Listening to John Esposito
The Desert Foundation has been concerned about the rise of Islamophobia in the United States and Europe especially since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Last June I heard a news report on a Tennessee town in which a young Muslim expressed her fear and sorrow after an attack on her mosque. I heard attendees applaud and cheer the attack rather than the woman’s courage for speaking up. “Hundreds of activists heckled a U.S. Attorney who was making a speech on hate crimes,” NPR reported, “and cheered as Muslims described the firebombing of a nearby mosque.”
In response to a recent painful experience of anti-Muslim rhetoric in nearby Alamosa, Colorado, several local organizations, including Adams State University’s United Campus Ministry and Catholic Campus Ministry, sponsored a lecture by John Esposito, a world authority on Islam.
Esposito is Founding Director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. For years I have used his Oxford History of Islam as an excellent reference. Dr. Esposito has served as a consultant for the U.S. Department of State and for other governments and corporations in Europe and Asia. He has served as Vice Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Council of 100 Leaders and in 2013 he was President of the American Academy of Religion.
Given his academic credentials and my own prejudices, I was prepared for the possibility of a calm-to-boring lecture full of stats and short on brio. Wrong. Esposito grew up in an Italian Catholic Brooklyn working class family and has the humor and smarts to match. Tessa and I had heard he spent ten years in a monastery. We met him before the talk and asked about it. He said he spent ten years, from age 14-24, in a Franciscan community, and his mom loved it because it increased his chances of being a virgin when he married. Esposito’s light heart allows him to present troubling material in a spirit of hope.
Early in Esposito’s talk he reminded us that many Americans’ first exposure to Islam came with the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, recently portrayed in the movie “Argo.” He noted that television news anchor Tom Brokaw felt it necessary to inform us that Islam is a religion founded by a prophet, Muhammad, with a scripture called the Qur’an. Esposito suggested that something is wrong when one must make that statement to a well-educated population. How is it that we know so little about a tradition that has been with us since the seventh century and has had a great influence on Western philosophy, science, and arts? How is it that we know so little about our 1.6 billion Muslim neighbors?
Esposito confirmed that stereotypes are powerful and reminded us of how easy it is to generalize about groups of people based on very limited contact. For example, if I am a struggling Polish immigrant in the United States and an Irish worker gets the job I want, I may be tempted to believe that the Irish are out to impoverish or crush the Poles. So when we found out that the handful of men who destroyed the World Trade Center were Muslims, it was too easy to see them simply as Muslims, not as Saudi citizens or members of an extremist group that claims to be Muslim while violating fundamental Muslim teachings.
Esposito also questioned American law enforcement’s reaction to the horror of 9/11. We subjected more than five thousand Arab and Muslim foreign nationals within the United States to preventive detention—not one of whom stands convicted of a terrorist offense. In a note of dark humor, Esposito wondered why, in order to combat the mafia, we do not round up an equivalent number of Italian Americans.
“If it bleeds it leads,” we used to say about newspaper headlines. Esposito noted the difference in media references to Muslims over the years. In 2001, in 975,000 media references to Islam, two percent of the articles referred to extremism and 0.1 percent referred to mainstream Islam. In 2011, twenty-eight percent referred to extremism while references to mainstream Islam remained at 0.1 percent. These statistics strike me as incredible.
I remember the controversy over the “Ground-Zero Mosque” in New York City. As Esposito noted, the project is neither a mosque (although it includes a prayer space) nor is it at Ground Zero. It is a community center based on a Jewish model in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. New Yorkers seemed relatively open to it until social media sparked a backlash against a “monument to terrorism.” Esposito suggests that this is similar to referring to St. Patrick’s Cathedral as a monument to pedophilia. Terrorism and pedophilia are grave blights, to be taken seriously and resisted vigorously, but few Christians are ready to disband their churches as a result of behavior disorders and criminal activity in some of our ministers.
Some politicians and pundits have raised the question of whether Muslims can be loyal Americans. Roman Catholics have also faced this challenge. Here in Colorado, shortly after the founding of Holy Cross Abbey in Cañon City in 1924, the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses in five of the city’s main intersections, hoping to intimidate local Catholics.
We may think that few Americans wish to be known as Klan-like, yet seven major philanthropic organizations have donated over forty million dollars to anti-Muslim causes, such as the demonstrations against the Muslim center in New York. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), estimates that an inner core of thirty-seven American anti-Muslim groups received more than 119 million dollars between 2008 and 2011.
Financial support for anti-Muslim prejudice helps account for the majority of Americans who have a negative attitude toward Islam and Muslims. And yet American Muslims are second only to Jews in education. Forty percent have college degrees, compared to twenty-nine percent of Americans. Thomas Jefferson insisted that education is essential for the health of democracy.
Esposito points out that religion has a shadow side. We know how easily violence may be “justified” by scriptural references. The Qur’an and the life of Mohammed attest to the possibility of defending oneself and one’s community against aggression. But few Jews and Christians are ready to defend the “ban” practiced in the book of Numbers or 1 Samuel that sounds to us like genocide. Just as we are prone to generalize too easily from limited exposure to someone “other,” we are also prone to present the ideals of our own tradition as normative (“Christianity is a peaceful religion.”) while presenting the worst of another tradition as normative (“Muslims are terrorists.”). Even though the Gospels advocate peace and Jesus blesses peacemakers, it did not take long for Christianity to become an agent of mass violence, first under Constantine and later during the Crusades.
My own travels in Muslim countries, from Afghanistan to Tunisia, Egypt, and Jordan, have always been filled with hospitality and good will. I know this is not the case for everyone, and I also respect Esposito’s insight that one ought not to generalize, for good or ill, from limited experience. But the statistics Esposito cites certainly affirm his experience and mine: Muslims, here in America or abroad, continue the practice of hospitality that is a hallmark of Muslim tradition.
If you wish to learn more about this hospitable Muslim approach to Christians, visit www.acommonword.com. Learn more about Georgetown University’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at acmcu.georgetown.edu/about.