JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. On behalf of the Carnegie Council I'd like to welcome members and guests to our Books for Breakfast program.
This morning we are pleased to have with us John Esposito, who will be discussing his latest book, Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam.
Since the events of September 11th, we have spent many hours in an attempt to make sense of the terror that was unleashed that day in the name of Islam. Even though we have listened to many experts debate the essence of Islam and the use of terror as a means of furthering religious goals, there is one more voice that needs to be heard, and I am delighted to say that he is our guest this morning, John Esposito.
As you will shortly learn, it is not only his in-depth knowledge of Islam, but his ability to clearly explain the developments that have influenced the growth of terrorism, combined with an expertise that few possess, which enables him to tell us who these Muslim extremists are, why they hate us, and what they hope to achieve, which makes his book Unholy War unique.
John Esposito is the founding director of Georgetown Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and one of the world's most respected scholars of political Islam. At Georgetown he is University Professor, Professor of Religion and International Affairs and of Islamic Studies. He is also a consultant to the State Department. In addition, you may have seen him on CNN, ABC "Nightline," CBS, NBC, BBC; or, perhaps, even read some of his articles in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, or The Washington Post.
Among the 25 books that he has written, I would like to call your attention to two in particular: Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?, and Islam: The Straight Path. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of the four-volume Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World and The Oxford History of Islam, which was a Book of the Month Club selection and also a History Book Club selection.
JOHN ESPOSITO: Thanks very much.
Let me begin by saying that I'm very conscious that both the book and what I am going to say today will be controversial, and provocative, depending on where you take me in the question-and-answer period as well. However, I feel very strongly that it is a time to engage in public debate, and increasingly, as I watch this war against global terrorism develop, I believe that it is even more important that all Americans become involved in that debate.
I've produced quite a few books, and this was the worst that I've ever had to write in my life. In the acknowledgements I have some rather strong words about my wife, but they are literally true. It's not just that I'm a romantic husband or that I'm a particularly nice guy. It's quite true, this book would have never been written without her.
The problem in doing the book was that not only did I have to write it in a couple of months, but I wanted to address some very significant issues for a broad audience, and in order to help them to understand the topic—for example, to understand the genesis of extremism, or why do they hate us, or are all Islamic movements a problem—I needed to take the reader through some interesting, but heavy, material, in an engaging way.
When I got into the field in the late 1960s and early 1970s, most people said, "You'll never get a job." They were right in many ways. I used to call myself the "Maytag repairman" of my profession—the phone didn't ring—until Khomeini came along with the Iranian revolution.
But there is good news and bad news. People's engagement and interest in Islam went from knowing nothing to dealing with stereotypes—generalizing from specific experience. So there are 1.2 billion Muslims, but you see a certain number of Muslims do X and you conclude that all Muslims are the same.
Yesterday, I was talking to the rabbi in charge of interfaith relations for the American Jewish Congress. We were discussing the propensity to compare one's ideal to somebody else's reality. We don't go ideal to ideal and reality to reality, whether we do it nationally or in terms of religion.
I did an early interview with The Wall Street Journal where they were debating whether they could or should do a piece called "Why Do They Hate Us?" It was almost as if, "We don't want to get into it because we might discuss the root causes of terrorism, which would be seen as extremely controversial because people will accuse you of trying to legitimate terrorism."
When we examine what I tried to accomplish in Unholy War, it was to contextualize and ask: Where does extremism come from; where does this notion of engaging in a holy war à la Osama bin Laden come from; how widespread is it; what are the possibilities with regard to the future; and to what extent is this an unholy war rather than a holy war; to what extent is this a hijacking of Islam?
And those questions persist, despite the President and others saying early on that this is a war against global terrorism, not against Islam, and making a distinction between Islam and extremism. That simply has not washed. Virtually all of the media people who call me and almost all of my interviews— although we may start with Sharon and Arafat and Netanyahu — come back to: is Islam more violence-prone; are most Islamic movements extremist; what can we expect; is there some difference?
People say, "I understand," and then when it is all over, they ask, "But isn't there a difference between Islam and Judaism and Christianity when it comes to the use of violence or holy war? Don't they view it differently?"
What I address in the book, among other things, are: What are the developments that led to the growth of terrorism; what role did the Afghan war play; how about the notion of a global jihad and its ideology? Jihad becomes a defining concept both for mainstream and extremist Muslims, but we will need to take a quick look at what that really means.
To what extent do other conflicts in the Middle East fit into this, and governments in the Middle East— Saudi Arabia, Egypt? In particular, to what extent is Wahabi Islam an issue? You have begun to see more articles in recent months about Saudi Arabia and about it's export of Wahabi Islam.
I spoke to a group of World Presidents Organization (WPO) and Young Presidents Organization (YPO). I'm 62. If you want to get depressed, you ask the YPO, "When do you join WPO?" At 50 you cease to be a young president and become a world president.
One of the first things someone said was, "We just heard from somebody in Washington that there are thousands of mosques in the United States that have been penetrated by this Wahabi ideology."
At the same time, the Central Asian governments have used 9/11 as a green light to become more authoritarian, more oppressive. One of the ways in which they do it is to say, "There is this Wahabi influence." That is their code for terrorists, fundamentalists, and fanatics.
First, let's talk briefly about Osama bin Laden, the making of a terrorist. My idea was to write a book that went beyond bin Laden; otherwise it would be extremely dated.
When you look at Osama bin Laden, he tells you something about a certain group of people who do get involved in this particular kind of unholy war. We had an initial rush to understand Osama bin Laden, and then, when we suddenly discovered that there were 15 Saudis who came from good backgrounds, all of a sudden people kept raising the question: "Why would people from good backgrounds do this?"
We should have learned something from Osama bin Laden who came from a wealthy background, good education, a family very much part of the establishment, and continues to be part of the establishment, very close to the Royal Family. Osama was a religious person but not an extremist. He was somebody with real commitment. He left what he had in Saudi Arabia to go off and fight the jihad, the holy war, in Afghanistan, and he was part of a whole group of people who were welcomed.
Remember, this was a time when we feared Islamic fundamentalism. We had seen our diplomats held hostage in Iran. We were concerned about the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. And yet we never made the connection with people calling for a jihad and being mujahideen in Afghanistan. That was "good Islam," that was "good mujahideen." If somebody is waging a just war, as opposed to an unjust war, you could make that distinction, and we very much pursued it in that way.
He went there; he brought equipment, machinery, money; he contributed to building an infrastructure. He also became involved in building half-way houses for those who were coming to fight, not only within the country but those from other parts of the Arab and Muslim world, all called "Afghan Arabs." Not only did the Afghan mujahideen win, but also global Islam won, in terms of the way in which Muslims around the world saw it. It was a partnership between the West and the Muslim world. The United States and Europe joined with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in supporting this venture.
Osama goes back home, he's feted as a hero, goes back to Daddy's company. He is a spokesperson on the circuit in Saudi Arabia, which means doing giant dinner parties, since there is no other nightlife. He is seen as a hero— not simply by the religious element, but across society.
What changes Osama bin Laden? There are a number of things that come into place.
If you will allow me to generalize very quickly: when Judaism, Christianity, and Islam began, they were all exclusivist religions. However inclusive they are, ultimately they have a world view in which "I have the Covenant, I am right," and then they must deal with how other people can also be right. It becomes the world of the believer and the unbeliever.
Wahabi Islam ratchets that up. It is very much a puritanical, fundamentalist form of religion. It still buys into a very exclusivist world view: "My interpretation is the only correct interpretation."
Osama bin Laden was raised with this Wahabi interpretation of Islam. He was raised in a family in Saudi Arabia, like many Saudis and many in the Arab world, very concerned about Arab-Israeli and very pro-Palestinian.
Now he goes home, and what turns him initially is the Gulf War, U.S.-led coalition coming to the region. He writes a letter to the King, saying, "There are other ways to approach this. We don't want to have the West coming in, not only to the Holy lands." But he also knows reality: the West will come in and it will go home.
Two days after 9/11, I exchanged e-mails with a very influential person in Cairo. He wrote: "You are absolutely right to go in after Osama bin Laden, but what we worry about is will you leave. When will it stop? Will Afghanistan be just the first point of departure?"
The United States has inherited the mantle from England and France as a neo-colonial power that is looking for reasons to expand its presence because of its interests: O-I-L, O-I-L, O-I-L. That is also an issue now in Central Asia.
And so Osama bin Laden turns. He becomes anti-Saudi and more and more anti-American. He leaves, goes to Sudan, after that returns to Afghanistan, where he begins to develop a relationship with the Taliban and join up with other Afghan Arabs, some of whom had stayed, others who had gone back home to their own countries. Remember, most of the countries in the Arab and Muslim world are authoritarian, security states, Mahabharat states. They rely on their military and secret police for stability and security.
These are people who now come back with the full experience of empowerment. They've been good Muslims, they have made the sacrifice to go to Afghanistan, they fought against the Soviets, "the unbelievers," they have overthrown them.
They go back home and what do they have to do? They are dealing with authoritarian regimes. Whether they want to oppose the regime in an extremist group or a mainstream group, they are going to be handled exactly the same way. Under most Muslim authoritarian regimes, whether you are below ground or above ground, it is repression, it is the same approach. And so many become radicalized within their countries.
Others return to Afghanistan. Ayman al-Zawahri, the physician member of jihad, the group that had assassinated Sadat, goes back to Afghanistan. Gama Islamiya people— a radical group in Egypt—return to Afghanistan.
If you think of Vietnam or the civil rights movement, many in those movements were among the oppressed and the despised, but many were from good families, with a conscience, believed in social justice. Some stayed within the mainstream. Others, like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, became radicalized in that movement because of their experiences. This is when the ethnics jumped ahead of the WASPs in America, because ethnics got involved in the movement, but we were first generation. So we had to decide: are we going to take the exam or march on Washington? But if you came from a good, secure background, you take six months off from school, maybe a year. While that was going on, all the Italian-Americans and Irish-Americans semi-compromised themselves and moved ahead. I was considered a radical student leader in those days. If you were at a Catholic college, if you had a beard and long hair, you were a radical.
Now, it happens against another background, and that is the globalization of jihad. Jihad has always been a central concept in Islam, but in the late 20th century it becomes a defining concept for mainstream as well as extremist Muslims. What do I mean by that?
Jihad in the Qur'an and in Islam, in its generic sense, means to be a good Muslim. It means to strive, the effort that it takes to be virtuous, the same as to be a good believer.
Jihad also means that in being a good Muslim you have the right—and, indeed, the obligation —to defend Islam and yourself if you are under siege. So now we move into a "just war" approach within this context. It has very strict regulations: it has to be proportionate; you cannot kill non-combatants; you cannot touch non-combatants.
But the "just war" is like beauty: it is in the eye of the beholder. Nobody who goes to war, even if he is a madman, says publicly, "Guess what? I am going to mobilize you by saying we are terrorists and we have an unjust cause." Instead, they configure what they are doing and see the "other" as the oppressor.
From the early days of Islam, you have always had a minority of extremists that the mainstream body has rejected, but extremists who have used or hijacked their religion to justify their actions, just as in other faiths. This is precisely what happened.
What do I mean by the globalization of jihad? In the late 20th century, the whole concept of striving to be a good Muslim becomes part of the vocabulary of many Muslims. People talk about engaging in the jihad to do well in their exams, to change the neighborhood, to change their life.
Opposition groups in Muslim countries also take it on politically because secularism begins to recede as a viable political alternative, and the more the opposition appeals to religion, they use the term "jihad," the struggle against an unjust government.
The rhetoric is used not just by mainstream opposition groups, but also by extremists, to legitimate tactics of violence and terror.
With the globalization of communications in the late part of the 20th century, Muslims become even more aware that they are not just a Muslim here, but that they belong to a worldwide community, the way in which many Christians and Jews see themselves as primarily located here but belonging somehow to a broader community.
So jihad becomes globalized with the Afghan war. Muslims all over the world in their sentiments identify with that struggle, many contribute money, others go to fight, and it is a "good" jihad.
After that, what do we see? Virtually every major Muslim struggle is called a jihad—Bosnia, Kosovo, Kashmir, Chechnya—whether it is officially even declared a jihad. Rather than using secular language, like "we are engaged in a resistance movement or a popular front," it just simply becomes "this is a jihad, this is a sacred struggle against an opposition." As does the term "martyr"—anyone who dies is seen as a martyr. Arafat is yelling, "Shaheed, shaheed, shaheed!" Arafat and many members of the PNA are secular. But if they were killed, they would be called a martyr, they died for a just cause, even though it might not have anything to do with whether they prayed five times a day.
So you have the globalization of jihad within mainstream Islam as well as among the extremists.
Where does the Wahabi ideology and threat come in? Take Wahabi Islam. I have said that it is an exclusivist worldview. If you are a very ultra-orthodox Jew, Catholic, or Muslim, liberals will regard you as an extremist theologically, but it does not mean that they think that you are violent.
So Wahabi Islam, as an exclusivist, puritanical theology, is very conservative and can be seen as extremist, but not necessarily violent, by liberals. I would argue that exclusivist religious world views across the religions can trip into violence, because it is not "us and them," it is the "believer and the unbeliever." It easily slips into "it is the people of God versus those who are not the people of God," and, "Yes, we have a mission to spread our faith." That can be through persuasion and talk, but it can easily trip over, and we see that, for example, within Catholicism, where people went from being conservative Catholics to throwing bombs at abortion clinics, or also within Protestantism.
Now, with Wahabi Islam, where we have a problem sorting this out is that there is an exclusivist ideology that gets promoted. The Saudis use their oil money to promote it, to build mosques, to pay the salaries of preachers to go all over the world, whether it is the United States or other countries.
In Central Asia, there tends to be an easy way of simply referring to all the opposition as Wahabi. Look at Ahmad Rasheed's book on Central Asia, or look at his most recent piece in Far Eastern Economic Review.
So what about Al-Qaeda and radicalism and what does that mean? Al-Qaeda represents what the dangers are potentially for the future. Al-Qaeda is an umbrella group. That is what makes it more dangerous. You had some who went and were like permanent members with bin Laden; but others were groups that came to train for awhile, while they were there would engage in a war or jihad.
But then most of them would go home. Remember that most Islamic activist groups are fighting at home. They are primarily concerned with changing Saudi Arabia, Egypt, whatever their country is. They then develop an international agenda. Al-Qaeda now represents a global umbrella approach in which people have their primary goals in their country, but they also identify with international ventures.
This is why I have always said that there are other bin Ladens. When I wrote Islamic Threat, when I dealt with Osama bin Laden, I warned against making him the poster boy. I said he was a terrorist. Part of what I was trying to say is: yes he is a terrorist, yes he has got followers, but if you make him the poster boy, then you think that it is only Osama bin Laden and if you take him out it is all gone. That is not the case.
What does this then have to do with where do we go from here in terms of this global war against terrorism? Here is where it will get a little touchy for some people.
The President has talked about a military/ economic/public diplomacy approach. Militarily, we must emphasize proportionality, multilateral versus unilateral. We have not done that in prosecuting this war on global terrorism. Nor have we done it in the Arab-Israeli war or struggle.
What sets up a problem for us is that when we went in, the Secretary of State said, "We are only going after Osama and Al-Qaeda; we are not going to take Afghanistan down." Then we developed a rationale for it. But then we began to talk about "second frontiers," and an "Axis of Evil." We have also gone into the southern Philippines. We have talked about going into Indonesia.
Unless we wind up with a multilateral approach in which we are being invited in by countries, where we are working with our European allies and other Arab and Muslim leaders, we will come across as the new colonial power that is seeking to redraw the map of the Middle East. You want to see anti-Americanism? You will see it in spades. And it is not just going to be there; it will be all over the world.
My friend Karen Armstrong, a prominent author, just came back from lecturing in Brazil. She was told a story that after 9/11 they had a big rock concert. The singer got up and began to sing "God Bless America," at which point the young people began to chant, "Osama, Osama." Now, that is not because they support bin Laden. It was just sheer anti-Americanism.
Another issue is that we must have a parity of rhetoric and policy. We do not have that in the Arab-Israeli conflict. We do not have it on the whole issue of the promotion of self-determination, democratization, and human rights.
During the last part of President Clinton's Administration, they emphasized human rights, religious freedom, and democracy. In the Muslim world we have been very slow to promote democratization and human rights. We tend to look the other way.
If you look at most Arab governments now, most Central Asian governments, post-9/11 they have become more oppressive. Post-9/11 they are looking for aid and support with no strings attached, and they want us to look the other way when they deal with their opposition, whether mainstream or extremist. We cannot give a green light.
How about Muslim countries? Muslim countries must get the message, whether it is Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or others. Short term, sure they want to be in power, but they must start opening up that system. Unless there is more political participation, unless there is the development of a strong civil society, and freedom of the press, you will see a perpetuation of the culture of authoritarianism and violence.
That means that anyone growing up in such a society will wind up operating by the rules of the game, and that is a risk. If you have that kind of society, it will feed anti-Semitism and extremist thought, because the society creates an extreme condition or situation. The more repression that is used, the more they radicalize. This would happen if you had only secular opposition, let alone religious opposition.
And finally, what about Islam and Muslims? There are 1.2 billion Muslims in the world. Islam is the second largest religion. It is also the second or third largest in America and Europe. For these Muslims their challenge is to address major issues of reform.
How do you address these issues of reform if you function under an authoritarian regime? You're caught between the rock (the authoritarian regime) and the hard place (the religious establishment), which is often just as authoritarian—it is supported by the government; it is very conservative. If you try to be a reformist in your thinking, in the educational system, in the media, in your theologizing, one or the other will slam you.
And what is the specific issue that many Muslims are facing? That is the theology of hate. All religions have their dark side. Religion is about transcendence—not just that the divine is transcendent; it enables us to be transcendent. It provides ultimate answers: who am I, why am I, why am I here, what should I be doing, where am I going?
But religion has always had a dark side and has always been subject to theologies of exclusivism and hate. That is a struggle within Islam and for the soul of Islam.
Let me end just with this point: I really do believe that we are at a very important point in history and we are all obliged to figure out the way in which we address it. I am particularly concerned, regardless of what your individual capabilities are, that we all realize that we have to address this because there are international and domestic consequences. How we understand the nature of extremism and the extent to which there is a connection to Islam, whether we view this as a holy war or an unholy war, is critical in determining how we will not only look at international but domestic politics, in terms of the erosion of civil liberties, of who we are and what we are.
It is disturbing to me when I speak to audiences of prominent people and somebody says, "The way we ought to handle our problem now is do exactly what we did to the Japanese, and just round them all up," whoever "all of them" are.
Questions and Answers
QUESTION: Could you continue on the globalization scene, because the people who came here for September 11th spent time in Germany. What about the discontented people who are in the West, some of whom have been born in the West, who do not feel that they can be absorbed into society, and apparently turn to Islam as a bond? And what about people in Indonesia, for example, who are Muslims and who have been attacking Christians? The ramifications of what you are saying are so enormous. Please expand.
JOHN ESPOSITO: First of all, let me do it backwards, because otherwise I will forget to address the Indonesian situation.
When it comes to Indonesia, there are many distinctions that need to be made. For example, let's take Aceh province. Groups seeking first autonomy and now independence have been active for decades, but they are not doing it as a jihad because they are Muslims and they are dealing with other Muslims; they already have an Islamic way of life. They want their independence.
That is different from a group like Laska Jihad. Laska Jihad within Indonesia has waged war against Christians in a number of areas. It is not primarily religion. It is often political and economic issues. And then, people legitimate and place what they do within a religious context. The contentions within Indonesian society between Christians and Muslims often have to do with issues of political economy that then become legitimated and fought out on religious grounds.
As for the issue of globalization, the Muslims who come to America are like many people who go overseas. Gandhi discovered his identity when he went to Britain dressed like a little Brit and suddenly woke up one day and realized that he had a major cultural conflict: "Who am I and how do I absorb my identity?"
I, as an Italian-American, ran into that. My parents did not want us to speak Italian at home, they wanted me to really fit in. And then, suddenly, as a professional, I started to meet other Italian-Americans and realized that they had changed their names, that the way in which they talked was different. Then I was suddenly faced with: If I walk like them, I talk like them, I think like them, am I going to wake up and be them? To what extent am I going to have some of my own heritage?
That is an issue for Muslims, who are engaged in a creative process of redefining their faith in a very broad form because they have the freedom to do that here.
The extremists are people who are responding to political and economic issues that they see globally but that they see the United States connected to. Anti-Americanism is rooted very much in grievances against their government. They blame also us because we are seen as supporting their government, as providing arms for their government. People within Egypt or Saudi Arabia who want to bring down their governments blame us because we provide massive support for it.
To that extent, you then wind up with the possibility that you have people who are either trained at home or trained overseas and turn to extreme forms of responses. That is why foreign policy issues become important. It does not mean that we have to change our foreign policy just to adjust to an extremist, but we must look and ask: What are the issues in the region that we need to address more creatively in order to limit the seed bed from which the bin Ladens of the world recruit their soldiers? That is a real issue in our policy towards Egypt, Saudi Arabia.
QUESTION: Did bin Laden try to redefine the Qur'an's prohibition against killing noncombatants in any way?
JOHN ESPOSITO: No. Bin Laden gives fatwahs. He is not qualified to give a fatwah. A fatwah is a legal opinion. Extremists get to a point where they put themselves above; everybody becomes the enemy. So it is not just Jews and Christians; it is other Muslims that disagree, and it is the religious establishment if they disagree.
Bin Laden put himself above it, and eventually developed a world view that says "we are completely under siege from our own governments as well as from the outside; therefore, everybody is fair game—everybody, whatever their faith, women and children."
That flies straight in the face not just of the Qur'an, but Islamic law itself, which has very specific proscriptions that deal with that.
QUESTION: Could you say something more about education in the Islamic world? Is education different today from 20 years ago or 30 years ago? Is that education system xenophobic? And what, if anything, can be done about school curricula, and what pertinence does that have to the more general theme of extremism and encouraging violence?
JOHN ESPOSITO: I am going to generalize. There is a dramatic difference in education between countries, depending on their level of development.
Education has been improving in the Muslim world, but many areas (a) have limited resources; and (b) oppression/repression, which limits free thought. You have some places where, for example, you can't call yourself a political scientist or somebody who really deals with politics.
And certainly, depending on the country, you wind up with both education in the universities as well as in some of the madrassahs that train the next generation, education that is very medieval in its interpretation of Islam.
One of the best compliments that I received was from Ahmad Rasheed, who wrote from Central Asia, "I'm slowly reading your book, Islam: The Straight Path." He had read Threat. But he said, "I just wish we could convince Mullah Omar and others to read it so they would understand what Islam is all about," because for most of them they had no idea of their own tradition. What they knew was their tribal interpretation of religion.
When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn, the issue as a Boy Scout was whether I could attend a Boy Scout meeting. The Boy Scoutmaster was Roman Catholic and Italian. You couldn't hope for a better pedigree or background. But the troop met in the basement of the Methodist Church. This was a big debate. We had an "us and them" attitude towards the world.
I grew up in a world in which we were second-class citizens. I lived in New York, and people in my own neighborhood would stop me in the summer when I got darker and ask, "Where do you come from and what is your background?" They had a whole image of how we Mediterraneans act.
Now, what do you do when you are in a context where there are longstanding grievances? Take India and Pakistan. How do you think most kids, even in secular India, who are Hindu grew up viewing Muslims, or vice versa?
20 years ago, I was at a dinner table here in the States with colleagues who were Hindu and Muslim, knew each other, and had been in the States for 20 years. As one group got up to get their food, the other would turn to me and say, "I like So-and-So, but do they really have those beliefs? They are so primitive, this Hindu polytheism." And the others would get up and the Hindus would say to me, "These Muslims are so militant. Look at the kind of warfare that they engage in." And I wanted to say, "You guys were in a common fratricidal warfare."
The same thing happens when you are dealing with Islam and Muslims, and their notions of European colonialism: when you are losing, you blame others who deserve to be blamed historically, but you do not look at yourself enough. And if there has been a longstanding conflict—i.e., Arab-Israeli—where do you think it will come down at the end of the day?
The problem, for example, in the Arab-Israeli conflict, is that for a small but significant group of people in the Arab world, and for a small group of people within Israel, based on 40 or 50 years of history and experience, they are anti the other side, without very many subtle distinctions. It is the mainstream that has to prevent that growth of extremism.
The pressures are there, whether it is the media or the educational system, to engage in cultural stereotyping that reinforces and raises a generation that has an extremist world view, or has a propensity towards that view.
QUESTION: Does your analysis go into the degree to which there is a crisis of secular authority in education and other social services and the degree to which the mosque has moved into that, and what the path out may be?
JOHN ESPOSITO: Absolutely. First of all, you have to realize that secularism, secular ideologies, quote/unquote, have been proven bankrupt, and that is what happened particularly after 1967. One of the questions with the Islamic revival was why you have "failures of society" all across the Muslim world. The conclusion on the part of many is the bankruptcy of Arab nationalism, Arab socialism, Muslim nationalism in South Asia.
The problem is that when the religious factor comes in, how will it be defined in relation to the state? Do you want to formally implement religion, or is it just that religion becomes a greater factor in people's lives and people expect their society to reflect those religious values without necessarily institutionalizing them? That is where the battle has been joined.
After 20 or 30 years, there has been a failure of political Islam at the state level. Islamization from below has been significant. Genevieve Abdo wrote a book called No God But God: The Triumph of Islam in Egypt," in which she argues that it does not matter whether the government crushes mainstream as well as extremist political movements in Egypt, or in other countries because Islamization from below is taking place.
That is not necessarily a threat. Where it is a threat is the extent to which political and economic conditions are such that extremists can take the ball and run with it or that governments indiscriminately move against any opposition and radicalize the situation. But there is no doubt that there is a struggle for the soul of Islam.
The problem also is that secularism, as you know in our country, does not mean unbelief. It means no privileged space. It means the right of people to be religious or not religious. This is where our policy in the United States can be dangerous today. There are some in this Administration—and other administrations have done this for 20 years—who are saying, "Let's promote Turkish Islam." That is a disaster. Turkish Islam is unbelief. Laique in Turkey, like laique in France, means ideology that is allergic to religion. That kind of promotion will simply backfire on the United States.
QUESTION: You mentioned that your understanding of Wahabi is that at times an exclusive theology can trip into extremism or violence. Now, when you trip, that is accidental. There are people in the field who believe that the connection between Saudi Wahabi and violence is not accidental, but the Saudis should know that it would happen, and there are people who think that the Saudis are planning it.
Did I understand you correctly? Is your opinion about Saudi Wahabi and their connection to violence that it is just coincidental and accidental and that the Saudis have no role or responsibility in this? What is your opinion of the responsibility of the Wahabi leadership?
JOHN ESPOSITO: No. What I mean by "trip" is that it is very easy to move from here to here, not that it is accidental.
What you have in Saudi Arabia and in the Gulf, first of all, are individuals who, like governments, support the promotion of Islam around the world. You want to build a mosque in Africa or L.A.; that is not a problem. But the problem is a significant minority of these individuals have been providing money and promoting causes for extremist groups.
So one of the responsibilities that the governments in the Gulf have is for not monitoring and reining these people in much sooner and much stronger. They know that that goes on. For a variety of reasons, most of them political, people have chosen to look the other way. That is one level of responsibility.
The other responsibility at the government level is the extent to which governments have promoted an ideology which is exclusivist and extremist and which any sane person would recognizes as capable of polarizing, of creating a world in which that ideology can very easily be adapted and legitimate.
I see no proof to say that the Saudi Government—or the Kuwaiti Government or the UAE—has deliberately supported violent extremist groups that promote violence. But the problem is not monitoring where their money went and how it was used. The government agencies gave money to all kinds of projects and did not monitor that responsibly.
In a number of these countries, they relied on their ministry of education or ministry of religious affairs, to monitor how they were spending their money. There was no oversight in what was happening in the schools or the madrassahs.
There is another interpretation which I will put out there. Some people have said that the Saudi Government has to deal with issues of legitimacy, but that they almost like the more extremist, rigid ideology, the kind of religion that, as one of my students has said, is "no-no-no Islam"—"no to this, no to that"—because it makes it that much less appealing to the technocrats within a society and the business people.
So that, in a sense, the Saudis could always be saying to that viable alternative within their society: "If you want to put pressure on us for broader political participation in the sector, you destabilize us and look at the alternative. Do you want this kind of world to come in that you and your family are going to have to live under?" Does that make it clearer?
QUESTION: Could you give us some idea of your understanding of why there is so little voice in America and in the West for the Muslim secularist point of view, why we hear so little from that perspective?
JOHN ESPOSITO: Let me define for you and distinguish two things when you say "Muslim secularist."
On the one hand, you have people regarded as secularist, who are Muslims, but for all practical purposes are nonbelievers. That is different from saying Muslim secularists who talk about separation of religion and state.
The secularist nonbelievers are around and visible. Look at your media here, and you will see certain Arabs and Muslims who in no sense are dealing with Islam as a reality, nor do they think it should be.
The other part of it is that, frankly, they do not get the media coverage. Many people ask me, "Why don't more Muslims speak out about X or Y?" There were not enough voices speaking out early on, but there have been plenty of them now. There are meetings at the National Press Club, and the media does not show up. I have had people interview me asking, "Why don't more Muslim religious leaders say X?" I will say, "I can send you on e-mail. I can give you religious leaders' fatwahs from all over the world. They have gone public on this issue. Why aren't you aware of it?"
So there is a balance here between the reality and the question of visibility.
QUESTION: Since bin Laden is the one that everybody puts all of the blame on, what would happen if he was caught or found dead tomorrow? What would be the response and what would happen?
JOHN ESPOSITO: Lights would go on. What are Al-Qaeda members trying to say now? There was just an interview with a senior Al-Qaeda leader, and also Taliban leaders, who are saying, "We've got more numbers than you think." What they are saying is, "If they are alive and you get them, we are not going to disappear."
First of all, we will always have extremists, Muslim or otherwise, in global terrorism. Unless we make some move to contain more, we will have to deal with ever-growing numbers.
If we got Bin Laden and had a big public trial and humiliated him, there are people who would be affected. But the issues that bin Laden is championing are still there. There are still grievances. Anti-Americanism is very broad-based because of these issues.
The movement and the hatred will occur if the grievances remain and if people within the societies are increasingly a radicalized minority. It does not matter whether Osama bin Laden is alive.
QUESTION: Would you talk trends for a moment, particularly in non-Arab Islam? For 20 years, Pakistan has been moving towards more extremism in its schools. Tom Friedman is just back from Indonesia where he has found a trend toward extremism. At the same time, in a country like Pakistan, Musharraf and the middle classes are now coming together to find ways to block that extremism and reverse the trend. Do you see any reversal of the extremist trend in Pakistan?
JOHN ESPOSITO: Reversal of the extremists is a very fine line. Unless one also addresses the political, economic, and educational issues, forget it. Why did a lot of kids go to madrassahs?
Some of these madrassahs are fine. It is like seminaries. If you look at the Roman Catholic tradition dealing with pedophilia today, it is not that all priests are a problem. The New York Times had a very good piece with interviews with kids who said, "I needed to go to school, didn't have the resources, so you go to that school."
Therefore, unless these educational issues are dealt with— access to education and funding for education and to get good teachers and professors—you've got an enormous brain drain. The tendency of many people is not to go back to Pakistan, whether to teach in the universities or the madrassahs or to leave. Unless the economic and educational issues are addressed; it will not happen.
We need to say to India and Pakistan, the way we need to say to Mr. Sharon and Mr. Arafat, "You are not just both part of the solution; you are both part of the problem. Now, each of you may proportionately, regard the other as more responsible."
Part of the problem in a number of Muslim countries is a growing youth population and where, as far as we can tell, economies are not going anywhere. Therefore, Europe and America's idea of a major economic aid program becomes critical.
We have to provide that in a context that is not simply propaganda-ish, but constructive.
Everything in Washington now gets framed in terms of terrorism. You have a meeting on food, and you add the term "terrorism" to the title of any conference. The danger is that if you frame not only the question but the way you approach it in too heavy-handed and overt a way, you will have a problem.
A few years ago, people asked me to be a consultant on a project in Egypt which was very obviously to be a USAID project. The idea was to build youth centers, but with such a heavy American ideological anti-Islamist component that all you could think of was, "As soon as the word gets out, people aren't going to touch it."
I am not excessively optimistic, unless this is taken seriously, not just at the level of rhetoric but response.
QUESTION: To borrow one of your analogies, Catholic churches all over the world—Europe, particularly the United States—send money to the Vatican for additional propagation of the faith. Muslim mosques in this country and in Europe and the support organizations are not sending money to any central location for Islam, but much of the money is being drained for, if not open support, then for the support of radical groups. What can countries like the United States or nations in Europe do to protect themselves against this support of radical groups?
JOHN ESPOSITO: I am not an expert on this kind of monitoring, but there are two things: (1) the Administration, whatever administration, has to talk with and attempt to work with our allies; and (2) it becomes incumbent upon countries to monitor money, where it is coming from and how it is being used.
The Catholic Church is always a good example to bring up. But what do you do about money collected by Protestant groups, Jewish groups, Muslim groups? These are religions that do not have that central authority and organization. That is why, for example, when Saudi Arabia raises $100 million, people immediately say, "It ought to be very clear what is happening." If it is raised within Saudi with a lot of groups, you do not have the centralized control that you are talking about.