The Wall Street Journal once described John Esposito as “America’s foremost authority and interpreter of Islam.” The former President of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), he currently teaches at Georgetown University, where his dual titles are “Professor of Religion and International Affairs” and “Professor of Islamic Studies.” He also heads Georgetown’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.
Esposito received his PhD in Islamic Studies from Temple University in 1974. He thereafter became a professor at the College of the Holy Cross, a small Jesuit school in Massachusetts, where he spent the first twenty years of his professional academic career. From there, he moved to Georgetown. He has written more than two-dozen books focusing on Islam’s relation to politics and human rights. He was named editor-in-chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, and has served as a Muslim affairs consultant to the Department of State, as well as to corporations and universities worldwide.
Averting his scholarly eyes from the study of Islamist violence on grounds that it “reinforces stereotypes,” Esposito contends that the Muslim world is steadily advancing toward democratic reform, toward an “Islamic democracy that might create an effective system of popular participation unlike the Westminster model or American system,” the latter of which he disparages as “ethnocentric.” Forecasting a trend of ever-increasing freedom and democracy in Muslim lands, in 1994 Esposito wrote: “[D]emocratization in the Muslim World proceeds by experimentation and necessarily involves both success and failure. The transformation of Western feudal monarchies to democratic nations states took time—Today we are witnessing a historic transformation of the Muslim world.”
In the decade prior to 9/11, Esposito predicted that fundamentalist Islamic groups and governments in Arab nations would reject violence and thus would present no threat to the United States. “The [very] term ‘fundamentalism,’ he said, “is laden with Christian perceptions and Western stereotypes. More useful terms are Islamic revivalism and Islamic activism, which are less value-laden and have roots within a tradition of political reform and social action.”
Impugning those who equate Islamist movements “with radicalism and terrorism,” Esposito claims that such thinking merely “becomes a convenient pretext for crushing political opposition.” Islamist movements, he explains, “are not necessarily anti-Western, anti-American, or anti-democratic.” Moreover, he minimizes the fact that those nations that have adopted Islamic law are, for the most part, totalitarian states that export terrorism and egregiously violate the human rights of their inhabitants. “Contrary to what some have advised,” he writes, “the United States should not in principle object to implementation of Islamic law or involvement of Islamic activists in government.”
Esposito subscribes to the Edward Said school of thought, which holds that Middle Eastern attitudes toward Israel can never be understood from an “American colonialist perspective.” In other words, they should be viewed from the point of view of Israel’s alleged role as a base of American imperialism. Ignoring Hamas‘ program of creating an Islamic radical state to replace Israel – a genocidal agenda – Esposito has characterized the Palestinian terror group as a community-focused organization that, in addition to its violence, does a considerable amount of societal good via such productive activities as “honey [production], cheese-making, and home-based clothing manufacture.” He has likened Yasser Arafat’s calls for jihad to social initiatives for the launching of a “literacy campaign” or a “fight against AIDS.” He has called former professor Sami al-Arian, a terrorism-supporter with strong links to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a “consummate professional.”
Esposito serves on the board of advisors for the Institute for Islamic Political Thought, a London-based foundation run by Azzam Tamimi, a Palestinian academic who has openly proclaimed his support for Hamas and the Taliban, and who has praised the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Tamimi considers Esposito his “ustadh,” or teacher.
With regard to the 9/11 attacks, Esposito traces their root causes not to fanatical Islamic extremism, but directly to the doorstep of the United States and what he deems its exploitation of Muslim nations. He advises Americans “to look at the proximate grievances, not to justify what terrorists do, but to be able to address, when one can, those conditions which foster the growth of radicalism and extremism in societies overseas. There are real grievances; it is not as though we are dealing with a bunch of crazies. … One needs to ask why … did someone like Osama bin Laden acquire something of a cult following? He did because some of the things he appealed to were real issues that exist in the Muslim world and real sources of anti-Americanism as well.”
Esposito has authored more than 35 books, including: Islam: The Straight Path (1988); The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? (1992); Islam and Democracy (1996); Political Islam: Radicalism, Revolution or Reform? (1997); Islam and Politics (1998); Women in Muslim Family Law (2002); and Who Speaks for Islam (2008).
Esposito is an editorial board member of the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, a publication of the Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs. Among his fellow editorial board members are such notables as Ali al-Mazrui and John Voll.
John Esposito: Defending Radical Islam
By The Investigative Project on Terrorism