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By Bassam M. Madany

On June 5 and 6, 2004, BookExpo America was held at McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago. One of the panels dealt with “Understanding Islam: How Books Can Foster Dialogue in a Faith-fractured World.” It was telecast twice on Saturday, June 5 on C-SPAN2

Lynn Garrett, religion editor of Publishers Weekly, announced before the beginning of the proceedings that one of the authors that was scheduled to participate in the panel, Irshad Manji “was not able to join us today.” Then, she proceeded to introduce the remaining authors:

Feisal Abdul Rauf, “What's Right with Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West”

Asma Gull Hasan “Why I Am a Muslim: An American Odyssey”

John Esposito, author, “Unholy War”

It should be noted that the subject of the Canadian Muslim, Irshad Manji’s book was "The Trouble with Islam"

Analysis and Comments

John Esposito, professor of Religion at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, began by giving an account of the status of books on Islam during the second half of the twentieth century.  The Islamic revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran (1979) gave a great boost to the publication of many new titles on Islam in the West.

Islam and Muslims were almost invisible in the 1960s both in Europe and in America, but nowadays, Islam has become the second largest religion in those areas as well as in the rest of the world. Esposito deplored the fact that in the West, the media does not do a fair job in depicting Islam. This has continued to be the case even after the tragic events of 9/11. While several books and magazine articles on Islam have appeared lately, most of them remain deficient, according to Esposito, as their emphasis is not so much on “know Islam” but on “know the threat” of Islam, or of Islamic radicalism.

In attempting to understand “what makes John Esposito tick,” I came to realize that the key is to be found in an often repeated theme during his presentation at McCormick Place Convention Center: “The transcendent and the dark side of religion exist in all religions.” This is the basic motif that he finds in all religions, regardless of their sacred texts and histories. Actually, this reveals Esposito as having joined the ranks of such well-known Western pluralist theologians as John Hick, W. C. Smith, and Paul Knitter. His pluralist theology allows him to posit equivalence between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The noble and uplifting element in these theistic faiths is to be located in the transcendence they proclaim. However, all three have their dark side, which must be confessed and deplored.

Professor Esposito is impatient with the question that is put to him so often, as to whether Islam is a religion of peace. “How come we keep on asking the same question, [about violence in Islam,] and don’t ask the same question about Christianity and Judaism. Jews and Christians have engaged in acts of violence. All of us have the transcendent and the dark side.”

Esposito related how he gave his students at Georgetown selections from the Qur’an regarding violence as well as selections from the Hebrew Bible that dealt with the same subject. Having deliberately chosen those texts out of context, his students would naturally arrive at the same conclusion, that both Islam and Judaism taught and endorsed violence. 

He then told of his recent participation at a meeting in London, England, where the subject of Islam and its compatibility with democracy were debated. He deplored the fact that during the conference, several people quoted out of context, certain parts of the Qur’an that dealt with violence. At this point, he became rather emotional and declared that “we have our own theology of hate. In mainstream Christianity and Judaism, we tend to be intolerant; we adhere to an exclusivist theology, of us versus them.”

Not that many people attended this presentation on Islam, judging by the more than half-empty room. However, I could not but feel very disappointed about the whole event. It was marked by a one-sided description of Islam, since the other two speakers, being of the Muslim faith, did their best to present a very tolerant view of Islam. As mentioned above, the Canadian Muslim author of a critical book on Islam, while advertised on the schedule of C-Span 2, did not appear to present the “other side” of this important subject.

John Esposito’s presentation was a panegyric[i] of Islam throughout its 1400-year history. His own brand of pluralist theology places his position outside the mainstream of the historic Christian faith, in the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant traditions. It is a secular, postmodern, and Western construct that seeks to paint all religions with the same brush; in his case, his motif being that of the existence of that same “transcendent and the dark side” essence in every religion.

As a Christian, I encounter no problem with respect to those parts of Old Testament history which narrate the conquest of Canaan for example. They do tell of warfare and conquest, but that was a specific phase in Sacred History. That part of Biblical history is not normative for this New Testament age. There is no mandate for the Church to resort to conquest or “violence” in its fulfillment of Christ’s commission. In fact, during the first 300 years of our history, our faith spread through kerygma (preaching), didache (teaching), and marturia (testimony). And as many witnesses sealed their testimony with their blood, the Greek word martur acquired a new meaning: that of a witness who dies for his or her faithfulness to Jesus Christ.

Long ago, Saint Augustine taught us how to read and expound the Hebrew Scriptures. He summarized that by saying: “In the Old Testament, the New is concealed, in the New Testament, the Old is revealed.” Christians read the Hebrew Scriptures in the light of the exposition of these Scriptures in the pages of the New Testament.

John Esposito, as well as many contemporary Western scholars, fails to represent Islam objectively, in the light of its sacred texts and its 1400 year-history. As long as such experts selectively tell the story of Islam, ignoring its spread primarily through its futuhat (conquests), and remain totally silent about the devastating effects of dhimmitude on the native populations of the conquered lands, their claim to tell a true story of this world religion cannot be left unchallenged.

Toward the end of his presentation, John Esposito got animated when he challenged the audience to be careful when they read certain (unnamed) authors who do not give any references to some of their statements, such as the claim that a great number of mosques in the West are funded by Saudi Arabia.

Had I been in the audience, I would have reminded Professor Esposito that many Internet sources on Islam and the Middle East, such as MEMRI, do a good job in documenting everything they place on their site.

Furthermore, I would have asked him whether there was any Western equivalence to the Ottoman institution of “Devshirme” that deprived thousands of Balkan families of their young boys who were forced to Islamize, and become members of that elite army corps of Janissaries.

I would have asked why to this day, Turkey still denies the genocide of the Armenians that took the lives of 1,500,000 innocent men, women, and children during World War I, within the territory of the Ottoman Empire.

What we need during these turbulent years of the twenty-first century is a genuine dialogue between all the major civilizations, a dialogue based on an honest and objective reading of their authoritative texts and histories. This is the only way to avoid the “Clash of Civilizations” in our globalized and shrinking world.


[i] Panegyric is a “formal public eulogy” (From Funk & Wagnall’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, Comprehensive Edition, 1987)