By Tamara Sonn
July 21, 2010
The title of John Esposito’s latest work is slightly misleading. The Future of Islam is as much about the present and past of Islam as its future. But there is an obvious reason for that; we can only understand where we’re going if we understand where we are and how we got there.
As Esposito explains in the introduction, his goal is “to understand the struggle for reform in Islam, to explore the religious, cultural, and political diversity of Muslims facing daunting challenges in Muslim countries and in the West, to clarify the debate and dynamics of Islamic reform, to examine the attempt to combat religious extremism and terrorism” – in that context – “to look into the future of Muslim-West relations.”
His conclusion?: “The future of Islam and Muslims is inextricably linked to all of humanity.”
What Esposito presents between that introduction and conclusion is one of the finest examples of the study of Lived Religion since Wilfred Cantwell Smith laid the foundations for that methodology.
Religion is not nice
A little background: for W.C. Smith, one of the twentieth century’s most influential scholars of religion, "religion is best understood as the living, vital faith of individual persons rather than as an abstract set of ideas and doctrines." And he stresses the importance of empathy with the subject people:
We have not understood any action or any saying in another century or another culture until we have realized that we ourselves, had we been in that situation, might well have done or said exactly that.
But what about empathy with religious actors when they commit acts that would be considered repugnant in any tradition?
Historian Jonathan Z. Smith addresses this question in a famous 1982 essay on the Jonestown Massacre. “The press, by and large,” Smith observed, predictably “featured the pornography of Jonestown:
the body count, the sick excesses of the perpetrators, the tears of the families of the victims, etc. Religious leaders like Billy Graham distanced themselves from Jonestown, claiming that James Jones “was a slave of a diabolical supernatural power from which he refused to be set free.”
J. Z. Smith described this dismissal of Jones as simply an agent of the devil – evil incarnate – as dereliction of the duty of scholars of lived religion.
For many [scholars], Jones’s declarations that he was a Marxist, a communist, one who rejected the “opiate” of religion, were greeted with relief. He was not, after all, religious. Hence, there was no professional obligation to interpret him....For others, it was not to be talked about because it revealed what had been concealed from public, academic discussion for a century – that religion has rarely been a positive, liberal force. Religion is not nice; it has been responsible for more death and suffering than any other human activity.
The academy therefore simply “reasoned” Jonestown away.
For Jonathan Smith, this represented the failure to remain true to the basis of the scholarly study of religion: that “nothing human is foreign to me,” that what human beings do is intelligible — not necessarily intelligent, but intelligible. J. Z. Smith's implication is clear: the more important the events are socially and politically, the more critical it is for scholars to explain them.
Our interconnected lives
Whether Esposito is motivated by Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s “moral” responsibility or Jonathan Z. Smith’s “intellectual” responsibility, in The Future of Islam he allows readers to develop “a degree of empathy with the situation[s]” of Muslims in the world today, and does not shrink from the “not nice” bits. He acknowledges that his subject is highly charged socially and politically. It involves both Muslims and those whose lives are affected by Muslims. In fact, “The Future of Islam is about all our futures,” he says.
With so much at stake, we must study not only “official” Islam and the views of those – Muslim and non-Muslim – who divide the world into an adversarial “us” and “them,” but also the views and lives of Muslims across socioeconomic and geographic spectra. Further, if these diverse views are “the text,” we must also understand “the context” – colonization, the rise of modern Europe, the Cold War, and post-colonial conditions of underdevelopment and unrepresentative governments.
Esposito warns readers that his topic is complex. Muslims comprise majorities in nearly 60 countries, significant minorities in many others – including Russia and China, and the fastest growing minorities in Euro-America. They are some of the most powerful actors on earth, but many more are among the most marginalized peoples on our planet. They face a mind-numbing array of social, economic, political, and ideological challenges – not the least of which are increased radicalization and the emergence of terrorists within their own ranks.
He will discuss all this in one text? Amazingly, yes. A veteran of over four decades of the study of religion and one of the world’s preeminent scholars of Islam, Esposito manages to cut through the confusion, maintaining steady focus on people and the issues that define our interconnected lives.
The Future of Islam draws heavily on national and international Gallup and Pew polls of Muslim opinion. In Chapter 1 readers are introduced to global Islamic diversity through the lens of American Muslims. From the earliest — albeit unwilling — immigrants to the United States (African slaves) to the most recent, Muslim Americans constitute one of the world’s most diverse communities. They represent over 70 ethnic/national backgrounds, and are found in virtually every walk of life. American Muslim women are as likely as men to hold college degrees, and are more likely than their counterparts in other religious communities to earn nearly as much as men in their fields.
While they are far better off than Muslims on a global scale, however, Muslims in America struggle with prejudice. Islamophobia — the new anti-Semitism, as Esposito characterizes it — made its ungracious debut long before 9/11, but it has certainly intensified since then. Esposito’s presentation of its role in the 2008 elections is a fascinating vignette demonstrating the political power of religious prejudice.
Political agendas aside, widespread ignorance of Islamic teachings combined with the publicity given to the violent extremists who match our worst stereotypes, provide challenging obstacles to the majority of Muslims. But these are not their only concerns. Esposito closes Chapter 1 with summary results of the most recent Gallup Poll of the Muslim World which show that their main concerns are the same as they have been for over a century: social and economic development, democratic governance, respect for human rights, and the end of war.
The politicization of Islam
In the remaining three chapters, Esposito addresses the stark geopolitical realities that Muslims see as hindrances to their efforts to achieve these goals. Reviewing the events that radicalized some Muslims, Esposito draws attention to the failures of post-colonial secular nationalists governments. Authoritarian regimes that replaced colonial rulers from North Africa to South and Southeast Asia failed to deliver on promises of economic development and political empowerment. Majorities remained disenfranchised and increasingly desperate, while a few benefited from enormous wealth – and the support of the United States. Voices offering dignity and development on a religious basis therefore seemed compelling to the struggling masses: the politicization of Islam.
But politicized Islam — “political Islam” or Islamism — is not a single phenomenon. Some of its early representatives under British colonial control in Egypt and Britain, for example, were less concerned about good governance than getting rid of the foreign occupiers; some indeed preached hatred and advocated violence to achieve that goal. But many more advocated education, improvement in the status of women, civic engagement and political reform as routes to success. The persistence of social, economic, and political stagnation even after independence led to disaffection among some Islamists. Civil wars and unresolved border issues radicalized others. Continuing Palestinian statelessness, after decades of unfulfilled promises and flagrant violations of international law on the part of Israel, has fed a particularly virulent militarism and “thirst for martyrdom” in some quarters. And some interpretations of Islam continue to advocate killing those who reject their views.
The “globalization” of this virulent strain of “jihadi” Islam resulted from the confluence of a number of historical factors: the exile of militant dissidents from their homelands in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for example; the utility of these militants in the U.S.-backed jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s; the victory of “jihad” over “godlessness” in Afghanistan, leaving Afghanistan a haven for unemployed jihadis everywhere; the continued support by Western powers of authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world (and -- of course -- the continued plight of Palestinians who hold the unenviable position of “poster child” for all postcolonial struggles); and the ease of immediate, mass communication provided by the internet to disaffected, underemployed and overly energetic young men and women.
In response to this “globalization,” President George W. Bush launched the “Global War on Terror” which — according to Esposito, is another in the series of cataclysmic historic confluences. Predicated on fear and misinformation, the “GWOT” has gotten us to our present state of ongoing war in Iraq and Afghanistan, creating still more victims, increasing frustration, and deflecting attention from the unresolved issues that feed regional conflicts — and at the same time, confirming the worst fears of those influenced by jihadists. The worsening condition in these war zones makes credible to many the jihadi claim that the U.S. is an unrestrained aggressor. Thus, Esposito concludes: “The Bush administration’s war against global terrorism made the world less safe; global terrorists and anti-Americanism have grown exponentially….”
Muslim law in support of justice
Yet there is hope – because the development of political Islam was more than a result of failures of previous options. In a survey of the views of average Muslims as well as opinion makers throughout the world, Esposito demonstrates that Muslims and non-Muslims alike share core Islamic values concerning consultative governance and human rights.
Based on the Pew and Gallup polls, Esposito demonstrates that the majority of Muslims worldwide admire the principles, values, freedoms, and technological accomplishments of the United States. What they have overwhelmingly negative opinions about is foreign policy. Only 15% of Muslims worldwide have unfavorable opinions of France – at least as “Western” and more secular than the U.S., and despite its banning of the veil. But 42% have very unfavorable opinions of the U.S., and 34% have very negative views of England, our "coalition partner" – even though England is home to a thriving Muslim community and women are free to dress as they choose.
If U.S. support for authoritarian regimes and military intervention in the Middle East and South Asia constitute barriers to people’s efforts to order their lives as they see fit, then what would they do if these barriers were removed? What kind of societies would they create? Esposito demonstrates, again using Gallup and Pew polling data, that overwhelming majorities of Muslims want democratic governments that respect human rights – including freedom of speech, gender equality, and religious freedom. More than 90% of people polled in Egypt, for example, and the same percentage in Iran said that they think freedom of speech should be guaranteed by the constitution. Seventy-three percent of Saudis and 89% of Iranians say that men and women should have equal legal rights. Seventy-two percent of Egyptians and 78% of Saudis say women should have the right to work if they are qualified. Ninety-one percent in Egypt and 98% in Lebanon say women should have the right to vote as they see fit.
At the same time, overwhelming majorities of Muslims want to see Islamic law — Shari`ah — play a greater role in their lives. Ninety-six percent of Egyptians 89% of Palestinians, for example, think Shari`ah would provide a fair judicial system. This data provides perhaps the most striking example of the effectiveness of Lived Religion methodology. Esposito acknowledges that many observers consider Shari`ah to be an archaic legal code characterized by draconian punishments for theft, adultery, and apostasy. That is a reasonable conclusion if texts are the only source of information. Esposito draws upon another source. By recognizing people as the custodians of the tradition, Esposito finds that Shari`ah is, in their view, the ideal law, predicated on the belief in human equality and the demand for society to reflect that equality. While some specific aspects of codified Shari`ah are drawn from revealed sources, critical aspects – such as how to protect the right to life, religious freedom, and dignity under diverse circumstances, are left to the communities living in those circumstances. Thus Esposito surveys the views of major Muslim thinkers today, and finds that they, too, believe that Shari`ah supports democracy and human rights – including gender justice.
Bettered by difference
The Future of Islam is unquestionably more than a dry exercise in Lived Religion methodology. It is Esposito’s impassioned plea for religious understanding to go beyond academia, beyond the classroom and textbook. He writes as if this book were the only book on the subject that the reader might access, and therefore includes a brief introduction to Islamic beliefs and rituals in addition to sophisticated analysis of contemporary realities. Esposito’s commitment to the study of religion is nothing short of a commitment to improving the life of our species. Like Wilfred Cantwell Smith, he believes that human beings can “be bettered by difference.” Like Jonathan Z. Smith, he recognizes that religion is not always “nice.” But he believes religion’s positive impact can and must exceed the negative. As he concludes:
All our futures will depend on working together for good governance, for freedom of religion, speech, and assembly, and for economic and educational advancement. Together we can contain and eliminate our preachers of hate and terrorists who threaten the safety, security, and prosperity of our families and societies.