2016-06-30
John Esposito, raised a Roman Catholic in Brooklyn, New York, is the director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. He spoke with Beliefnet after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

How did Islam get this reputation for violence?
Americans have very little background about Muslims. Historically, Muslims were not visible in this country. Academically, too, Islam was not put with other [monotheistic] faiths, but with Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism. It was foreign. So you end up with generalizations. It's like if all you see is headlines about the Mafia, all Italians all become Mafia.

Sept. 11 Response
When the American public first experienced Islam, then, it was as the oil embargo in the early 1970s, and the Iranian revolution in 1979, both of which were experienced as threats. The Iranian revolution was seen not in a political context, but as Islamic, as the work of the ayatollahs. And Ronald Reagan and later Dan Quayle put radical Islamic action beside the Soviets as the world's great evils.

How do these people, Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, fit into the larger picture of Islam?
Let me ask, how do Christian fundamentalists who blow up clinics fit into a Christian context? How does someone like Baruch Goldstein, who shot Muslim worshipers inside the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994—how did he fit into the Jewish context? The analogies are many: when we have David Koresh, whose group died at Waco, or when Mr. Rabin was assassinated, Americans frame it as extremism. The media talk about Christian cults, for instance. This [recent attack] is not a legitimate act by a resistance movement.

What do you think of the Muslim response to the attack?
What's different from past events is how major Muslim leaders are condemning it. The fatwa against Salman Rushdie [after his novel "Satanic Verses" was regarded as blasphemous] brought more mixed reactions. They created a gray area. Now the Muslim mainstream is going on the record as saying this is not only irrational but unislamic. They are setting the stage for the possibility that this turns out to be a Muslim terrorist. They want to distance themselves.

On the other hand, there were pictures of people rejoicing in [the West Bank city of] Nablus.
The average American might not know that in the past few weeks the town has been surrounded by the Israeli military. So for us, again, we don't have the context. For the residents there, this comes in the context of an Israeli siege, for which they blame the United States in part for its support of Israel with American weapons.

So we look and say, "what's the basis for this?" Bin Laden plays off these situations, where you have a political and social context where people have been driven to the edge. Bulldozed homes, no electricity and water--those youth are radicalized by all that.

Is there anything in Islam itself that promotes violence?
Any Muslim will be offended that Islam is seen as more violent than either Judaism or Christianity. Read your Hebrew Bible, the conquests of Judaism. In Christianity you have the crusades. Both have a holy war tradition. All three suffer from fact that this notion of just war can be manipulated by extremists.

In her recent history of Islam, Karen Armstrong says that in an Islamic understanding, "politics was...what Christians would call a sacrament," and she refers to the Muslims' "sacralization of history."
Judaism and Christianity are also based on sacred history. One sees history not just as human made and guided but divinely guided. The very rational for the creation of Israel has been in terms of their tradition, their history, their sacred history. Many images have been pulled from Exodus, and the great sacred stories of the past. When you have three monotheistic faiths pulling from the same history, you get flashpoints.

You mention the Crusades, which Christianity fought in the Middle Ages. Do religions simply have violent phases?
When you talk about religion and violence, you have to look at the political and economic violence that occurred around it. Politics and economics cause violence, which then gets legitimized by religious ideas. Not that there aren't conflicts are not narrowly religious, but many battles that are actually for land or nationhood are framed religiously. For instance, the situation in Bosnia took on that strong religious dimension.

In Christianity, martyrs are passive--victims thrown to the lions or put to the sword. These suicide missions strike one as the opposite--are they representative of Islamic martyrdom?
One expert on TV said "This [attack] has religious markings" because of the suicides. People willing to die for what they believe in--we used to call that patriotism. We've become so secular that we can only understand giving your life as a religious act.

But this kind of martyrdom exists in Christianity--to fight and die what you believe in. And when we saw Iran and Islamic as a threat, we celebrated the mujahedeen Pakistan and their willingness to die.

Where does the Muslim community in America go from here?
From almost within minutes, they have come out as American citizens, not just as Muslims, to say these attacks are unacceptable. Don't rush to judgment, they are saying, but if it turns out to be Muslim, this is not what Islam is about.

What about long term?
It's going to take a while for us to recognize that Muslims are our neighbors, our fellow citizens. Muslims have been not visible, but that's changing. Muslims are now second, third and fourth generation immigrants. They aren't foreigners. But it's only beginning to percolate into our consciousness, and Muslims themselves are just now starting to address these issues. Where do I send my kids to school, where do I live? How do I preserve my identity as a minority but participate fully as an American?

Many fear there's no way of dealing with the terrorists. You hear things like, "They don't see violence the same way we do." There is almost a despair that no matter what we do, there's no way of stopping the violence.
This is really risky stuff. We don't sufficiently understand of the nature of terrorism. We react as if it's all mindless. That makes it easier for us. We say, the only thing to do is go up and drop bombs and antiseptically kill them. It's all right, as long as we do it rationally.

You can't stop the crazies. But unless you wind up addressing the injustices in Palestine and Israel in way that confirms Israel's right to exist and the right of Palestinians to a state and the right to live peacefully, you'll have kids growing up in this polarized view of the world.

The terrorists know how to exploit this situation. What Saddam did is the same. To get popular support, he played the cards of colonialism, of American exploitation, of the Palestinians. Bin Laden does the same thing. If you listen to his statements, they are rationally argued. But then when he draws his conclusions, that's when he goes wrong.



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