John L. Esposito Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Islam and the West: Conversation 
    with John L. Esposito, University Professor of Religion and International 
    Affairs, Georgetown University, March 13, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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U.S. Foreign Policy

At the national level, at the level of a Turkey or Iran, very interesting, complex things are going on, sometimes more subtle than we can understand. But at the global level, do the extremists, the Osama bin Laden types, have a monopoly on the global identity of the Islam, or is that just the way we're perceiving it? How has all of this come together where Islam as a force internationally is perceived or misperceived in the form of bin Laden and al Qaeda?

There are a couple of things. Number one, in general, Islamic movements, whether mainstream or extremist, particularly in the past, grew up within a particular country, and they're responding to their countries, to their regimes. We see that certainly in the case of the right-hand man of Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian. Both grandparents were university rectors, the father the dean of the pharmacy school, Ayman, a physician. He joins one of the most extremist groups in Egypt. His enemy is the state. Later on, he goes global.

The reality today is that you have movements that are both national, but also you have movements that are international. And, certainly, what 9/11 pointed out to us was that many of the movements were going global post - Gulf War, local as well as global, and it really exploded with 9/11.

The risk post-9/11 is that, in fact, bin Laden has and continues to be a symbol. There's a certain lure in terms of the attraction. Bin Laden is seen by many as somebody who came from a privileged family, a wealthy family, who had a good education, and gave it all up to go off and fight the good war in Afghanistan. And who later on, at the Gulf War period and post-Gulf, took on his own government when he saw that this armada was coming and warned that it would come and not leave, that it would become a disproportionate influence in its presence it the Gulf. Bin Laden played to many of the grievances, not only of extremists but grievances of the mainstream, in what they see as the double standard, in which they see the West not living up to its own standards when it comes to the Muslim world -- whether it's promotion of democracy, Arab-Israeli conflict, Iraqi sanctions, you name it.

Now, what do we see post-9/11? Post-9/11, initially, we see a Muslim world, even the mainstream Muslim world, that sees an America that is leading the war against global terrorism. However, having taken a move against bin Laden and al Qaeda, and then decided that now we've got to expand the war to Afghanistan, it doesn't stop there. In the name of the war [against terrorism], we begin to talk about second frontiers. Then the "Axis of evil" kicks in, then we get Iraq, and now we talk about, also, suddenly moving from disarmament to regime change, to saying that it's really to promote democracy, and so that means that we also become critical of our allies, albeit authoritarian regimes, but our close allies. What happens is that that can play into the [hands of] extremists who say, "It's an unfocused war. It's a unilateral. It's a new empire. Look at what's happening: the agenda is not simply to address this issue or that issue, it's open-ended, and it's going to be one country determining or redrawing the map of the Muslim world." It's interetsting that that concerted criticism is also coming out of some of our European allies.

So what we see, then, is the extremists, if we're not careful, playing to this, and perhaps attracting from the mainstream those who become more and more disenchanted, marginalized, and alienated. This is one of the risks of an attack against Iraq, and [afterward], depending on what we do in Iraq.

We also see emerging, which should be troubling to America in terms of its future, the fact that when you look at polls, not just in the Muslim world, but in the non-Muslim world, in Europe and other places, a high percentage of anti-Americanism and a strong sense or fear that America is and sees itself as an imperial power, even an imperial power with a religious destiny. This is one of the concerns that some have in terms of President Bush and the role of the Christian right.

How can we have a foreign policy that is subtle enough to understand the complexities of this world? You're suggesting that in a unipolar world, the U.S. decides that it will determine where to preempt, where we perceive there's a threat (a lot of these places may be in the Muslim world), where to intervene; and after intervening will seek to democratize in terms of the way we see democracy as opposed to [how]the Islamic world [may see it]. So what is the answer in bringing a more subtle understanding to our foreign policy in this part of the world?

First of all, we need to be more focused in defining what it is we're doing, what that global mission is. A war against global terrorism could be an unending war. There's always going to be some global terrorism out there. We also have to be much more focused. Supposedly, initially it was to go after bin Laden and al Qaeda. The danger now is that we will simply conflate that with regimes that we don't like or that don't like us, and say that this means that we need to ratchet that into regime change.

But an initial, positive signal was given by the secretary of state a few months ago. Actually, it was a policy that he announced about a year, a year-and-a-half ago, but it wasn't announced all that publicly. It was a policy that did say that our public diplomacy is not just going to be about public relations and telling people what America is about or why they misunderstand us, but will deal with foreign policy issues. He admitted that the United States had not often listened when it came to the issue of democratization. It hadn't listened to many people in the area. He also said that we would be open to seeing more democratization, even if that meant that parties would be elected that might not be our preferred party, that parties that might be quite independent in terms of the way that they dealt with us. He also said that part of that, therefore, would mean that we would deal with political, economic, and educational reform, because these are the conditions that encourage extremism. And he said, in light of the Turkish elections, I believe, that the United States was open to Muslim parties or activists; again, the presumption being as long as they're functioning within the mainstream society.

To what extent we will actually pursue that as a policy, and how we're going to do that, is the real challenge. Will it simply be seen by cynics as a rationale being laid down as we move from saying "disarmament" to "regime change" and then suddenly, "No, no, the real purpose is to liberate Iraq, establish democracy, and let that be an example to the rest of the Middle East" and then to go on and promote it there? I think these are very tricky waters that the United States will be in for the foreseeable future.

What are the key resources for the extremists to the extent that they attempt to monopolize the Islamic identity, to hijack the religion? It seems to be tied up with the Israeli-Palestine conflict and our inability to see this as a problem for the Islamic world, separate from the radicals who want to hijack the religion. Talk a little about the sensitivity to that issue as [moderates] try to create a global Islamic identity that's separate from what the terrorists might want it to be.

What extremists do is they exploit real issues. That's always been the case -- real issues that both mainstream Muslim societies are concerned about as well as extremists. Those issue have everything to do with political participation as well as American foreign policy, and, certainly, the Arab-Israeli conflict has been there. In fact, what extremists would say today, but the mainstream would say it, too, is that the Bush administration backed away from the real conflagration, the real violence and terror that's being committed by both sides in Israel and Palestine, and turned to Iraq in the interim.

Extremists play off that. Extremists play off a long resentment among both the mainstream as well as extremists with regard to not what America stands for and the West stands for, but the difference between that and what is seen as a lack of balance in our foreign policy with regard to the Muslim world in general, and the Arab-Israeli conflict in particular. They say, "Look, there is not a balance or a parity in terms of American foreign policy when it comes to this region."

For example, extremists can say that when Sharon and the military went into the West Bank in Gaza, the secretary of state and the president were very quick to say, "This must stop in a matter of days" -- three, four days, eight days. And, in fact, the United States did what it hadn't done in the past, it moved in the UN, working on two resolutions to say, in effect, cease and desist. But at the same time that happened in New York, President Bush in Washington is saying, "Arafat is responsible for terrorism" -- and certainly, Arafat should be held responsible for the failures of his regime -- but [the president] says, "Sharon is a man of peace." And in the interim, they would say, months have gone by and no longer is there an attempt to put any restraints. There is an attempt to limit, as it should be limited, the suicide bombing, and the killing of the innocent. But there isn't an attempt to limit the violence and terror on the other side that is being perpetrated in Israel-Palestine.

That is an issue across the Muslim world, and that is what Muslims know about and see. We forget that in recent years, they often see more than we see. That is, in the Arab and Muslim world, you no longer have to depend on the American media or the European media to tell you what's going on. You have AlJazeera and similar news outlets. And every day, people can watch, whether they're having coffee in the morning or tea in the afternoon, they can be watching live what's going on. What we tend to see in America are the horrendous scenes of the effects of suicide bombing. We don't see the horrendous scenes in the West Bank and Gaza. We don't see the use of Apache helicopters and F-16s and American bulldozers to bulldoze homes. Those images and visions go out, and the extremists can seize upon that sense of outrage that many feel, and play to it. And you see this.

I've come back from the Gulf and other places. It's not just among young Islamists. In fact, if anything, it's often among the young discontented in the next generation, who look at their own governments and see them as corrupt, see many people as not standing up for something. And they look at somebody like bin Laden, and he becomes a Robin Hood character -- wrongly, but he is perceived as somebody who takes on, with his mouth, but also with his actions. And that's what we are dealing with today.

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