The Future of Islam
By John Esposito
Read Preface by Karen Armstrong by clicking here
John L. Esposito and Karen Armstrong: Author One-to-One
Karen Armstrong is the author of numerous works on comparative religion, including the critically-acclaimed The Case for God. She spoke with John L. Esposito about Western perceptions of Muslims and the issues facing the world’s fastest growing religion.
Armstrong: How did you view Islam before you began to study it seriously? How did study affect your understanding of Muslim faith and culture?
Esposito: Growing up in Brooklyn, NY, surrounded by Italian Catholic neighbors, I knew little about the one Irish girl in my class, and much less about Arabs or Islam who were invisible in the American landscape. And what I did know (much of it, I discovered later, was the product of bias and stereotypes) did not attract me to “these strangers”. In addition, since most theology and religion departments did not teach Islam, the prospect of getting a teaching position in this area were indeed bleak. When the department chair of religion at Temple encouraged me to take a course in Islam with a newly hired Muslim professor, I declined. However, he was “gently adamant” and I, reflecting on my precarious position as a grad student, finally agreed to “take just one course.”
When I first encountered Islam in graduate school, I was astonished to discover that Islam was another Abrahamic faith. While the Judeo-Christian connection was well known, no one ever mentioned a Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. Why? If Muslims recognize and revere many of the major patriarchs and prophets of Judaism and Christianity (including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus) and God’s revealed books, the Torah and the Message (Gospels) of Jesus, why had I not been aware of these similarities after all my years of liberal arts and theological training?
Armstrong: Western feelings about Islam have certainly intensified since 9/11. But do you think that the Western perception of Islam has fundamentally changed? If so, how has it changed? If not, why not?
Esposito: There certainly has been more coverage of Islam and Muslims are more visible in the public square. However, during the past decade continued terrorist attacks, the sharp politicization among experts and political commentators, the influence of neocons and the hardline Christian Right have fed a significant increase in anti-Islam and anti-Muslim (Islamophobia) attitudes and policies. The Gallup World Poll and other major polls have demonstrated the impact on public opinion. When Americans were asked in 2007 what they admire about Islam, 57% (that figure dropped to 53% in 2009) said “nothing” or “I don’t know.” The critical missing link in our information and the key question in understanding Muslims ought to be “What do Muslims globally, the mainstream majority, really think?” To chart a new way forward, we in the West need to know not only what experts and pseudo-experts say about Muslim attitudes, beliefs, grievances, hopes, fears, and desires but also and most importantly what the often silenced Muslim majority have to say. I believe we’d discover many commonalities in their values, hopes and dreams.
At the same time, there has been an exponential growth in information and knowledge regarding Islam and Muslims, in books and media. It’s not clear that this has led to greater understanding. Toward that end I have seen an increase in inter-civilizational and inter-religious dialogue initiatives and media and popular culture projects that reach a broad audience, especially youth who are the future of Islam.
Armstrong: What are the particular challenges that Islam faces in the modern world?
Esposito: The first challenge is time. In contrast to Christian reforms that grew out of and were influenced primarily by conditions in the West over several centuries, Islam and Muslims have decades, not centuries, to make significant progress in a globalizing world characterized by Western political, military, and economic hegemony. Secondly, many Muslims today pursue reform not from a position of power and strength but from one of relative weakness, struggling for change in the face of authoritarianism and repression, limited freedom of speech and the press, and in some cases war and terror.
Armstrong: What do you find most hopeful in current Muslim thinking?
Esposito: Post 9/11, the call to reform Islam, to strengthen its relevance in a rapidly changing twenty-first-century world, has intensified. If some say that Islam is a perfect religion that doesn’t need to change or adapt, many others stress that Islam is inherently dynamic and that reinterpretation and reform are critical in the struggle to respond to the demands of our times, to marginalize extremists, and to promote gender equality, religious pluralism, and human rights. This debate has been intensified by a modern technology and mass communications and by the growth of religious extremism and terrorism in the name of Islam.
An influential group of vibrant Muslim intellectuals and religious leaders, from Africa to Asia, from Europe to America, have addressed the role of Islam in contemporary society: How do religion and Islamic law contribute to the modern nation-state? Where do Islamic values apply to key issues of today, like democracy, secularism, gender equality, human rights, free market economies, modern banking? What is the role of the clergy (ulama); are they the preeminent authoritative voices who speak for Islam?
Reformists are clergy, as well as intellectuals and activists; rulers and citizens, both traditionalist and modernist. They can be found at Islamic institutes and universities, at academic and religious conferences, and in parliamentary debates. Reformist ideas proliferate in hundreds of books and articles, audios, videos and DVDs, in newspaper editorials, in muftis’ fatwas, and on the Internet. As in the history of Christianity and the Reformation, change in Islam is not limited to debates in theology and law but also involves struggles in politics and society, and at times violence and terror.