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