CAIRO: The preeminent Islam scholar of the West summed up his take on dialogue between the West and the Muslim world: “I watch while the house is on fire, and they’re arguing in that house, said Dr John Esposito. And not just between each other, he continued, “but among themselves.
Esposito was speaking at a press conference at the Hyatt on Tuesday, where he played a dual role as a representative of the C-1 World Dialogue organization, and as a book promoter for his work on a Gallup poll that extensively surveyed the Muslim world with surprising results debunking claims of a clash of civilizations.
The Georgetown professor has been watching the ongoing attempts at dialogue and conflict resolution for 40 years, since he began his studies of the Muslim world following a degree in Christian theology. The author of over 35 books on the subject, he was well aware of the extent of his experience: “Longer than most of you have been alive, he said at the conference attended by mostly students and young journalists.
Esposito is the founding director of Georgetown s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.
His latest book, titled “Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, was recently released in Arabic. The work analyzes a Gallup poll of 50,000 Muslims in 35 countries, offering extensive data dispelling many preconceived Western notions of the Muslim world.
“Why is this book important? asked the Brooklyn-born scholar. “This is the most comprehensive systematic poll of the Muslim world ever done.
Promoting his book, Esposito was also in Cairo as a newly appointed member of the C-1 World Dialogue’s executive board.
C-1 World Dialogue is an organization of cultural and religious leaders from across the Muslim and Western worlds that seeks to promote dialogue and improve understandings between the communities. It launched its first Annual Dialogue Report last week in Cairo in the presence of Egypt’s Grand Mufti and co-chair Ali Gomaa.
Esposito’s press conference was jointly organized by C-1 World Dialogue and the World Association for Al-Azhar Graduates. The university-affiliated organization completed its own three-day conference, titled “Al-Azhar and the West: Dialogue Limitations, on Tuesday.
What a billion Muslims really think
Esposito said the data collected in the Gallup poll could overcome some of the limitations on dialogue.
In contrast with Western assumptions that the Muslim world predominantly focuses on religious and cultural differences, Esposito said, the poll suggested that Muslims were mostly concerned with Western policy and respect.
Indeed, the majority of those surveyed distinguished among Western nations based on their policies, and said that the number one way for the West to improve relations with the Muslim world would be to moderate their views of Muslims and of Islam.
Esposito cited an interesting reflection of the Muslim world’s focus on policy rather than culture: 67 percent of Muslims expressed disapproval of the United States, while only 3 percent felt similarly about Canada. “Canada is America without American foreign policy, Esposito told Daily News Egypt after the conference.
He said that the Muslim world’s concern for respect provides a more clear understanding of periods of tension in the past. Take the Danish cartoons that incited an uproar in the Muslim world, he said. A simple call for respect played a major role.
Comparisons with Western responses also proved especially revealing. A small minority of Muslims said violence against civilians was justified. The same percentage of Americans agreed.
Muslims said they most admired the technology and democracy of the West, and least admired its perceived moral decay and breakdown of values. A majority of Americans provided the same response.
The contrast regarding religious influence was equally surprising: A greater percentage of American Christians believe that religious leaders should have a direct influence in government.
‘They’re not all whakos’
The Gallup poll sought to delve beyond the outspoken concerns of the extremists of both worlds. Indeed, the Gallup poll found that the dominant, moderate views are shockingly similar among the two worlds.
But the poll has enabled scholars to clearly determine whose beliefs might merit the oft-used label of extremist. Seven percent of Muslims surveyed said the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks were justified, a statistic that is used to identify “potential extremists.
Even among the extremists, the survey revealed some surprises. Many of the so-labeled “potential extremists were educated and financially stable, for instance.
“They are not the whakos, Esposito explained. In that case, “what are their reasons? he asked – the same question that terror victims have asked around the world.
“We can learn from the data, he said.
What’s going to happen?
Esposito was not the only one who wasn’t caught off guard by the survey results; he says his pre-survey writings correctly reflected the results. “A good deal of what we say in the book was reflected in President Obama’s speeches, from the inauguration to Cairo, he said.
But despite the US president’s apparent understanding of the Muslim world, we cannot solely expect results from the Americans, Esposito said. The countries of the Muslim world must take action where they have not in the past.
The results of the survey often contrasted with the policies of Muslim leaders. The survey is “talking about rights that often don’t exist, Esposito explained.
With 40 years of experience, the scholar is effortlessly careful with his words. But he took a tough stance against the inaction among leadership in the Muslim world.
They must focus on “what’s best for the country, not what’s best for the regime, he said, without identifying a particular nation.
He explained the Arab position revolving around dialogue without ends: “We talk about Palestine and we bleed for the Palestinians. And then we take a break for dinner, he said
For Esposito, the future of Muslim-Western relations requires a new dialogue, with plans for action.
“We’ve talked about theology and scripture. So what? What’s going to happen?