Want to Understand Islam? Skip John Esposito's Apologias
by Winfield Myers • July 21, 2007
As if to confirm the observations that Cinnamon Stillwell made in her post from yesterday, below, John Esposito of Georgetown University has produced yet another breezy, ahistorical look at radical Islam. Writing in the Washington Post, Esposito titles his article, without a hint of irony, "Want to Understand Islam? Start Here." To which one might retort, start anywhere but there.
Esposito offers a series of bromides designed to paper-over the influence of Wahhabi Islam, the state religion of his financial benefactors at the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding: Muslims worship the Abrahamic God, as do Jews and Christians; Muslims revere Moses and Jesus; Muslims see Islam as a continuation of those earlier religions. These are profferred as a substitute for rigorous examination of the epistemological crisis of much of modern Islam, a crisis manifested by terrorism, hatred for Jews and Christians, and jihad.
In fact, Esposito (keeping true to form) writes that keeping in mind Muhammad's place in Islam "helps us appreciate the widespread anger" many Muslims harbor toward the West. But he refuses to condemn the rampaging mobs and murderous thugs who put a fatwa on Salman Rushdie, sent into hiding the Danish cartoonist who lampooned terrorists with his drawing of Muhammad, and openly vowed to kill Pope Benedict XVI (and did kill a priest and a nun) following his Regensburg lecture last summer. Esposito nowhere mentions the details of these threats; he's concerned instead that we grasp the source of Muslim rage. Free speech, freedom of intellectual inquiry, outrage at killing one for his thoughts, the inability for mob rule and intimidation to co-exist with civil society and the rule of law: Esposito says nary a word about these matters, nor about the billions of Saudi dollars that support Wahhabi Islam worldwide.
Esposito also obfuscates the meaning of jihad by hauling out the tired, politically correct definition: "In the Koran, Islam's sacred text, jihad means 'to strive or struggle' to realize God's will, to lead a virtuous life, to create a just society and to defend Islam and the Muslim community."
But as Daniel Pipes has shown conclusively, "the way the jihadists understand the term [obligatory holy war] is in keeping with its usage through fourteen centuries of Islamic history." As Pipes has elsewhere pointed out, David Cook of Rice University has dismissed Esposito's definition of jihad as "bathetic and laughable."
Esposito ends his encomium with another apology for radical Islam: "My years studying those attitudes [of the world's Muslims] suggest that Muslim hostility toward the West is mostly political, not religious, and that Muslims hope the West will show their faith more respect."
Are we to think that the repression of Egypt's Copts, the murder of Iraq's Christians, the vile anti-Semitism so widespread on Arab television, and other acts of violence against Jews and Christians are mere expressions of political outrage? That there is no religious hatred at work--a hatred fanned by Wahhabi Islam?
Showing respect for Muslims is indeed a virtue, and bigotry is condemnable whenever and wherever it it practiced. But what's good for the goose is good for the gander. Middle East studies professors like John Esposito should hold radical Islamists to the same standards to which they hold the non-Muslim West. But, given his track record and the Saudi source of his sinecure at Georgetown, even-handedness and historical accuracy are not virtues he's likely to pursue.
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