The Future of Islam
by John L. Esposito
Oxford, 220 pages, $24.95
In the forward to John Esposito’s latest book, The Future of Islam, Karen Armstrong insists that Esposito—the founder and longtime director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (now the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center) at Georgetown University—has again made a “major contribution” to the study of Islam. For his part, Esposito describes The Future of Islam as “the culmination of my work on Islam and Muslim politics.”
But an extraordinarily high percentage of this 220-page book is made up of quotations or citations of a Gallup Poll that already formed the basis of Esposito’s 2005 work, Can You Hear Me Now: What a Billion Muslims Are Trying to Tell Us. A cynical reviewer might note this (along with Esposito’s expression of gratitude to six different research assistants) and wonder if The Future of Islam could really be the culmination of Esposito’s large body of work. Anyway, The Future of Islam often seems concerned less with Islam than with the bigotry and ignorance of Westerners.
The first chapter thereof is entitled “The Many Faces of Islam and Muslims” but is almost entirely occupied with a series of quotations meant to illustrate the anti-Islamic prejudices of right-wing Americans. Esposito quotes John Hagee saying, “Jihad has come to America.” He cites Ann Coulter (on September 13, 2001) remarking, “We should invade their countries [and] kill their leaders.” He refers to Will Cummins speaking of “the black heart of Islam,” to Michael Savage on forcibly converting Muslims to Christianity, and to Ron Parsley on Islam as an “anti-Christ religion.” In contrast he notes how Colin Powell “spoke forcefully” against the persistent suspicion that Barack Obama is a Muslim. (“But the really right answer is, what if he is?”)
Esposito also targets those Americans who believe that Muslims have not condemned the attacks of 9/11. Quoting Gallup, he notes that 91 percent of Muslims interviewed found the attacks to be morally unjustified. But, curiously, he also points out that many Muslims do not believe that Muslims were behind the attacks: “The level of disbelief among Muslims was and is astonishing,” he writes. Apparently, many Muslims condemn the attacks with the conviction that Muslims had nothing to do with them.
Esposito does not dwell on this. In the second chapter, after casually mentioning (apparently no proof is necessary) that “Bush’s war on terror” has made the world less safe, he presents a sketch of Islam and politics since World War II. Here Esposito is at his most articulate. He notes, among other things, that members of terrorist organizations are not always poor, oppressed, and gullible but are often “bright, educated, [and] motivated.” By the end of the second chapter, however, Esposito returns to a critique of American foreign policy. He attacks here (as he will again in the conclusion) American support of authoritarian Muslim regimes, but he doesn’t praise the Bush administration’s overthrow of two such regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. He explains his position this way: “Outside of Iraq, majorities in most of the countries surveyed agreed that the American Iraq initiative has done more harm than good.” And what would Iraqis know about this, anyway?
The third chapter, “Islam Needs a Reformation,” offers an overview of contemporary Muslim religious leaders. The chapter opens with a quotation from the Indian intellectual Mohammad Iqbal calling for a Muslim Luther and follows with a confusing hodgepodge of quotations from various Muslim figures—Arabs, Americans, Brits, and Indonesians—all joined together by proximity but rarely by logic. If the title of the chapter seems to be a bold challenge to Islam for reform in some liberal sense, no such challenge is found in the chapter itself.
In fact, Esposito explains that Muslim reformers, such as the founder of the Wahhabi movement, might fight against liberalism. Other reformers do not actually reform anything at all but fight against Western stereotypes of Islam. While some, such as Nurcholish Madjid of Indonesia, challenge Islamic tradition, others, such as Yusuf Qaradawi of Qatar (who defends Palestinian suicide bombing and the Islamist insurgency in Iraq), support it. Still others, such as Tariq Ramadan, do both. Some Muslim women, such as the American Amina Wudud, challenge Islamic legal norms by leading communal prayer; others, such as the Canadian Farhat Hashmi, support those norms by veiling body and face. In other words, this chapter is a collection of anecdotes with little analysis, argument, or coherence. At least it still has a place for polemic, as Esposito condemns the “draconian domestic security policies” in America that are “hostile to freedom.” Does he mean the same draconian policies that were so hostile to Fort Hood gunman Nidal Hasan’s freedom?
The fourth and final chapter, “America and the Muslim World,” is meant to show that there is hope for America, represented above all by President Obama. The chapter opens with a quotation from Obama’s inaugural address in which the president speaks of a “new way forward” with the Muslim world. Esposito proceeds to proclaim that Obama offers change from “the Bush administration’s failed policies” at a time when “most Muslims want us to stop making the world an even more dangerous place,” (So the others want us to keep making it more dangerous?) Elsewhere Esposito notes that 7 percent of Muslims believe that September 11 was completely justified and adds his hope that this group no longer “be alienated and marginalized.” Such notes suggest that Esposito would have American foreign policy fundamentally shaped by the concerns of Muslims as captured in his Gallup poll. He hints again at this in his conclusion, where he reminds his readers that Muslims think of the West in terms of its policies.
One thing is clear from Esposito’s analysis: Most of the problems in the world today are connected to the American “preachers of hate”—those Evangelicals such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Franklin Graham who had a wicked alliance with the Bush administration. But, happily, Esposito offers the reader hope by closing the chapter as it began, with a quotation from President Obama—this time from his Cairo address—on the potential for a new relationship between America and the Muslim world.
In the conclusion of The Future of Islam, Esposito proposes a new relationship between religions, asking the reader to think in terms of a Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. But it is not at all clear that he has thought this proposal out theologically. When Arthur Cohen wrote The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition, he meant to draw attention to the fundamental antagonism of the traditional Christian view of Judaism. But at least the idea of a Judeo-Christian tradition was thought up by Christians who hoped to mitigate that antagonism by acknowledging the contribution of Jews and Judaism to Western culture. Now according to the traditional Islamic view, Moses and Jesus were Muslims; Judaism and Christianity are falsifications of Islamic teaching. Islam is meant to correct and, ideally, replace Judaism and Christianity. It is thus rather awkward (to say the least) for a Christian to call for a Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. For a Muslim to propose such a thing, of course, would be quite different.
But then Esposito is not inclined to think theologically. Instead, in The Future of Islam his thoughts are focused on the political errors of George W. Bush and the social prejudices of Americans. Esposito has an admirable goal in all of this: He believes that by convincing Western politicians to act in light of Muslim concerns, by dispelling negative images of Muslims in the American mind, and by condemning bigots he ultimately will contribute to an improved relation between Islam and the West. But what is the effect of all of this on Muslims? How do Esposito’s arguments (which are known well enough in the Islamic world) find their way into Friday sermons in mosques in Cairo or Lahore? Could his arguments actually contribute to the sense of victimization that fuels radicalization or to the conspiracy theories that involve Zionists and Crusaders?
What if, instead of insisting that the United States had not “pumped in massive economic and educational aid” to Afghanistan and Iraq, Esposito chose to concede that there was a significant program of economic and educational aid to those two countries—a policy that Obama’s campaign ads attacked, with the intention of showing Bush’s neglect of domestic issues?
What if Esposito saved some space for those many Americans who are good-hearted and even (will wonders never cease) good friends and neighbors to Muslim immigrants? He need not exaggerate such things; a work that reads like American propaganda would do little to improve relations between Islam and the West. But a work of balance, clarity, and sobriety might have done just that.
GABRIEL SAID REYNOLDS is the Tisch Family Associate Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.