Overrated: John Esposito

A sceptical look at America’s leading apologist for Islam, fêted all over Washington from the Saudis to the CIA

Islam Overrated

In forums and debates all over the place John Esposito is to be found commenting on one or another aspect of the Islamic world. He is an outstanding example of an academic who exploits his supposedly informed position to turn himself into a spokesman and a public figure. Yet everything he says boils down to the proposition that Muslims are always in the right, and to suggest they might be in the wrong is Islamophobia. Conquered by Muslims, non-Muslims must choose between conversion, death and paying a tax that gives them an inferior status (dhimma). After 9/11, Esposito declared himself “pleasantly surprised” by the number of converts to Islam.

In the recent past, many who were not necessarily Communists idealised an imaginary, peace-loving Soviet Union; they were known as fellow-travellers or “useful idiots”. Esposito, born a Catholic in Brooklyn in 1940, idealises a similarly imaginary, peace-loving Islamic world. The cause has changed, but obsessive belief remains constant.

For years Esposito taught at a Jesuit college in Massachusetts. There he might have stayed except that Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a member of the Saudi ruling family and the nearest equivalent to an Arab George Soros, gave an endowment of $20 million to found the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at the Catholic Georgetown University in Washington. Interfaith promotion is a deception in the context. Churches are forbidden in Saudi Arabia and Christians face persecution-even beheading-for holding a service or handing out prayerbooks. The Georgetown Center fits into the worldwide campaign which the Saudi rulers finance in order to place a mask of normality over their brutally retrograde country and harsh proselytising version of Islam. As director of this centre, Esposito has had a platform on which to appear as an expert on Islam rather than a Saudi propagandist.

Hitherto almost entirely uninformed about everything Islamic, official America has been taking Esposito at his valuation of himself as an authority. He has briefed the State Department, the CIA, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. A tireless operator, he is, or has been, on a dozen bodies operating in the margins, such as the United Nations Alliance of Civilisations, the European Network of Experts on De-radicalisation, and the Centre for the Study of Islam and Democracy. He has also been president of the Middle East Studies Association, the body that used to represent professional Arabist scholars before it was taken over by anti-Western and anti-Israeli activists of the Edward Said type.

Most of Esposito’s 30-plus books have been written in collaboration with like-minded useful idiots, such as Georgetown colleague John O. Voll, Azzam Tamimi, a supporter of Palestinian terror groups, and Egyptian-born Dalia Mogahed, who backs the Muslim Brotherhood and has written pro-Islam speeches for President Obama. The books are repetitive exercises in Muslim apologetics.

Millions of Muslims have been killed since 1945 by other Muslims in wars and revolutions, and millions more Muslims, Christians and Jews driven into exile, but Esposito’s expertise lies in skipping over realities of the kind. His pitch is that the Arab and Muslim countries are doing well, modernising, liberalising and democratising. “Diversity and variety, dynamism and flexibility,” he writes in denial of the political and social degradation of the region, “account for a force that continues to be present from Africa to Asia.” Or again, “Elections in Bahrain, Morocco, Pakistan, Turkey, Afghanistan, Iraq, Malaysia, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia [oh yes!] . . . have reinforced both the continual saliency of democracy and, in particular, the role of religion in electoral politics”—the last clause negating the entire proposition.

In some places, he unwittingly depicts Muslims as children full of irrational hate for the grownups. Ludicrously, Americans have brought terror on themselves by failing to address the issues of tolerance and pluralism which allegedly define al-Qaeda and their like. The focus on Osama bin Laden, Esposito thinks, served to distort “the diverse international sources and the relevance of one man”. In other places, he writes terror down as “much like other violent crime”, the sort of thing all big cities undergo. Yasser Arafat’s call for jihad was comparable to a literacy campaign or the fight against Aids. The description of Hamas as “a community-focused group that engages in honey, cheese-making and home-based clothing manufacture” would surprise Israelis under missile attacks from Gaza.

The Arab Spring, the spread of the Muslim Brothers, civil war in Syria, Iranian imperialism, the killing and persecution of Christians in Islamic countries, are so many day-by-day refutations of Esposito’s fanciful interpretation of events. As the corpses pile up, people draw their own conclusions. Useful idiots who excused such tragic outcomes are then remembered, if at all, as psychological curiosities.