Questions have arisen across the Arab Spring where the rise of political Islam has left the West wondering about the nature of the Arab revolutions. John Esposito stands among the handful of Western scholars able to take a deeper look at the scene and resist the tide of Islamophobia, about which he has written a book in cooperation with Ibrahim Kallin and published recently. Esposito attended the Nyon Process discussions in Tunisia and gave his insights to Ahram Online, shedding light upon the possible futures of the Arab Spring.
Esposito is professor of international affairs and Islamic studies at Georgetown University and director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.
Ahram Online: In your latest book, Islamophobia, you mention Western media as the biggest cause for the misunderstanding of Islam and equating it to terrorism, but what role did Arab media and dictatorships play in maintaining that misconception?
John Esposito: In the book I note that dictators from the region were keen to display a negative image of Islamists to the world, playing the role of protecting the interests of the West. Authoritarian regimes always used the idea that any opposition was Islamist. My camp of researchers distinguish between radical Islamists and mainstream Muslims. The other camp would echo what the Mubaraks of this world would say: participants in society are wolves in sheeps' clothing. Post 9/11, even Saudis emphasised the role of radicals, in particular criticising the Muslim Brotherhood, calling what's happening in the Arab world "disturbances."
AO: What could be the impact of upcoming US administrations in face of this Islamophobia?
JE: In terms of policies regarding Palestine and Israel, there's little that the American president can do; power is with the Congress. Even if Obama is reelected, Democrats will still push for continuation of the more "biased" policies in fear that they won't get reelected in parliament, so there's little to be expected in terms of change.
AO: Why has the Arab voice remained so quiet in US media and politics?
JE: The Muslim community only recently began evolving in society as mainstream Americans, but that hasn't yet translated into politics. Historically, successful Arabs who live in the US are usually escaping their regimes and aren't likely to get involved in politics. They also wish to disassociate themselves with Islamists and Islam, trying to sustain an image as good average citizens. This should start to change, however, with a young generation that is more willing to take risks, and play a bigger role as Muslims-Americans, finding a balance between learning at Harvard and MIT and practicing religion.
AO: You had already predicted in your earlier book, The Future of Islam, that the West shouldn't allow dictatorships to continue and instead let people choose, even if it's the Islamists. Now that this is happening, how do you see the future of Islamists from here on?
JE: Al-Nahda (in Tunisia) and the Muslim Brotherhood have the opportunity to distinguish themselves between being a religious movement and a political party, operating in a pluralistic society. Al-Nahda's leaders, who were driven out of the country, had a chance to travel and live in the West, becoming more cosmopolitan, while the Muslim Brotherhood stayed under siege and developed defence systems and internal hierarchy. The question is whether the senior, more conservative Brotherhood could transition from a defensive, under-siege movement, to allowing the Freedom and Justice Party (the political wing of the Brotherhood) to function as a pluralistic party. The Muslim Brotherhood had a reason to move away from their pledge not to run for the presidency, but when El-Shater was dismissed, they had a historic opportunity to support Abul-Fotouh. Instead, they insisted on running with Morsi, who has no background as a political leader, and undermines this transition. It forces people to ask: if you keep running away from your pledges, how can we trust you?
As a matter of fact, the appearance of Salafists helped make the Muslim Brotherhood look even more moderate and consistent. Also what helped them get to power so quickly was the old regime's eradication of the opposition. One Egyptian woman told me, "I don't care who's going to come this time around, there will be more elections coming," so now what matters is the process itself.
The challenge for both Islamists and seculars today is to learn to work together in a pluralistic setup.
AO: What role do you think Gulf countries would be playing in this?
JE: There's a difference from country to country, but most of them are becoming more securitised, and some are restricting media, stripping citizenship, etc. They promised money but never delivered, sending signals that they're not happy with the Arab Spring, fearing it may reach their borders. A lot of people forget that the Muslim Brotherhood never condemned the attack on Kuwait, and the reaction to that was seen when Saudi Arabia pointed at the Muslim Brotherhood as the reason behind 9/11. There is a fear of their pragmatism and their turning into a religious opposition that could become a real danger to an Islamic state, because it undermines their reason to exist. They prefer to support the non-political Islamists, and so the original support for Salafists is no more.
They definitely have a role to play in bringing in investment, however, and whatever regime is coming needs that to lift the economy, so they will have to reconcile.
AO: Who or what group/sect is playing the "reformist" role today in political Islam?
JE: Looking at religious traditions of reform in other religions, reformers start 100 years before we see any results, and keep moving backward and foreward, until there's a widespread effect. Today, there's a global cosmopolitan movement developing. Reformists are a vanguard but they're up against a large majority of religious leaders and populations that are conservative. However, Roman Catholics were the majority who criticised Protestants in reform; eventually momentum developed and there was a leap. The same is happening within Islam, in countries with more education and critical thinking. One can be a modern person, in whatever way one defines it, and also be a believer!