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.

Thus "Unholy War" often goes to war against itself. In one place, it condemns the Taliban's imposition of Islamic law on Afghanistan. In another, it defends those who seek to impose strict Islamic law as though they were exponents of democratic self-government. Although Esposito promises that a careful examination of the tradition of jihad will permit us to distinguish between extremists and the vast majority of Muslims, nearly everything in the book seems to point in the opposite direction. Esposito appears to admit this when he plaintively asks why bin Laden's calls for jihad "resonate as truth for mainstream Muslims as well as for extremists."

What Esposito's guided tour of jihad actually shows is that violent and radical sects characteristically emerge within Islam during periods of social crisis. Esposito hastens to remind us that such sects are eventually marginalized and rejected by the mainstream. Yet we live in the short and medium term. It may take decades for the current terrorist revival to be tamed and repudiated on the model of its historic predecessors.

In the meantime, bin Laden and his followers are simply acting out a well-established part within Islamic tradition. "Unholy War" labels bin Laden an "unholy warrior," but it's clear from Esposito's own retelling of Muslim history that at numerous points in the past, even mainstream Islam has interpreted Koranic restrictions on war to permit just about any violence.

ESPOSITO MAKES A POINT of repudiating the notion that the terrorists' anti-Americanism can be attributed to "irrationality, ingratitude, jealousy of our success or hatred for 'our way of life.'" This is Esposito's swipe at Bernard Lewis, who has long maintained that Islamic fundamentalists have made a scapegoat of the West for the Middle East's own troubles. Esposito wants to argue that Muslim anti-Americanism is grounded in well-reasoned objections to our foreign policy. Yet by the time he makes this point, he has already spent several chapters impugning the terrorists as "emotive" and "rigid" ideologues repulsed by American culture.

As a longtime advocate of liberal reform within Islam, Esposito is hardly in a position suddenly to change into a theological strict constructionist. So instead, he paints bin Laden as a clever manipulator. By co-opting grievances against America shared by the larger Muslim world, Osama is said to have seduced a moderate public into supporting his violent jihad. But, given the widespread Muslim belief that the Israeli Mossad actually brought down the World Trade Center (on a day when Jews were supposedly warned to stay home from work), why shouldn't we assume that blind hatred has by now gone mainstream in the Middle East?

ISLAM HAS NO PROBLEM with capitalism per se, says Esposito. Many early Muslims were merchants, and nothing in Islamic teaching is opposed to trade or private property. Yet the real incompatibility between capitalism and Islamic culture is rooted in the family and kinship systems of Middle Eastern society, all of which are identified with and supported by Islam. The inveterate corruption of Middle Eastern bureaucracies (without family connections, it can take years just to get a telephone installed) is tied to the kinship structure, and Esposito has nothing whatever to say about the social correlates of contemporary Islam. For him, it suffices to lay Muslim society's problems at the door of colonial exploitation.

Yet in the absence of any substantial account of contemporary Islamic social structure, Esposito's arguments lose their force. To persuade us that Islam and modernization are compatible, for example, Esposito reminds us of the way we used to laugh at the "Made in Japan" label. If a traditional society like Japan can turn around and match us on the economic front, asks Esposito, why can't the Middle East? But that begs every important question. Japanese kinship is notably more flexible than the closed tribal organizations of the Islamic Middle East. There is every reason to believe some traditional societies adapt more easily to capitalism than others, and those differences are based on divergences of culture that Esposito will not allow himself to address.

Nonetheless, the argument about Japan is interesting because it exposes the contradiction in one of Esposito's favorite rhetorical strategies. After using his antiessentialist pickaxe to break apart any generalized concept like "Islamic fundamentalism" that appears to put the Middle East in a bad light, Esposito turns around and offers up a series of ridiculously overgeneralized cultural comparisons as apologetics for Islam. He points out, for example, that cultural and religious conservatives in the West, like Islamic fundamentalists, "question the excesses of modernity."

Yet Western conservatives also typically embrace the fundamentals of modernity: democracy, capitalism, religious freedom. Muslim fundamentalists don't just question the excesses of modernity, they try to blow modernity up. Equally outrageous is the moral equivalence Esposito likes to draw between Osama bin Laden and Samuel P. Huntington. Esposito never lets on that Huntington's "The Clash of Civilizations," so far from being an incitement to war, is actually a plea for cultural self-restraint.

ISLAMIC SOCIETY may still adapt itself to democracy and capitalism. Yet at this point, to ignore the incompatibility between Islam and modernity is willful blindness. It is no accident that Turkey's modernizing Kemalist movement, with its rejection of traditional religion, has no significant parallel outside the Islamic world. Something about Islam seems to force a choice between modernity and tradition. For all his talk of diversity, everything about Esposito's work is dedicated to obscuring that central fact.

Stanley Kurtz is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.