Most Americans Know Little About Islam

A Muslim specialist says our acquaintance with Islam has just begun, and in the wrong place.

John Esposito, raised a Roman Catholic in Brooklyn, N.Y., is the director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. He spoke to Beliefnet.com producer Paul O'Donnell after the attacks on New York and Washington. Here is an interview with Esposito.

How did Islam get this reputation for violence?

Americans have very little background about Muslims. Historically, Muslims were not visible in this country. Academically, too, Islam was not put with other [monotheistic] faiths, but with Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism. It was foreign. So you end up with generalizations. It's like if all you see is headlines about the Mafia, all Italians all become Mafia.

When the American public first experienced Islam, then, it was as the oil embargo in the early 1970s, and the Iranian revolution in 1979, both of which were experienced as threats. The Iranian revolution was seen not in a political context, but as Islamic, as the work of the ayatollahs. And Ronald Reagan and later Dan Quayle put radical Islamic action beside the Soviets as the world's great evils.

How do these people, Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, fit into the larger picture of Islam?

Let me ask, how do Christian fundamentalists who blow up clinics fit into a Christian context? How does someone like Baruch Goldstein, who shot Muslim worshippers inside the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994? How did he fit into the Jewish context? The analogies are many: when we have David Koresh, whose group died at Waco, or when Mr. [Yitzhak] Rabin was assassinated, Americans frame it as extremism. The media talk about Christian cults, for instance. This [recent attack] is not a legitimate act by a resistance movement.

What do you think of the Muslim response to the attack?

What's different from past events is how major Muslim leaders are condemning it. The fatwa against Salman Rushdie [after his novel Satanic Verses was condemned as blasphemous] brought more mixed reactions. They created a gray area. Now the Muslim mainstream is going on the record as saying this is not only irrational but un-Islamic. They are setting the stage for the possibility that this turns out to be a Muslim terrorist. They want to distance themselves.

On the other hand, there were pictures of people rejoicing in [the West Bank city of] Nablus.

The average American might not know that in the past few weeks the town has been surrounded by the Israeli military. So for us, again, we don't have the context. For the residents there, this comes in the context of an Israeli siege, for which they blame the United States in part for its support of Israel with American weapons.

So we look and say, "what's the basis for this?" [Osama] Bin Laden plays off these situations, where you have a political and social context where people have been driven to the edge. Bulldozed homes, no electricity and water — those youth are radicalized by all that.

Is there anything in Islam itself that promotes violence?

Any Muslim will be offended that Islam is seen as more violent than either Judaism or Christianity. Read your Hebrew Bible, the conquests of Judaism. In Christianity you have the Crusades. Both have a holy war tradition. All three suffer from the fact that this notion of just war can be manipulated by extremists.

In her recent history of Islam, Karen Armstrong says that in an Islamic understanding, "politics was ... what Christians would call a sacrament," and she refers to the Muslims' "sacralization of history."

Judaism and Christianity are also based on sacred history. One sees history not just as human-made and guided but divinely guided. The very rationale for the creation of Israel has been in terms of their tradition, their history, their sacred history. Many images have been pulled from Exodus, and the great sacred stories of the past. When you have three monotheistic faiths pulling from the same history, you get flashpoints.

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