Democracy and Religious Extremism
Edited transcript of an interview with John Esposito that took place at the SSRC offices on May 11, 2007 and was conducted by Pakistani journalist Huma Mustafa Beg for a documentary on Pakistan’s prospects for democracy and on the influence of religion on politics. Beg runs her own TV and video production company in Pakistan, called Serendip, which specializes in public service programming and will produce the documentary.
Democracy, democracy, democracy: That’s a constant refrain throughout the Middle East nowadays. Why is it so important?
If we look around the world, it is clear in recent years that many people want greater political participation and government accountability. I’m associated with the Gallup World Poll, and we have found in surveying Muslims across the Muslim world that the majority want broader participation, civil liberties, human rights, and other basic freedoms. That’s what is important, not whether one uses the particular term “democracy.”
If democracy such a good thing, why has the Muslim world in large part rejected it?
Only a handful of Muslim countries have heads of government who are elected by the people. Instead they have autocrats—kings, military and ex-military.
Pakistan’s military dictators claim that they were invited to rule by the opposition or by the public. Are they justified in saying that?
The military has always been a major player in Pakistan. When chaos reigns—when governments begin to fail and people feel that things are getting out of control—there may be a certain relief when the military steps in. But a fair number of military leaders who step in do so because they want to be in power.
Does this tradition of military intervention prevent democracy from taking root in Pakistan?
Military rulers do not support freedom of the press nor do they support the creation or existence of independent political parties—conditions that are necessary for democracy to grow. They support military rule, and legitimate it by saying that they are preparing the way for democratic elections. When Zia-ul-Haq came into power, he said he needed just 90 days, but he stayed for years and years and years.
Historically, why has the U.S. supported Pakistan’s military dictatorships?
One of the realities of global politics is that countries operate in what they see as their national and international interests. During the Cold War, the United States and European countries would often support dictatorships that they didn’t like because the rulers were pro-West versus pro-Soviet Union. Until very recently, neither Democratic nor Republican administrations have made much attempt to promote democracy in the Middle East or the Muslim world. There was a sense that it was in the national interest—in terms of access to oil or of support for American policy on Israel or Palestine—to support Middle Eastern dictators.
How does the global citizen tend to view this dichotomy between principle and practice?
In the Muslim world, as elsewhere, it’s viewed as a double standard. The U.S. and some European countries talk about self-determination, democracy and human rights, yet they don’t seek to uphold these values in the Muslim world or in the Middle East, only in other parts of the world. Nowadays the picture is more complicated. During its first term, the Bush administration did what no American president had done in recent memory: it recognized that America had practiced democratic exceptionalism—what others would call a double standard—in promoting democracy in some parts of the world but not in the Middle East and broader Muslim world. The administration said it was justified going into to Iraq to liberate the country and to promote democracy in the region. But, at the same time, since the American government is dealing with the war against global terrorism, it tends to lean towards authoritarian regimes. Look at American policy on Egypt, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan. We talk about trying to promote democracy, but when faced with the possibility of any kind of Islamic government coming into power, we tend to look the other way.
Is the perceived double standard a spur to violence against the United States?
Double standards exist everywhere in the world, and the reaction is not necessarily violence. There is, however, a minority of people—many of whom live in autocratic countries—who resent the fact that the U.S. gives its support, financially and militarily, to regimes that they see as autocratic, oppressive and corrupt. This sometimes leads to anti-Americanism and, in some cases, to an extreme hatred of America that spills over into violence. That’s exactly what we see happening in certain parts of the Muslim world.
During the Zia years, the U.S. contributed about $2.5 billion to support Pakistan in fighting against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. They sponsored Osama bin Laden’s Afghan jihad. How did that happen?
A major reason why the U.S. wound up supporting Zia—even though it didn’t like the coup and wanted to see democracy restored—was that Zia could present himself as a dependable ally vis-à-vis the Soviet Union and China, and for dealing with the problems in Afghanistan. Zia-ul-Haq knew how to play all of those cards. At the same time, he was implementing his own version of Islamization, which the U.S. could be seen as passively supporting.
The U.S. supported Osama bin Laden because it was at war against the Soviet Union. Many members of the U.S. Congress supported the anti-Communist mujahadin not because they were mujahadin (“freedom fighters”) but because they were fighting the Soviet Union. America felt traumatized by events in Iran, and feared the export of the Iranian revolution; yet in Afghanistan it did not have a problem with the notion of jihad because of who the enemy was.
Does the U.S. public understand how the Frankenstein of Osama bin Laden was created?
The average American, generally speaking, has not known much about the Muslim world and therefore would have no idea how Osama bin Laden came about, how and why he became radicalized, or what exactly happened during those years when a war was being fought in Afghanistan.
Do you think that Islam is compatible with the philosophy of democracy?
Islam, like all religions, is a fairly flexible phenomenon, capable of many different interpretations. In the past, Islam has been used to support emperors, caliphs, and sultans, just as Christianity was used to support the divine right of kings. Nowadays, religion is invoked in support of both autocratic and democratic systems. If Muslims so choose, they can interpret Islam and their traditions to support notions of accountability, of political participation in the selection of a leader, and of an independent judiciary.
Why can’t democracy get rooted into a Muslim nation and provide an example for other Muslim countries to follow?
Part of the problem is that democratic institutions developed out of the Western experience, and even then it took hundreds of years. During those same centuries, the Muslim world was living under European colonialism. Colonial powers were not supporting and promoting the development of democracy in their territories. When the European empires were finally dismantled and countries gained their independence, some of them had the outward trappings of democracy—a parliament and a political party system—but their leaders were primarily kings, military, and ex-military, a paradigm that has continued to this day.
Indeed, although some countries like Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Turkey have had elections, the reality is that they continue to be governed by autocratic regimes and to maintain very strong militaries. External support for these regimes makes it possible for autocrats to stay in power, to oppress their people, and to conduct surveillance. At the end of the day, you can’t expect the development of institutions and the experimentation necessary for the emergence of democracy.
At the same time, we have also seen a rise in religious extremism in many of these countries. Many in the Muslim world live between autocratic rule and religious extremism. Both seek to control and contain.
Why are more moderate Muslims allowing the extremists to define who we are? Why are we allowing terrorists to set the profile for a Muslim?
At the time of the Afghanistan war, we begin to see the development of transnational religious groups like al-Qaeda and others. Over the last 30 years, religion has become the primary source for political action, discourse, legitimacy, and mobilization in the Muslim world. (During earlier times, when Arab or Muslim nationalism held sway, those who opposed autocratic regimes did so in the name of secular ideologies such as socialism or liberalism.) These extremist religious groups feed off the grievances people have against their governments. They look at government corruption, Palestine and Israel, sanctions on Iraq (and now the occupation), Kashmir and Chechnya. All of these issues can be used to recruit people who are dissatisfied with their government and are anti-Western, because they prefer to blame the West for their problems. This is precisely the evil genius of people like Osama bin Laden.
Are these developments found only in the Muslim world, or are they more widespread?
Many parts the world have experienced a resurgence of religion not only in mainstream politics but also in militant and radical politics—though not to the same degree as we’ve seen in the Muslim world. Take India with the confrontations involving the more militant BJP; or Sri Lanka with the battle between Sinhalese and Tamil. Even though the Tamil Tigers are Marxists and secularist, when it’s convenient to mobilize the Tamil peoples, they’ll appeal to their cultural/religious background. Another good example is Israel: when convenient, religion is marshaled to legitimate Israeli claims. And Israel, too, has a problem with religious militants.
How do you compare the teachings of Islam with Islam in practice? Should precepts and reality be the same?
Religions are capable of many different interpretations. The problem occurs when the extremists, the militant religious leaders and groups, appropriate the function of religious interpretation. To give a concrete example: The Islamic term jihad has many different meanings. It can mean the struggle to be a good Muslim, to be moral, to be virtuous. It can also be used to mean defending one’s faith and community. Today, militant religious leaders are using this second meaning of jihad to justify what are in fact terrorist offensive wars. Even when extremists do that, they never say that they are engaging in an offensive or terrorist action; they always say that they are victims fighting the oppressor.
Take a secular example. If you look at Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, or democratic leaders like Churchill, Blair, Clinton, Bush, whether they are the good guys or bad guys, they have one thing in common: when they go to war, they portray themselves as fighting the oppressor. Even the bad guys of history—Hitler, Saddam Hussein—never tried to mobilize people by saying: “We are terrorists, we are going out to commit acts of atrocity.” Osama bin Laden says, “Go out and kill Jews and Christians and other Westerners but also other Muslims because they aren’t good Muslims if they don’t follow us.” He has created a world of black and white; good and evil; God and Satan; oppressor and oppressed.
Can people discern between the religion itself and the acts of the people who are using—or abusing—religion for the sake of forwarding their cause?
When Westerners turn on the TV and see Muslim people yelling “Death to America!” or “Kill Westerners!” or blowing up hospitals, or when they see Sunnis killing Shiites in the name of Islam, they look at that and think, what’s wrong with their religion? To move beyond that reaction, one has to learn more about the religion and the political contexts involved.
To take an analogous situation: Suppose you went to Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles without knowing anything about the region or Christianity. What conclusion might you draw? You see Protestants and Catholics fighting and killing each other. Some of them may not be practicing, but they identify themselves as Protestants or Catholics. You might ask,“What is it about these Christians? Why are they going at it this way? There must be something inherent in Christianity.”
There are two sides to religion: the transcendent side, God, and what people do with their belief in God. There is a dark side, historically, to religion, which consists of people using or exploiting their religious beliefs in order to legitimate their actions.
When conflicts have occurred within Christianity, no one referred to the perpetrators as “evil Christians.” Why has Islam has been so branded?
When Christians and Jews see violence committed within their religion, their immediate tendency—even if they are no longer believers themselves—is to distinguish between the mainstream and the acts of extremists. Israelis, for example, will refer to it as “radical nationalism.” With Islam, it’s a different story. The first great encounter with Islam of contemporary times occurred 30 years ago with the Iranian revolution, with the taking of hostages and the hijackings in different parts of the Muslim world.
Another problem is that we tend not to denigrate states that are our allies. The Israelis can engage in the equivalent of carpet bombing: dropping cluster bombs and displacing 700,000 people. People might say that they’ve gone too far; but they don’t say, “This is Jewish extremism.” There is an imbalance, a double standard.
What is the role of the media in all of this?
The media has much to answer for. With regard to the war in Iraq, there have been some major TV programs recently where media people have admitted that they failed to cover the war the way they should have, or that they were incapable of doing so because of the demands of their bosses or editors, who didn’t want to upset the Bush administration.
Coverage of the Muslim world is better today. There’s a lot of good programming—there’s also an awful lot of bad programming. Remember that the American media is driven by the bottom line, by profits, by how many readers you have. It’s driven by headline events: bad news sells, violence sells, terrorism sells, and planes going down sell.
At a recent conference on this topic, we had a senior editor of Newsweek explain that what the media is primarily looking for is conflict, or a discourse contrary to the norm, which is, by nature, conflictual. In that situation, the focus will be on religious extremism.
The media also likes to cover people like Ayaan Hirsi, the Somali who became a member of the Dutch parliament, or Wafa Sultan, a Syrian-American—people who have publicly given up their religion—and then they go on to criticize Islam itself. The media treats such people as if they were spokespersons for all Muslim women.
I have been in the field close to 40 years, and for all of that time, I’ve been asked the same questions by the media: Is Islam compatible with modernization? Is Islam compatible with democracy, with violence? Why are these questions still being asked—what does it say about our learning curve? Many people still believe that there is something inherently wrong with Islam, something that makes it more prone to violence and terrorism. The belief grows out of a distorted understanding of Islam, but is also the product of a political agenda on the part of the people who keep raising these issues. In America, they tend to be neo-conservatives and/or militant Zionists, whether Jewish or Christian. They have a political agenda for wanting to make Islam, rather than extremism, the problem. If you admit that extremism is the problem, then you have to talk about root causes, which are more than just religion.
I wrote an article in the Harvard International Review called, "It’s the Policy Stupid: Political Islam & U.S. Foreign Policy". I was arguing that we have to look at political policy. Religion becomes a way to legitimate what people do. Most policy is driven by political, social, and economic grievances.
Shouldn’t the West be pressured into talking about and questioning the root causes of religious extremism despite these political agendas?
This is occurring now, but the problem continues to be that people who have political agendas don’t want to admit that they got it wrong. As mentioned earlier, I’m involved in the Gallup World Poll, and have co-authored a forthcoming book with Dalia Mogahed: Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Think. We surveyed a billion Muslims, and the results go against conventional wisdom. It turns out that large numbers of Muslims admire America’s freedoms and want self-determination, but they feel that the West itself actually supports autocratic regimes, that the West wants to dominate and impose its own form of democracy on others. Western ideologues have been saying, “Muslims hate us because of who we are. They hate us because they hate our democracy.” So now they have to deal with the fact that this explanation was too simplistic.
Will the politicians really listen and take heed of your findings?
It’s been slow, but we’re making progress in presenting the data to a variety of audiences: think tanks, government officials, the military. Some do not want to hear what we have to say, but others are open and listening.
I did a piece with Dalia Mogahed called "What Makes a Muslim Radical?" which was published on the Internet by Foreign Policy at the end of last year. It had the most hits of any Foreign Policy article ever—well over 100,000, and people were reading the entire article.
But it’s an uphill battle because there are forces are out there—groups of political leaders and commentators both here and in Europe, academic experts who are neo-Orientalists, neo-cons, militant Likud-type Zionists—with an agenda. They are publishing all the time, and they have a lot of money behind them to distribute their publications. Someone has written a book on Islam and the Muslim world—the title of which I won’t mention because I don’t want to promote it. A particular institute with a lot of money is distributing 100,000 copies of the book to major religious leaders around the United States. We also see many negative Internet groups, like jihadwatch. They write books like The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America; I’m one of those.
In the early years, many Americans strongly supported the Bush administration in the name of fighting terrorism. Now these same people have to admit that they not only got it wrong once, but also a second time when they voted for President Bush. That will take some time.
Why is it that all of the people who subscribe to monotheistic faiths are clashing? Shouldn’t they understand each other more? Why don’t we see a bigger clash between people of religion and those without any faith?
Historically, although Christians and Muslims have much in common, they have been theological contenders from the very beginning. Both traditions believe that they receive a special covenant from God. Both have exclusivist theologies: “I’m right; you’re wrong. The way you go to heaven is to become a Muslim or a Christian.” Christianity felt that it had the new covenant, that it had established a universal mission, that revelation had stopped. But then Islam came along and said, “Just as you superseded Judaism, now we are superseding Judaism and Christianity. We have the final prophet.”
But if Islam presented a major theological challenge or threat, it also presented a challenge politically. Religious traditions are spread not just as religions but as empires. That’s how the notion of Christendom came about. Likewise, you had early caliphs who were spreading their imperial reach and legitimating their territorial claims in the name of Islam.
Fast forward. You have European colonial powers going forth to new lands not just as imperial powers but also as missionaries—the crown and the cross. This presented both a religious and a political threat to Islam.
Fast forward again. Conflicts today are very conveniently explained by saying that this is the way it always was. Muslims look back and say, “Look at the Crusades, the Inquisition. Look at what happened with the Reconquista of Andalusia. Look at European colonialism.” Christians look back and say, “Look at the early problems with Islam and its spread. Look at its challenge to Christianity. Look at its capture of Jerusalem, the threat of the Ottoman Empire.” People are able to frame issues religiously even when the primary drivers are political and economic forces.
Notably, the process of globalization has led to the resurgence of all religions in the last 30 years. First, we saw this with Islam, but there has also been a resurgence of Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism. While most of it is mainstream, some of it has been extremist—launched to delegitimize the other, who is seen not just as a political threat but as a religious threat. Religion has replaced secular forms of nationalism in many parts of the world as a primary source of identity, mobilization and legitimacy.
Earlier you mentioned two sides of religion. Are the people who subscribe to the good side of religion, what you called “the transcendent,” the silent majority? Shouldn’t they be out there selling their message of peace and tolerance?
If you look at the West, a number of centers, like mine (the Prince Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown), have been created to promote understanding, or to look at religion in international affairs. The challenge is still the challenge within religious traditions to distinguish between and to marginalize the militants—not all of whom advocate violence by the way. Religious extremists are not necessarily violent by nature; but they feel that this is God’s plan.
One of the challenges for Muslims is how to deal not only with autocratic regimes but with the phenomenon of religious extremism. The majority of victims of Muslim extremism are the Muslims who live in the Muslim world. Often Muslims look the other way and say: “That’s a radical minority. It’s not that big in my country. We don’t have to take it seriously.”
Saudi Arabia discovered that its problems with Islamic radicals run very deep. Pakistan’s problems have been there for decades. The issue is not just the most obvious forms of terrorist theologies, but also the rivalry that has developed between Sunni and Shiite, which encourages some Muslims to think that other Muslims don’t belong in their faith. Those sorts of issues, too, need to be addressed.
Ironically, moderate Muslims seem to have found more of a space in the West. But what about those who stay in the Muslim world? How can they carve out a space?
Part of the difficulty is that autocratic rulers and authoritarian regimes enable conservative forces like the mullahs to preach a brand of ultra-conservative theology, which says that we’re surrounded by a West that wants to secularize us. The state gives the radicals space and freedom because it needs them to be on their side, for fear of being vulnerable.
In Pakistan, the government occasionally tries to implement so-called Islamic measures. Then other people come along and charge that these measures are not Islamic. But when government officials try to roll back the measures, conservative leaders will accuse them of attacking Islam.
Take someone like Benhazir Bhutto, who was seen as a well-educated, forward-looking woman. When she was in power, how much did she actually do with regard to the status of women? She realized that she would have an Islamic problem and did not want to be vulnerable. That does not allow the kind of space we’re talking about.
Many Muslim scholars and students who have come to Europe and America have found much more open space to write about these issues very freely. Ironically, they have problems back in the Muslim world where more conservative forces will accuse them of not being good Muslims, as being koofa, or deviant. That, too, is an issue.
The Red Threat has been “replaced” by the Muslim Threat. Let’s assume that everyone befriends each other for a while. Where do you see the next enemy? Is there a need for global powers to have an enemy in order to stay united?
Unfortunately, the history of the past few decades has reinforced the notion of a global enemy. As a result of the Cold War, many people have grown up in a world that encouraged them to define themselves in terms of “us” and “them,” on one side or the other. When that passed, there was a natural tendency to wonder whether the next competitor would be the EU or Japan. But then Islam quickly became the next big global threat. Both sides think: “We’re right and they’re wrong, we’re the forces of God and they are necessarily the forces of evil, and we have a moral obligation to fight those forces.”
For the next 20–30 years, it will be a matter of trying to work out the relationship between the Muslim world and the West. The issue will be with us for a long time, as well as the broader problem of global terror—which, by the way, extends beyond Muslims.
If people’s sense of history ever gets away from the need to define things in terms of us and them, it will not be in my lifetime, and probably not in yours.
Sadly, I agree with you. Thank you so much for your time.