Questioning the Role of Faith in Violence: An Interview with Dr. John Esposito

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I am currently writing a textbook on homeland security (due out from Elsevier next spring 2015).  Unique to this text are interviews with renowned experts in the fields of homeland security and national security.  Dr. John  Esposito is one such expert.  A scholar on Islam, Dr. Esposito's is the Director of the Prince Alwaleed Center for Muslim–Christian Understanding at Georgetown University and the author of over 45 books on Islam and related topics.  An excerpt of his interview appears below. Read the rest when it publishes spring 2015.


Dr. John Esposito is a professor of Religion and International Affairs at Georgetown University and the founding director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin-Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. Dr. Esposito is also the Editor-in-Chief of Oxford Islamic Studies Online and the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. He has published more than 45 books, the most recent entitled Islamophobia and the Challenge of Pluralism in the 21st Century. Dr. Esposito obtained a B.A. in Philosophy from St. Antony College and his Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from Temple University.

When asked if "violence is ever justified to espouse religious views," American Muslims, more than any other American religious group, answer in the negative, in other words by saying that violence is never justified to espouse religious views. Given the worldwide rise of Islamist terrorism, do you think their response is a by-product of some post 9/11 pressure on American Muslims to conform?

JE: No. It’s realistic. Empirically and historically, violence is part of the history of all religious traditions. Including the scriptures of religious traditions, even those traditions we usually say are not violent. For example, the tendency in the popular imagination has always been to say that those who practice Hinduism and Buddhism do not use violence under religious pretense. That is just not true, not even today if one looks at Hindu-Muslim and Hindu- Christian conflicts or the persecution of the Rohingya (Muslims) by Buddhists, including monks, in Burma.

Polls such as the one you cite above, also depend on the audience polled. If I look at the Palestinian and Israeli situation and the history of American Jews and their attitude towards Israel’s use of violence, is there an issue there? What if I look at the use of violence by the United States, which sees itself as a Christian country, and a country where a significant number of the population are conservative Christians. More recently under George W. Bush, Evangelicals and Baptists went against mainstream Christians who all condemned the invasion of Iraq as an unjust war. Where you get the disconnect is that generally all Christians, separate the idea that “my religious belief is not a religion that believes in violence,” from the reality that America, as a Christian nation, is a nation that often relies on military violence to achieve it's goals. The question is whether they believe in the legitimate or illegitimate use of force. In that case, when you jump to the Muslim situation, historically, many Muslims are honest to both the real history of their tradition and the Qur'an, which says legitimate violence is not abhorrent. The Qur'an does not say turn the other cheek. When the Christians answer these poll questions, they generally cite the New Testament and not the entirety of the Bible they embrace (both the Old and New Testament). Therefore, they look to Jesus and not at what many Christians came to believe in committing violence in the name of a just (e.g. legitimate) war. Therefore, the results of the poll also reflect the audience you interview, and how they have been conditioned and raised to think about the issue of religious violence.

I think there is conditioning, especially in American public discourse, that violence and Islam go hand in hand. And this conditioning, again, effects the results of these polls. For instance, when I first came to DC, there was an event on Capitol Hill about the Arab World, and one of the speakers stated, “Islamism or Islamist groups are fine as long as they are nonviolent.” This, of course, is unfair. Americans of all stripes believe in the legitimate use of violence. After the event, a number of the audience members questioned this statement: why do only Islamic groups have to be non-violent to be "ok"? Aren't there other religious groups that are equally as violent, yet we don't make these kinds of statements about them.

In summary, I think the Pew data is good, but you really have to say to yourself “who is the audience and how is the audience hearing this question?” Many Muslims only have the sense of the history of Islam, just as Jews and Christians have, for example, the sense of the conquest of Joshua and David. However, for many Muslims their modern experience is one of Muslim-majority countries dealing with invasion and violence. In the American context - these issues are glossed over - but they tend to affect Muslims differently, since many are on the receiving end of discrimination, hate speech and violence (Islamophobia) in America. On the other hand, not many Americans do enormous soul-searching about the nuclear bomb we dropped on Hiroshima near the end of World War II. In most instances, when this is brought up, Americans tend to just say that dropping the bomb ended the war early. In my opinion, not many would think deeply about what the cost of life was in ending the war. The poll is fine on it's surface, but dig deeper and I think it is troubling because Pew is just reading the data and not realizing you have to know who your audience is and how they are hearing this question.

I think this brings up the larger issue of how Islam is portrayed in the West, and particularly through the lens of popular media. Islam and Muslims are often negatively portrayed by the media or almost exclusively associated with terrorism. How does this affect Americans' perceptions of Muslims and American Muslims' own perceptions of themselves?

JE: Media Tenor, an organization based in Switzerland, monitors primarily European and American media. In a 2012 study examining 975,000 European and American media pieces that covered Islam and the Muslim world, the study found that in 2001, 2 percent of the coverage concerned Islamic extremism, and 0.1 percent provided any wider context about Muslim world. In 2011 the amount of coverage on Islamic extremism rose to 28 percent yet stories that shed light on the wider Muslim world and provided additional context remains at 0.1 percent. In a related study, Media Tenor concluded that for a variety of reasons 8 out of 10 stories about Muslims and Islam tend to include a discussion of extremism or include leads and introductions related to extremism.

The media is conditioned by the realities out there, so a number of stories begin with Islamic extremism as the lead, even though the wider story may be about some other topic related to the Muslim world. Since many folks only read the beginning of these stories, the image that comes across is one of the entire Muslim world as extremist. These stories do not provide the reader with a broader reasonable context within which to frame stories about Islam and the Muslim world.

I tried to delve into this issue further, by asking what do the majority of Muslims think about these issues? That is why we did this book with Gallup, to answer the question, "What A Billion Muslims Really Think?" In the book, we have tried to provide the right context for these kinds of questions - additional information that can help you find meaning in the data.

The research leading up to the book uncovered some interesting information: amazingly, Muslims are more optimistic than non-Muslims about their future because they are upwardly mobile. At the same time, more than 50 percent of Muslims polled say that within the last ten years, they or their friends have experienced negativity (on the basis of their religion). Obviously, if you are being discriminated against on the basis of your religion alone, you are unlikely to provide responses which are honest and truthful. Rather, you are more likely to stay quiet (out of fear) or more prone to speak out. This can distort responses to poll questions and these distortions can manifest in public discourse.

For example, let's take the common encounter of an American Muslim returning to the U.S. from abroad. Frequently, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents may stop this person at the airport and inappropriately ask this person why they were in a Muslim country, do they have any friends there, do they believe in jihad, have they ever handled a Kalashnikov? These kinds of questions are often followed by followup questions such as "Do you believe in violence or religious violence?" Given the context of the first question, the traveler's response to the second question may be very hesitant or defensive. Even assimilated establishment American Muslims may feel that they are "not American" since they are receiving treatment other Americans would not receive in the same situation. The CBP agent is then likely to interpret this defensive response as a form of deception, a potential threat and un-American. And all this context lies buried deep, it is unsaid in the interaction between the CBP agent and the American Muslim traveler.

A lot of what you are talking about focuses on the importance of language.

JE: Yes, language and contextualization.

Can you talk a little bit about that? For instance, one of the initiatives that the Department of Homeland Security works on is scrubbing intelligence products, such as intelligence reports, for inappropriate language. As an example, DHS avoids using the word "jihadist" or "jihadi" to describe violent terrorists who use Islam as an ideology. The rationale behind this is that use of these words legitimizes the terrorist actors who then use these words to recruit others. Another example is not using the word "radical" or "extremist" because it is perfectly acceptable to be a radical or extremist in the United States, but not to be a violent radical or violent extremist. Why do you think this nuanced and perhaps more accurate use of language has not caught on, especially with the general public?

JE: When popular culture and media accept certain terms, then they become commonly used. For example, let's take the term "fundamentalism". There was a big dispute when the term first came out. I was against using it and I would never use it in my writing. However, I ended up attending a panel entitled "Islamic Fundamentalism." When I was asked why the word "fundamentalism" was part of the title, I was told, it would draw in the audience - increase the number of people attending the conference. Once popular culture appropriates a term such as "fundamentalism," the term becomes legitimate.

There is a life cycle to this legitimacy as well. We have seen similar terms take on legitimacy through usage in the media, from "fundamentalism" through to the term "political Islam" and then "Islamist". The first person that used the term "Islamist", used it in a book I reviewed. In my review I suggested it not be published if the term "Islamist" was used in the book. They published it nonetheless. Eventually the term "Islamist" got so common it started to be used by the U.S. government.

Language is critical, but society often determines what it means and people change the meaning of words as time passes to suit their motivations. George Bush himself fell into this trap. After 9/11 he was very clear in noting that Muslim extremists and not the religion of Islam was behind 9/11 - but then started talking about "Islamofascism" when it became part of popular language. This should be corrected, but given the size of the government and political realities in Congress, it will not happen.

Language is modifiable if it is carefully contextualized and defined. You can use an imprecise word, but if you qualify it then it is fine. I used the word "militant" in a way that does not necessarily mean armed, but now most people understand it, so I will use it as a qualifier to indicate it meaning violent.

It is critical for DHS and other agencies to use language carefully. Jihad in mainstream Islam is a long established positive term when used in the Qu'ran and by Muslims to refer to the obligation of Muslims to strive or exert themselves in following God’s will, in leading a good and moral life. Terms like radical and jihad are capable of multiple meanings when they pass from mainstream usage to the language and discourse of militant extremists.

So let's take this a step further. Why do you think these words, such as "radical" and "militant" are applied overwhelmingly to describe the illicit acts of the Muslim minority in America and around the world? Especially when violent radicals and militants are from different backgrounds, etc.

JE: There are a couple of reasons. You start with the trauma of the Iranian Revolution. For most Americans, the initial discovery of Islam and Muslims looked like angry people protesting, destroying property, this massive outpouring of anger in Iran - people yelling, "Death to America!" For example, if I meet a new ethnic group I do not know, and one or two are heavy drinkers, then I am more likely to conclude that the entire ethnic group do it. Thus, many Americans "met" Muslims for the first time this way, as angry revolutionaries shouting anti-American slogans in Iran - and this helped to form their initial negative opinions of Muslims, or at least make them susceptible to seeing the religion of Islam and most Muslims through the lens of “militant Islam” and thus the negative stereotypes of Muslims. Again, you have to look at the context; there are so many different and diverse Muslim countries and a lot is happening.

To see what I mean about context, let's turn the question on it's head: Americans are largely seen throughout the world as the most militant of people, in terms of the number of wars we have engaged in the past and post 9/11, including the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan - yet many Americans don't see themselves in this context but rather believe that the U.S. has defended American interests as well as freedom and liberty abroad. When Americans see the "other," whether it be American Muslims or not, they absorb and are affected by the limited information on Islam and Muslims from the media (which focuses on headline events, on conflict for, as the saying goes, “If it bleeds, it leads,” by social media which is awash with anti-Muslim (Islamophobic) and anti-immigrant websites and some politicians like Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum or media commentators like O'Reilly or Sean Hannity). Consider the issues raised about whether President Obama is a Muslim, the extent to which Republican presidential candidates in 2008 and 2012, and Congressional candidates in 2010 often raised the issue of the religion of Islam or questioned the loyalty of Muslims, the 29 states that have attempted to pass anti-Shariah laws and major polls by Gallup and Pew that on the one hand demonstrate the significant negative attitudes of many Americans towards Islam and Muslims (not just militants) on the one hand and the educational, economic and political mainstreaming of majorities of American Muslims on the other.