In Bad Faith?

John L. Esposito and Geneive Abdo debate "False Prophets."

Geneive Abdo ("False Prophets," July/August 2008) rightly points out the deficit of political will in addressing the real roots of tension between Western and Muslim societies — despite a proliferation of efforts to improve relations. Unfortunately, she proceeds from that sound starting point to mistakenly assert that interfaith dialogue and education somehow make these efforts less likely.

Abdo laments the amount of money spent on educational efforts, for example. Yet the U.S. government spends less money on cultural exchanges with the Middle East than it does on exchanges with Western Europe — or any other region for that matter.

Abdo sets up the straw man of a Muslim-American lobby and proceeds to tear it down, accusing it of underemphasizing the degree of anti-American sentiment existing in Muslim countries. But, though anti-American sentiment has shot up in virtually every country in the world during the past eight years, the U.S. embassies in Arab countries also deal daily with long lines of people hoping to immigrate to the United States.

Many polls, most notably the Gallup World Poll of some 40 Muslim countries, have shown that majorities of Muslims admire American principles, values, and accomplishments, even though they strongly resent U.S. foreign policy.

Although global terrorism remains a serious threat and Abdo’s prescription of political dialogue is very important, her diagnosis and critique will only support those who exploit and benefit from irrational fears. Yes, there are too many "talkfests" that exclude Islamist movements. However, to advance the cause of political dialogue, we need more voices that continue to advocate for broader inclusion instead of playing to our fears or dismissing constructive efforts. As someone who has worked for many years to move beyond debate to building practical initiatives, I believe we cannot solve political conflicts by ignoring the interfaith and cultural dimensions.

— John L. Esposito
Professor, Georgetown University
Director, The Prince Alwaleed Bin-Talal
Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding
Washington, D.C.

Geneive Abdo replies:

Few people have done more than John Esposito to ensure a hearing for Muslim voices. Yet his defense of interfaith dialogue and cultural programs as effective tools for engaging Muslim populations is deeply deficient: He fails to explain how such approaches help curb extremism and anti-American sentiment.

My primary argument is that the U.S. government, absent any coherent policy to win over Muslims abroad, has instead employed its own domestic population — primarily American Muslims — to legitimize its policies. Similarly, institutions and organizations, such as the ones in which Esposito is intimately involved, are preaching to the converted under the guise of addressing the urgent problem of extremism.

Interfaith dialogue programs might feel beneficial, but U.S. and European government statistics prove otherwise: Radicalization is on the rise in Europe and across the Islamic world, even as millions are spent on promoting cultural "understanding."

Esposito refers to the Gallup poll of Muslim societies to support his argument. He fails to mention that he is a paid consultant for this polling project. Furthermore, there are many credible polls contradicting the Gallup data and showing great percentages of Muslims loathing the United States as well as its policies.

Esposito’s analysis represents an outdated school of thought about contemporary Islam. His views might comfort American politicians, autocratic Arab governments, and Westernized Muslims, but there is little or no evidence to suggest that the vast majority of Muslims agree.

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