John Esposito…On Muslims & West
As Islam, Muslims and Islamophobia remain the words that resonate in the post 9/11 world, Professor John L. Esposito is a voice needed to be heard.
Esposito, Professor of Religion and International Affairs, and Founding Director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, is one of the world’s most respected experts of Islam.
His in-depth knowledge of Islam and the Muslim world has made him a reference on many of the hot topics that rages on in today’s world, from linking Islam to terror to cross-cultural and inter-religious dialogue.
Esposito is editor-in-chief of the four-volume Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, editor of the Oxford History of Islam.
He is also the author of numerous books and references, including Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality, What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam, The Oxford Dictionary of Islam, and The Future of Islam.
OnIslam.net interviewed Professor Esposito on some of the hottest issues that confront Muslims and the World.
1- Has Islamophobia worsened over the past years?
Islamophobia and stereotypical views on Islam have increased significantly post 9/11 in Europe and America. There are many indications of that in Europe, from the increased power and electoral successes of right wing, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim parties to the minaret, hijab and niqab bans.
At the same time, the growth of anti-immigrant political parties has meant forms of racism and xenophobia that have targeted Muslims.
2- The controversy over the so-called Ground Zero mosque recently has been linked to America’s growing Islamophobic climate too. Is it true that the trend has gripped the US even stronger nine years after 9/11?
The United States has had its share of Islamophobia too, as the controversy over Park 51, the building of an Islamic center near Ground Zero, the anti-Islam and anti-Muslims statements of protestors, politicians and hardline Christian Zionist ministers and the threat of Quran burning have clearly showed. It is the tip of the iceberg of a social cancer eating away in Western societies.
Republican candidates have jumped on a bandwagon, appealing to racist attitudes towards Islam and Muslims as a political wedge to gain electoral votes in the coming November elections. Bogus charges in 2008 that Barack Obama was a Muslim, as if that should discredit him, is an example of an Islamophobia which is still being used as a political strategy today. This form of political hate speech was addressed by Colin Powell in his endorsement of Obama when he asked: “Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?”
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, desperately seeking to recapture his national Republican leader role, tried this past week to create a bizarre national threat about the implementation of Islamic law, shari`ah, that doesn’t even exist. Republican Rex Duncan of Oklahoma followed suit, warning there is a “war for the survival of America,” to keep the shari`ah from creeping into the American court system. In California, a Tea Party Rally in protest of an Islamic Center in Temecula encouraged protestors to bring their dogs because Muslims hate Jews, Christians, women, and dogs.
3- American Muslims… do they have a problem integrating in the society?
They are one of the most diverse communities in the world, representing 68 different countries as well as indigenous African Americans and converts. Over the past few decades, the vast majority of American Muslims have become economically and increasingly politically integrated into mainstream American society. Muslims represent men and women spanning the socioeconomic spectrum: doctors, lawyers, engineers, and educators, corporate executives, small business owners, or blue-collar workers and laborers. In fact, 70 percent have a job compared to 64 percent of Americans overall. Muslim women report monthly household incomes more nearly equal to men’s, compared with women and men in other faith groups.
Education is a priority for many Muslims, who, after Jews, are the most educated religious community surveyed in the United States. Forty percent of Muslims have a college degree or more, compared to 29 percent of Americans overall; 31 percent are full-time students as compared to 10 percent in the general population.
4- If this is the case, then why it seems that the situation for Muslims in America worsened than for those in Europe recently, despite of the relatively better socio-economic conditions of US Muslims?
It is a mix of reasons, from the legacy of 9/11 and fear of another attack which is both a real possibility but also shamelessly exploited by the media and politicians. Also, there is the lack of distinction between Muslim extremists and mainstream Muslims. Yes, there are Muslim extremists and terrorists and they are a serious threat to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Though many Americans realize this fact, other Americans still do not realize that extremists do not represent or speak for the vast majority of Muslims.
The European situation is even more difficult. There have been attacks in London, Madrid, Glasgow and continued threats and arrests of terrorists and suspected terrorists. Europe has also become the home for a considerable number of radical imams and terrorists and spawned home grown extremists. At the same time, too many European governments in addressing the threat of extremism have not fully appreciated the extent to which majorities of European Muslims are and want to be members of mainstream societies nor have many governments been aggressive enough in implementing educational, employment and social policies that enable European Muslims to acquire the education, skills and opportunities that will lead to greater integration and a sense of empowerment.
5- Where do we go from here?
The social cancer of Islamophobia must be recognized as unacceptable as anti-Semitism. It is a threat to the very fabric of our democratic pluralistic way of life, one that tests the mettle of our democratic principles and values. Political and religious leaders, commentators and experts must do more to counter hate speech; they must lead in safeguarding and strengthening religious pluralism and mutual respect. They must walk the fine line between distinguishing the faith of mainstream Muslims from the violence terrorists justify in the name of Islam. Blurring this distinction plays into the hands of preachers of hate (Muslim and non-Muslim, religious and political) whose rhetoric incites and demonizes, alienates and marginalizes and leads to the adoption of domestic and policies that undermine the civil liberties of Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
6- Where is the interfaith dialogue? Some believe it did not see real progress after all the initiatives and meetings?
It is not entirely true that there has not been any progress. The fact that there have been so many initiatives on both sides itself is a proof of the significant momentum that the dialogue has achieved. I have taken part in many of these initiatives in the past few years, including “A Common Word Between Us”, Just as I have been involved in interfaith dialogue for some 25 years now. And it is clear that there is a significant momentum there.
Post ‘‘A Common Word,’’ a particularly important dialogue ensued between Muslims and evangelicals, who have tended to have a more unfavorable view of Islam than other Americans. An alternative group of mainstream evangelical leaders like Richard Cizik, Joel Hunter, Bob Roberts, Chris Seiple, Rick Warren, and others have reached out to Muslim leaders to explore common values. These leaders initiate and participate in multi-faith dialogues and projects dealing with common concerns, from social issues like poverty and the environment to security.
7- What should the dialogue seek to achieve better relations and understanding between followers of different faiths?
The question is that the dialogue should focus on religious commonalities of belief, values and interests rather than differences. Differences exist but unless they threaten national security should be tolerated in pluralistic societies. Many differences enhance rather than threaten societies. More importantly, we should discuss what we share, our common interests and values. It is the best way to achieve mutual respect and understanding.
Also there should be more encounter and engagement at the community level. In addition to religious leaders and scholars meeting and drawing up statements, they must seek to see that change occurs in training the next generation of imams, priests, ministers and rabbis who influence the next generation of parents.
8- The hopes for better US-Muslim relations after President Barack Obama’s election… Have they faded? It does not seem that the US image or ties with the Islamic world have changed much.
President Obama identified improving US relations with “the Muslim world” as a key foreign policy imperative during his presidential campaign. For the first time in US history, the president addressed Muslims directly during his inaugural address. Fulfilling a campaign promise, Obama gave a historic speech to Muslims around the world from Cairo in June 2009.
Obama has showed clearly his respect for Islam and Muslims, vowed new partnerships with the Muslim world, and has openly denounced those who defame and stereotype the entire Muslim world over 9/11. At home, he has spoken against denying American Muslims their rights and freedoms, and admitted the discrimination that American Muslims face, also because of 9/11.
So Obama definitely brought a new vision and rhetoric from that in Bush era.
How much beef has the administration delivered remains a question.
Several White House initiatives are underway across government to move this agenda item forward. Programs include promoting entrepreneurship, student and scholarly exchanges, partnerships to eradicate disease, as well as programs to increase women’s education in majority Muslim societies. However, critics charge the administration has only made cosmetic rhetorical changes, and that the core policies defining anti-American sentiment in Muslim societies remain constant and have not changed since the Bush administration.
These include the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Guantanamo Bay prison, as well as America’s position in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And there are other things Obama needs to address in order to change the way Muslims see America, as a self-interested empire, like the US close ties to unpopular authoritarian regimes in the Arab and Muslim world and issues of human rights.
9- The Israeli occupation of Palestine remains a major concern across the Muslim world and a stumbling block to US-Muslim relations.
American policy will have to become less driven by domestic Israel lobbies and their hard-line Christian Zionist allies and their significant supporters in Congress. President Obama is in a seemingly untenable position. He is challenged to pursue a bold strategy, that no recent American president has been willing to pursue, with a mixed bag of partners and get them to negotiate on seemingly intractable issues: the status of Jerusalem, the Palestinian right of return, the dismantling of illegal settlements.
10- There has been a considerable increase in media outlets, particularly on the internet, which brands itself as Islamic in recent years… do you believe they made an impact informing about Islam and Muslims or bridging a gap with non-Muslims? And what should be the role of outlets like our newborn website OnIslam.net?
Muslim media and Islamic websites have played an important role in providing and disseminating information on Islam and Muslim concerns. However, they are challenged and countered by many well financed anti-Muslim websites and publications. This requires then an even greater emphasis on first rate websites that are not polemical but as objectively as possible present information and discuss and debate issues that unite and divide.
OnIslam.net can play a very important role if it quickly establishes itself as a first class source for information and discussion.
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