Interview with the Islam scholar John Louis Esposito

Islam′s image problem

In conversation with Habib El Mallouki, the renowned US Islam scholar John Louis Esposito talks about burgeoning Islamophobic and right-wing populist tendencies in Europe and the US as a consequence of the terrorist activities of radical Islamist groups

In the words of the right-wing conservative jurist Carl Schmitt, every society apparently needs an enemy. In your view, is Islam serving this enemy function today in Western societies?

John Louis Esposito: Since I am not familiar with Schmitt′s work, I will not comment directly. But I think it is fair to say that historically tribes, ethnic and nation identities have defined themselves in terms of the ″other″, or more accurately, over and against the other, relying on stereotyping. Today, many in Europe and America have experienced a down-turn in their countries′ economies and, as polls report, fear for their future and especially their children′s. That has fed the growth of far right, anti-government, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim political parties and candidates, as well as of Islamophobic (anti-Islam and anti-Muslim attitudes and behaviours) movements, authors and social media websites that feed bias, discrimination, hate speech and hate crimes. They exploit the horrific and barbaric actions of terrorists, who of course should be condemned and hunted down, to brushstroke and condemn Islam and the vast majority of Muslims.

An academic study on Islamophobia in Germany published last January showed that at least half of the German population holds Islamophobic views. Is this statistic also reflected in other Western societies?

Esposito: While the situation varies from country to country, it is fair to say that in many European countries – as in America – Islamophobia has become a major issue, growing enormously following the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California.

Is this prejudice historical in nature or are there other reasons for it?

Esposito: Obviously, attacks like 9/11 in the US and 7/7 in the UK and subsequent domestic and international terrorist activities and attacks by al-Qaida, IS and others generate understandable fear which has then been exploited by politicians, political parties and an assortment of hate preachers. If you combine my response to question one with the very significant role of mass media and social media, which has become a major influence on popular opinion and culture, you have a combustible mix as a result.

Do Western media and the sometimes undifferentiated and one-sided public discourse bear some of the blame for Islam′s negative image?

Esposito: Media is market driven (″if it bleeds it leads″) and this emphasiaes conflicts, violence and terrorism. For example a Media Tenor study of 975,000 pieces of European and American coverage from 2001 to 2011 found that coverage of Islam and Muslims in 2001 resulted in 2% on extremism and 0.5% on Islam and the majority of ordinary Muslims. In 2011, the coverage jumped to 25% on extremism, but was still at 0.5% for mainstream Islam and Muslims.  Social media studies have been just as bad, if not worse. Just two major studies in American uncovered more than $165 million of funding for a network of Islamophobic bloggers and websites.

PEGIDA supporters in Dresden (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Settnik)
Popular right gaining ground: "many in Europe and America have experienced a down-turn in their countries′ economies and, as polls report, fear for their future and especially their children′s. That has fed the growth of far right, anti-government, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim political parties and candidates, as well as of Islamophobic movements," explains Esposito

After the triumphant victory of the "Front National" in France and several right-wing parties in various European countries, many Western intellectuals say the situation is reminiscent of the 1930s. Do you believe that parallels can be drawn between 21st century Islamophobia and 20th century anti-Semitism?

Esposito: Interestingly, a Gallup study based on major polling found that a significant number of those who were biased towards Muslims were also anti-Semitic. Major studies have shown that if you compare anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim rhetoric, dehumanisation, cartoons and caricatures there are striking parallels.

In many schools, at institutions of higher education and throughout academia in Western societies, adolescents and young people are confronted with a predominantly negative image of Islam. What effect might this have on the future development of a globalised, pluralistic society?

Esposito: It can have a devastating effect. On the one hand there certainly are many positive forces. Compared to only a few decades ago, there are now courses on world religions and on Islam, Islamic history, politics and society in many schools and universities. Morever, there has also been an increase in good media programming (though much of it as discussed above is problematic). At the same time, there are schools and parents that increasingly seek to control the teaching and curriculum, to eliminate or limit coverage, or to even present biased coverage. In some areas of America, for example, parents object to any teaching about Islam and Muslims or simply want them to be portrayed as violent and evil, overlooking the fact that Christianity and Judaism have also had and continue to have militant religious extremists who, as in Islam, do not represent the mainstream majority, but are nevertheless dangerous.

The good news, though, is that in countries like America, Australia and in Europe, increasing numbers of the younger generation attend schools and universities that are multi-ethnic and multi-religious. Where that occurs, one finds that polls show that the younger generation is less biased than the older generation, who were raised and educated in different times and circumstances.

Interview conducted by Habib El Mallouki

© Qantara.de 2016

John Louis Esposito is professor of International Affairs and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. He is publisher of the "Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Islamic World". In 2007 he co-authored the book "Who speaks for Islam? What a billion Muslims really think" with Dalia Mogahed.

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Comments for this article: Islam′s image problem

Dear Qantara
I have a great deal of respect doe Professor Esposito for his many years work with Muslim communities, Islam and Islamophobia.
Yet, his statemnet in this article that; burgeoning Islamophobic and right-wing populist tendencies in Europe and the US are a consequence of the terrorist activities of radical Islamist groups, is way off the mark.

I have been involved in the fight against racism and Islamophobia for over 30 years in Europe and I know that these trends have aways been present - overtly or covertly - in the European present, recent past and even in the distant history. A hostile view of Islam began in the 8th century when Muslims expanded into the Iberian Peninsula. Islam as a faith was rejected and seen as a direct challenge to Christianity; Muslims were seen as heretics and their prophet a diabolical fraud and a liar. By the time of the Crusades, Muslims were viewed as a geopolitical threat and military means were seen as the only way to address the danger to the Church. Ignorance of Islam and abject rejection of Muslim culture reached its peak in Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, in a 1415 painting by Giovanni Da Modena and in Voltaire’s play, Mahomet where he calls the Prophet, a driver of camels, who received an unintelligent book which contradicts common sense in every page. He carried fire and sword, murdered fathers and ravished their daughters”. The personal attacks upon the Prophet were a build up to justify and incite hatred towards Muslims.
Pope Urban’s rallying slogan in 1095 to free the “Holy Land” from the vile infidel Muslims set in motion the Crusades. Coming close to the recent times, Academicians have defined Islamophobia as ‘anti-Muslim or anti-Islamic racism’ and as ‘hostility towards Muslims and Islam’. As such, Islamophobia is prejudice, intolerance and discrimination against Muslims and Islam.
In the last twenty years, however, this phenomenon has become more explicit, more extreme and more dangerous. Islamophobia has also grown tremendously around the world after the ‘September 11 attacks and later because of other violent attacks on civilians as recent as 13 Nov 2015 in Paris.
As a result, an anti-Islam discourse has found its way, right into the top political leadership, mass media and down to the population in general. This mind-set has produced an atmosphere where freedom of expression is misused to vent abusive opinions and hate speech.
Islamophobia is manifested in newspapers, on the radio, on television, in church sermons and in literature. Even in entertainment magazines for men and children's books one can find anti-Islam stories and remarks. The media constantly portrays non-European cultures, especially cultures from different Muslim countries as inferior, primitive and violent.
A close look at the European Scene would give any progressive and concerned citizen a clear picture of this organised campaign against Islam and Muslim communities. The sad part is that anti-Islam campaign is not being conducted by skinheads or misguided individuals. This sickness has infected the mainstream society.
The problems between the West and Islam are not religion-not in the basic defining tenets of either Islam or Christianity, but rather in the exploitation of the poor and ignorant members of the two societies. On both sides, extremists use fear and retribution as tactics to encourage subservience among the "faithful." Education is key to removing the rot from the brains of all of the blind followers
In marked contrast to Christian attitudes to Islam, Muslims have historically respected Christianity as a sister religion that shares the same prophets and many of the same moral values. Muslims would
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welcome a rapprochement that heralded an end to Islamophobia. For this to be realized, however, most people in the Western societies have to shed their racism and face up to the realities of past and recent encounters between Muslims and Christians.
In short, the only way forward lies in our ability to listen and act rationally. Acting on our emotions may satisfy our short-term need but it will not help the Muslim communities to be respected and accepted.
My experience of 40 years in the West tells me that no matter how bleak the future looks; there is always a ray of hope and a tiny candle of light burning to show us the way. Faith in the best in humanity can move mountains and if we do not loose sight of our goals, the journey will one- day be completed.
But it is imperative that the progressive European forces must wake up, because to those much is given, is much required.
Pluralistic approach is the answer!
In the case of Europe, I believe, the thinking man’s true contribution lies in helping political leaders by re-examining the path via which the cultivated person is educated and developed, taking into account that one of the key characteristic of the modern society is, it’s pluralistic nature.

Bashy Quraishy16.01.2016 | 03:42 Uhr