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Islam: Religion of Peace or Font of Terror?

Muslim men pray in Franklin McPherson Square in Washington DC

Matthew Bradley

John Burger - published on 01/21/15

A conversation with John Esposito of the Georgetown Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding

The recent murders of civilians in Paris, Nigeria, Iraq, Pakistan and other places around the world by those claiming to defend the Islamlic religion have, for many people, raised once again the question of whether Islam itself is to blame for such violence or whether the faith has been hijacked by extremists.

John L. Esposito is Founding Director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. He has served as consultant to the U.S. Department of State, and as a member of the E. C. European Network of Experts on De-Radicalisation. Esposito is Editor-in-Chief of Oxford Islamic Studies Online and Series Editor of The Oxford Library of Islamic Studies. His more than 45 books and monographs include: Islamophobia and the Challenge of Pluralism in the 21st Century, The Future of Islam, Who Speaks for Islam?, Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?, Modernizing Islam (with F. Burgat).

He spoke with Aleteia in the wake of the Jan. 7 attack on the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris and Boko Haram’s destruction of a village in Nigeria, killing possibly 2000 civilians.

Islam is having a hard time living up to the moniker some have given it: a “religion of peace. “

I don’t know about that…. We tend not to say things like, “Widespread pedophilia over a 10-year period, Catholicism is not living up to…” But anyway, in terms of the equation of Islam with violence, in terms of those who would say there are Muslim extremists…. When it comes to Jews and Christians, we don’t say “Christianity does this,” or “‘Judaism does this,” we say, “Jewish extremists;” we distinguish from everybody else…I think mainstream Muslims continue to have a problem with the equation of not only their faith but themselves [with violence], and they are brush-stroked by these actions, yes, by ISIS, Boko Haram, and now the Paris attacks.

Some experts and commentators charge that there is something innate to Islam that leads to this violence, What would you say to that?

It’s interesting. If you actually look at the Quran and compare it to the Bible, the Bible wins hands down when it comes to violence and the advocating of violence, doesn’t it. The Old Testatment is the only sacred book, for example, that calls for genocide, if you look at the number of passages….

From the Iranian Revolution to bin Laden to, let’s say, ISIS, skipping over a lot of things, you’ve got a series of examples of violence and terrorism, but when you unpack it, depending on what you’re looking at, certainly, for example, when you look at a number of Arab and Muslim countries where you’ve had the rise of terrorists, terrorist cells, for example, Egypt, and what’s going on, for example, today in Iraq, the primary drivers are political, not religious. The experts who study this, for example, the major experts on suicide bombing, on terrorism,… generally speaking, the overwhelming data, if you look at Robert Tate’s work and others, would say, what you have are political drivers that then wind up that is the perception or experience, for example, of occupation, invasion, etc., then, in light of that, people use religion to legitimate their acts of terrorism. Bin Laden is a classic case. If you look at his CNN interview, his early interviews, the whole first part appeals to grievances from Palestine, you name it, that are broad-based, in order to recruit people, and then, from that, we then spin off to legitimate what they’re doing in the name of religion, and that is a problem, and the magnitude of the incidents is a major issue.

What can you say about Boko Haram, who is responsible for the attack in Baga, Nigeria, this month, which by some estimates left 2000 innocent people dead?

Boko Haram has a track record. If you look at their previous actions, they’ve probably killed more than 2000 even before that. It is denounced by the government of Nigeria. It’s denounced by major Christian and Muslim leaders. I was invited  by the senior Catholic cardinal and the senior Muslim religious leader, the Sultan of Sokoto, and others to speak at a conference they had, and I worked on it. They basically denounced what is in fact this terrorist group. What they do goes directly against the Quran and Islamic law. Do they say they are doing it in the name of religion? Yes. But lots of people have done stuff in the name of religion, from the Inquisition to abortion clinic bombers, and that doesn’t mean that is in fact what their faith teaches. If you talk about their scriptures, if you talk about the question of the use of violence, according to Islamic law, if you’re talking about fighting, the fight has to be proportional; it has to be when you are under attack. You do not kill civilians. And Boko Haram is killing civilians. They violate that in spades, the way they treat women, the way they treat children, etc.

But I don’t think that’s Islam; I think that’s Boko Haram. Now, one has to look at what are the primary drivers there. For example, you just had a trial in Britain, with two young Muslims—I think they were British too—who were going, I think it was to Syria. In the trial, what emerged was that as they were preparing to go they went online and they ordered two books from Amazon. com. The two books were the Quran for Dummies and Islam for Dummies. Yeah, they were born Muslim, but they weren’t particularly religious. They just didn’t know a lot about it, and here they were going off to join a group and they were going to have to deal with Muslim language, etc. So their primary drivers were not religious.

A major study done by Pew and Gallup provides some hard data on this. But it is an issue, and it’s a cancer, and it is something the Muslims have to address, and although media don’t cover it a lot, there have been global denunciations of Paris and other situations. Not to say that there aren’t Muslims over the years who look the other way. But it’s also the case that the international community has to be far more engaged in what is happening. So if you look at Iraq, for example, where you have this sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shia, and where that also spills off: some of the miliitias will wind up attacking Christians and driving Christians out, I mean, those drivers are very political and one needs to look at why. What role did not only the American invasion play, what role did a Maliki government that we supported play? And then realize that the drivers that become political that has to do with issues of power, economic power, that religion then gets brought into the mix. And the extent of it, for the average lay man who’s not following it, it’s understandable.

Mediatenor, a major media outfit based in Switzerland, have hard data that demonstrates in terms of the public and policy makers being able to understand what’s going on in the Muslim world today.… The overwhelming preponderance of coverage tends to emphasize Muslim extremists, and a very small amount of coverage deals with the mainstream faith. … They’ve done studies over a 10-year period of European and American press—975,000 pieces of media coverage. And they found a disparity, for example, recently, that 28% of the coverage of the media is on extremism, and 0.1% is on what the mainstream is doing. So it’s understandable to me why the average American and the average policy maker doesn’t just say, “Oh, we’ve got this problem and we have to eradicate it,” but rather listens to what I call preachers of hate, who wind up saying “Oh no, no, no, that’s not the issue. It’s the religion itself. If someone is a devout Muslim, it means he’s more prone to become violent or become a terrorist.”

But if the problem is not coming from the religion itself, why did Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi call for a reform of Islam?

That’s got to be the most laughable speech I’ve ever heard—not because reform isn’t important; you’ve got a guy who’s a butcher. The fact is…Sisi, in the little time he’s been in, has engaged in more violence, killing and imprisoning people than anyone who came before. What you’ve got is…and he’s been criticized for this not only by international human rights organizations but by the New York Times, the Washington Post, who by the way have kind of taken a shot at our Secretary of State, and said “Look, Sisi is moving against any and all opposition. You’ve got something like possibly 40,000 people in prison, and thousands were killed—most of them innocent civilians—and what they’re saying is you have the Secretary of State saying Egypt is on its way to democracy.

So what Sisi did last week is he’s playing all the cards. Sometimes when people look to see what happens in the Arab world they’ll often say, “The main thing is it’s like between religiously-oriented and the securlarists, you know, there’s a tension. That’s true. But the real manipulation of religion often in many countries, but certainly in the Arab world, is done by governments, you know, like Anwar Sadat, and now Sisi, is what they want to do is, he wants to present himself as the critic of terrorism, but the problem is Sisi decides who is the terrorist and who isn’t.

Yes, there is a need [for reform]. In The Future of Islam, and other stuff I’ve written, I have a whole section on the importance of reform, who are the reformers, what are they doing, how governments… and there’s no doubt about the fact that there’s a process of reform that Muslims are involved in, but…the difficulty getting the reform movement in Islam going was that you had Muslim countries or Arab countries, most of which were under colonial rule, so that’s not an environment where it’s going to happen. Then they get independence, and the majority of those countries had been under authoriarian regimes. You’re not going to get reform under an authoritarian regime because the government controls both education and it also controls the religious establishment.

Now what you do see is reform movements in recent decades, but they’re like the vanguard. For those of us who are old enough to remember Vatican II and before, most of the major theologians in Vatican II or many of them were silenced before. So Karl Rahner and his brother Hugo, or Teilhard de Chardin never made it to Vatican II, but he was actually exiled; his works weren’t allowed to be published until after he died. So we had this reformist movement pre-Vatican II, which Vatican officials, many of them were kind of ignoring it, saying they don’t matter, we can control them. It took a couple of decades to create the environment, and then it took John XXIII to open things up.

Now in the Muslim world, reformers are often caught between a rock and a hard place. They’ve got authoritarian regimes on one side who tend to control religion, so you’ve got to be careful about what you say; on the other hand you have extremist organizations in some of the countries that will give them a problem, but they also have very conservative clergy that will say when they go to reform—and here I’m not talking specifically about violence but about major reform, let’s say, how one reads scripture, how one understands and reinterprets history.

So there has been and there are reformers there, but the process of reform has been very strongly controlled, as it is today, for example, with Sisi. Sisi has appointed all the major religious leaders, so when you see a meeting being held, you know Sisi is controling it. This is why democratization of the Muslim world becomes critical. Societies are not going to develop significantly in terms of generations of critical thinkers who can speak out publicly and not worry about being imprisoned, persecuted and/or killed … Without the kind of reform you’re going to have major problems. The reformer in Saudi Arabia who was just a couple of weeks ago found guilty and given 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes. Just the other day he was given the first 50. This is someone who was calling for and writing about reform on social media. It’s a dismal situation.
But where things are different is in the United States, if you look at the American Muslim community. There the data show that the vast majority of American Muslims are economically, culturally and politically integrated.

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 MI5, 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.

IslamIslamist MilitantsTerrorism
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