belief in God and a supernatural order were no longer the accepted premise of existence. God was not presumed to be at the center of creation intervening in history. Other theologians followed suit but drew different conclusions. Harvey Cox, the prominent Harvard theologian and popular writer, spoke of the triumph of secularism in his bestselling book, The Secular City. Others, like Thomas Altizer, in The Gospel of Christian Atheism, became known as advocates of a death of God theology. They believed that theology, classical understandings of Jesus and of Christian mission, no longer spoke to the realities of the modern secular world.
Thus, in this new secular (from the Latin ‘saeculum’ world) age, theology had to be recast as a secular theology, one that spoke to this-worldly dimension of the human condition, that emphasized life and living in this world, and the human face of God, seen in the humanity of Jesus.
Harvey Cox’s assertions about the consequences of the modern secular world for religion not only signaled the need to recast God-talk, but virtually predicted the "turn east." By the late 1960s, Eastern religions - gurus, yogis and Zen masters - were fast becoming part of the countercultural movement. Universities and colleges were beginning to introduce courses on World Religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Eastern Mysticism, and Islam.
Given my background and early upbringing in an overwhelmingly Italian-American, Roman Catholic neighborhood and section of Brooklyn, my decision to study Islam was the last thing I or anyone who knew me might have imagined/predicted.
However, my life would be profoundly affected by the Turn to the East, first to Hinduism and Buddhism and then to Islam.
Photo by Jahan Hamid, Hamid Photography. Allahu Akbar! An American Mosque Series ©
WRR: Where did you first encounter Islam?
John L. Esposito: After earning an MA in Catholic Theology at St. John’s University, I taught theology and Bible (1966-72) at a Catholic women’s college on the Main Line outside of Philadelphia called Rosemont College. Although my department chair expected that I would pursue a PhD at a Catholic university, St. John’s or Fordham which were within commuting distance, I chose Temple University in Philadelphia, attracted by the fact that I could major in Roman Catholic thought but at a secular rather than a Catholic university.
In contrast to other institutions, all grad students in Temple's Department of Religion, regardless of their major, were required to take a one-year introductory course in world religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Chinese Japanese religions, and Islam). Caught up in a new world of Hinduism and Zen Buddhism courses, I never looked back. I went to see the Chair, Bernard Phillips, to discuss a major in Hinduism after one of my professors suggested that I should expand my term paper into a dissertation. Not a bad idea, I thought. Teaching full time and newly married, I was nothing if not pragmatic! Hinduism it would be.
However, to my astonishment, Phillips strongly encouraged me to study Islam! I could not imagine why anyone would want to deal with Arabs or study Islam. Here I was, raised in Brooklyn, New York, where everyone in my world was Italian. And then when I was a teenager, I moved with my parents to Jersey City where we lived in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood.
I had been exposed to media reports (though not with any great interest or understanding) about the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and had also been deeply moved by the movie, The Exodus, which at that time I thought was historically accurate.
My initial response to Professor Phillips’s suggestion was a polite but resolute “No, thank you.” Yet, here I am forty years later, having devoted an entire career and a major portion of my life to the study of Islam and Muslim societies.
Look Both Ways, Carol Armstrong ©
WRR: How did your first reaction to Bernard Phillips's suggestion turn into a lifelong profession?
John L. Esposito: Temple’s Religion Department was developing its Islamic studies component. Ismail Ragi al-Faruqi, a Palestinian trained in western philosophy and then Islamic studies was Temple’s first Professor of Islamic Studies. Because he had just finished a book, Christian Ethics, Phillips thought we would work well together. I knew little about Arabs whom I assumed were the only Muslims; or Islam, that far-away, exotic religion associated in my imagination with Aladdin and his Genie or other tales of the Arabian Nights. What I did knew about the Crusades, the exploits of Lawrence of Arabia and violent sheikhs riding and fighting across endless seas of sand (much of it, I discovered later, was the product of bias and stereotypes) was less than inspiring. My concerns were reinforced by friends who said “Why would anyone want to study that abra kadabra stuff.”
However, Professor Phillips was “gently adamant” and I, reflecting on the precarious position of grad students, finally agreed to “just take one course.”
WRR: But you stuck with it.
John L. Esposito: I made an astonishing discovery that there was another Abrahamic faith, Islam that paralleled the Judeo-Christian tradition and was global in scope. We had always talked about the Judeo-Christian connection but had never even mentioned the other great monotheistic faith, which after Christianity was the second largest in the world. How could this be?
If Muslims recognized many of the major patriarchs and prophets of Judaism and Christianity (including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus) and if their sacred scripture, Qur’an, cites God’s revealed books to Jews and to Christians, the Torah and the Message (Gospels) of Jesus, why had I not been aware of Islam after all my years of liberal arts study and theological training?
In addition, I discovered a history, or a fuller and more accurate way of understanding that included a history of encounter, conflict, and coexistence from the rise of Islam and its early expansion and conquests to the Crusades and European colonialism to American and Soviet neo-colonialism. Thus, not only a broader sense of religion but also of history, politics, and civilization, classical and modern, suddenly came alive for me.
Like all great teachers, Ismail al-Faruqi’s energy and passion for his subject was contagious. My Muslim classmates, all bright, earnest, young believers as well as aspiring scholars studying Christianity and Judaism as well as Islam, guaranteed dynamic and engaging dialogue in every class.
I became acutely aware of the need to distinguish between the faith of the many and the twisted interpretations and actions of the few, the mainstream majority and a militant, extremist minority.
WRR: And what has kept you there all these years?
John L. Esposito: That is a good question regarding my years after earning my doctorate, 1974-1979 when there was little interest in Islamic studies. But then along came Iran’s Islamic revolution which launched my career with book contracts, consulting, speaking engagements and travel globally.
WRR: You knew the late scholar of Indo-Muslim culture, religion and Sufism, Annemarie Schimmel. Can you share a memory or two that you might have of her?
Esposito: There are so many. I first met her for breakfast at the home of a young Pakistani near Worcester, Mass where I was teaching at the College of the Holy Cross. As I struggled to make conversation with this icon in the field, I asked her how many books she had published? She calmly noted that she didn’t know but that it would take up several (I forget the exact number) book shelves. She was incredibly prolific.
Many years later, I chaired a panel and in introducing her and with great detail mentioned all the books she had published that year, more than most academics publish in their career. As she began her talk, she corrected me and identified several additional publications! One final example – Annemarie spoke at the local museum and, as she was wont to do, closed her eyes as she spoke. But what she wasn’t aware of, since she was so caught up in what she was saying, was that by the end of the talk she had her back to the audience.
WRR: Were you aware of the brou-ha-ha surrounding her nomination of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 1995? The Peace Prize or, Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels, as it is known in German, is an international prize awarded yearly and given at the Frankfurt Book Fair. It stunned those of us who knew her and her work that she would become the target of so many angry people…and of death threats even. People, who were, quite ironically, furious that she could empathize, understand the Muslim perspective of outrage stirred up in British Indian novelist Salman Rushdie’s book: The Satanic Verses.
Although Annemarie was very clear that she did not agree with Rushdie’s book and that in fact her life’s work proved just the opposite of what he had written, she nonetheless completely embraced free speech, and especially his right to free speech. This last message, however, was completely lost. She addressed many aspects of this kind of hateful ignorance in her acceptance speech in which she voiced this concern:
This brings us to a point which appears increasingly important to me - this is the problem of lovingly understanding foreign civilizations. Unfortunately the word "understanding" seems to be equated today with an uncritical acceptance and general forgiveness. Yet, true understanding grows from knowledge of historical facts and many people lack such knowledge. Spiritual and political situations however develop out of historical facts which one has to know first before correctly judging a situation…
In your view, do you attribute the western misperception of Islam to be based more on a sheer lack of understanding or on an unwillingness to learn, to see beyond the fold of one’s own reality where a fear of the unknown perhaps looms largest?
John L. Esposito: My main criticism of Rushdie and the Satanic Verses was that as someone raised within a Muslim culture, he knew full well how offensive many Muslims would see his portrayal of the Prophet and his wives; and most importantly he HAD TO KNOW of the great possibility that his book might lead to protests, violence and deaths as it did.
In terms of Western perceptions of misperceptions, there are many factors: ignorance/lack of knowledge and awareness of mainstream Islam and the realities of many Muslim countries (authoritarian and oppressive regimes), an encounter with Islam and Muslims primarily trough explosive headline events which represent a fraction of a fraction of the world’s Muslims, far right Christian fundamentalist preachers, who are militant Christian Zionists and anti-Islam like Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham, John Hagee; their Muslim preachers of hate counterparts: Islam-o-phobic political commentators and media personalities ….
Al-Farooq Masjid. Atlanta, Georgia
Photo by Jahan Hamid, Hamid Photography. Allahu Akbar! An American Mosque Series ©
WRR: In his famous book Orientalism (1978), the late Palestinian Columbia University Professor Edward Said (d. 2003) described in great detail the western obsession and overt over sexualization with all things eastern. The Near East, according to him, was a place tainted by a western lens…where genies, magic carpets and harems reigned supreme, the religion of Islam.
Said, an intellectual whom Robert Fisk dubbed as ‘the most important Palestinian thinker’ is perhaps best known for his thesis that the western study of the east has been biased from the very beginning because it is largely presented by the imperialistic societies that control it. According to Said, the contents of all these ‘studies’ have become not only ‘politicized’ but also ‘highly suspect. What do you think are some of the biggest, self-perpetuating myths in the west today regarding Islam and do you have any ideas of how we might begin to unravel some of it in a positive, more inspirational way?
John L. Esposito: The myth(s) that Islam is a particularly violent religion, virulently anti-Christian and anti-Jewish – a statement that is true of Osama bin Laden and other terrorists but not representative of the vast majority of Muslims.
If you actually read the Bible and the Qu'ran and look at the history of Judaism and Christianity, the passages from the Bible and statements of major religious leaders reveal the dark side as well as the transcendent side of all the world’s religions as well as the need to interpret texts within the contexts in which they were revealed. Otherwise, one would have to conclude that while both the Bible and the Qu'ran have texts that advocate violence and warfare, only the Old testament advocated genocide – God’s commands re the Amalekites, Islam is incompatible with modernity and democracy; Islam is particularly misogynistic (an accusation that blocs out polls by Gallup, PEW and others re patriarchal aspects of Judaism and Christianity); Muslims in the West are incapable of integration and want to impose Shariah, which contradicts hard evidence from major polling.
WRR: Back to Said…many people are probably not aware that Said was an accomplished concert pianist who, along with Daniel Barenboim, co-founded the award-winning West-Eastern Divan Orchestra featuring children from Israel and from the Palestinian territories. This may be one of the best approaches to combating ignorance and toward forging ties of peace. And of course there are many wonderful inter-faith dialogues going on around world which are trying to achieve the same ends. Any thoughts on this?
John L. Esposito: The demographic realities in the Middle East and broader Muslim world underscore the importance of youth and the need to focus on the next generation. In recent years recognition of this reality can be seen in many major initiatives from Qatar’s donation of $100 million to create jobs in the Arab world to major youth projects run by Soliya, Amr Khaled, Sheikh Mozah, and many others.
WRR: Over the course of conducting this research and presenting it, did you have any poignant revelations that you’d like to share here?
John L. Esposito: As we have seen, many Americans in recent years have become more negative in their views of Islam and Muslims, from 57% who, when asked what they admire about Islam, said “Nothing or “I don’t know”, to those who questioned whether Muslims could be loyal citizens.
In contrast, despite Muslim concerns and grievances, Gallup Muslim polling responses also showed that Muslims worldwide share much in common with Americans, admire our technology and economic accomplishments, freedoms, democracy, rule of law; and, like many Americans fear, extremism and terrorism. Major Muslim criticism of the West in general and America in particular had to do with the denigration of Islam and of Muslims and fears of intervention, invasion, occupation or dependency. The data also confirmed that the primary drivers of ant-Americanism as well as of terrorism are not religion but political grievances (occupation, support for authoritarian and repressive governments, etc.), although religion is often used to legitimate and recruit terrorist groups and their actions.
WRR: A new documentary film put out by Explore called Travelling with Jihad chronicles the spiritual struggle of Explore Founder Charles Annenberg Weingarten and Jihad Turk, the Religious Director of the Islamic Center of Southern California. Both have different challenges that lie ahead of them. For Annenberg Weingarten, it is to study the Torah, the Gospels and the Quran, in an effort to arrive at some sort of spiritual truth. The film narrates his observations and internal journey as he travels to Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, to the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, and to Mecca, Saudi Arabia where he performs the Haj in the off season. Along the way, the viewer meets many interesting, illuminating characters, each teaching the viewer something new about Islam.
Turk, however, by his very job description, has a very different struggle than Annenberg Weingarten, and says, "The biggest challenge we face as a Muslim community is that we are so misunderstood. A lot of what I spend my time on is inter-faith relations.”
He also points out that "we (Muslims) really don’t do a good job of narrating the story of the Prophet Muhammad to a western audience."
Do you also find this to be the case?
John L. Esposito: Muhammad was indeed a multifaceted Prophet. The extent to which he is misunderstood is not only due to the failure to do a good job narrating his story but also because he is often simply compared to Jesus and not to Biblical prophets who were also political leaders and warriors. That said, Muhammad's humanity and compassion are not explored or emphasized enough. Fortunately we have several recent books by Karen Armstrong and Tariq Ramadan and Jonathan Brown’s forthcoming, Very Short Introduction: Muhammad, among others,that provide a multifaceted portrayal of Muhammad.
WRR: As Traveling with Jihad progresses we learn that Muslims not only revere Jesus Christ and his mother, Mary; but in the Quran itself, wonderful stories of Moses occur a 44 times. We learn all this in a synagogue as Annenberg Weingarten carefully flips through the Torah while Turk talks about some of the commonalities between all three faiths. The title of the film is apt, both for its narrator (Jihad) and for the great internal struggle that the two men are undertaking. Of course you've written on the topic of Jihad in your paper: Jihad: Holy or Unholy War.
John L. Esposito: The importance of jihad is rooted in the Qu'ran’s command to struggle (the literal meaning of the word jihad) in the path of God and in the example of the Prophet Muhammad and his early Companions.
The history of the Muslim community from Muhammad to the present can be read within the framework of what the Qu'ran teaches about jihad. These Qu'ranic teachings have been of essential significance to Muslim self-understanding, piety, mobilization, expansion, and defense. Jihad as struggle pertains to the difficulty and complexity of living a good life: struggling against the evil in oneself—to be virtuous and moral, making a serious effort to do good works and help to reform society. Depending on the circumstances in which one lives, it also can mean fighting injustice and oppression, spreading and defending Islam, and creating a just society through preaching, teaching, and, if necessary, armed struggle or holy war.
The two broad meanings of jihad, nonviolent and violent, are contrasted in a well-known Prophetic tradition. It is said that when Muhammad returned from battle he told his followers, “We return from the lesser jihad [warfare] to the greater jihad.” The greater jihad is the more difficult and more important struggle against one’s ego, selfishness, greed, and evil.
In its most general meaning, jihad refers to the obligation incumbent on all Muslims, individuals and the community, to follow and realize God’s will: to lead a virtuous life and to extend the Islamic community through preaching, education, example, writing, etc. Jihad also includes the right, indeed the obligation, to defend Islam and the community from aggression. Throughout history, the call to jihad has rallied Muslims to the defense of Islam.
The Afghan mujahidin fought a decade-long jihad (1979-1989) against Soviet occupation. Jihad is a concept with multiple meanings, used and abused throughout Islamic history. Although it is not associated or equated with the words ‘‘holy war’’ anywhere in the Quran, Muslim rulers, with the support of religious scholars and officials, have historically used armed jihad to legitimate wars of imperial expansion. Early extremist groups also appealed to Islam to legitimate rebellion, assassination, and attempts to overthrow Muslim rulers.
In recent years, religious extremists and terrorists have maintained that jihad is a universal religious obligation and that all true Muslims must join the jihad to promote a global Islamic revolution. A radicalized minority have combined militancy with messianic visions to mobilize an “army of God” whose jihad they believe is to “liberate” Muslims at home and abroad. They have engaged in acts of violence and terror in their attempts to topple Muslim governments and, like Osama Bin Laden and others, engaged in a global jihad.
However, as we have seen from immediately after the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks to today, major Muslim leaders across the Muslim world and in the West have denounced this hijacking of Islam by militant “jihadists” though too often the media chose not to publish their statements.
Outside a Mosque in Syria
WRR: You've been criticized by some members of the western media for comments you've made in your books, which have been taken out of context. When it comes to discussions about Islam, it seems that a big part of the problem is creating a dialogue with individuals who will not, at any cost, alter their world view. To them, Islam is synonymous with a backwards race from a foreign land. The critics often have little if any true understanding of and knowledge of the natural diversity and complexity contained within a region tha encompasses not only the Middle East, but Asia as well.
Worse yet, Islam, a religion where one uses the greeting, “Salam ‘Aleykum’ or ‘Peace Be upon You,’ has become synonymous with terrorism, in the same way that being Arab has become synonymous with being a Muslim; or Allah is conceived of as different from the God of Christians or followers of the Jewish faith.
Gaza 2008, Egyptian Border, John Harvey ©
John L. Esposito: Only when we (in Muslim and non-Muslim societies) raise people’s consciousness regarding the nature of our ignorance, misperceptions and prejudices, we can then hope to live in a world of mutual understanding and respect, to focus and build on our shared values and interests. While we cannot hope to convince rabid bigots and Islam-o-phobes, especially those who make a profession of their obsession, we do reach out to majorities of well-meaning people whose prejudice has been fed by popular culture, by Islamophobic voices and messages voices in media and on the internet.
WRR: This challenge has always interested me…the persistence of certain ideas that are not supported when one digs deeper into the religion as told by itself in the Qu'ran. Annemarie Schimmel also pointed this out, again in her German Peace Prize speech, in which she said that she had yet to find any part in the Qur’an that condoned or encouraged terrorism in any way. For does not the Qur’an say: “la ikhra fid-din "no compulsion in religion" and didn’t the Prophet warn against declaring anyone a kafir, or an infidel?” Should a religion, any religion, be held hostage by the shortcomings of some of its misguided adherents? And shouldn’t historians of religion be clearer in separating out fact from fiction removing themselves completely from the equation?
John L. Esposito: It is compulsory to move beyond stereotypes and demonization, to educate the next generation to be global citizens who have a healthy respect for other cultures and religions. We need to cease falling into the tendency of many to succumb to the all too common temptation of comparing “my” ideal to “the other’s” realities. When discussing their faith, believers often present its ideals and distinguish their religion from acts of extremism.
However, too often when looking at the faith of another, they equate that faith uncritically with the actions of individuals, however outrageous. In a Judeo-Christian culture, we have become more sensitized to respect the other, or at least feel a need to act in a politically correct manner, lest we be publicly criticized for being a bigot. We have only begun to realize that Muslims, the other Children of Abraham, are entitled to the same respect. If a group of Jews or Christians had been responsible for the bombing of New York’s World Trade Center, few would have attributed it to faith or beliefs of mainstream Judaism or Christianity.
The same cannot be said for Islam. Indeed, often the most heinous crimes committed by Jewish or Christian extremists are not tagged as militant or radical Christianity or Judaism. Individuals are often dismissed simply as extremists or madmen rather than Christian or Jewish fundamentalists. The obvious must also be stated here. I am not denying that Muslims commit outrageous acts of violence and terrorism but questioning the way these are identified (equated with Islam) and reported and its implications.
Gaza 2008, Without Electricity, John Harvey ©
WRR: In her groundbreaking book, Gender, Humiliation, and Global Security, social scientist, Evelin Lindner proposes a radical shift in human thinking that would be the equivalent of getting (to put it in computer terminology) a massive spiritual upgrade. Hers is a powerful shift toward approaching life and its many global challenges with humility over an attitude steeped in force and humiliation.
As Archbishop Desmond Tutu says in the Foreword of Lindner’s book:
It is my conviction that if we are neutral in situations of injustice, we have chosen the side of the oppressor. And it is also my conviction that humility is more effective than humiliation. Let me give a stark illustration: My dear friend Nelson Mandela could have followed the example of Rwanda’s Hutu leadership. He would certainly have had the power to unleash genocide on the white elite in South Africa. He did not. He chose inclusiveness rather than humiliating domination and he chose humility rather than arrogant revenge…The world must learn about respect, listening and forgiveness. In all of my work, I try to “teach” the world about respect, listening and forgiveness.”
Gaza 2008, The World in My Hands, John Harvery ©
So one approach toward combating Islam phobia in the west might be to approach it differently than we have been… to work within the framework of learning how to undo that which is hard-wired to a certain degree…to teach children (who all too soon become adults) to listen, respect other cultures and perhaps most importantly to put an emphasis on forgiveness and acceptance of our natural differences. And of course, educate, educate, educate. Perhaps then we can move toward a more enlightened existence together, as a global community.
What are some of your thoughts on any of this and why do you think our current model of understanding other religions and cultures has failed?
John L. Esposito: I think all of the above is true. Regrettably the net effect of Muslim extremism and terrorism in the name of Islam and of an increasingly Islam-o-phobic environment is a leap backwards that requires a building or rebuilding of bridges of mutual respect and understanding based on shared beliefs, values and interests and respect for though not necessarily the acceptance of differences. We need to see diversity and difference as a strength not a threat.
The challenge today is to develop and introduce new paradigms that transcend all too common religious, ethnic and nationalist paradigms rooted in self-centered, self-righteous, chauvinistic, and competitive visions of the world or ideologies. We are all called to witness through service and for those who are Children of Abraham to do so in light of the two great commandments: Love of God and Love of Neighbor. A good practical norm in our religious outlook and actions as well as on our domestic and foreign policies is to act in light of the maxim to do unto others as we would have others do unto us.
Education is the key, but it should be education writ large: education from the primary through university levels, education of diplomats, military, media and the general public. This means education that occurs not only in schools, religious institutions and think tanks but in popular culture.
WRR: In your mind, what are some of the greatest challenges that lie ahead for Muslims living in the west?
Johh L. Esposito: To continue to live in and integrate socially, economically, educationally and politically, expect and demand their rights as citizens in environments in which the forces of Islam-o-phobia threaten their rights and freedoms. Equally important, in the more open spaces in the West to advance the process of Islamic reform for themselves and contribute to the global process of reform in the Muslim world.
WRR: And in the east?
John L. Esposito: In many though not all countries, to attempt to bring about significant political and social reforms in countries with authoritarian and repressive regimes and in societies with a growing gap between rich and poor.
A challenge for Muslims in general is the challenge of Islamic reform, one that's not an uncritical retreat to the past but a bold reinterpretation or reconstruction of Islam to respond to the realities of contemporary life; to delegitimize religious extremism and its preachers of hate.
WRR: Every scholar out there has his/her hours of darkness…those moments when the pen seems more like a sword that has to cut away at endless fields of untruths…can you share what some of your biggest challenges have been along these lines?
John L. Esposito: By far the most frustrating but important part of my scholarly life has been addressing endlessly in my writing and speaking engagements the deliberate distortions and Islamo-phobic statements and charges about the teachings of the Qur’an and Islam; and the historical record of Muslim beliefs and practices perpetuated by pseudo-experts, politicians and policymakers, media pundits, hard-line Christian Right preachers and even well-meaning but misinformed individuals.
The growth of fear of Islam and targeting of mainstream Muslims, not just the terrorists and the Islamo-phobic and racist rhetoric, hate speech and hate crimes which undermine the very principles and values of America and threaten the lives and civil liberties of American Muslims is a metastasizing social cancer. The failure of a media, driven by the bottom line and a penchant for conflict and conflictual discourse (If it bleeds, it leads, and to go beyond its fixation with explosive headline events.)
WRR: If you could change one thing and one thing only in the hearts and minds of humankind, what would it be?
Esposito: The penchant to compare the ideals of “my” religion or nation to the realities of another’s, instead of comparing ideals to ideals and realities to realities. With regard to religions, it would reveal the deeper truth about religion – that all religions and all nationalist ideologies have their transcendent and dark sides.
WRR: Thank you.
Dr. Esposito’s books and monographs include: The Future of Islam, Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really ThinkUnholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?, Islam and Politics; What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam, World Religions Today and Religion and Globalization (with D. Fasching & T. Lewis), Asian Islam in the 21st Century, Geography of Religion: Where God Lives, Where Pilgrims Walk (with S. Hitchcock); Islam: The Straight Path; Islam and Democracy and Makers of Contemporary Islam (with J. Voll); Modernizing Islam (with F. Burgat) Political Islam: Revolution, Radicalism or Reform?, Religion and Global Order (with M. Watson), Islam and Secularism in the Middle East (with A. Tamimi); Iran at the Crossroads (with R.K. Ramazani); Islam, Gender, and Social Change and Muslims on the Americanization Path and Daughters of Abraham (with Y. Haddad); and Women in Muslim Family Law. His latest book, Islamophobia and the Challenge of Pluralism in the 21st Century, will be released in Spring, 2011. Esposito’s books and articles have been translated into more than 30 languages. His interviews and articles with newspapers, magazines, and the media in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East: The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Economist, The Guardian, The Times of London, CNN, ABC Nightline, CBS, NBC, and the BBC. He currently resides in Washington, D.C. with his wife, Dr. Jeanette P. Esposito.
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