Georgetown professor John Esposito, director of the Saudi-financed Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding has a reputation as an apologist for radical Islam. And it's one he lived up to with a Stanford University speech last week titled, "Dying for God? Suicide Terrorism and Militant Islam."
Esposito claimed that Islamic terrorism grows primarily out of a sense of political and economic grievance and, of course, "occupation" on the part of "neo-colonial powers." This spin allowed him to deflect responsibility for Islamic terrorism to the West while negating the need for self-reflection among Muslims.
When an attendee asked him why no other impoverished or oppressed group around the world resorts to suicide bombings, Esposito stonewalled for several minutes before giving one of the few straight answers of the night: "I don’t know."
Esposito displayed contempt for anyone calling for the theological and cultural reform of Islam. He described Middle East Forum director Daniel Pipes and Princeton professor Bernard Lewis as "among the Darth Vaders of the world," and Pipes and Islam scholar Robert Spencer as "Islamophobes." Others on the receiving end of Esposito's vitriol included Martin Kramer, Fouad Ajami, V.S. Naipaul, Max Boot, and Steven Emerson. Esposito has a penchant for laying into his opponents, but this juvenile behavior fails to answer the substance of his detractors’ points.
The Islamic Society of Stanford University and the Muslim Student Awareness Network at Stanford University (MSAN), co-sponsors of the Islamic Awareness Series 2008, seem to share Esposito's views. Despite calling this year's offering, "Our Jihad to Reform: The Struggle to Define Our Faith," MSAN makes clear in an op-ed on the subject that such "reform" has its limits. As they put it:
Our reform will not be dictated by the likes of Daniel Pipes, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and David Horowitz, according to their desires to subvert our tradition, but by Islamic scholars according to the Islamic notion of reform.
Apparently, Esposito fit the bill.
Esposito’s leadership of a center dedicated to "Muslim-Christian understanding" failed to mitigate his hostility towards Christians. He referenced the Crusades three times in the first ten minutes, each in the false context of acts of purely Christian aggression. In a relativistic attempt to paint all religions as equally problematic, Esposito compared Islamic terrorists to "Christian militants," and referred repeatedly to "Christians blowing up abortion clinics" and the "Christian Right."
He reserved particular enmity for evangelist Pat Robertson who, according to Esposito, is on par with "Muslim extremists" and should be put "in prison" for publicly expressing a desire to see Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez assassinated. Yet Esposito has no qualms about calling for the release of Sami al-Arian, the former University of South Florida professor currently serving time in prison for terrorism-related charges.
Esposito's treatment of two self-described Arab Christian students in the audience further revealed this bias. When asked about the well-documented violence against Christians in Iraq and the persecution of Christians throughout the Muslim world, Esposito resorted at first to obfuscation and then bullying. After trying to chalk up the violence merely to "primitive" behavior, he cut off one young woman angrily, telling her that it was "an absurd question."
Esposito's standard answer to this line of questioning was that "all religions produce violence," followed by a litany of talking points in which he compared random and universally condemned acts of violence among Christians and Jews to the routine and often sanctioned bloodshed emanating from the Muslim world.
Moreover, he peddled the usual apologist fare on the definition of jihad. Like many of his contemporaries in the world of Middle East studies, Esposito downplayed violent jihad or holy war in favor of the "personal struggle" interpretation.
Esposito spoke hopefully about the results contained in his upcoming book, Who Speaks For Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think. Citing statistics from the book, Esposito declared that anti-Americanism in the Muslim world is not based on hatred, but on "disappointment" that the U.S. isn't "living up to its ideals." Furthermore, Muslims, according to Esposito, admire the U.S., but believe that "Islam is denigrated."
It was this denigration that, according to Esposito, somehow justified the outrage in the Muslim world surrounding the Danish cartoon controversy. Esposito decried the current atmosphere in the West whereby, as he sees it, Jews and Christians are protected, but anything "anti-Islam" goes. Somehow Esposito managed to miss the death threats, imprisonment, lawsuits, firings, and condemnation meeting those who dare critique Islam these days.
Thanks to Esposito's equivocation, the Stanford students, both Muslim and otherwise, who came to take part in a series based on "awareness" and "reform" walked away with little prospect for either. But perhaps that was the intention all along.
Cinnamon Stillwell is the Northern California Representative for Campus Watch. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.