A conversation with John Esposito of the Georgetown Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding
I think we’re at a very critical point, both in Europe and in America. You’ve got Muslim extremists who say there is a clash of civilizations, and then you’ve got others who engage in extremist language by agreeing that there is a clash. And that becomes a real issue within our society and in Europe.
The Pope [in an in-flight press conference on his way to the Philippines] talked about the condemnation of killing in the name of anybody but then talked about an obligation to respect the dignity of religion. This is going to open quite a debate. If you’ve looked at the cartoons Charlie Hebdo published over the past few years—not just on Islam but on religion in general. What is it, 12 times the Catholic Church had to take them to court? Some of the stuff they were doing, like the Father, Son and Holy Ghost engaging in sexual activity, or the way the Pope is portrayed, either Benedict or the papacy in general, let alone talking about Muslims, that kind of vulgar satire. I think that that side is really going to open up that kind of approach, a real debate that these people more and more are going to have to move to a center where we advocate freedom of speech and freedom of religion with, as it were, no exception, but we find a way also to talk about dignity of religion, because the Pope began on the plane talking about the question of dignity of religion and got into it seriously. But he said something that I say to people, that if anyone said anything about his mother, they’d catch a punch from him. I think we don’t think about the significance of this, of where we are now, with these kinds of radical individuals. When you live in a world where people get volatile, even in our country, where people, when they get upset, wind up shooting up whoever fired them in their job, etc., let alone when you get these people who had deep grievances and are prone towards violence, I think we have to be really very careful about where we go with it.
You’ve been involved in some work regarding the deradicalization of Islamists. What successes have we seen in efforts to “de-radicalize.” How does it work?
I was involved in an organization that does such work, and we did some major studies for the European Commission on deradicalization. What you do see, for example, when you look at Islamist deradicalization—and it’s interesting because at the time some our studies were done, the M15, the British intelligence agency, came out with a report and talked about the fact that religion can actually be a positive force and in fact it’s the political issues and grievances that have to be addressed. And what you see when you look at European youth who at some point get drawn into extremist situations, for many of them, in contrast with American youth, the integration of Muslims in America…. Statistics show that as religious comunities go, Muslims in America are second to Jews in terms of education. Muslims are better educated, and the percentage of Muslims who go to college and university are significantly more than, let’s say, non-Muslims.
But when you look at Europe it’s a completely different situation. The Muslims of Europe came as laborers, and they were welcomed as laborers, but most countries felt, “They’ll come, help us meet our labor force, and then go home.” Well, many of them did go home, but many of them became second- and third-generation, but the countries never made it a priority to bring them in as full citizens and devise ways to integrate a population. They were just seen as workers who lived in worker kind of neighborhoods. What that means in contrast to America, you have real issues. France has its problems. You have, in effect, ghettoes where you’ve got people who are highly unemployed, do not get a good education so they’re unemployed, and often don’t have the resources to, for example, use transportation to get to a city nearby, like Paris, where they could get a job, but also…they’re not going to have the education etc. to move up. And that creates some real issues.
About four years ago, there were a lot of young people outside of Paris burning cars and there was a lot of violence going on. They kept referring to them often as French Muslims. In fact, they were French Arabs, but a large percentage of them were not necessarily people who went to mosques … They tend to be generically identified. Instead of saying they’re Morroccans, they would say they’re Muslims, as if they’re motivations were necessarily religious, when often a significant percentage of Muslims both in Europe and this is true in the US as well, do not go to mosques, they don’t know very much about religion, and to conflate the two, instead of saying, “Okay, we’ve got this problem with absorbing foreigners, this foreign group and to approach it in terms of language and education,” there can be a tendency simply to make it a religious thing. That’s not to say that one doesn’t want to address religious extremism, but we tend to conflate those things.
John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.