The Magazine

The Terror of Islam

John Esposito struggles to sanitize Islamic thought.

May 27, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 36 • By STANLEY KURTZ
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Unholy War
Terror in the Name of Islam
by John L. Esposito
Oxford University Press, 196 pp., $25

OSAMA BIN LADEN may be hunkered down, half-starved in some Pakistani village right now, yet he continues to sow considerable confusion among America's leftist academics.

Take, for example, John L. Esposito, founding director of Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, past president of the Middle East Studies Association, and foreign-affairs analyst for the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at President Clinton's State Department. Within the academy, Esposito is widely considered to be a leading American scholar of Islam. Yet even as al Qaeda agents were crashing passenger planes into the Pentagon and World Trade Center, an article by Esposito (in The Fletcher Forum) deriding American intelligence officers for their preoccupation with Osama bin Laden was sitting on newsstands.

So the events of September 11 represent a political and intellectual crisis for Esposito, who has long championed the view that the Islamic threat is phony or exaggerated: The West has falsely and prejudicially portrayed Muslims as radically other, the problems of the Islamic world are a legacy of Western colonial domination, and Muslim terrorism, however regrettable, is best understood as a reaction to America's one-sided support for Israel and the sanctions America has so cruelly imposed upon the people of Iraq.

There were dissenting voices, of course, in the academic world, and since September 11, the universe of Middle Eastern scholarship has been turned on its head. Bernard Lewis, ostracized and excoriated for years by his leftist colleagues, is now perched on the bestseller list, while Samuel P. Huntington, no less put upon than Lewis by the postmodern academy, is lionized for his prediction of a "clash of civilizations." Meanwhile, the once dominant leftist professoriate is shunned and derided by the press and the public for its knee-jerk anti-Americanism.

It has fallen to John Esposito to strike back on behalf of a beleaguered academy. With the publication of "Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam," Esposito seeks to breathe new life into his failed paradigm. However belatedly, Esposito now means to acknowledge and describe the reality of Islamic terrorism, while nonetheless disassociating such extremism from Islamic religion and society as a whole. And having thus dealt with the terrorism conundrum, Esposito hopes to firmly reestablish his basic claim that the roots of Islamic terror lie in the arrogance, error, and prejudice of America's foreign policy in the Middle East.

This is a difficult dance, and the author trips over himself from the start. Esposito once mocked those who perceived a threat from militant Islam, deriding them as cold warriors desperately in search of a new enemy. Yet today, he freely speaks of "the threat of Islamic radicalism to our stability and security." The man who once taunted American intelligence officers for their obsession with Osama bin Laden now begins his book with a chapter on the master terrorist himself. It's sad to see Esposito bemoan the paucity of good information on bin Laden's early life--for no one more than Esposito himself has stood in the way of research on the subject of Osama bin Laden.

A more interesting reversal is Esposito's partial abandonment of his objections to generalizations about Islam. Before September 11, Esposito rejected even the term "Islamic fundamentalism." That label, he said, conjures up the picture of a monolithic menace, even as it indiscriminately lumps American allies, like the governments of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, with anti-American extremists like al Qaeda. Yet it turns out that nasty old essentializing label told the truth after all: Esposito spends a considerable amount of "Unholy War" detailing the role of the Saudi and Pakistani governments in spreading the movement that he now freely calls Islamic "fundamentalism."

One would like simply to forgive Esposito his postmodern past and welcome the belated onset of good sense. But the problem with "Unholy War" is that Esposito tries to get by with minimal concessions to the new political environment, without either revising his fundamental intellectual framework or acknowledging the contradiction between the new stance and the old. The result is a book of thunderous conceptual silence. The chapter on bin Laden, for example, amounts to little more than a compilation of press reports with little analysis of either bin Laden or his followers. It isn't simply a question of Esposito's reluctance to play to anti-Islamic prejudice through too close a focus on an extremist. Esposito's dilemma is that almost anything he chooses to say about Islamic terrorism undercuts his own intellectual framework and confirms the account of his scholarly rivals.