Religion can move with the times


Islam and other great world religions are not “inherently democratic”, but history has shown they can move with the times, leading historian of religion John L. Esposito told Adnkronos International (AKI). “To me, the question is what do Muslims want: the fact is, most desire political pluralism, freedom and the rule of law,” said Esposito. He believes that authoritarian, secular Arab regimes – which Western powers are working with in the short-term – are the principal source of instability in the Mediterranean region.

“The Gallup World Poll indicates the majority of Muslims and Christians want to see dialogue and avoid a ‘clash of civilisations’,” Esposito said. “Most believe conflict in the world is about politics and power but think the other side doesn’t care,” he added.

“The poll showed the majority of Muslims want free speech and a free press, and believe in self-determination and democracy. The same majority believes that Western powers, especially the United States, won’t allow this to occur,” Esposito stated.

Taking the example of the militant Islamist Palestinian group Hamas, Esposito said Western nations have to accept the governments chosen by their electorates, even if they espouse policies that Western countries do not support. “If Western powers are going to be consistent, they must accept the results. Otherwise the perception is reinforced that there are double standards when promoting democracy in the Middle East,” he said.

“It is one thing to say we have a problem with this particular government,” Esposito underlined. “But it is hypocritical and wrong to cut off funding,” he said, referring to the freeze on non-emergency aid to the bankrupt Palestinian Authority imposed last March by Western donors – among them the European Union – when the Hamas-led government took office.

“The state of democracy in the Middle East is extraordinarily sensitive: the majority of countries have autocratic leaders,” Esposito said. And where there are limited democracies, more and more governments are seeking to control and manipulate elections and repress the opposition – “from Egypt to Uzbekistan” – Esposito stated.

Only one out of every four Muslim majority countries have democratically elected governments, Esposito said, adding that the West often supports autocratic rulers who routinely win presidential elections with suspiciously high margins such a 95-99 percent of the vote.

Attempts to paint any kind of opposition to such regimes as extremist is an “explosive mix” that in the longer term builds up political and social pressure within a country, he said, adding: “If we are going to talk about broader democracy, we need in the long-term to find ways to create a culture of political participation and civil society, and to build economic and educational development.”

“Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, has been used to support various political systems in the past such as monarchies and the divine right – hardly democratic institutions,” he said, noting that modern day Western countries such as Britain, with its Anglican church headed by Elizabeth II, Germany and Norway all support religious institutions through state funding.

“The history of religion shows that religions are very flexible. As recently as 100 years ago, the Catholic Church condemned modernism and the majority of things we accept today including such democratic concepts as a free press, gender equality and even popular sovereignty,” Esposito said.

At one time, the majority of governments were authoritarian, and Western countries played a role in supporting such governments in Iran, Iraq and Syria. They have continued to back autocratic regimes in the region, Esposito argued.

Esposito contends that an increasingly dangerous lack of knowledge exists in Europe and the West of the democratic currents of Islam that are now gaining influence in countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, Egypt and Morocco. “A distinction needs to be made between moderate groups and extremists who don’t tolerate other groups,” he said.

He had criticism for commentators, including Italy-based Egyptian-born columnist Magdi Allam, who have slammed Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood as “Islamofascist”. Esposito argues the very use of this term is its own-goal.

“Secular fundamentalism is a neoconservative position that denies an essential part of dialogue, namely free and open discussion, irrespective of whether or not you agree,” he said. “If you choose dialogue then you sit people at a table,” he added.

He conceded that the lack of a clear hierarchy in Islam – unlike in Christianity – “is a problem,” citing the example from Britain of former nightclub bouncer and self-styled cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri, currently serving a seven-year prison term for inciting followers to murder Jews and non-Muslims in sermons between 1997 and 2000.

But the question of on what authority people claim to speak for the Muslim faith is more of a problem in Sunni than Shiite Islam – which has its Aga Khans and Grand Ayatollahs – Esposito observed.

Moreover: “There is no rigid hierarchy in Hinduism, and a sense of a central authority is also lacking in Judaism,” he concluded.


* John Esposito is Professor of Religion and International Affairs at Georgetown University, founding director of its Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre for Muslim-Christian Understanding, and author of over 35 books. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews)

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