March 9, 2006

John Esposito: Muslims and the West

The following essay was published by United Press International (8 March 2006). Once again, Dr. Esposito has written a very interesting, thought-provoking article. There were several points I liked: the idea that the West (Europe in particular) is developing a "secular fundamentalism," and that Western countries could improve relations with the Muslim world if they would "demonstrate more understanding and respect for Islam, show less prejudice, and not denigrate what Islam stands for." Also, that Islamophobia is a "social cancer," which I think is a rather apt description.

Newspaper cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed have set off an international row with dangerous consequences, both short and long term. The controversial caricatures, first published in Denmark and then in other European newspapers, target Muhammed and Islam and equate them with extremism and terrorism. In response to outcries and demonstrations across the Muslim world, the media has justified these cartoons as freedom of expression; France's Soir and Germany's Die Welt asserted a "right to caricature God" and a "right to blasphemy," respectively.

One of the first questions I have been asked about this conflict by media from Europe, the U.S. and Latin America has been "Is Islam incompatible with Western values?" Are we seeing a culture war?

Before jumping to that conclusion, we should ask: whose Western democratic and secular values are we talking about? Is it a Western secularism that privileges no religion in order to provide space for all religions and to protect belief and unbelief alike? Or is it a Western "secular fundamentalism" that is anti-religious and increasingly, post 9/11, anti-Islam?

What we are witnessing today has little to do with Western democratic values and everything to do with a European media that reflects and plays to an increasingly xenophobic and Islamophobic society. The cartoons seek to test and provoke; they are not ridiculing Osama bin Laden or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi but mocking Muslims' most sacred symbols and values as they hide behind the fa├žade of freedom of expression. The win-win for the media is that explosive headline events, reporting them or creating them, also boosts sales. The rush to reprint the Danish cartoons has been as much about profits as about the prophet of Islam. Respected European newspapers have acted more like tabloids.

What is driving Muslim responses? At first blush, the latest Muslim outcries seem to reinforce the post 9/11 question of some pundits: "Why do they hate us?" with an answer that has become 'conventional wisdom': "They hate our success, democracy, freedoms..." - a facile and convenient as well as wrong-headed response. Such answers fail to recognize that the core issues in this 'culture war' are about faith, Muhammad's central role in Islam, and the respect and love that he enjoys as the paradigm to be emulated. They are also more broadly about identity, respect (or lack of it) and public humiliation. Would the mainstream media with impunity publish caricatures of Jews or of the holocaust? As France's Grand Rabbi Joseph Sitruk observed: "We gain nothing by lowering religions, humiliating them and making caricatures of them. It's a lack of honesty and respect", he said. He said freedom of expression "is not a right without limits".

A recently completed Gallup World Poll that surveyed Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia enables us to find data based answers about Islam by listening to the voices of a billion Muslims. This groundbreaking Gallup study provides a context and serves as a reality check on the causes for widespread outrage.

When asked to describe what Western societies could do to improve relations with the Arab/Muslim world, by far the most frequent reply (47 percent in Iran, 46 percent in Saudi Arabia, 43 percent in Egypt, 41 percent in Turkey, etc.) was that they should demonstrate more understanding and respect for Islam, show less prejudice, and not denigrate what Islam stands for. At the same time, large numbers of Muslims cite the West's technological success and its liberty and freedom of speech as what they most admire. When asked if they would include a provision for Freedom of Speech, defined as allowing all citizens to express their opinion on political, social and economic issues of the day if they were drafting a constitution for a new country, overwhelming majorities (94 percent in Egypt, 97 percent in Bangladesh, 98 percent in Lebanon etc.) in every country surveyed responded yes, they would.

Cartoons defaming the Prophet and Islam by equating them with terrorism are inflammatory. They reinforce Muslim grievances, humiliation and social marginalization and drive a wedge between the West and moderate Muslims, unwittingly playing directly into the hands of extremists. They also reinforce autocratic rulers who charge that democracy is anti-religious and incompatible with Islam.

Where do we go from here?

Core principles and values, like freedom of speech, cannot be compromised. However, freedoms do not exist in a vacuum; they do not function without limits. In many countries, hate speech (such as holocaust denial, incitement to racial hatred, advocating genocide) is a criminal offence prohibited under incitement-to-hatred legislation. Our Western secular democracies represent not only freedom of expression but also freedom of religion. Belief as well as unbelief needs to be protected. Freedom of religion in a pluralistic society ought to mean that some things are sacred and treated as such. The Islamophobia which is becoming a social cancer should be as unacceptable as anti-Semitism, a threat to the very fabric of our democratic pluralistic way of life. Thus, it is imperative for political and religious leaders, commentators and experts, and yes, the media, to lead in building and safeguarding our cherished values.

And what about Muslim responses? Muslim leaders are hard pressed to take charge, asserting their faith and rights as citizens, affirming freedom of expression while rejecting its abuse as a cover for prejudice. A sharp line must be drawn between legitimate forms of dissent and violent demonstrations or attacks on embassies that inflame the situation and reinforce Western stereotypes. The many Muslim leaders, from America and Europe to the Muslim world, who have publicly urged restraint and strongly condemned violence, play a critical role.

Globalization and an increasingly multi-cultural and multi-religious West test the mettle of our cherished democratic values. As the current cartoon controversy underscores, pluralism and tolerance today demand greater mutual understanding and respect from non-Muslims and Muslims alike.

(John L. Esposito, University Professor at Georgetown University, is a Gallup Senior Scientist and co-author of the forthcoming "Can you Hear Me Now: What a Billion Muslims are Trying to Tell Us.")


Fern Sidman said...



Columbia University students including the College Conservatives and campus Democrats plan to protest a speech Wednesday by a professor who has written that Jewish organizations exploit the Holocaust to deflect criticism of Israel and to extort European banks and governments for compensation.

Norman Finkelstein, an assistant professor of political science at DePaul University in Chicago, wrote in his 2000 book "The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering" that some Jews have used the Holocaust as an "extortion racket" to get compensation payments, and he has referred to Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel as the "resident clown" of the "Holocaust circus."

His most recent book, "Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History," is largely an attack on lawyer Alan Dershowitz's "The Case for Israel." In it he argues that Israel uses the outcry over perceived anti-Semitism as a bully weapon to stifle criticism.

In an editorial in Columbia University's student newspaper, The Columbia Spectator, Columbia sophomores, Chris Kulawik and Josh Lipsky write the following: "Those who assume that Finkelstein is just another "controversial" speaker, one of many in Columbia's recent past, fail to grasp the absurdity that is Finkelstein. Taking a job at DePaul University after being fired by New York University for his ludicrous and factually inaccurate book, The Holocaust Industry, this "scholar" makes his living off of absurd statements that garner comfortable speaking engagements. At a recent speech delivered at Yale University, Finkelstein equated the Jewish concern over Holocaust denial with a "level of mental hysteria." Clearly, we must first question his very "professorship." Anyone who so blatantly disregards facts and vehemently supports the murder of innocent children is worthy neither of academia nor of the title of professor.

Well, what precisely is Mr. Finkelstein's crime? It is not that he is a Holocaust revisionist. It is not that he denies the right of the Jewish state to exist. It is not that he cheapened the lives of the millions of innocents lost to the concentration camps by equating their systematic murder to any other large disaster. No, his crime both includes and transcends these radical, depraved stances. Only months after Sept. 11, 2001, Finkelstein asserted his support of terrorism. In that 2001 interview, Finkelstein exclaimed, "Frankly, part of me says—even though everything since Sept. 11 has been a nightmare—'You know what, we deserve the problem on our hands because some things [Osama] bin Laden says are true.'"

It is this sentiment that forces students to take a stand against Finkelstein's unique blend of pure idiocy and potent evil. Columbia attempts to teach its students to respect all opinions, listen to all viewpoints, and embrace the free exchange of ideas. We will listen, but we will not let a petty ploy to incite tension and turmoil go unnoticed."

In defense of Professor Finkelstein, the Columbia Spectator also published the views of Arab students. Maryum Saifee and Athar Abdul-Quader who write, "Finkelstein's critics, most notably Alan Dershowitz, charge Finkelstein with anti-Semitism precisely because of his criticism of Zionism, i.e. criticism of the Israeli occupation and Israeli state-sponsored human rights abuses committed against Palestinians. This isn't the first time that a reputable scholar has been typecast as anti-Semitic for critical views against Israeli policies (see David Horowitz's The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America). Undoubtedly, anti-Semitism is an ugly, appalling form of bigotry that deserves universal condemnation. However, Zionism is a political ideology and must never be confused with the Jewish religion, culture, or population. Contrary to the anti-American label commonly placed on Finkelstein, his critique of political Zionism is precisely the type of controversial political discourse that is characteristically American and is analogous to the College Democrats' stimulating debate on the Bush administration.

Finkelstein is often met with accusations of Holocaust revisionism, generally associated with Holocaust denial. Finkelstein's book The Holocaust Industry is actually a critique of Holocaust revisionist arguments that privilege the Holocaust as exceptional in the historiography of genocide. Far from the Anti-Defamation League's claims that Finkelstein is a Holocaust denier, his proof is an unambiguous affirmation that the Holocaust did occur -- his parents are living proof of its horrors! -- noting that the tragedy of the Holocaust has since been ruthlessly exploited and commercialized into what Finkelstein outlines as an industry to promote Zionist interests."

In Norman Finkelstein's own words, he states, "The problem is when you get to the United States. In the United States among those people who call themselves supporters of Israel, we enter the area of unreason. We enter a twilight zone. American Jewish organizations, they’re not only not up to speed yet with Steven Spielberg, they're still in the Leon Uris exodus version of history: the “this land is mine, God gave this land to me," and anybody who dissents from this, you can call it, lunatic version of history is then immediately branded an anti-Semite, and whenever Israel comes under international pressure to settle the conflict diplomatically, or when it is subjected to a public relations debacle, such as it was with the Second Intifada, a campaign is launched claiming there is a new anti-Semitism afoot in the world."

There is no question that Professor Norman G. Finkelstein is a self hating, viciously anti-Semitic Jew. One of his biggest supporters is David Irving, the Holocaust denier who was recently sentenced to three years in prison by an Austrian court for statements he made denying the veracity of the Holocaust. Despite the fact that Finkelstein in the son of Holocaust survivors, his vituperative and twisted and patently distorted logic is being embraced the world over by legions of devoted Jew haters.

We are told that a person can be honest, decent, moral and ethical without belief in G-d. We know that at the beginning of the 20th century, the false gods of education and culture began to replace the One true G-d of Israel. Jews began to believe that a moral and ethical person was one who was highly educated, one who attended the best of most prestigious universities and institutions of higher learning. We believed that an educated and cultured person was a moral person, who would never even entertain the notion of murder, of dishonesty and engaging in unethical practices.

At the beginning of World War II, that fallacy fell apart at the seams. For it was highly educated and extremely cultured German scientists who invented the gas chambers, who invented techniques to transform Jewish fat into soap and who discovered ways of making Jewish skin into lampshades. It was highly educated and cultured lawyers who devised and created laws that developed a society predicated on racism, fascism and xenophobia.

Let us never be fooled. "Reishis Chochma Yiras AdoShem". The beginning of wisdom is the fear and knowledge of G-d. Without that we have nothing. Without that, even highly educated and cultured people can and do engage in immorality, unethical conduct and become purveyors of lies, hatred, distortions, bigotry and Jew hatred. Professor Finkelstein is the personification of such evil.

b. said...

I would comment on your post, JD, but am unsure what would suffice as an appropriate follow-up to FS's blaze of wordy (glory?).

JD said...

Well, give it a try anyway. Yeah, Fern here, that was like, "Wow, where did that come from?" :) I'd also appreciate your comments on the comments that have been written for the Clay Aiken post. That's another odd one.

Anonymous said...

I donno where to put this comment. Quite wondering what happened between 2002 and 2004 - there seemed to be missing archives. Reading your post in 2002, you mentioned you're an MBA. I just wanna get different opinions from many different persons. How would you manage your money if you suddenly received RM1 million? What is the best way to invest it, when, where... how to reduce the tax...

b. said...


Esposito gets knocked a lot for not being 100% accurate about Islam or, by extension, Muslims, but he's not Muslim after all -- and he is trying to understand what for many Westerners is completely incomprehensible without the accompanying religious framework of actually belonging to the faith.

(phew! deep breath! long sentence!)

So give the man some credit for that.

Insofar as this article is concerned, he makes valid points, and I appreciate how he clearly discusses what problems Muslims have with the West, and what they don't -- in particular, that "we" don't hate "them" for their freedoms, technology, etc. It's a good article. I only wish more people would read and take what's valuable from it.

I think FS's connection with Esposito is that Esposito is often accused of being an apologist for Muslims -- isn't Finkelstein often accused of the same? Perhaps FS has confused the two in his mind, or thinks that there is no difference between the two men despite whatever may exist in reality.

(Is FS a "him" or "her"? I've assumed "him" because the male of the species is more given over to this sort of aggressiveness, but I could be quite wrong on this particular count.)

JD said...

Anonymous wrote: "Quite wondering what happened between 2002 and 2004 - there seemed to be missing archives."

Archives aren't missing; I didn't write anything during that time. :)

"Reading your post in 2002, you mentioned you're an MBA."

Just to let you know, someone having an MBA doesn't necessarily mean that that person will know about financial management (especially on a personal level). Now I myself do have a Bachelor's degree in Finance, and I did work for a time, long ago, with a man who was a personal financial planner; however, not everyone has that type of background or experience. Even with myself, while I know the basics of financial planning, trying to advise someone out here in SE Asia (as opposed to my native US) is fraught with peril because I don't know the investments here - nor the tax codes - as well as I do back home. So, caveat emptor! (Let the buyer beware!)

"How would you manage your money if you suddenly received RM1 million? What is the best way to invest it, when, where... how to reduce the tax..."

These types of questions are extremely difficult to answer without knowing the person better. For example, how risk averse is the person? Even this answer changes over time. What I might invest in at the age of 30 will probably be different from what I would invest in at 45, and both of those choices would be different from what I would chose at 60.

Moreover, people are going to be more comfortable with certain types of investments than with others. I, for example, saw a bunch of people lose thousands of dollars because they invested in US real estate in the 80s. As a result, I tend to be averse to those investments (like RE) where you can't look up the market price every day. (I want to know what my investment is worth on any given day, even if I don't necessarily look up the price.)

And, of course, considering tax implications will complicate investment decisions immensely. If you receive such a windfall, chances are good you're going to pay a fair chunk of change for taxes that year. There might be some ways to mitigate that tax burden but, because I don't know Malaysian tax codes, I'm not in a position to say whether the US tax strategies I might suggest would be applicable to Malaysia.

Plus, you have to consider the future tax burden as well. One strategy I might suggest to an American would be to invest in tax-free government bonds where the interest income coming out of those bonds isn't taxable. However, 1) I don't know if Malaysia has a similar type of government bond, and 2) there's the issue of interest being haram.

I'm sorry this comment isn't of as much help as you'd prolly like, but financial planning shouldn't normally be done in the comments section of a blog to begin with. :)