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The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?

This volume was not written primarily for the professional community of scholars of the Middle East or Islam. Rather than targeting specialists, John Esposito has chosen to address that sector of the educated public that may have some interest in foreign affairs in general and the Arab and Muslim worlds in particular. For such readers, Esposito makes special efforts to demonstrate just how misleading are so many of the stereotypes which continue to impede Western comprehension of Islam and contemporary Islamic revivalism. American media and governmental elites would do well to give his analysis careful attention. This book constitutes an excellent companion to Professor Esposito's Islam: The Straight Path (Oxford University Press, 1988).

Esposito articulates gently and in detail how the application of such Christian categories as "fundamentalism" to Islam muddies understanding, how Communism has been replaced by Islam in the eyes of some as the West's principal enemy, and how Islam relates to contemporary Arab regimes and to democracy. He argues convincingly that to reify Islam is an egregious error, and that Western comprehension of Muslim activism requires a discriminating sense of the very different forms which the revival of Islam has assumed. Esposito deplores the plethora of erroneous public commentary on Islam in the United States, and is certainly correct that observers who are "not simply dismissive of Islamic activism [are] often viewed as being biased toward the enemy" (p. 173). Unfortunately, the author's discussion of those he holds primarily responsible for this unhappy situation manifests some of the same failure to make distinctions which he attributes to those he criticizes.

Like most other authorities on contemporary Muslim revivalism, Esposito rejects "fundamentalism" as a term too heavily laden with Christian connotations to be useful in explication of Islam. Islamicists seek authenticity and autonomy in faith, culture and society, Esposito suggests, and continue an indigenous tradition of tajdid (revival) and islah (reform) which reaches back to the very beginnings of their faith. The fact that Muslim "fundamentalism" is now commonly used in the West as a synonym for terrorism, he maintains, makes it an especially unhelpful category.

Esposito deplores the lack of attention by the American media to the fact that most "fundamentalists" are young, ambitious, upwardly mobile immigrants to the larger cities of the Islamic world who have capped a traditional upbringing in their native villages with university training in such "modern" fields as medicine, science or engineering. The majority of Islamists are hardly primitives, he explains, and in fact constitute a new elite that is engaged in a sophisticated debate about how best to rectify the cultural contradictions which beset the Muslim world. Failure by the Western media to convey the reasons which Islamic activists themselves adduce for their antipathy to America (neo-imperialism, favoritism of Israel, and support for such repressive regimes as the Shah's Iran and Numeiri's Sudan) is for Esposito especially regrettable. Perhaps most inexcusable, in his opinion, is the way such scholars as Bernard Lewis and Daniel Pipes have encouraged biased media coverage by their own depiction of Islam as homogeneous and unchanging, and their portrait of Muslim revivalism as inherently anti-Western and anti-modern. To the mediascholarly axis which maintains that Islamic fundamentalism can only be understood as the result of a clash between mutually exclusive civilizations, Esposito's book offers a badly needed corrective.

It is all too easy for a West long accustomed to think about international affairs within the context of Cold War superpower rivalry, Esposito argues, to replace the defunct USSR with resurgent Islam as an "evil empire at war with the New World Order and ... global stability." In this regard he cites former Vice President Dan Quayle's association of activist Islam with Communism and Nazism, the newspaper headlines referring to "Muslim Rage," the "Global Intifada," and how "Rising Islam May Overwhelm the West" (pp. 4, 168). A belief that contemporary Arab regimes are in danger of imminent collapse as a result of the Islamic onslaught, and the conviction that Islam is incompatible with democracy, are of course only strengthened by such verbal overkill.

Esposito correctly points out that the growing strength of revivalist Islam has in fact encouraged Arab and Muslim regimes to augment their security services and engage in widespread violations of human rights. Such regimes may not be totally displeased with the new "threat" that they maintain they confront since it provides them an excuse to delay or avoid democratization. Meanwhile, their attempts at repression serve mainly to radicalize Islamic movements and drive them underground. "If attempts to participate in the electoral process are blocked, crushed or negated," Esposito warns, "the currency of democracy as a viable mechanism for political and social change will be greatly devalued...." (p. 189) More the pity, since Esposito believes that Islam is in no way ineluctably antithetical to democracy.

The majority of Islamic organizations, Esposito maintains, now work within the political system when they are allowed to do so and indeed advaocate democratization. Their members participate in elections, serve in parliaments and cabinets, and constitute the major political opposition in Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia and Jordan. Many activists assert that such traditional Muslim concepts as shura (consultation) and ijma (community consensus) provide a persuasive rationale for democracy. In Esposito's opinion, democracy has in fact become an "integral part of modern Islamic political thought and practice" (p. 187). Sadly but not surprisingly, the democratic inclinations of Muslim movements have provoked strongly negative reactions from those with an interest in maintaining the stereotype of Islam as irredeemably hostile and alien. For one excellent example of such a reaction, see Martin Kramer, "Islam vs. Democracy," Commentary, January 1993, pp. 35-42.

Throughout his book Esposito emphasizes the variety of political incarnations that Islam has assumed. Muslim governments friendly to the West hold power in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, while professedly Islamic regimes that denounce America as the "Great Satan" rule in Iran and Libya. Moderate Muslim organizations such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, Kuwait's Jamiyyat alIslah and Tunisia's Renaissance Party have vastly more members than do such extremist groups as Egypt's Takfir wa al-Hijra and Lebanon's Hizbullah and Islamic Jihad. Tabligh-i-Jamaat, a worldwide Islamic missionary organization which eschews politics, has millions of members and affects far more lives than do the spectacular exploits of a few thousand Muslim fanatics. As Esposito notes, differences abound among Muslim activists on a range of issues from the nature of the state through Islamic law to the status of women and minorities. The Ayatollah Khomeini, Esposito observes, was only "one spokesman, not the spokesman, of Islam" (p. 180). Esposito is correct to suggest that the issues of "what Islam" and "whose Islam" remain far from resolution, and continue to be intensely debated by politically aware Muslims throughout the Middle East and elsewhere.

Where Esposito errs is in his treatment of putatively hostile critics of Islamic and Arab claims as identical. It would shock--and perhaps outrage--Leslie Gelb, Charles Krauthammer, Bernard Lewis and Strobe Talbott (three of whom are on the political Left) to find themselves linked with Patrick Buchanan, an outspoken conservative, as critics of Islam. The Gelb-Talbott group strongly opposes Buchanan's call for an end to American intervention in the Muslim world in general and in Iraq in particular, disagrees profoundly with his calling Congress "Israeli occupied territory," and of course rejects Buchanan's endorsement (made during his presidential campaign) of Palestinian national self-determination. Esposito's frequent citations of Buchanan (see pp. 5, 175, 177, 188-89) fail to probe the ambiguity of Buchanan's statements about Islam. On the one hand, Esposito quotes Buchanan as observing in 1990 that "[For] some Americans, searching for a new enemy against whom to test our mettle and power after the death of Communism, Islam is the preferred antagonist. But, to declare Islam an enemy of the United States is to declare a second Cold War that is unlikely to end in the same resounding victory as the first" (p. 5). On the other, Esposito adduces earlier comments by Buchanan which are indisputably unfriendly to Islam without making an attempt to resolve the discrepancy. The fact is that Buchanan's presidential bid introduced into the political arena criticisms being made by prominent American cultural traditionalists (or "paleoconservatives") and assorted libertarians who oppose any crusade against Muslims or other Third World peoples but are still uncertain of how best to think about Islam. In the post Cold War era, discourse on Islam among American elites has become fully as complex--and varied--as debates among Muslim activists themselves. Assuming that arguments of American critics of interventionism who are sympathetic to Islam continue to attract support, Muslim intellectuals may in time find good reason to rethink some of their own stereotypes about America and the West.

John Esposito is to be congratulated for this gracefully written contribution to public enlightenment concerning our Muslim neighbors.
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Author:Sullivan, Antony T.
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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