John L. Esposito on the Historical Context of Muslim-Christian Relations

Publisher: Oxford University Press, New York (2002)
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New York (2002)

John L. Esposito is University Professor of Religion and International Affairs and Founding Director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University.

Professor Esposito has also been president of the Middle East Studies Association and is Editor-in-Chief of the four-volume Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995) and The Oxford History of Islam (1999) as well as author of numerous books, including Islam: The Straight Path 3rd ed (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) and The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? 3rd ed (NewYork: Oxford University Press, 1999).

In this interview, Professor Esposito discusses his new book, Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

In your book, Unholy Wars: Terror in the Name of Islam, you focus a great deal on the religion, its history, its interpretation over time, and the connection between the faith and what happened on September 11. Do you think that a deeper understanding of Islam could help us to understand why the events of September 11th occurred?

It is important to understand the tradition because I think it is critical to be able to distinguish between what I would call mainstream Islam and extremist Islam. In Islamic history, as with Christian and Jewish history, and Hindu and Buddhist history, there is the mainstream faith, but there have always been instances in which the faith has been hijacked by extremists.

It is very important that the distinction is made since it has tremendous implications in terms of international politics, particularly now, particularly as the US and other governments determine their foreign policies towards much of the Muslim world. We need to know what kind of Islam we are dealing with in each context. We need to distinguish between governments and movements that are mainstream or extremist.

It also has a tremendous significance in terms of domestic politics both in the Muslim world but also here in the United States. When the American government starts talking about the hunt for terrorists, either domestically or internationally, mainstream Muslims can get caught in the crossfire unless this distinction is made.

It has been argued elsewhere that fundamentalism, of any variety, is a modern phenomenon, since the attempt to make the text foundational to the interpretation and practice of the faith is coterminous with the rise of print culture and the widespread availability of books. Could you comment on this?

It is both true and false. The fact is that often what we call fundamentalist groups are in fact a broad and diverse spectrum of revivalist groups. Then the question becomes: what is the nature of the revivalist group? Is it more ultra conservative or fundamentalist-oriented, as it were, or not?

Revivalism has been around since the early centuries of every religion. All religious traditions, within a short period of time after the founders died, were faced with different kinds of interpretations, and this resulted in a kind of revivalism developing. Certainly within Islam there has been a long history of revivalism.

If we are talking about so-called "fundamentalist" groups, it depends on where you want to date the modern. Certainly in the 17th and 18th century, there were Islamic movements that were often called fundamentalist movements (in a broad, generic sense), which swept across the Muslim world. It is, in that sense, not at all a new phenomenon.

You make the case in your book that the grievances of Al-Qaeda and their sympathizers have something to do with the disempowerment Muslims have experienced for the last several centuries (from the Crusades to European colonialism to the present US-dominated global dispensation). Do you think it is helpful to try to understand current events in these terms? That is, in terms of civilizational decline?

No, but I think it is good to have some background when trying to understand why people tend to feel disempowered or marginalized. Why, for some people, there is a sense that things have gone wrong in history for quite a while, and a sense that the present is influenced by the last two or three centuries (of European colonialism, American neo-colonialism, etc.).

But I think it is more important to look at the proximate grievances, not to justify what terrorists do, but to be able to address, when one can, those conditions which foster the growth of radicalism and extremism in societies overseas.

There are real grievances; it is not as though we are dealing with a bunch of crazies. As we all know now, a lot of the so-called terrorists involved in 9/11 were people who came from good families, were educated, etc. One needs to ask why there was this attraction for these people. And why, for a while, did someone like Osama bin Laden acquire something of a cult following? He did because some of the things he appealed to were real issues that exist in the Muslim world and real sources of anti-Americanism as well. The difference between people in mainstream society who take such positions and someone like Osama or other extremists is that the latter then decide to espouse violence and terror as a means of addressing these problems rather than trying to work within the system.

You also point out in the book that Muslim empires (the Ottoman, the Mughal, etc.) were historically quite pluralistic, open and tolerant. You say later that authoritarianism has been the norm, not the exception in postcolonial Muslim societies. Could you comment on why you think it is that this disjuncture has occurred?

First, the thing about this long period of European colonialism is that colonial powers were not about building strong civil societies. They were not about developing societies, if anything, just the opposite. As a result there was no legacy of really promoting the heart of what we like to think of now as the contribution of European culture and civilization (self-determination, human rights, democratization, etc.).

Second, most modern Muslim states, like many developing states, have artificially drawn boundaries determined by colonial powers who had their own strategic interests in drawing these borders when they left. The rulers were either put on the throne or they were people who seized power. The majority of Muslim or Arab countries continue to have serious problems with authoritarianism and with legitimacy, and therefore rely heavily on their security forces. In that kind of context, it is not a question of religion or culture that prevents democratization, it is rather the history of authoritarianism which in fact has existed and has been promoted by governments.

You also emphasize repeatedly the links between the Judeo-Christian tradition and Islam. Could you explain why this is an important connection to make?

Most people do not realize the links between the Judeo-Christian tradition and Islam. There is in fact a Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, these traditions in fact all grew up in the Middle East, and they share a good deal in common. In this country, Islam is often put together with Buddhism and Hinduism as something that is totally foreign.

These linkages become important because they point out, first of all to Europeans and Americans, that we are not dealing with people who are so totally different. They say something about both the theological as well as the cultural connections between these traditions. I think that becomes very important at this particular time because it breaks the "us and them" when we are on the international arena, but also the "us and them" on the domestic front, since Islam is now the second or third largest religion in this country. Unless we do that, we will always be asking the kinds of questions that people still ask: Can they ever really adapt? Can they ever really be good citizens? We place them so far away that we do not see the connections. This is both a product of ignorance but also, in some cases, a product of deliberate policy. For some people, I think there is an interest in denying the historical links between these traditions.

We need to raise the next generation in such a way that they see the commonalities as well as the differences. This is true for Muslims as well; they too need to see the linkages between these traditions in more constructive and meaningful ways.

It has been argued recently that Osama bin Laden and George Bush are two sides of the same coin because they both espouse the "with us or against us" dichotomy; they understand the conflict in civilizational terms; and finally, because the fundamentalism of bin Laden is not dissimilar to the neoliberal fundamentalism of Bush. Could you comment on this?

First of all, I would say neo-conservative rather than neoliberal in the case of Bush. My concern is in fact that his is not a liberal fundamentalism; certainly Attorney General John Ashcroft's is not.

Regrettably, this has been part of the problem from the beginning. Mr Bush was very good at distinguishing between a war against global terrorism on the one hand, and Islam on the other. However, the worldview that he has projected in order to justify this is in fact a mirror image of what bin Laden has done. Mr Bush said repeatedly that this is a war of "good" against "evil", he used the words "Crusades" (even though it was subsequently retracted) and the "axis of evil", and the Pentagon then used the phrase "Infinite Justice". When the government organized the recent raids in northern Virginia against Muslim organizations and institutions, they called the operation something like the "Green Front". So they have not learned their lesson even though they apologized.

In addition, the use of "evil" all the time (axis of evil, they are men of "evil", with us or against us, etc.) in religious terms translates into, "You're a believer or you're a non-believer." It is us and them, forces of good against forces of evil, and what this does is it leaves no middle-ground for anyone, whether it is countries or people. In effect, that is either the explicit or the subtle message that this administration has been giving out.

Also, when Mr Bush becomes really feisty, he talks very much like bin Laden, in terms of automatically excluding certain people from dialogue. There was a point at which he said, for instance, that he would not talk to Arafat, that he had put his message out and did not need to engage him directly. Mr Bush also said that Arafat is completely responsible for terrorism on the one hand, and on the other that Sharon is a man of peace. At the same time as the American administration was asking Sharon and the Israelis to cease and desist [from the military operation in the occupied territories], the President was giving this 180 degree analysis of the two people. I think that really hampers Bush's approach.

At a certain point there ought to be a concern about whether or not there is a religious/theological underpinning to where Mr Bush is coming from. There are different kinds of people who are part of the Christian Right but the more evangelical fundamentalists often tend to have a theology that is very Zionist, deals a good deal with the Restoration before the Final Coming and the Rapture. That kind of evangelical fundamentalist theology has been very strong in the Christian Right and is very influential in Washington now, far more so than most people realize.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of The Asia Society.