Spectators packed Hutchison Commons last Wednesday night to hear renowned Islamic scholar John Esposito's talk entitled "Understanding Islam in the Modern World," organized by the Muslim Students Association (MSA).
Esposito, a professor of Religion, International Studies and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, rose to prominence after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, when academics took greater interest in politics of the Islamic world.
Before Esposito spoke, vice president of the MSA and third-year Khalil Qato encouraged those present to think forward to "a cold Autumn night 20 years from now at the U of C" when students will hold our generation responsible for resolving the current situation.
Ahmed Rehab, a software engineer and director of the Council of American-Islamic Relations, as well as a frequent commentator on Islamic issues, then took the podium. He said Islam is truly a Western religion and will eventually find its niche in the West, but that a misrepresentation of the religion, ignorance, and an Islamophobic bias in the news media prevents that realization.
Esposito, who spoke next, slammed Americans for their ignorance concerning Islam. "I have the best job in the world, because people have been asking the exact same questions for 30 years," he said.
He compared today's situation with that of the eighth century, when the Islamic empire encroached upon Europe. "We think of 14 centuries of jihad, they think of 14 centuries of crusade," Esposito said.
On the subject of the controversial Danish cartoons, Esposito, a Roman Catholic monk for 10 years, compared drawing a cartoon depicting Muhammad as a terrorist to drawing one depicting Jesus as a pedophile.
Esposito said the current problem is less a clash of cultures than a clash of Islam with U.S. foreign policy. He said Americans constantly ask Muslims to understand them without scrutinizing their own actions.
America must promote broader self-determination in the Muslim world and develop a balanced policy on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, he said. Esposito quoted from polls to demonstrate that Muslims and Americans alike regard violent extremism as a serious problem, and that most victims of extremism are Muslim.
Esposito denounced terms such as "Islamofascism" that he said obscure the issue and confuse religion with statecraft, noting how dictators use extremism to divide the world into "believers" and "infidels" to pursue nationalist goals. He concluded by advocating a jihad against Islamofascism.
Esposito's books include Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam and What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam. He serves as editor-in-chief for Oxford's series of Islamic reference books and has previously served as president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America.