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