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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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."