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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.