However, we are living in a time where stereotyping a particular community has become a common practice and hampers the functioning of pluralistic societies.
Islamophobia is one such practice that has gripped a section of media, academia and popular discourse. It seeks to fragment society on religious lines by presenting an image of Islam as intolerant, violent and incompatible with modernity and democratic values.
John Louis Esposito, a well-known scholar of Islamic studies, believes that as long as there is Islamophobia, religious pluralism is hard to achieve. And in order to do away with this practice, theologians and scholars have to work in tandem. Esposito was in İstanbul to attend a two-day international seminar on “The Arab Awakening and Peace in the Middle East: Muslim and Christian Perspectives.”
He talked about theological, sociological and political challenges to pluralism and how the global resurgence of religion in the world in general and the Middle East in particular is shaping international relations.
“There are people who are discussing pluralism theologically, and it’s important to do it within religion, and it also has theological implications of accepting the ‘other’ from outside, but the more important thing is to be internationally minded about it so that the theologians can engage with the scholars of international affairs and try to provide them with something helpful and tell them that there could be a constructive use of religion,” said Professor Esposito.
Professor Esposito also reminded participants that religion can be used positively as well as abused by its proponents. He gave the example of religious minorities living under the threat of majoritarian forces. He traced the genealogy of the interfaith dialogue in the recent past. He informed that the notion of serious dialogue between religions in modern times is about 30 years old.
Responding to questions from Sunday’s Zaman, he elaborated on the subject.
What role does religion play in society in our time? Do you see any change in perception from previously held beliefs about it?
Clearly, we have gone through different periods, but in the late 20th century the approach to seeing religion was the model of modernization and secularization and religion was at best a marginal factor, it represented tradition and tradition was a problem. The perception at that time was that it [religion] would phase out. One of the experts at that time said that “Muslims had to choose between Mecca and mechanization.” That was the time when it was thought that if you involve religion in politics, you were moving backwards. Then at the end of the 20th century, we had a global resurgence of religion. It started with Islam, but then it was seen with Christian rightist groups in America and in Jewish rightists in Israel. And today we have an impact of the resurgence of religion where people say that religion is important and in fact there are deep divisions taking place within religion. It’s quite complicated when some people say that it’s all about politics and some people say it is purely religious, and I would say it is a combination of the two. There is an interface between politics and religion. If you see it as either/or, then your paradigm is problematic.
How do you think the debate on Islam has changed since the 9/11 attacks?
9/11 had a tremendous impact on debates related to Islam. First of all, 9/11 has fed Islamophobia a lot, which is to me a reflection of a conflation of both the terrorists within Islam and the right-wing political parties who are anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim. They are primarily Zionists, Christian Zionists, as well as those who say that any kind of Islam is a problem. This leads to a debate about what Islam is. Is it the Quran, Shariah or the life of Prophet Muhammad? And then we get people saying naive things like the difference between Islam and Christianity is that the Prophet Muhammad was a warrior and Islam is a religion of violence, not distinguishing defense from offense.
Do you think that there can be a healthy discussion on pluralism in the presence of Islamophobia?
I think that is the challenge -- we should underscore the importance of pluralism in such an environment. There are people who are discussing it theologically, and it’s important to do it within [discussions of] religion and it also has theological implications about accepting the “other” from outside, but the more important thing is to be internationally minded about it so that theologians can engage with scholars of international affairs and try to provide them with something helpful and tell them that there could be a constructive use of religion. They [theologians] should try to convince them [scholars] that being unaware about what religion says will lessen their ability to bring about change. Islamophobia is wwa symptom of a broader problem; unless we realize that in a globalized society pluralism will remain very difficult.
You once said that the Vatican should play a role in interfaith dialogue. What did you seek from the Vatican?
The Vatican has played a significant role in the last 30 years. But it has been on and off. There was good work during the time of Pope John Paul II. In the current situation the Vatican has an even bigger role to play in interfaith dialogue.
You have been accused of being an Islamic apologist. What is your answer to your critics?
Well, I think it is indicative of the politicization of even academia in our world. I started off when nobody was interested in Islam and I did not have much of a reputation. I was the kind of scholar who is either ignored of disagreed with. In the last 15 years or so, we developed name-calling and categorizing. The irony here is is that many including Daniel Pipes who actually does have academic credentials, do not have academic credentials. If I call them anti-Muslim, pro-Israel or Zionists, they become outraged. They do the same thing with the term Islamist; I say that Islamists can be mainstream or violent. They say that primarily they are violent and the mainstream ones are wolves in sheep’s clothing. It’s about the use of terminology, and it reflects a radicalized view. They call me names because they are frustrated that I am not a Muslim, and many of them, if not all, happen to be Jewish, but if I say this, that would be seen as unprofessional and racist but it shows how politicized we have become.
Speaking of religious pluralism, how do you see Turkey?
I think Turkey has been a very interesting example for practicing religious pluralism. The [Justice and Development Party] AKP demonstrated that it began as a Muslim party and as it got in touch with realities of the world, it has actually become more pluralistic. It gained the confidence of the people over the years and has been elected and re-elected in elections and at the same time dealing well with the European Union and the United States.
Do you think that a congregation of religious leaders can solve problems like the Arab Spring, which are beyond religion and have more socio-economic and political roots?
The more you know about religious leaders, the more you realize that they are senior bureaucrats. They have tremendous potential because of the extent that they engage with people. They have a symbolic role within their community and outside. But for that they must have a vision. Just addressing an issue and bringing out a document will not do anything. If you see it as an important issue, you must train the next generation accordingly. And if there is a sincere effort, they can bring about a change. Giving a 40-year-old sermon would be irrelevant: They must deal with the current practical realities.
Do you believe that Islamists had anything to do with the Arab Spring?
I have written a lot on this issue. The Arab Spring had quite a broad base. The Islamists were there in Tunisia and Egypt, but they were working underground and in fact some of them were living outside the country. In Egypt young people were seen on the streets and the Muslim Brotherhood was not at center stage. Now after the revolution the Islamists have emerged and the question is how much of a role they have played. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has been the main opposition for the last 40 years, so when elections came, people voted for them because none of the other parties were strong enough to pose a challenge to them.