John Esposito spoke to Omayma Abdel-Latif about the struggle for America's soul
John Esposito acknowledges the fact that in the US he is "a controversial figure". One of America's foremost authorities and interpreters of Islam, as the Wall Street Journal once described him, Esposito is also considered to be one of the few voices of dissent within American academia. His opponents charge that he is an "apologist for Islam and soft on Muslims" and that he and his colleagues have misinformed the US administration about the true dangers of Islamist groups, contending that they underestimated the so-called Islamic threat.
Esposito dismisses such charges as "ideologically-inspired". He defines himself as simply "a scholar of Islam". For him it is almost an article of faith that there is a war being fought by some ideologues to win "the hearts and minds" of the American people. "In the old days, being controversial was fine because we had a more open society. Now we don't, so we get nailed," said 63- year-old Esposito in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly during a brief stop in Cairo last week.
Over the past three decades, and long before the "green menace" replaced the red one, Esposito has been carving a niche for himself as an authority on matters Islamic. He is founding director of the reputable Centre for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, a centre established in 1993 to address the issue of dialogue between Islam and the West. Esposito, once chair of the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESNA), has written numerous articles, books and essays about Muslim politics, beliefs and cultures. His books are usually described as jargon-free and provide "a lucid introduction to truths on Islam which must become common knowledge", as Karen Armstrong, the famous theologian once said of his latest book Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam.
Dressed in a simple T-shirt and shorts, Esposito spoke to the Weekly of another United States, "an America which promises freedom of speech, equality and multiple positions of thought". He acknowledges that both the Arab world and the United States have been experiencing tense times since 9/11. Almost two years after the tragic events, Esposito and other like-minded scholars both in the US and the Arab world are still reeling from the fall-out of those events. "We still bounce between a feeling of being confused and depressed," said Esposito. "It -- 9/11 -- was not just a passing war or some small situation. This was -- in some ways -- a major moment in modern history which was global in its proportions."
That fateful day in September 2001 has indeed become the yardstick by which relations between the United States and the Arab and Muslim world are being measured. Esposito, however, is more alarmed by the forces that were unleashed as a result of the events. In particular, he is concerned about what he refers to as "an unholy alliance" between the extremist trend of the Christian right and a group of neo-conservatives that is exercising influence on the policies of the administration of US President George W Bush. Though he believes that those forces represent a minority that is even shunned within the ranks of conservative Republicans, they retain considerable sway over the administration simply because they are vocal, organised and have a propaganda machine of the highest order. "They use very positive notions like supporting democracy to promote their views, but I am often suspicious of what their ultimate agenda is. The endgame is to redraw the map of the Middle East, but the question is: to whose benefit and what would it look like?"
Such questioning of the real intentions and motivations of the neo-con cabal has made Esposito a target of a smear campaign led by such academics as Martin Kramer, Daniel Pipes and Stanley Kurtz. In an article called "Exposing Esposito", Kurtz who is a fellow at the Hudson Institute, accused Esposito of misleading Bill Clinton's administration as to the real dangers posed by Osama Bin Laden. He argued that "Esposito's bad advice may have had a great deal to do with the state department's foolish refusal to look at critical intelligence on Osama Bin Laden's activities." In response, Esposito dismissed the very notion that he had exercised such influence over the Clinton administration and ridiculed charges of misleading the administration on the hard-core fringe Islamist groups. He noted that his advice had indeed been sought by Washington, but during the administration of the senior George Bush and during President Clinton's first term when the US administration was trying to develop a policy on Islam. "There was an acknowledgment then among some administration members that the US is not only biased in its approach towards the Middle East but that it had a real problem with Islam." Some of Esposito's ideas about the need to address the root causes of 9/ 11 found their way into the administration's thinking. This raised the ire of his opponents and the battle erupted.
Last week witnessed yet another episode of the conflict when Esposito's opponents extended their battle to "silence him" to yet another venue: the US House of Representatives. They charged that federally financed international studies programmes at American colleges and universities are biased against US foreign policy and should be regulated. Last Thursday Kurtz told the education subcommittee in the House of Representatives that such centres "were not only ideologically biased but sought to undermine American foreign policy by actively discouraging working for the federal government."
Esposito explained that this was part of the efforts exerted since 9/11 by those ideologues to discredit American experts on the Middle East simply because the vast majority of US experts has taken a very balanced approach to the study of the region. Esposito, however, does not think that the Congressional hearing will lead to federal aid being cut off. "I don't think it [the hearing] will ultimately go anywhere, and it is unlikely that they will cut the aid. The problem is that people do not address the question of who are the people behind this? What about Kramer who has Israeli citizenship and spent his career at Tel Aviv University running the Moshe Dayan Centre? That is fine with me. But if you look at the track record of the likes of Kramer and Pipes, do they ever criticise the Sharon government? I would say that they are not arguing for what is in the best interests of America. They are, rather, arguing for what is in the best interests of Israel.
"After 9/11 there were growing fears that people would talk about the root causes and that they would focus on the Arab-Israeli crisis and if they focussed on it some Americans would want to address this imbalanced approach. These are ideologues who have an agenda and can no longer claim to be the academic experts they were trained to be. They are in fact stocking horses for the neo-cons agenda."
Esposito believes that he and others represent an alternative school of thought within American academia -- one that represents what America is truly about which is free speech, open dialogue, and a multiplicity of views. "Kramer and others began to say in public that there was now a second school of thought in American academia, which they claim that -- whether rightly or wrongly -- I represent, among others. What they want to do is to shut that out. But if you look at some of their criticism, when they quote my writings, they quote me out of context. They are too well educated and too trained to be that stupid. By the way, that is what members of the radical Christian right do when they quote the Qur'an out of context. They would quote the first part of the verse and not the second or they will take a verse like 'slay the unbelievers wherever you find them' and say that the unbelievers are the Jews and the Christians rather than the mushrekeen [polytheists].
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"They [the neo-cons] use very positive notions like supporting democracy to promote their views, but I am often suspicious of what their ultimate agenda is. The endgame is to redraw the map of the Middle East, but the question is: to whose benefit and what would it look like?"
"[J]ust as there is Orientalism, there is Occidentalism and if there is a tendency to demonise one side, there is demonisation on the other"
"This is done deliberately and if someone did this to them in reverse -- if he was to quote, for example, the Old Testament or the New Testament out of context -- he would be accused of being anti-Christian, or anti-Jewish or the routine charge of anti-Semitic."
Despite such attacks to discredit American scholarship on the Middle East, Esposito defended the Bush administration. Esposito spoke of the many differences and divergent voices that exist within the current administration. He once wrote that the policies of the Bush administration which tend to support dictatorial regimes in the region are more likely to radicalise the mainstream in the Arab world. Yet he does not believe that the Bush administration is purposefully provoking radicalism in the region. "I have been critical of elements of the Bush administration, I would not deny the fact that President Bush is doing the best job that he is capable of doing. Though I don't think that this job has been done all that well on a number of issues, however, I don't see him sitting there wanting to provoke extremism.
"I think there is a genuine concern about addressing it. I think he gets the wrong advice or follows the wrong advice too often. I regard those who give the advice as more part of the problem than part of the solution. But the onus is on this administration if it will do what no administration has done in the past be it Republican, Democrat or conservative and that is to strike a balanced policy when it comes to dealing with Arabs and Israelis." Is it possible? "I think it is possible. Is it probable? I don't think so, but I hope I will be proven wrong."
Does he think that America is an empire in denial? "One of the risks is that the US under this administration is perceived to be pursuing an imperialist agenda. What makes it even more difficult for the administration in terms of denying it is that a number of neo-conservatives speak like neo-imperialists and some of them in fact say America is the power in the world and we should do what we want and what we know is right. The French talked about their mission to civilise and the British called it the white man's burden. These were only rationale for imperialism and if one is not careful the US will be perceived as if it is coming with a rationale for imperialism."
Esposito believes that there is also a case to answer for in the Arab world where there is a chronic leadership crisis. "The leaders in this part of the world are preoccupied with staying in power and using whatever means they need to use to do so. This is why there has been and continues to be an issue of legitimacy in the Arab world. There are no attempts to broaden political participation and strengthen civil society. When I do see civil society developing, I see it under the strong guidance of the government, but that is not civil society."
He thinks that the success or failure of political Islam is not so much measured by whether or not an Islamic government is established, but rather the influence of Islamic values.
Esposito said as far as the latter point was concerned, political Islam was indeed a success story. He, nonetheless, contends that manifestations of the failure of political Islam show themselves in countries like Iran, Afghanistan and Sudan, as well as in the form of extremist fringe groups. However, he said that "a quiet revolution" has indeed taken place in some of the Muslim societies. "If you look at the fabric of many Muslim societies, their values, their issues and their principles have become more Islamically oriented. This is what I call the quiet revolution that took place. While everybody was looking for the 'violent revolution' you had mainstream Islam emerging and so one could see this in societies such as Egyptian society and others to the extent that now you have an alternative elite and alternative institutions. These are modern institutions and an elite which is educated but is more Islamically oriented and they are more concerned about 'cultural legitimacy', which is very important.
"People now perceive themselves as 'culturally Muslim'. This kind of development will force any viable government in the Arab or the Muslim world to be concerned not only with issues of political participation, economic development but also about accommodating religion and culture within society and the governments have to be sensitive towards that, but that does not necessarily mean that it is a government which will formally be 'an Islamic government'."
Has the Arab world "failed to understand America", as some Arab neo-liberals have argued. Esposito disagrees. "I think the blame is on both sides, but I think from my point of view, many of us in the West have less of an excuse for the extent to which this has been a misunderstanding. But just as there is Orientalism, there is Occidentalism and if there is a tendency to demonise one side, there is demonisation on the other." Extremist forces on both sides have forced a kind of an ideological war and have put the mainstream in both the United States and the Arab world under siege. A good deal of the blame, Esposito argued, has to do with the political establishment, the rulers and often with the education establishment. "We can talk about the problems of neo-cons or the radical Christian right but we should also address the influence of authoritarian regimes, the influence of the political establishment, the influence of religious extremism, the silencing of the mainstream. I think the need for reform exists in both parts of the world."
Being a champion of dialogue between Islam and the West, he has no doubts that such communication is very important. Why is it then that the countless instances of dialogue have not yielded results? Esposito begs to differ. "Despite the demonisation and misunderstanding which existed about Islam, if you look at America today, one will realise that Islam has become far more visible, not only in the physical landscape that is Muslims and mosques, but also in the intellectual cognitive that is Islam is covered in our schools, universities, public spaces in a way in which it never was. Some of that might not be good stuff, but a lot of it is increasing Americans' awareness of what is Islam.
"There are many in this administrations who don't only listen to the arguments of the neo-cons but are exposed to our school of thought as well. The problem is of course who is at the top and makes the policies. I still think that at the end of the day our impact exists." He acknowledges that there is indeed a struggle for America's soul. "The sad thing is that there are people who want to patrol our discourse, our vision of America, who want to shut this down and at times you do feel under siege, but you feel that it is your obligation to remind people what America is truly about."