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World Views: John Esposito on ''What a Billion Muslims Really Think'' (Jul 09, 2012)
Zach Messitte hands the reins of the program to the show's new host, Suzette Grillot, who just returned to the U.S. after living in Italy for a year.  Between 2001 and 2007, the Gallup organization conducted tens of thousands of interviews sampling more than 35 predominately Muslim nations. John Esposito analyzed that data in his 2008 book Who Speaks for Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think. He’s the founder and director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim and Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.


ZACH MESSITTE, HOST: John Esposito, thank you for joining us on World Views. Your last two books you’ve looked at very large issues – the future of Islam, who speaks for Islam, what a billion Muslims really think – and I saw that you said in an interview that the key question in understanding Muslims ought to be the following: What do Muslims globally, the mainstream majority, really think?  So you’ve looked at pulling data and opinion from around the world, so what’s the answer to that question?

I think that for many people it can be a bit surprising. Part of the problem that we’ve had is that we’ve always relied on what experts say Muslims think, but now we have the ability to see what large numbers of Muslims think.  So, for example, even among Muslims where there’s a high percentage of anti-Americanism, if you ask them what they admire about the West, they will say that they admire many things we admire about ourselves: our education, our economic development, our work ethic, our freedoms. On the other hand, when we talk about grievances, what becomes very clear is that major Muslim grievances are driven not by religion.  They are driven by political realities, or their experience of political realities.  And so for many Muslims, the grievances have to do with the intervention or the threat of intervention, invasion, or occupation, or dependency on Western powers.  Also, this helps us to understand the reaction to the Danish cartoons, or the burning of the Qur’an. The belief among many Muslims, and a lot of my data comes from overseas, from some 35 to 45 Muslim countries, but it’s true increasingly for many Muslims in the West – a feeling that Islam and Muslims don’t get a fair shake that they are not distinguished from extremists, and that as a result are looked down upon, and that Muslim life is cheaper, regarded as cheaper than other people’s life. Now, we don’t get this in the data, but the example I give to people is the United States, quite rightly, knows every soldier who was wounded or killed in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and yet when the United States will, when pressed, will say, “We don’t have statistics on the numbers that have been killed, particularly civilians.”  What does that really say in terms of our concern for human life? I think the other thing that surprises a lot of people is the women’s issue. In a number of Muslim societies, there are serious issues with patriarchy and its impact with tribalism, and its impact, and how that plays out in terms in women’s issues. There are other examples that are far more constructive, but the reality of it is when you ask Muslims globally about women’s rights, vast majorities in virtually in every Muslim country – men and women – will clearly, with a higher percentage of women than men, believe that women should have equal rights to education, employment, senior positions even though that doesn’t occur in a number of countries.  That takes us then to the next level of, well what is it about the political or religious establishment?

And I want to follow up on this on a large sense which is this question of whether or not Islam or Islamic reformers are going through some sort of a reformation period today. You’ve talked about this, and you’ve said that they have two major challenges.  One is time.   It’s not, as the Christian Reformation was, where there were centuries to develop that here in our society and with globalization today you’ve got to move faster.  The second problem is that many of these Muslim reformers are arguing from a sense of weakness, that they are not in a position of power to be able to make these arguments about women’s rights, or democracy, or whatever the issue is. So, is the Muslim world in the middle of a reformation of sorts?

Well, I think it’s important to note that from the late 19th Century you did have what was called an Islamic modernist movement, and so an attempt to bridge the gap between Islam in its classical formulation and then dealing with the impact of modernity and issues of reasoning, revelation, et cetera.  Today I describe the situation in the Muslim world as analogous to the situation of Roman Catholics in the first part of the 20th Century, in terms of reformers. Reformers are a vanguard, but a vanguard that struggles within a conservatively-dominated religious establishment, number one.  And that religious establishment, remember, not all, but many of the senior religious leaders, but the people who come out of the madrasas and their curriculum, but they also function in many societies under authoritarian governments.  And in a number of their societies they have religious extremists.  So what you’ve got is this vanguard, literally from Egypt to Southeast Asia, that are engaged in reinterpreting Islam, that are often under pressure from the conservative religious leaders who see this as co-opting their role in society and that makes for difficulty.  But I do believe they are planting the seeds – that they are arguing the arguments that need to be made, whether it has to do with gender equality or whether it has to do with the rights of equal citizenship for all citizens, and therefore the kind of modern religious pluralism that needs to be adapted into today’s world.

I’d  like to stay on this issue of women’s rights for just a minute. Zach and I lead a book club for International and Area Studies students here at OU, and we are reading the book Half the Sky right now, by Nicholas Kristof and Cheryl WuDunn on the oppression of women around the world. They have a chapter that’s titled “Is Islam Misogynistic?” When I talk about this with our students, there tends to be a significant opinion here that Islam hates women, and we’ve had other guests on this show that have talked about the discrimination that women face in the Muslim faith and not being able to pray in mosques. What are we to think of this? Is it about religion? You’ve said elsewhere it’s about politics. Which is it, and are we to point the finger at Islam?

It’s about patriarchy and politics. I’m a historian of religions.  I’ve studied formally at least four of the five world religions, and frankly, when I’m asked this question the first thing that always strikes me, and perhaps it’s because I’m older and so I get more short-tempered on these kinds of issues. I want to say, particularly to people who have their own faith, do you know anything about the history of your faith?  How about the history Judaism, Christianity?  Where were women?  The religion developed in a patriarchal society. The Revelation came and was interpreted in a patriarchal society. Who interpreted?  The Good Ol’ Boys.  What was the net result in terms of the roles of women?  Think about it – when did we get women’s rights in the West?  Rights to inheritance, et cetera?  In certain cases, the 19th and 20th Century.  Violence against women – what was that situation in the past, and what goes on today?  So what you’re dealing with today are many societies where patriarchy and tribalism remains very strong, and the legacy of that, and then when you have interpretations that grow out, where religion is used to legitimate that, historically it becomes part of the tradition in that local area, that becomes a tough nut to crack. On the other hand, what you do see is that in many places, in Saudi Arabia, even in Iran, certainly in Turkey, you see in large numbers, when you look at the education level, you see increasingly large numbers of women getting educations, women who are getting out into the workplace.  Now that varies, in Saudi [Arabia] it’s much different than when you talk about women in the workplace in Indonesia, or Malaysia.  So part of the problem we have is that we not only discount or realize the history of patriarchy, and the extent to which one can argue that, for example, the three monotheistic religions were misogynistic, historically.  But you then have to fast-forward, and if you’re looking at the Muslim world today, you’re talking about a tremendous diversity of experiences.  In some countries the situation is really bad, and in other countries the situation has made enormous progress. Women are in professions. Women are in government, so I think that it really is a matter of getting a fix on it, but when you come at it with no sense of past history, there is no doubt about it.  You’re going to look and see just the misogynist’s side.  Also the other side doesn’t get portrayed very much in our media.  We are more concerned with horrendous situations of women who will be threatened with stoning to death than we are with doing the stories about the role of education and the progress of Muslim women.

You’re listening to World Views on KGOU, and we’re talking to John Esposito, director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.

I’d like to ask a question about relations between the Arab world and the West, particularly the United States.  What are the prospects for better relations between us, particularly in light of the recent developments in the Middle East in the wake of numerous protests and regime changes in the Middle East?  Does that lend us to think that we’re going to have better relations between us?  Or is it something more key to some solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?  Is that really the key to better relations between us?

I think both are important. I think that peoples’ grievances, for example, in the Arab world in particular are very strong with regard to Palestine and Israel; although again, data shows that that’s a fairly universal Muslim attitude, but their primary concern on a daily basis is the grievance if you’re living under an authoritarian regime. So what’s happening in the Arab world is really important.  We’re in this enormous period of transition.  We see that older policies and established policy what during the Bush Administration Richard Haass, then a senior member of the State Department, referred to as America’s history of democratic exceptionalism, promoting democracy globally but deliberately not promoting it in the Middle East in order to support authoritarian regimes. Well that earned us a fair amount of anti-American attitude, and the invasion of Iraq, Afghanistan, et cetera.  The Arab Spring becomes very important here. The West has an opportunity to score some points here.  I think that the Obama Administration is beginning to do its best.  As the EU itself was equivocating, but I think it’s very important that the U.S. be seen not as proclaiming itself as the leader, then we have unilateralism.  But Obama needs to be seen as a major leader out front, because that goes to score point in terms of the U.S. being there to respond to people’s needs, and hopefully then to respond economically, technologically, and to move away from, on the one hand preaching democracy and human rights, but accepting authoritarian regimes.  But Palestine and Israel are going to remain there, and that’s the tough nut to crack.  It would take a president with an enormous backbone to really address this issue as it really needs to be addressed. He has to go up [against] a Congress that has a history of being overwhelmingly biased on this issue, and here I want to make clear what I mean by bias is Israel has an absolute right and commitment from the United States to its safety and security, but there should be an equal commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state, and he would also have to go up against a strong domestic constituency, and lobby particularly lead by APAC, and no president has been willing to go to the wall.

As a professor and a leader of Christian-Muslim understanding, what can you tell our audience about maybe one or two things that Christians should think about, and one or two things Muslims might do in order to increase that understanding?

I think Christians really need to take some time understanding Islam. The fact is that Muslims and Christians share an awful lot in common. Muslims accept the great Biblical prophets.  They, in particular, revere Jesus and Moses.  Musa and Isa are common Muslim names.  The Virgin Mary appears more in the Qur’an than she does in the New Testament.  Muslims believe in moral responsibility and accountability.  The Qur’an is very much like the prophets Amos and Jeremiah – very committed to issues of social justice.  But Christians have to take time to really understand it, and not to be just simply taking what they get from some of the militant Christian preachers.  Muslims increasingly, and here I’m talking about Muslims more overseas, because we do find, for example, that American Muslims and many European Muslims are far more integrated and have far more pluralistic attitudes towards “the other” than the other in their own country has towards them.  For example, you will get a significant percentage of Americans or Europeans who will say, “We really would prefer not to have a Muslim living in our neighborhood,” et cetera.  You don’t get that among a majority of Muslims.  A majority of American Muslims are integrated economically, educationally, pluralistically, so we need to think more about overseas Muslims.  I think for some overseas Muslims, it’s going to be a hurdle for some of them to get beyond the grievances of European colonialism, and recent actions of American and Western neo-colonialism, and to deal at home with some of the offshoots and negative legacy.  For example, problems with anti-Semitism, which exists.  Not among all, but a significant minority, deal with that reality.  Also, I think a real challenge is for many Muslims to come to understand Christianity.  We are far more experts, in this country, on Islam than the reverse, although that’s changing in the Muslim world.  But often in the Muslim world, they have dealt just the way we did when I first got in the field.  Dealing with stereotypes, and not having really good experts who understood the other traditions, and who could be bridge-builders.

I want to just follow up on that, and you’ve written and talked quite a bit about how the media portrays Islam in the United States.  Where does this come from?  You’ve named names, you’ve cited people in particular who you feel  haven’t really done justice to this issue, and haven’t helped educate Christians or Americans about what Islam is about.  Where does this come from?  Where does this Islamophobia in the media, in particular, come from?

I think it comes from segments of the media that particularly developed during the Bush years.  People who had kind of a neo-conservative agenda.  One of the things that happened during the George Bush years, and I’m not laying this all on President Bush, I’m talking about that period of time, is you have a very strong neo-conservative movement which dovetailed with what I would call hardline Christian Zionism, and therefore had a similar agenda when it came to the Middle East.  Whether it was on Arab-Israeli, or often the need to redraw the map of the Middle East, and to see somehow and engage in the stereotypes that Arabs and Muslims, somehow their religion and their culture was antithetical to democracy, to gender relations, when in fact, not only hard data now shows that not to be true, but what’s going on with the Arab Spring shows that not to be true.  What that means, then, is that you had media commentators who would say things about Islam.  I’m not talking about extremism here, but that they would never say about Jews or Christians, even in an open debate.  If I want to talk about the way in which the Bible – and I’m a Christian – the Bible in many of its passages has a great deal of violence, but I don’t make a comparison with Mein Kampf.  What a lot of these folks do is give a great deal of space to anti-Muslim bashers, and in fact, a disproportionate amount of space.  When you look at many of those people, they have no expertise in Islam, and they’re people who just make a profession out of this.  It’s one thing to talk about the hard truths that a community has to face.  Whether or not, for example, communities had to look the other way when extremism exists, because they want to deny it exists in the community.  It’s another thing to engage in something where you wind up saying, “Look, the fact that somebody is religious as a Muslim makes them a potential terrorist.  I’m not saying that all Muslims are terrorists, but if they are religious or devout, well that‘s saying their religion can make them that way.”  I send my students two e-mails – one with quotes from the Qur’an, and one with quotes from the Bible, on violence and warfare.  I provide no context, and ask them to read those passages and tell me what conclusions they would draw about the religion that they’re reading about.  I think we all need to do that, and then ask our question depending on our faith, “Well, if that’s the case, then how come we don’t believe in violence and terror?”  Then we realize that we interpret those texts within context.

Well, John Esposito, director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim and Christian Understanding, and a professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University, thank you for joining us on World Views today.

Thank you.

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