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Stanford Report, November 19, 2003

A hard look at the future of Islam: Overflow crowd attends inaugural lecture

Muslims will need to address the growing extremist groups within their ranks, scholar says


Muslims must decide how to and who will interpret their faith in a post-Sept. 11 world, said John Esposito, a scholar of Islam at Georgetown University.

Georgetown University Professor John Esposito gave the inaugural lecture Monday for the newly established Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies. “It’s not that Islam is incompatible [with democracy, pluralism and human rights]; it’s that many Muslim regimes are, but we don’t draw that distinction,” Esposito said. Photo: L.A. Cicero

"Part of the challenge Muslims face in the 21st century is to develop a theology of reform and address the growing extremism that exists in some Muslim societies," the university professor of religion and international affairs said Monday. "This means the choice between a theology of reform or a theology of hate."

Esposito, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown, attracted an overflow crowd in Tresidder Union's Oak Room to hear him discuss the struggle for the soul of the world's second largest religion in a lecture titled "The Future of Islam."

The talk inaugurated the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies, a non-degree-granting program that will offer students increased opportunities to study Islam, expand language instruction and library acquisitions, and sponsor public lectures.

The new program was created in response to a surge of campus and community interest in the Muslim world following the terrorist attacks of 2001 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Sohaib Abbasi, a former Oracle Corp. executive, and his wife, Sara, endowed the program in the School of Humanities and Sciences with a $2.5 million gift matched by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. In addition, a $2 million gift from alumna Lysbeth Warren, also matched by the foundation, will endow a new professorship in Islamic studies in the Department of Religious Studies. Efforts to fill the position are under way.

In the last 30 years, Islam has gone from an invisible to a visible reality in this country, Esposito said. In addition to its global religious status, it is the second or third largest faith in the United States.

Despite this, for many Americans "engaging the 1.3 billion Muslims in the world has not been an engagement with [them] but with headline events -- with the explosive actions of extremists and terrorists," Esposito said. "That has meant that Islam has been seen through the Iranian revolution, hijackings, the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and 9/11."

As a result, he said, Americans and Europeans tend to hold a monolithic view of Islam rather than understand its broad diversity as a religion found in 56 countries in the Muslim world alone. And because so many Muslim countries have authoritarian regimes controlling weak civil societies, outsiders ask if Islam is incompatible with democracy, pluralism and human rights.

"The fact is, it's not that Islam is incompatible, it's that many Muslim regimes are, but we don't draw that distinction," Esposito said.

Most modern Muslim nation-states were formed only after World War II, Esposito explained. These countries have artificially drawn boundaries and their leaders are kings -- military and ex-military -- who rely on armed might, not popularity, to stay in power.

Furthermore, while post-Cold War U.S. administrations promoted democracy in many parts of the world, such efforts were not extended to the Middle East. "It didn't seem to be in our interest with regards to access to oil and influence," Esposito said. "Regrettably, so many of those regimes have been, and continue to be, supported by Western powers. It tells you why anti-Americanism is so widespread. [Muslims] see America as arrogant, unilateral."

According to Esposito, Muslims are struggling with a period of history in which they are trying to define what it means to be a Muslim in modern society. "They won the wars of independence, but it's only in the last few years that they are fighting the culture wars -- the wars of identity."

As a result, he said, it is important to distinguish between extremist movements, which believe the state is the enemy that must be overthrown, and mainstream movements, which may oppose American foreign policy but principally oppose their own governments and want to change the system from within.

"Unless we realize that distinction when we look at political Islam, we're not going to understand what's going on in the Muslim world for the next 20 to 30 years," Esposito said. "There is no country in the Muslim world that's not going to have religion in some way visible in state and society. Even authoritarian regimes know that's the reality. We, as American citizens, have to be aware of that."

Esposito concluded that Americans also must support a broader notion of tolerance and pluralism in our own society. "The old notion of tolerance was, 'I permit you to exist. I may work with you, but I don't socialize with you and I probably look down on you, but I don't kill you,'" he said.

"We have to understand that tolerance today has to be based on mutual understanding and respect. Unless we [take up] that double challenge to Muslims and non-Muslims, it makes for a bleak future."