Enemies of the States

Sat, Jan 28, 2012, 00:00

INTERVIEW:When New Yorker John Esposito left behind a Capuchin Franciscan monastery and its vow of celibacy, his next move was almost as controversial: addressing Islamophobia in the US. He tells LARA MARLOWEwhy Islam is not the enemy

WHEN JOHN ESPOSITO was growing up in New York, he spent the better part of a decade in a Capuchin Franciscan monastery. “I wanted to be ordained but I didn’t see myself spending my entire life in a religious order,” he says. “I missed my family. I had always been attracted to women. I was normal.”

About the time Esposito gave up on the priesthood, he found himself in a crowded lift in his mother’s apartment building in Brooklyn. An elderly neighbour asked why he’d left. “I just blurted out, ‘SEX,’ ” says Esposito, laughing. “I married a brilliant blonde the following year.”

Now 71, Esposito has nonetheless fulfilled a lifelong vocation involving a subject that is arguably as controversial as sex: Islam. He brings the sense of humour and directness he demonstrated in that lift in Brooklyn to his work as professor of religion, international affairs and Islamic studies at Georgetown University, and founding director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at the university.

The author of more than 35 books, Esposito is also editor-in-chief of at least five Oxford reference works on Islam, including The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World. He was one of the first to warn of what he calls the “social cancer” of Islamophobia, which he compares to anti-Semitism in the US in the 1990s.

Post-9/11, with the help of the Gallup organisation and American-Muslim scholar Dalia Mogahed, he spent six years asking Muslims in 35 countries what they thought about politics and Islam and published the results in the 2008 book Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think.

Next Thursday, Esposito will deliver the annual Chester Beatty Lecture in Dublin on The Arab Spring and the Future of Muslim-West Relations. He will argue that, as Jews and Christians came together in the wake of the Holocaust to emphasise their common Judeo-Christian heritage, the West must now adopt “the broader Abrahamic vision that recognises the integral place of the descendants of Abraham, Hagar and Ismail – Muslims – as co-equal citizens and believers”.

The Arab Spring, the series of revolts against dictators that began in Tunisia in December 2010, then spread to Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and Syria, occurred despite, not because of, western policies. Esposito condemns “the falsity of commonly held stereotypes” that for decades led us to ask, in almost racist fashion: Is Islam compatible with democracy and modernity? Is there something about the religion of Islam and Arab culture that accounts for the kind of regimes they have?

As Esposito points out, most Arab dictatorships were propped up by the West. “We bought into those regimes’ logic, which was: we are the only game in town, and any and all opposition are potentially extremists,” he says.

Esposito has argued for years that “Islam is not the enemy; religious extremism is”. Yet the West consistently failed to distinguish between Islamic extremists and moderates. The point was driven home by Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry’s recent reference to the Turkish government as “what many would perceive to be Islamic terrorists”.

The equation of Muslims with theocracy and the practise of terrorism was all the more egregious because Esposito’s work provided reliable data showing the majority of Muslims want democracy and reject theocracy. They stressed the importance of Islam in their personal lives, and wanted to see it expressed in their society, not unlike the way Americans expect to see “Christian values” manifest in the US.

Most Muslims say they want Sharia to be a source of law, but not the source. The Muslim Brotherhood, whose Freedom and Justice party won 45 per cent of the seats in Egyptian parliamentary elections, are not talking about implementing Sharia, Esposito says. The Gallup Report on Egypt from Tahrir to Transition says 69 per cent of Egyptians think religious authorities should be limited to an advisory role.

Authoritarian rule, not Islam, was the main impediment to development and stability in the Muslim world, Esposito says. “Concern over the role of Islamists in emerging governments has obscured the more potent potential threat to democratisation from entrenched militaries, security forces and bureaucratic elites,” he says.

He advises the US and other western governments to “stand back” and to concentrate on educational, technological and economic – not military – assistance.

Esposito travelled to Tunisia, Egypt and Qatar this month and was struck by the fear of intervention. “The feeling was that we would try to do what we did in Iraq, where we wanted to parachute [the Shia politician Ahmad] Chalabi in. In Egypt, there’s a general belief that France supported a very secular group, which wound up doing worst in the elections.”

After sending mixed signals during the Egyptian revolution, US president Barack Obama’s administration has in recent weeks said it will accept the results of elections. For the first time, high-ranking US officials visited Egyptian Islamists.

The Egyptian military postponed presidential elections from last autumn until next June, and anxiety remains high that the military, which has unsuccessfully sought immunity from prosecution, will not relinquish power. “They wanted to be above the constitution, and certainly above civilian government,” Esposito says.

“The military have been complicit in violence against people. They’ve tried to bring charges for treason against 39 NGOs, including some of Egypt’s most reputable human-rights organisations, and they’ve sought to provoke conflict between Coptic Christians and Muslims. It’s the old Mubarak strategy of ‘divide and rule’ to legitimate a security state.”

If a Republican wins the White House in November, US acceptance of Islamist participation in inchoate Arab democracies could be threatened. With the exception of Ron Paul, all Republican candidates have made alarmist statements about the “Islamic threat”. In 2005, Mitt Romney, the frontrunner, suggested wire-tapping mosques, a proposal he still defends. Rick Santorum has made what Esposito calls “ignorant, bigoted statements”. Newt Gingrich opposed building an Islamic centre near Ground Zero in Manhattan, comparing its planners to Nazis wanting to demonstrate outside the Holocaust Museum.

A victory by such candidates “would be a disaster”, says Esposito. Is the Republican party an Islamophobic party? “It’s the party that opposes immigration, and therefore of Islamophobia; not the entire party, but a significant number.” Unlike Europe, where new anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim parties sprang up “and only recently bled over into the mainstream”, in the US, “it has always been within our mainstream party”.

As documented in Fear, Inc: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America, published last August by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think-tank, Islamophobia and unconditional support for Israel often go hand-in-hand. Esposito cites the powerful conjunction of the evangelical Christian Zionist movement and the neoconservatives during the Bush administration. “George W Bush visited a mosque and distinguished between mainstream Islam and extremists,” Esposito says, “but his administration played upon the fear factor. They used the threat of terrorism every time it was useful to them, and it took off.”

Esposito recalls a conversation with a leading US Middle East expert in the late 1980s. “The dirty little secret,” the man told him, “is that we are people who are supposed to say what we think, but when it comes to Israel and Palestine, the environment is such that you cannot.”

Since 9/11, groups with innocuous-sounding names such as Campus Watch and Front Page have compiled lists naming Esposito and other academics and journalists who dare to break the omertà surrounding criticism of Israel.

“They characterise people whose policies they disagree with as anti-Israel and supporters of terrorism,” he says. “When hundreds of academics across the country, including prominent Jewish professors, signed up supporting not what we said but our right to say it, they created ‘dossiers’ on them too.”

There have been attempts – for example, against Joseph Massad at Columbia University – to prevent academics who criticise Israel from gaining tenure. Intimidation has been most effective in Congress. In the 1980s, representative Paul Findley and senator Charles Percy were voted out of office after falling foul of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “And the lobby made it clear they were defeated,” says Esposito. “It is no secret that there are members of Congress who want a balanced approach but feel they can’t get re-elected.”

When former president Jimmy Carter published a book about the injustice done to the Palestinians, he was asked if he was afraid. “He said, smiling, ‘I have secret-service protection and I’m not running for re-election’,” Esposito recalls.

Can the West establish amicable relations with the Muslim world if the Israeli-Palestinian problem is not solved? “Absolutely not. You’d have to be an idiot to say so. But the other side, including some pro-Israel think tanks in Washington, claims people exaggerate, that Muslims in other parts of the world don’t care about it.”

Obama, Esposito says, “punted completely” on the Israeli-Palestinian question. In the last presidential campaign, “Obama was afraid. His people didn’t want him photographed with Arab women who covered their heads. Obama to this day has not visited a mosque in the US.”

Polls have shown at times that up to one-third of Americans believed Obama was a Muslim, which helps explain why he is so afraid to confront Islamophobia. Esposito was “a strong supporter” of Obama and will vote for him again. “But he made a big mistake in his policy on the Middle East and Muslims. He made great speeches in Ankara and Cairo. The problem is, when you set out a vision, you have to walk the way you talk. Otherwise it’s better not to say anything.”

In Cairo, in June 2009, “Obama talked very strongly, as an American president should, about Israel’s security,” Esposito says. “But he also spoke empathetically about Palestinians and the occupation. He made a strong statement on the settlements and indicated that his position was non-negotiable.” But, overwhelmed with domestic problems and anticipating elections, Obama caved on the settlements, failed to condemn Israel for killing nine Turks in the Gaza flotilla raid and aligned himself with prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu on the question of Palestinian membership in the UN.

Some believe Obama would give the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a second try if re-elected. “The president would have to prove that he is totally prepared to rearticulate a vision and do everything under the sun to deliver it,” says Esposito. “He would have to do what no other American president has ever done, say: ‘We are going to respond with the same criteria to Israel that we do to the Palestinians.’ When the military overreact and commit acts of violence and terrorism, we will call a spade a spade. It would be disastrous for American interests if he backed down again.”

But before the November election, Iran could be Obama’s biggest headache. Four Iranian nuclear scientists have been murdered in two years – by Israel and the CIA, Iran says. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has threatened to attack a US aircraft carrier and close the Strait of Hormuz. Some Israelis and Americans advocate a pre-emptive strike to thwart Iran’s nuclear programme.

“I’m uncomfortable with Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric,” says Esposito. “But the person I’m more concerned about is Netanyahu, because his track record is that he not only says but he does. Look what the Israelis did in Ramallah, in Gaza, in Lebanon, at the disproportionate number of [Arab] deaths.”