Islam and the West: Deconstructing Monolithic Perceptions

The following interview with Prof. Esposito would be of interest to many, both Muslims and non-Muslims. Dr. Esposito is already known to a wide audience for his unconventional views on Islam and the Muslim world, which he has expounded in numerous books,

Islam and the West: Deconstructing Monolithic Perceptions

Interview: Ibrahim Kalin

The following interview with Prof. Esposito would be of interest to many, both Muslims and non-Muslims. Dr. Esposito is already known to a wide audience for his unconventional views on Islam and the Muslim world, which he has expounded in numerous books, articles and lectures throughout his career. As a teacher, writer, lecturer as well as the director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, he has been a key figure in bridging the gap between the image and reality of Islam, dispelling the centuries-old misgivings about Muslims, and calling for a radical questioning of the prevalent perceptions of the Islamic world in Europe and the States. His work, however, has not been confined only to a veritable presentation of Islam and Muslims to the Western audience. He has also taken upon himself the task of deconstructing monolithic perceptions of the West in the Islamic world.

The first part of Dr. Esposito's work, in so far as the Islamic world is concerned, is related to the image of Islam and Muslims in the West. He categorically rejects the construal of Islam as the enemy of Western civilization, the 'other' of the West, and of Muslims as a monolithic Third-world society prone to all kinds of extremism. An important distinction comes to the fore in Esposito's analyses, and this is the distinction between what he calls 'Islam as a threat' and 'Islam as a challenge'. The antagonist language of 'threat', produced and perpetuated by a very complex network of individuals, institutions and policy makers, about which Esposito has interesting things to say, portrays Islam and the Muslim world as a sub-title of the Middle East conflict, reducing the extremely rich and diverse tapestry of the Islamic world to a single yet highly influential category of Orientalism. Going against the grain, Esposito and a host of scholars which follow his path of thinking about things Islamic presents Islam as a challenge to the West. Islam, Esposito argues, is a challenge because it is the only religion in the world that has the potentiality of coming to terms with the foundations of modern capitalist society in which we live. For him, what came to be dubbed as 'political Islam' and its alleged failure is only one of the reflections of the religious and civilizational vitality of the Islamic world. In this sense, the Islamic world is in a vibrant process of recovering its own identity and intellectual heritage -- a process the term 'political Islam' falls short of accounting for. Islam is also a challenge for the West for it is the fastest growing religion in many parts of the world, Europe and the States representing a special case. This leads Esposito and his colleagues to the conclusion that Islam can no longer be seen as a distant phenomenon, as something out there, and alien to the cultural fabric of the West. On the contrary, the presence of Islam and Muslims in the West is now becoming an undeniable fact, and it is the solemn duty of the West to develop the proper means of grasping this reality.

This assigns to the Muslim minorities living in the West a colossal task, namely the task of creating their own life-world within the horizon of Western civilization without being assimilated by it. In other words, this is the task of integration without assimilation. As Esposito insists in the following interview, the greatest challenge facing the Muslims of Europe and America is to preserve and further articulate their Islamic identity without being marginalized and acculturated by the dominant ethos of modern Western culture. Islamic civilization is certainly not alien to this challenge as the experience of 'convivencia' was one of its historic achievements in the great civilization of al-Andalus. It goes without saying that the Islamic world has a lot to learn from its past in order to prepare itself for this daunting task. A possible yet highly crucial outcome of this process is the impact that the Muslims living in the West will have on the relation between Islam and the West. As the presence of Islam and Muslims becomes more and more palpable in the religious, cultural and political matrix of Western societies, the current parameters of the relation of Europe and America to Islam are bound to undergo a substantial change.


The second part of Esposito's work, which is one of the themes highlighted in the following interview, is concerned with the image of the West in the Islamic world. Esposito justifiably insists that the Islamic perceptions of the West as a civilization and political power are as much monolithic and simplistic as its Western counterpart for a variety of reasons into which we cannot go here. Put simply, to conceive the West as a homogeneous block with an essence around which everything Western can exhaustively be explained is no less misleading than the depiction of Islam and Muslims as fundamentalists, extremists, third world phenomena, underdeveloped nations, etc. In fact, there is an Orientalist tendency in reverse in the Islamic world insofar as the analysis of the West is concerned, and this is perhaps best illustrated in Hasan Hanafi's call for the creation of an 'Occidentalism' for the study of the West, which he proposes in his Muqaddimah ila ilm al-istighrab. This attitude, which simply projects the Orientalist conceptions and categories about Islam into the West in an inverted way, not only fails to see the polycentric structure of the Western world but also threatens the very possibility of a veritable understanding of it, which is the sine qua non of mutual understanding and viable dialogue between the Islamic and Western civilizations. Esposito rejects both categories, and calls for the overcoming of the epistemology of 'othering', which at present determines the intellectual matrixes of the concepts of Islam and the West.

For one thing, Dr. Esposito himself is a living example of the fact that there is more to the Western perceptions of Islam than CNN or the Satanic Verses. As the ongoing battle between the two constructions of Islam as the enemy and the other on the one hand, and as the neighbor and sister civilization on the other, gains clarity, the importance of the work of Dr. Esposito and his likes will become even more visible to and appreciated by Westerners as well as Muslims. To put it mildly, this would a momentous event in the history of the relation between Islam and the West because it is through such moments of 'convivencia' that we would achieve the level of seriousness, honesty and sophistication direly needed by both civilizations.


Ibrahim Kalin: How do you see the relation between Islam and the West today? 

John Esposito: Although we live in very different times, in some ways it reflects a good deal of the past. With the rise and spread of Islam, Islam was seen as a challenge and as a threat by the West, both theologically and politically. Even though there were great points of cooperation in Andalusia and in terms of the development of Islamic civilization there was borrowing back and forth. There was a very strong sense, though, of competitiveness, and it has been reflected historically down through the  Crusades and European colonialism. If you look at recent decades, we see a similar sense of that.

The Iranian revolution for many came to epitomize the threat of revolutionary Islam. That mentality is sometimes reinforced not only by events in the Muslim world but also by many governments in the Muslim world, who find an easy way to explain away their opposition. But from a Western perspective, the Iranian revolution, the hostage crisis in Lebanon, last year the bombing of two American embassies in Africa, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and so on reinforce the sense of potential challenge. I think we are going to continue to see that in some ways because of the events that are taking place now in South Asia and in Central Asia. You have movements of both liberation against governments that will portray them as terrorists, and also extremist groups that are flourishing in places like Pakistan and that are going to have an influence in the region. 

As somebody who has studied this for a long time, on the one hand I think, the West has understood Islam much better. There has been a proliferation of information. Islam is taught in most of our universities and colleges. There are books in the media, and that has all been a big plus. But I think the political realities often will continue to lead to a good deal of tension and I think on the Muslim side that would also be the case. It won't just be the extremists, the radicals that will have a problem with the West. But in fact there are many sane forces and sane people in the Muslim world who look at Western policies, for instance, the promotion of democracy, and see it as very selective and as having a double-standard. Chechnya and other events will reinforce for many in the Muslim world a negative attitude towards the West.

Kalin: You distinguish between the Western perception of Islam as a threat and as a challenge. What do you mean by this?

Esposito: It is not so much Islam as Muslim groups that are conceived as a threat. The Muslim groups that appeal to Islam and are extreme clearly constitute a threat. They constitute more of a threat to their own societies than they do the West. That is an irony. But they are clearly a threat. The groups and leaders like Osama bin Laden, for example, that call for attacks on American and Western installations and interests for the overthrow of governments. They are a threat. But more broadly Islam is a challenge in the sense that Islam itself is a challenge to the West, a) understanding what Islam is all about, understanding Muslim politics better, b)Islam is a challenge because Islam is the fastest growing religion in many parts of the world, and certainly in Europe and America. So it is a challenge to those in Europe and America to not only understand Islam but to accept the fact that Islam is part and parcel of Europe and America, and to understand that we just should not talk about a Judeo-Christian tradition but a Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition.

The way I put it bluntly is to say that we realize that Muslims are us, not them; and when you are talking about Islam and Muslims you are talking about neighbors, not foreigners. I think that's challenge. Because for many this is a very slow realization. Then there is a reverse challenge. If many of my friends in the Muslim world talk about the dangers of Orientalism or neo-orientalism, there is the danger of occidentalism. Many people in the Muslim world operate from a whole set of stereo-types which are just as ill-informed and monolithic as they see others looking at them. One of the challenges in the 21st century is mutual understanding that leads to a healthy sense of pluralism and tolerance. I think those are really key challenges.

Kalin: This appeal for mutual understanding is faced with the following objection: Islam was in retreat in the last two three centuries. Now Islam is rising again as a global force and civilization. And the West, realizing this, began talking about dialogue, mutual understanding, etc. Many people in the Islamic world feel that the West, seeing the direction the game is heading towards, wants to call the game off before the Islamic world had a chance to score its goal.

Esposito: Frankly, you can't have it both ways. I have been in the field for almost 30 years now and spent a good deal of time in the Muslim world, and the feeling has been that the West does not understand, etc. Now, when they see western understanding, then immediately one gets the paranoid response. I understand if somebody says: Look, there is some in the West who talk about understanding the way in which security forces talk about understanding, that is, gathering intelligence. That is always a realistic possibility. For example, some note that a former prime minister of England, Gladstone, had a Qur'an by his bedside, not to read the Qur'an for religious edification but to understand the enemy better. But if you look today at the information and materials produced in the West on the Muslim world, they no longer simply talk about Islam and Muslims as enemies or other. The situation is far more diverse and complex.

There is a whole new way, whole new wave of scholars, experts and even policy makers who, for a variety of reasons, academic, religious, political, believe that there has to be more of a learning to live together. When we founded the center here, Anwar Ibrahim gave a speech and talked about 'conviviencia' as it has existed in Andalusia, learning to live together. This does not mean that we have to be like each other. I think Muslims have to distinguish between this kind of genuine conviviencia and others. Otherwise, I really do see a kind of militant Muslim position out there, which basically says: when we are down, we are down because of the West and we should be accepted as equals. But secretly, when it has a chance to be on top and suddenly thinks that it may be the next superpower, it is willing to be the same oppressive force that it sees the West as being. It is willing to be a neo-colonial power or betrays that kind of neo-colonial mentality. What that does is reinforce the message of those in the West who say: "look, the fact is that you can never trust Islam and Muslims because in fact what they really want to do is gain the position where they can grab power and rule." This is also exactly what many Muslims of course would say about the West or about Christians.

Mutual understanding means that we understand each other so that we can continue to disagree but we can develop a certain level of trust. Otherwise, this mentality is saying: "look, the name of the game is about winning." Well, then the other will say, "if that is really how you feel about it, then why should I be concerned about mutual understanding and interested in sharing power? If the whole game is that if you can, you are really going to try to win, then why should I not continue to try to win?" That is where I think we have to be very careful.

Kalin: As far as the Western perception of Islam and Muslims is concerned, there seem to be two main broad camps, of which you represent one.

Esposito: There are clearly two broad camps. In fact, you can even put names to it.

Kalin: If you don't mind!

Esposito: The other camp is represented by people like Bernard Lewis, Martin Kramer, the director of Dayan Center in Tel-Aviv University, Daniel Pipes, Robert Satlof of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. If you look at their writings from my point of view, they represent another camp both in terms of what they say and what they identify in their own writings. Certainly Kramer and Pipes identify the other school which they see as a school that I represent and some of my colleagues here in Georgetown and other places in the US. The other side basically tends to distinguish between what at times it calls Islam and fundamentalism. And then fundamentalism becomes some sort of monolith. They don't take Islamic groups and Islamic activist groups and distinguish, as we do,   between those that participate within the system and those that are violent extremists that simply wish to topple the system. But you in fact say that Islamic groups are all the same and all the activists are radical fundamentalists. Even when Islamic activists and groups participate within the system they charge that this is only a strategy to gain and then seize power; that in fact they are wolves in sheeps clothing They make no distinction between avowedly violent extremists and terrorists and those Islamists that live and participate in mainstream politics and society. In fact, this point of view mimics, it seems to me, the line of some authoritarian rulers in the Muslim world and some Western governments who seek to legitimate repression and the violation of human rights. It becomes a convenient way of portraying the other as the enemy.

The school of thought that I represent says that you have to distinguish between individuals and groups that are Islamically oriented and committed but that want to work within the system. They want to see their societies and their governments become more Islamically oriented. These are people who are basically involved in a struggle to redefine the identity of their countries and their societies. You have to distinguish them from violent extremists who are simply concerned with imposing their way.  These violent extremists not only are people who will use violence against governments that they consider illegitimate, but also will use violence against fellow citizens whether they are Muslim or not. They will use against other Muslims who pray five times a day but don't buy their brand of Islam. So I make that distinction between the two. And I say it is the minority that are the violent extremists. The majority of Islamic activists are not and should be permitted to function like any other citizen within their political systems.

Kalin: You said that Islam is the fastest growing religion in many parts of the world, especially in America. There is now a rapidly growing Muslim community in the US. What are the main challenges they face and opportunities they have?

Esposito: I think in the 21st century it is a lot different than years ago. I speak often to large Muslim gatherings about what Muslims need to do. In the past, I talked about the most basic notions of organizing, being visible, etc. I think many of those challenges are still there. But Muslims have come a long way. We now have Muslim organizations, American Muslim Council, CAIR, AMPAC, a variety of Muslim organizations that are actively concerned about the image of Islam and Muslims and also the political Muslim interest, domestically and internationally. But thereis still a challenge to continue to grow those organizations, their influence, and for Muslims to support those organizations. I find many of my Muslim friends long on talk and short in opening their wallets. Americans have a phrase: put your money where your mouth is. For many of my Muslim friends, they, like a lot of non-Muslim friends as well, like to talk about issues they have a burning concern about but it is very difficult for them when it comes to their writing a check. This is true for support for political action groups as well as the building and support of mosques and Islamic centers.

There are many Muslims of course who are very generous in building these centers. Others that I know, because I do a lot of these fund-raisings myself, are very content to write relatively small checks. So part of the challenge for the Muslims in 21st century is building and supporting the infrastructure for the Muslim community, namely the schools, the centers, the advocacy groups, the public affairs groups. 

A major part of the challenge is the next generation, what kind of guidance, what kind of attitudes and policies there would be so that the next generation can continue to become Muslim Americans. Islam is defined in Malaysia, in Egypt or in Turkey, in similar but also different ways. There is one Islam but it has different cultural expressions throughout the world. This kind of vision and approach has to be realized in America. We can't have, if you will, an Islam in America that simply has an Egyptian face, a Turkish face. Increasingly as we get to second, third, fourth generations, all mosques have to reflect that. Unless that is done, the next generation will be lost.

Kalin: There is a common concern here: this process you are describing will lead the Muslims to Americanization and they will lose their identity.

Esposito: This is the challenge of all minority groups. It is the challenge that, for example, the American Jews faced when they came here within a broader Christian dominated society. It is the challenge that Roman-Catholic Italians that I come from faced. When my family came here, they came to a society that was dominated by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. The way in which the Roman-Catholics as a minority acted was that they started their own schools. If Catholics went to non-Catholic universities and schools, they made sure that they had chaplains there, and programs, etc. So it is challenge: how do you fit into the broader society while preserving your basic faith and identity. That is a difficult challenge. But it is a challenge that has to be faced. Not to face it means we live in a ghetto. Not to face it means that you remain foreign. Not to face it means that, like it or not, you will lose a good part of the next generation that will become totally assimilated. And I think that's a real risk. 

The other challenge that exists and I see among the younger generation that is struggling with the very questions you are raising is how the younger generation becomes part of American society, gains a good education, and also develops what I regard as a sophisticated understanding of its faith. For many in my generation who were growing up as let's say Roman-Catholics and for others too,  the first generation to go to college or university, the danger was often that we obtained a university education in whatever areas we majored in, science, philosophy, etc. However, our understanding of our faith remained that of a child. It remained the faith that we were taught by our local religious leader and by our parents. That is a wonderful expression of the faith. But then what each person does is that they take that faith and carry it forward and apply it to new realities in their life. I think that is challenge for many Muslims. Their understanding of Islam has to be a sophisticated understanding. By that, I simply mean that for many of them, just as they learn how to read in a sophisticated way in science, engineering and philosophy, they have to develop the skill to read the best of Islamic texts. Some of our younger Muslim generations that study with me do not have a clear understanding of the Qur'an, the  tafsir, the modern tafsir, etc. So their understanding of religion is still that which was simply told to them when they were children. That creates tensions within the Muslim community and among Muslim youth.

Kalin: With the end of the 80s and the beginning of 90s, people began to talk about the failure or end of political Islam, basing their argument on the shrinking level of energy among the Muslim activist groups. Is that a correct diagnosis?

Esposito: If understood correctly, there is a certain truth to it. Many manifestations of political Islam, many experiments or attempts have, if not failed, proven to be defective. The Sudan, Iran, Afghanistan. But if one means Islamic activism or Islamization more broadly, then I would say no. In many Muslim societies from ground up, religion, Islam, has become much more a part of society and culture.

I like to put it the following way: after the Second World War, most countries in the Muslim world gained independence. They had fought their battles of independence and gained their independence. But most countries in the Muslim world did not face the struggle for cultural identity. This struggle has been fought in recent decades and it is part of the Islamic revival. In many countries in the Muslim world, countries are grappling with what is the relationship of our Islamic history, values and identity to our nationalism, to our way of life. That is the role that Islamic activism has played. To the extent that it is a movement of redefining cultural identity, I think Islam has become far more significant factor in many Muslim societies. For example, you could look at Egypt and say that in Egypt not only the extremists have been contained but in many ways the government has gained much more control over even the moderate political expression of Islam. However, at a societal and cultural level, Egypt is becoming more Islamized than ever before. 

I think countries like Turkey are experiencing a higher level of Islamization. Yes, the Turkish government, whatever government, whether it is Islamically oriented or not, whether the prime minister is a member of Islamic party or not, has to be concerned with any form of extremism, secular or religious. But the fact is that  main-stream Islamization in terms of values and cultural identity on the ground has increased within Turkey. If one believes in notions of self-determination, these free expressions should be allowed in the Muslim world.

Kalin: So, has Political Islam failed?

Esposito: Yes, political Islam in terms of governmental political Islam has often either failed or proven to have thus far major problems. But no in terms of Islam as cultural and civilizational force. There I see more Islamization taking place, schools, mosques, interesting religious issues and a more sophisticated approach, movement from the rural area to the urban area. It is an interesting phenomenon that it is in the urban areas often that Islam is playing a greater role not only culturally and intellectually but also socially where Islam has become much more involved on the ground in delivering social services. What that says is that the Muslims are making Islam more broadly relevant to their lives. 

Kalin: There is a strange tendency in countries like Turkey that as the Muslim polity tries to become more part of the mainstream politics, they face more resistance from the secular establishment. There is an insidious sense of suspicion cast over the Islamists. The moment the Muslim activists turn to such concepts as democracy, civil society, decentralized government, etc., the secularist establishment tries to redefine these terms. And consequently this feeds the sense of alienation and discrimination.

Esposito: We have to realize that there is a two-fold struggle that goes on here. The mainstream movements are a threat to the establishment. Whether they are Islamic or not, they would be a threat to the political and economic establishment. They provide an alternative elite (modern educated but Islamically oriented) and model for development and challenge the power and privilege of entrenched governments and elites. But the fact that they are also in a Muslim country putting themselves under the banner of Islam and religion makes them even more of a threat. They are also a threat to the mindset in some of these countries.

In some countries like France and Turkey, the definition of secularism is from my point of view a fundamentalist secularism. Western secularism means that no religion is privileged. The idea is not to privilege one religion over the other, it is to protect the rights of all believers to believe and even non-believers not to believe. That is what real secularism is. But unfortunately in some countries secularism is actually defined in a way that is anti-religion. So if you have a secular mindset that is anti-religious and if many of those people who have that mindset are part of the political and economic establishment, then the idea that you have an alternative social movement, let alone political movement, is seen as a threat to that establishment. The easiest way for that establishment to discredit the other, to contain the other, to repress the other is simply to accuse it of being extremist.

I would argue that a test one ought to use is to look at not what people say but what they do. To take Tunisia as an example, there were many who said that we know who Rashid al-Ghannushi, the leader of the Nahdah movement is, we know what he says but we don't know what he would do when he is in power. That is a very legitimate question. Is he simply out to hijack democracy? But Ghannushi has been very consistent in his statements, his thought has grown, etc. On the other hand, people were very comfortable with Ben Ali. The same people who said they are uncomfortable with Ghannushi. Now not only do we know what Ben Ali said but also what he did. Ben Ali was associated with an authoritarian government under Burghiba, he came to power through a coup-d'eta, which is not exactly democratic. He promised elections, when it occurred, he did not like the results and moved against the opposition. And then he ran and won the elections with the 99.99 percent of the vote. There you have a clear issue. Now, why were people still uncomfortable with Islamists like Ghannushi than with Ben Ali? This has more to do with national interest, international politics, and the fear of any kind of religiously based movement or party. 

I think that is where the Western world has to increasingly become more sophisticated. This is a real demand. I think there is now somewhat more sophistication. If you look at the US, we have had two past assistant secretaries of state, Edward Djerejian and Robert Pelletreau, who made very good statements about Islam and US foreign policy. The problem has been with American policy often, not with its policy statements. The challenge for Americans and Western governments is to remain true to their principles and values. If self-determination and democracy are good for us, they ought to be good for others. But what happens is that you get the other school of thought that I talked about earlier coming up with such claims as that Islam is antithetical to democracy. I don't want to go into a debate about Islam and democracy. To me, all I am talking about is forms of political participation. There is clearly a compatibility between Islam and forms of popular political participation or democracy, and many Muslims have said that. But if the others raise the question of incompatibility between Islam and political participation, between Islam and modernization, then they are laying the ground to legitimize a double-standard, to legitimize an attempt to keep any or all Islamically oriented professionals and activists out of power and to see them as the enemy, to equate them with violent extremists. That is why I think the kind of distinction I and others make is important. Otherwise, what the other school of thought says feeds, at the end of the day, both an extremist Western response and it would feed growing radicalization within the Muslim world, who would look at this Western response and say that wait a minute, there is a double standard. In fact what the West is really interested in is to support authoritarian regimes.


Source: The Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs (April 2001), pp. 155-163

Güncelleme Tarihi: 20 Eylül 2018, 18:16