An Interview with Dr. John Esposito:

The Challenges to Pluralism Today

The following is the transcript of an interview by Sahil Badruddin with Dr. John Esposito. Read the interview HERE.

Boniuk Institute of Rice University brings you Sahil Badruddin's interview with Dr. John Esposito, Professor of International Affairs and Religion at Georgetown University and Director of their Bridge Initiative, which connects the academic study of Islamophobia with the public square.

Sahil Badruddin: Dr. Esposito, thank you for joining us today.

Dr. Esposito: I'm delighted to be with you.

Sahil: You've often criticized that the media focuses on sensational, violent and negative stories of which the Muslim world has managed to offer over the past few decades. This dominates the news to the exclusion of many positive stories, which are often not reported, leading to a skewed perception of the Muslim world. What can be done to address this?

Dr. Esposito: That's a really good question. The difficulty is, one has to keep in mind, that the media is a lot of other things in the US. It's a business. They have to be concerned of particularly, survival. Newspapers and other such outlets. What we have is a world in which, as one very senior media person said to me, that what sells is conflicting and conflict discourse. All one needs to think about is watching some of the TV shows, for example, of that I suppose to be a discussion, but in fact, it's often done in a type of conflict context.

I think there are a variety of things that can be done. One is, depending on who the persons are or the institutions, is reaching out to media with alternative kinds of programs. I think that, that's really important. I think that organizations like UPF, which is based both, here on the East Coast, but also on the West Coast, they have dealt with -- and also Impact, had dealt with - if you will, media moguls and organizations and production groups, but for the average person, if you're in a community where you can mobilize a good number of people, then I think writing [to them] works. Otherwise, it doesn't.

I remember a New York Times reporter was in my office. This was several years ago, I happened to comment that I was delighted that that day in The New York Times, they had two letters from Muslims responding and questioning some negative reporting. And she said to me, "Just remember that what gets their attention is if there are large numbers of such letters coming in." In other words, it's not as if, they just read and pick out a letter that's well written. I think a lot of it is that kind of strategizing; I also think that, again, depending on who the people are, there are ways that, for example, if people are running programs, they can reach out to organizations like C-SPAN, but in planning your program, you'd have to be recognized. It's got to be something that's going to grab one's attention.

What we do find from studies that have been done, particularly major studies have been done by Media Tenor. You could find them on the Internet. They have shown that incredible disproportion of coverage. For example, in one of their more recent studies, they found that 80% of the coverage of media in the US, Germany, and the UK was on violence and extremism. Even when you look at the mainstream coverage, it was kind of skewed. The mainstream coverage was not all that good and some of the mainstream coverage like great personalities tend to be dominated by warlords and terrorists. There's a lot of such material out there. I've also written on it. It is a significant problem.

Sahil: Do Muslims and other relevant organizations or groups, particularly in the West, need to rethink their strategy to be more effective in some of things you mentioned?

Dr. Esposito: Absolutely. I think that when you're up against the situation that we're in -- For example, we know that, given the current climate, since the election of Donald Trump, we have a good sense of the 35% or 40% people who rabidly support him. Many of them are anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim. They follow "their leader's lead". We know that Fox News has an incredible audience and influence. Not only in the United States, but globally. I remember the O'Reilly show, which is no longer on, but a number of years ago, we used to brag that the O'Reilly show was the most watched television show, sort of globally. I think that there needs to be more of, perhaps a cross-fertilization of individuals and groups.

There are groups out there that attempt to address the issue, Care, Impact. A number of them. But I think that it's going to take a lot more muscle. Frankly, I don't know who's going to step forward to be able to pull that off.

Sahil: In 2018, the Institute for Social Policy, ISPU, Poll in collaboration with Georgetown's Bridge Initiative, reported that in America, some Muslims have internalized Islamophobic views. Specifically, nearly one-third of Muslims actually agreed with the statement that, "I believe my faith community is more prone to negative behavior than other faith communities." Fewer than 14% of the other faith communities, groups, answered similarly. Could you speak to more of these findings?

Dr. Esposito: I think that those kinds of findings do reflect, again, the climate in which we live today. In a sense, for some of the Muslims who would say it, they would be reflecting, if you will, the everyday world that, for example, in the US, Americans experience via a media of the Muslim community. We have to realize that, to begin with, there are many Muslim countries that are authoritarian, that are oppressive, etc.. There are many political and economic issues in those countries and their relations with some western governments that actually generate, not just opposition within a country, but actually feed the growth of violence and terrorism.

So, for the average person, yes, there's a lot of discrimination that can go on across religions. I teach a course on religion and violence. All of the religions, historically and today, have their issues with violence and even terrorism, but the magnitude of it, in terms of the Muslim world, it really can seem much greater, but one has to remember we're talking about an enormous number of countries. We're talking about 1.7 billion people. I can see where, for Muslims, this can be an issue. As we all know, when there's a major terrorist attack, many people, immediately will say, and certainly many Muslims, "Please God. Don't let it be a Muslim." I can understand why, for a minority of Muslims, there’s that sense that, "Look. We do have a significant problem. And there is a problem.”

Sahil: You've often said that the biggest challenge we face both politically and religiously, globally, is the challenge of political and religious pluralism. I would say pluralism might be one of the most important issues of our age. Generally, what, in your opinion, are the top two or three challenges to pluralism today? Whether it be administrative, social, societal, intellectual, political, any other areas?

Dr. Esposito: I think that there are a variety of things. First of all, there's the easy one to immediately put out there that is, it's not necessarily easy to do sometimes. We're developing a much stronger set of programs that deal with interfaith relations. You're not only talking about major conferences and workshops of religious leaders and religious folks. You could be talking about major programs that are being done and it's not just visiting a church or a synagogue or a mosque. It can also be creating social situations where, for example, a cross-section of religious leaders come together, as well as situations where a cross-section of religious folks come together.

I know a prominent angelical pastor, Bob Roberts, who, in addition to holding, if you will, the more traditional kinds of things, also holds things like a Muslim-Christian barbecue and brings together religious leaders for the barbecue or some other outdoor activities. I also think that there needs to be more situations where, at every level, in a very concerted way, not just a natural way, where people of faith are interacting. There are situations where it just occurs. You go to a particular high school or particular college or university, depending on that place, no matter who you are, you can be thrust into a very interfaith context. There are many places in the United States where that doesn't exist.

One of the things that we found both in Gallop polling over the years, for example, it is that you still have a significant number of people who will say that they don't know a Muslim or they don't know anything about Islam. Now I think that's changing more and more but given the relatively small number of Muslims that we have in the United States, compared to the population of the United States, one still has to be, I think active and creating these situations for people to come together.

I think it has to happen at every level. I've seen some very vibrant programs of being held not just in places like Dearborn but also in some cities in Texas. It takes a creative approach from religious leaders and/or people of faith. In this case, I would say, on the part of Muslims. I think we have more and more an awareness of addressing that but I think that given the magnitude of the problem with Islamophobia, given the magnitude of the problem post the election of Donald Trump, of a significant increase in violence, not only Islamophobia but also anti-semitism, anti-immigrant, I think that we are at a point where one has to go out of one way to be far more active.

One of the positive signs that I do see is that there's more of a sense, like the Muslim ban, for example, and the reaction to it when it first kicked in, and you had people of all different kinds of backgrounds and NGOs, a diverse group of NGOs members and lawyers going to the airport immediately with follow up. I think that there's got to be a lot more of that synergy connected across communities and also across organization. Again, we see some of that so that you've got Black Lives Matter responding to issues that have to do with not just black lives, but also Islamophobia, anti-semitism and vice versa. I think all that's important. I think that the response of Muslims to the tragedy in Pittsburgh, with the terrorist attack in Pittsburgh and immediately raising the funding that they did, those actions are not only important, but those actions need to be seen more in the media.

You see, for example, one of the problems we've had over the years is people say, "Why don't Muslims speak out against terrorism?" That would go on and on and on when, in fact, you've got thousands of statements, but they don't get into the media. You can find them on the internet but not in the media. I think that it's also that element that when these things are done, important things are done, people need to see and be aware that, for example, that Muslims are involved in issues that have to do with feeding the poor, prisoner release, and assistance when they're coming out and they do it not just for Muslims. There are individuals and organizations that they do it for their fellow citizens.

Sahil: I want to ask you a deeper question about pluralism. Pluralism sometimes gets confused with homogenization, making things similar or uniform but in reality, pluralism means embracing and respecting difference, seeing it as part and parcel of the world so we can learn from it. Could you speak to the importance of this?

Dr. Esposito: Yes, I think pluralism is the challenge in the 21st century. Just parenthetically, I've actually had situations where someone will come up to me and they'll have heard me speak about pluralism and say, "Well, I asked my Imam or whomever about pluralism and then the explanation they give me was polytheism." We've got a problem with people even understanding when we put the word out. For example, Bridge says, our title is Bridge: Protecting Pluralism, Ending Islamophobia. Now, what pluralism means is an acceptance of the diversity that exists in our society across the board, the diversity of ethnic groups, nationalities, as well as religious groups.

If we talk about, for example, religious pluralism, it has taken several decades for people to deal with it. When Catholics first started to get into or when it was raised to have a dialogue, let's say with Protestants and/or Jews, the reaction of some Catholics were, "Why? What are we going to do? Are the people that are inviting us like it was a group that was initially let's say, a Protestant group? Are they thinking about talking about conversion, etc.?" That same kind of attitude existed for many Muslims when the topic would come up in recent years. It still exists with some Muslims.

Pluralism means respecting other people. It means, first of all, seeking - First of all, if you live in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society, you have to spend time knowing about others simply because they're fellow citizens and you're dealing with them and there are issues that have to do with that. Mutual understanding and respect, respecting the right of other people to believe what they believe and to, as it were, follow a way of life that they believe in, as long as there's no danger involved, in terms of society. Getting to realize that diversity is actually a strength in societies. When you've got diversity and you emphasize the positive in other or the richness of other ethnicities and religious communities, there's a strength there.

The problem too often is that people just think of the negative or they're just afraid. There are many conservative Christians and Muslims, for example, who have been and some are still raised in a kind of fake situation in which they basically believe that only they are going to heaven and nobody else is going. Heaven is kind of a controlled place there. The reality of it is, for example, I'm astonished when I hear Muslims who fall into this trap because with the Quran itself and with the example of the Prophet himself, we see a recognition of religious diversity. The community in Medina, the sayings of the Prophet, and the interaction of the Prophet with other communities and the Quran, of course, talks very directly, in a way that's more direct than the Bible, very specifically saying that Jews and Christians are people of the book. The Quran talks about that they should vie with each other in terms of doing good deeds, etc.. There are lots of passages in the Quran that deal with that. Now, in the Quran and the Bible, there are also passages that deal with conflict but again, those passages have to be seen in the context in which they occurred. Some of the passages that talk about, if you will, the other as a problem, will be in a context in which one would have been experiencing persecution, etc..

So I think that the issue of pluralism has never been more important. One can see it's never been more but then the world we're living in today, if we look at Europe and America today, you have a rise of the political and religious right, which is often anti, if you will, to other groups. It's often a white nationalism, political nationalism, social nationalism, and it's one that is anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim, anti-Jew.

I think that it's not like we're just talking about this topic as some intellectual topic or just a topic that is saying, "Well, you don't really have to care about it." You really do have to care about it because, in fact, that dark side of the use of religion is what exactly has caused the kind of violent terrorist attacks that we've seen in recent years and discrimination that we've seen in different years and legislation or attempts with legislation to discriminate that we see, for example, in the United States but we also see in a number of countries.

You have countries like Denmark and others that don't even have that many Muslims but entertain the idea of putting refugees, for example, on a kind of remote island. Denmark's not the only place that's come up with that; Denmark's come up with that because it's seen it done in other places.

Sahil: Right. I want to shift gears a little bit.

You've mentioned that President Bill Clinton got in touch with you when he read a book of yours titled Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? Then asked you to be a co-organizer of his international conference, which was partially set up to address, again, issues surrounding the Muslim-West relations and religious pluralism. Could you tell us a little bit more about your experience and what was the result of the conference?

Dr. Esposito: Yes, you do your research.

Sahil: Thank you.

Dr. Esposito: Let me dig back. Well, when Bill Clinton was President, people who believe that I had contact with Bill Clinton, that I influenced in his first term foreign policy. There are people who wrote about that, but they said my ideas influenced the foreign policy but thank God, the Americans didn't follow the foreign policy. It was a very funny situation for me when, after I had left, and having very often said to people publicly if they asked me or privately, I don't know Bill Clinton, I've never been with him, etc.. When I got a phone call from President Clinton after he left office and he did read the book Islamic Threat and he wanted to do a program that basically dealt with Middle East and with issues in the Middle East.

What happened was, there were two of us who organized it and it was held at NYU. We had panels on a variety of aspects, we were dealing with Palestine, we were dealing with the issue of Muslim women. I think it was a beginning and something of a successful conference, but I think that what I hope it did is also plant the seeds for that, in future meetings, that the Clinton Foundation had, they eventually moved to dealing more broadly with issues that have to do with, let's say, religion and religious responses to issues of violence, but it was it was just an early context.

At that point, government officials really weren't dealing in a very positive and constructive way. It's very interesting when you think about 9/11 and the responses to it. I can tell you, when 9/11 occurred, I was asked to brief a group of people, Congress, Senate people, staffers and what struck me then was not just in the briefings but in private conversations with senators who were well known, senators who dealt with international affairs like Joe Biden. For them, in Biden's case, he's an expert on Europe and specific countries in Europe. I remember having a conversation with him in which he basically said, and others said it too that, for the longest time, the Middle East was something that was assigned to staffers, it wasn't something that, therefore, the key senators and representatives really had a strong background on. That has changed, I think, rather significantly.

We now have a situation where certainly, for example, where our foreign service people or people in the military, unlike when I first got into the field, and there were no programs. For many of them now, when they are going to the region, whatever that region is, where there are Muslims, etc., they have a background in their training, in terms of the religion and culture. Whereas that was not the case in the past. Therefore, you had people who were both indirectly and directly feeding foreign policy but relying on what a staffer or two might be writing up for them and handing them.

Sahil: Interesting. Speaking particularly of the world today, and even the more distant future, you've expressed that fundamentalism, including religious fundamentalism, is another top challenge the world faces today. Could you speak about some of the root causes? Of course, we can't generalize, as each has its unique background, but are there common causes of it today?

Dr. Esposito: I think that fundamentals is a very difficult topic to deal with because it means slightly different things when you cut across religions. For example, Christian fundamentalism vis-a-vis what is sometimes referred to Islamic fundamentalism.

I think that you have it in all faiths, and certainly in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Just to limit myself a little, you have ultra-conservative interpretations and conservative interpretations that are not violent, etc.. They are just ultra-conservative. I think that some of the ultra-conservative interpretations, while not violent, are problematic in terms of pluralism in some cases.

Because, if in fact, you have an ultra-conservative interpretation but one that in the end basically sees your faith as the one true faith and the rest false and does not reach out to other communities even but rather turns in, that's an issue. I think that where fundamentalism becomes a problem is when you've got fundamentalists who wind up having a strong political side and drifting into either because of conditions in their own country and the region but also because of even their theology. For example, if you are a fundamentalist and you basically believe you're a Christian fundamentalist or any fundamentalist, if you have very firm beliefs and you believe this is what God wants, what people can do is many people believe that God wants X and Y and Z, and so, we do a variety of things. When you have the sense that, "Well, wait a minute, if this is what God wants, then I need to impose it. My way has to be imposed on fellow believers but also others in my country". That's where it gets exploited.

We've seen that we also forget that when we talk about violence and religion and let's say extremism and terrorism, while they can be extremist ideologies, religious ideologies, often the primary drivers are political, social, and economic. Those drivers are the kind of drivers that normally will lead some people in societies to become reform-minded and to get involved in politics or to try to - in schools and education, etc., to do things. Also, there are others who will seize upon that and use these political and social and economic grievances, use that as an excuse for then a kind of religiously legitimated form of action in order to recruit, to legitimate and mobilize.

The example I like to give, is if you take a look at a Bin Laden. When you look at his first interview with CNN, major interview, for the first couple of pages, you see a very articulate laying out of a worldview with regard to past history and the impact of colonialism, etc., and Palestine and Israel. It's laid out. There's nothing of religion in that. Having laid that out and then said, in effect, look at these injustices. He then says, we need to respond in effect and that's when he then cites religion in order to then legitimate the things that he wants to do, to recruit people and to legitimate what he wants to do and even to go beyond the usual regulations of Islam. That is to say, the situation is so bad that things that normally would be forbidden, we're into a situation of survival, and therefore it's okay to do X and Y. For example, you violate Islamic law and you wind up killing civilians, you wind up targeting indiscriminately, etc..

I think that that kind of religious fundamentalism is a problem. There are two things, I think the first form of fundamentalism being ultra-conservative. On the one hand, people have a right to be that way, but if their ultra-conservative fundamentalism is really very narrow-minded when it comes to interfaith relations, then I think it's a problem today in a globalized world in which more and more countries are being forced, whether they like it or not, to be multi-ethnic and multi-religious. The second form of fundamentalism, a kind of hardcore political fundamentalism, that's dangerous when you have people who basically grab religion and say, "This is what God wants and if God wants it, it has to be done immediately and it has to be imposed, we need to do it and if even members of our own community do not join in and support, then they too are the enemy."

Sahil: Again, you've often said this, is that religious people compare their idealities or their ideals to other people's realities, right?

Dr. Esposito: I think that it's almost a natural human tendency. If you ask, if you look at, for example, ethnic groups interacting or even nationalities, people will, with great pride, many of them will talk about the pluses of their ethnic group or the positive of their nation, which is fine, but that's the way they'll define themselves when they're putting down somebody else. I think that happens very much when it comes to religion. Instead of saying, "Let's get a sense of, to clear the air in our conversations, let's, first of all, get a sense of what are the ideals, what do we stand for as a faith, with the each of us?" Then let's also then get honest about, and then one of the problem's been in terms of how we live out that faith and how we treat people both within our own faith as well as people outside. It doesn't happen as often as it should.

For example, when you wind up with Christian fundamentalists and Christian fundamentalist leaders, and they wind up talking about acts of violence that occur in Islam and don't look at the acts of violence that they had done in the past and that they may be even be legitimating now, and I think we run into that.

You run into some hardcore Christian fundamentalists who, they'll, for example, quote the passages in the Quran out of context, but they don't refer to the Bible that has many passages that talk about committing acts of violence and terror. Even a passage or two of where you had God talking about, “You didn't follow what I wanted, what I commanded”, and therefore, it becomes, as a number of scholars have discussed, it becomes a form of genocide. Kill everything. Now we know how to deal with that. We contextualize, we develop it, so that for the vast majority of Christians, the Bible is their sacred book. Those kinds of passages are dealt with, and not taken literally and applied today. The way some will look at the Quran and they'll say, take the passage, "Slay the unbelievers wherever you find them." That comes up all the time. I've had people raise it in the United States and the UK, all over the place, and they know nothing about the passage. They don't realize. You look at that passage and that passage had nothing to do with Christians and Jews, etc.. We also know that, in fact, when you read some of the passages in the Quran where God is saying, in effect, "You have a right to defend yourselves against these people", etc.. In the very next verse or two verses later, God will say very clearly, "But if the enemy ceases to be an enemy, that you have to cease your fighting", etc..

I think that this is why, if we're going to move forward, we have to be able to have a level playing field and love the ideals in our faith, but also look at the warts that we've had historically and have today on each side and not to compare our ideals to somebody else's reality or deny the reality and say, "That has nothing to do with my faith." Well, you may want to say, "As I understand my faith, my faith does not legitimate that", but it has something to do with it in that you've got members of a faith, in the name of the faith, committing actions. We have to realize what we're dealing with here.

Sahil: We often talk about a vision for the future, but sometimes speak about it in general terms and earlier, we spoke about some of the challenges of globalization. And I want to talk about your vision for the future, but in very specific terms, perhaps. Could you name a specific objective you can see the world achieve, let's say, in 25 years, and then what insights and suggestions would you offer that would address and achieve this vision?

Dr. Esposito: I think that we have -- That's a tough question given the fact that, when I say the world's imploding and exploding, we don't know how we're going to come out at the other end. It used to be much clearer 30 or 40 years ago.

I think that there were a couple of things that are certainly conceivable and possible. Number one, that things will get so bad in different respects that we'll come to our senses and get back on the right track when it comes to issues of freedoms and democratization and civil liberties and that those things belong to all people. For example, if we're looking at governments in Europe or the US, that things will get turned around. Right now, you look at Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, although they don't have really many Muslims at all, if you look at the new leaders, their attitude is very Islamophobic and we see that in our own country today and also a real threat to democracy in our country.

I think in Europe, people are aware that these things can turn around. The debate is now occurring in the UK, be it over Brexit or going back to relations with the EU. It's clearly that having moved in one direction, there's now a strong sense on the part of many people in the UK that they'd like to get back to what they see as a better path. I think that also when it comes to dealing with examples in Europe and America, but also in Burma, in Myanmar etc., there's every possibility that we can wind up with a movement from below on the part of people. Certainly, in terms of, in America and Europe. At some point, a movement from below that basically says, "We don't want to have leaders or to have groups in our society that condone bias and discrimination and even at times, violence.” We have the ability to do that in many of our countries because we have a set of principles and values that we articulate and have articulated since we came into existence that would make for the growth of good governance and a strong sense of civil liberty. I think that kind of stuff has that possibility of turning around. It's why I think the next presidential elections or the next congressional elections, we've just seen a real movement in terms of the recent congressional elections, a bouncing back in some ways. I think this kind of movement can take place, certainly, in other countries.

I think, religiously, where we are, as much as we have, on the dark side, we have a vibrant minority, but it's a vibrant minority, that too often winds up being able to hold the day. We have a minority of people who do not operate in a constructive way with regard to interfaith relations. But I think we do see people responding to that, so to take an outrageous example. When you look at what's happening to the Rohingya and also to the leaders in China right now, unlike a number of years ago, we are seeing more people mobilizing and more people, more groups raising these kinds of issues. Or what's happened in Yemen with the bombing that goes on. Now, there's a chance that Congress will revisit it and the kind of support that the Trump administration has given to Saudi Arabia in its war as it were in Yemen.

I think at the interfaith level also, there's been far more-- When I got into the field, not only-- Even though they were Muslims in the country, was there an absolute ignorance about Islam and an absence of Islam in the public square as it were and in our educational institutions, etc.. All of that's changed. There is much more, a potential now and we see examples, but the question is getting the traction. You have, for example, major religious leaders get together. They are major in these space. They draw up some very, very good statements. I've been associated with a number of statements, A Common Word, a variety of them, but part of the challenge is: after. In other words, do those, for example, religious leaders, who have so much other stuff on their plate. Do they go out of their way to make sure that in the training, in their seminaries, in their madrasas etc., that there's a change of curriculum and teaching that educate for this much more global pluralistic world. Also, critical, we have a growth of people who are sensitive to this. If I look at the Muslim community, we have people, second, third generation now, who have first-rate educations, are more and more in responsible positions and also can be as it were voices or public voices.

It's a matter of people continuing to mobilize and to move forward. I think all those possibilities are there. I've seen in our project Bridge and the data, if you look at our website that we've been able to gather and the following. We very quickly moved, we have more than a million people following us and a big following on Twitter. There are other groups dealing with the issue of Islamophobia. Well, we've got to see more and more of that. Again, there are hopeful signs. You look at some of the candidates that have been elected. Some of the younger people, for example, in the last elections. They are a generation, I think, that will be capable of responding to the far more complex situations that we face not just politically but, if you will, religiously and culturally. I think that those things are there, but I think one has to realize that we're still in a very unstable kind of situation on a lot of these issues. Given some of the governments that we still have and the advisers that we still have, it's very fragile. The current administration has some people in there that, in the past, let alone now -- We talk about bombing a city in a country to get it to think differently. We are talking about invading countries, rather than really sticking to diplomacy. I think that it's a fragile situation, but I think that it's a situation that really should mobilize all people.

I do see a lot more, at least I see a lot more in a consistent way. A lot more people, whether one is looking at the Internet, or one is looking at what happens on the ground, that are putting their bodies where their mouth is. That are, where you have diverse people. People of going into the streets, getting involved in programs and projects in which they are calling for significant change, of speaking out against violence against women. We have made some really great strides there. But I think we have to continue because, with the rise of the White Nationalism that we see, it's racist and it threatens African Americans, it threatens "people of color". All people of color and it threatens different people of faith. So I think that, yes, we can move forward but I think everybody has to keep in mind that this is not simply something that we can say, "Well, we'll leave it to somebody else."

Sahil: You just mentioned A Common Word and that you were involved in it. I want to talk about that in relation to this idea of Cosmopolitan ethics, right?

Dr. Esposito: Yes.

Sahil: That we, as a humanity, can come together and have these ethics that we all agree upon which are inspired, of course, by our faiths, but which we can come together and say, "These are the ethics that we believe in." This would perhaps even include-- perhaps this dialogue in the future would include non-believers because we're talking about humanistic values.

Dr. Esposito: Yes.

Sahil: I wanted to ask you in this age-- I mean you're doing the Bridge initiative. In this age where you have the age of the internet, social media. How can this be more-- I mean A Common Word, the regular person doesn't go and read A Common Word, right? How do we bring that more to the public square?

Dr. Esposito: It's a good question. I think, first of all, I should say that we have an amazing document, at least if you look at the document, in the sense that the Scriptures are there, the Quran and the Bible and mine the Scriptures. You also have major religious leaders with a realistic approach in the sense of saying, "Look, we have our differences and we've had significant differences, but we live in an increasingly globalized world and in a dangerous world. We share a responsibility and we have a basis for it. The basic basis that we share in common. That is the notion of love of God and love of neighbor, okay? But the challenge, of course, is who is the neighbor in today's world.

That's where you get into the pluralism because years ago, when the neighbor was referred to in, let's say biblical times, etc.. The neighbor wasn't as broadly cosmopolitan, etc.. I think that what struck me was this incredible document which then got launched at Yale and Cambridge in the UK and then at Georgetown in different ways. Yet when we did the media rollout at the National Press Club, the turnout was not the turnout that I've seen in other media situations. Why? You look at the media coverage; again, in a world that's interested in conflict, it will focus on actually at times the realities of a very dangerous and document a minority but not really the more constructive kinds of situations.

That's why when I speak here or overseas, I will often say to an audience, "Please raise your hand if you know anything about A Common Word. Please raise your hand if you know anything about the Amman Message." You'd be stunned at how few people raise their hand. Even in a context where you would think that they would raise their hand. So I think that, it really, what we get back to again is, first of all, I think getting religious leaders and people who are religiously-oriented more and more active in the public square. It's not, just to say we've got a Morocco statement, or we've got in this statement or whatever. The danger is that, initially, you'll see some impact and then it will disappear. It gets archived. It's making it happen now.

Now, I see this happening in variety of ways. When you look at churches, synagogues, and mosques across the country, it's not that all of them are doing this at all but in many of them, there's been far more of a movement and openness to emphasizing interfaith relations. When you look at a campus like Georgetown and you realize that we hired the first, that is Georgetown, the first full-time Muslim chaplain, I think probably the first time a full-time Hindu chaplain. If you actually look at the number of chaplains that we have at Georgetown, it's amazing because it's showing an emphasis on seeing a significance of religion. Religion, holistically, not simply saying seeing it in terms of, well, we need to have some folks there to simply perform rituals but rather it's much more broader than that.

I think that I see that when I travel, and I run into people where I'm speaking and they will tell me how they are -- The number of Muslims that I run into now who are involved in their cities or towns in interfaith relations is significant. The number of movements that are bringing together people of faith. Not only in terms of religion, but even, what we would see as ethics and social policy. The people of faith that responded to the terror in Pittsburgh, for example, recently, the synagogue. They came at it from a religious point of view, but they came at it also from a very humanistic point of view. There are lots of people who, again, I think it's one of the things you raise. It is important.

This old divide between as it were an atheist and theist has gotten exacerbated by a couple of atheists that find that they can make a lot of money and attention. You have a British scientist who's a first-rate scientist, but many people would say he never has had the visibility that he has doing his stuff. Rather than talking about the fact that many of the things that we see is important, those of us of faith, not only do we share with other people of faith but also, we share it with people of no formal faith. The basic of mores and ethics and notions of civil liberties.

Now, for a religious person, a lot of these can be that-- they shared in common with somebody who has no religion and then it gets buttressed a little bit more because they believe that on some of the stuff, "God said to do this" or commanded it. That's really beside the point in terms of talking about the community itself. That we need to realize that however diverse a community can be in terms of faith and also no faith, we all share things about love of neighbor, about issues that have to do with addressing social injustice. It's not just because we have prophets and scriptures who would have told us that.

Our social movements, some of them have nothing to do with religion but they do have to do formally but they do have to do with issues that religious folk have. I think we're seeing more of that now. Even as I said before, what I find very striking is the extent to which you have NGOs like Black Lives Matter, MeToo, and religious NGOs but actually coming together around what one might say are human and civic issues. I think that we are in a much better spot there. Yes, we do have an incredible and we realized that the incredible, dark, right-wing, ultra-right-wing folks that we find who are intolerant and dangerous, existing both in the US and in Europe for example. Or in Myanmar or whatever.

We've got a significant population, a percentage of people who represent far more constructive side. I think we're beginning to see that coming out, I think it's going to take a lot more of a concerted effort to keep it going.

Sahil: Finally, if I may ask on a personal note. What inspires you and what drives you every day?

Dr. Esposito: A lot of it goes back to my parents, my family. It was not only the way they raised us, but it was the way they interacted with us. It wasn't just what they said. It was the model that they had. I think it was influenced in my case by the fact that at a very young age, I wanted to be a priest and I became a Franciscan. I wasn't ordained a priest, but I was with Franciscans for quite a few years. Of course, that, when you're following St. Francis, the virtues and values are strong there. Then I think it's what I have seen in corroborated or also cross-sections in my study with Islam. Also, I studied Buddhism and Hinduism as well. I draw on those religious traditions because there's a lot more-- Sometimes, once you get beyond the difference in language, there's a lot more cross-fertilization possible.

I have a passion for, I think, social justice. I must say, on the other hand, that things have gotten darker for me in the sense that over the years, you see a growth. You're driven by the fact that there's no visibility, let's say, of Islam at all. Then you see as you move forward. But in the intervening situation, we've also seen this kind of a nasty side of humanity that expresses itself at times, both religiously as well as politically, globally. There are some days when you look, and you say, "Oh gee. Where are we now?"

The whole idea of two steps forward but sometimes it looks like two steps forward and three backwards. So, how do we get back? I'm a runner so I know you can overcome that. I think that's been a real issue. On the one hand, to be very specific, Americans did wind up engaging with Islam, but the real engagement came with the Iranian revolution. That was to see Islam through the lens of the Iranian revolution and a lot of other stuff. A revolution where people were talking about death to America etc. and not have a context to understand that. That has made for, I think, some real issues.

What keeps me going is just addressing the issues that are on my plate. So my teaching, my students, the projects that I run. You know, creating the center of Georgetown; that took about 22 years of my life doing that. Now with the Bridge project, those things. You meet a lot of other people who also serve as examples for you. That keeps you going. You feel that you’ve got, as it were, colleagues and friends who are doing this. Yes, we do what we can do. I think that's why we're here on Earth.

Sahil: Dr. Esposito, thank you for this interview.

Dr. Esposito: Thank you.

About Dr. John Esposito

University Professor as well as Professor of Religion and International Affairs and of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, John L. Esposito is Founding Director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Esposito has served as consultant to the U.S. Department of State and other agencies, European and Asian governments and corporations, universities, and the media worldwide. He is a former President of the American Academy of Religion, the Middle East Studies Association of North America and of the American Council for the Study of Islamic Societies, Vice Chair of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, and member of the World Economic Forum’s Council of 100 Leaders, and member of the E. C. European Network of Experts on De-Radicalisation and Board of Directors of the C-1 World Dialogue.

Esposito is recipient of the American Academy of Religion’s Martin E. Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion and of Pakistan’s Quaid-i-Azzam Award for Outstanding Contributions in Islamic Studies and the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University Award for Outstanding Teaching. Editor-in-Chief of Oxford Islamic Studies Online and Series Editor of The Oxford Library of Islamic Studies, Esposito has served as Editor-in-Chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World (6 vols.); The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World (4 vols.), The Oxford History of Islam, The Oxford Dictionary of Islam, and The Islamic World: Past and Present (3 vols.). Esposito has published more than 45 books which have been translated into 35 languages.

About the Interviewer

Sahil Badruddin is a graduate of The University of Texas at Austin with degrees in Chemical Engineering, Religious Studies, and History. As the host of Candid Insights with Sahil Badruddin, he conducts interviews of influencers, leaders, and intellectuals for their deeper insights on contemporary issues. Some of his recent interview guests, among others, include Karen Armstrong, Hasan Minhaj, and Eboo Patel.

© 2019 by Sahil Badruddin