Scholar discusses American views of Islam

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February 3, 2009

12:14 AM

Students, faculty and Williamsburg residents lined the walls of Ewell Recital Hall last night to hear Georgetown University professor John L. Esposito, the founding director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, give a lecture titled “What One Billion Muslims Really Think.”

Esposito began his lecture by analyzing President Barack Obama’s inauguration speech to begin the discussion of the Muslim world view and fears. Obama addressed the Muslim world without mentioning the European Union, indicating what some hope will be a shift in American foreign policy.

Esposito said the United States’ relationship with Islam is highly politicized.

“The kinds of things that are said about Muslims — if they were said about Jews, black people, Italian Americans, how many editors would publish them?” Esposito said.

He also argued that the contact most Americans have with the Muslim world comes through the media that concentrates on extremists rather than the average Islamic person.

Inspired by the media coverage, Esposito became involved with a massive polling of Muslims from South Asia to Northern Africa. Over 50,000 personal interviews were conducted with Muslims of both genders and all socioeconomic classes in both rural and urban settings.

The poll found that 93 percent of Muslims consider the 9/11 terrorist attacks a tragedy but the other 7 percent believe it was justified. Esposito said the potential extremists were, on average, better educated, had more optimistic outlooks on their lives, want better relations with the West and believe that democracy is the way of the future.

However, Esposito said, those polled generally agreed the West, especially the U.S., is only interested in democracy when it furthers its own interests. Esposito also holds America’s support for authoritarian regimes accountable for anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world.

“Anti-Americanism is not rooted in what we are but what we do,” Esposito said.

According to Esposito, the most important way for the U.S. to develop a good relationship with the Muslim world is to utilize the 7 percent of Muslims who want better relationships with the West and democracy. He ended the lecture by listing ways to begin turning the tide, including being critical of unnecessarily violent actions by all parties, including American ally Israel, and limiting military aid to authoritarian regimes.

The College of William and Mary’s Muslim Student Association took part in sponsoring the lecture, which will be available for viewing online.

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