Esposito and Mogahed on Islam.

Over the last couple of years I’ve read several books by John L. Esposito. Currently the University Professor of Religion and International Affairs at Georgetown University, he is the author of over 35 books, of which I have read What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam and The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality ? While visiting my public library last weekend I spied one of his more recent books, Who Speaks for Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think and decided to grab it.  Co-authored with Dalia Mogahed, the books is largely based on the results of a mammoth six-year long study by Gallup International to poll individual Muslims in 35 Muslim-majority nations in order to understand the Islamic world’s views of the United States, democracy, religion, terrorism and woman’s rights. Based on such a herculean effort, one can only respect the findings of such an enormous research project. However, while there were numerous things about this book I liked, unfortunately at times Esposito and Mogahed’s 2007 book misses the mark.

By using data taken directly from individual Muslims, the book provides an excellent medium to learn about the Islamic world instead of having to rely on the words and opinions of pundits. By showing that many terrorists are college-educated, multilingual, computer-literate and urbane, the book goes a long way in helping defeat the misconception held by many well-meaning progressives that Islamic radicals tend to be poor, rural and uneducated. By showing that most Muslims when asked what they admire the most about the United States answer that it’s our democratic form of government and entrepreneurial-friendly economic system, counters the claim held by many on the far right that Muslims hate us for our “freedom”. Lastly, instead of desiring a totalitarian form of government, according to the Gallup findings most Muslims want democracy in their own respective countries.

But, there were a number things about this book I did not like. For instance:

  • In an effort to show America’s hypocrisy when it comes to promoting democracy in the Middle East, the book’s authors quote opinion pieces from two Syrian newspapers. Frankly, quoting two state-controlled newspapers from the region’s most oppressive police state on the merits of democracy borders on the absurd.
  • In a portion of the book dealing with Sharia, Esposito and Mogahed discuss the tragic case of Amina Lawal, a 30-year old Nigerian woman sentenced to death by stoning for being pregnant out-of-wedlock. Taking comfort in the fairness of Islamic justice, the book’s authors rejoice that her conviction was eventually overturned by a Sharia Court of Appeal because only one local judge heard her case instead of the needed four. Gee, would her sentence have been as just if she had been convicted by four judges instead of one ?
  • While discussing the deadly riots over the Danish Muhammad cartoons Esposito and Mogahed fail to mention there have been countless pieces of anti-Christian artwork and books circulating in the west for years. While many Christians have found this material highly offensive, it has sparked no deadly rioting. Why is that ?
  • Lastly, with Hezbollah asserting itself in Lebanon, Iran in all likelihood embarking on a nuclear weapons program and Iraq a Shia-dominated state, in Esposito and Mogahed’s book the Shia branch of Islam only gets a passing reference.

In one of my favorite television shows of all time, The X-Files, Agent Fox Mulder had a poster of a UFO with the words “I Want to Believe”. I’d like to believe all of the things written in Esposito and Mogahed’s book. But in the end, I can only believe some of them.



Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Islam

6 responses to “Esposito and Mogahed on Islam.

  1. Sounds like they need to do a follow-up book! 😉

  2. How disappointing! The title and premise of this book sound incredible and I was really looking forward to finding a copy. Now I’m not so sure this is the informative book that I thought it was. Those points you make are disheartening, as I would have expected more after such a huge study.

  3. It is a shame that this is book is not more credible as I would like to know more about this subject.

  4. Mia

    You’re wrong on 2 counts. The book says the woman’s sentence was overturned because there were no 4 “eye witnesses” to the adultery as required by sharia., not 4 “judges”!! You’ve got to be a porn start to get convicted 🙂
    Also, the book objects to the moslems riots but explains that moslims see the cartoons more like racial slurs during the early civil rights days, and this is why they are rioting. Maybe you missed this part?
    Amy & Kim, he only found 3 things he didn’t like in the book, and that turns you off? wow!

    • Greetings Mia,

      Since you have taken the time to post a few comments on my blog I believe it is only fair for me to take some time and respond to your recent words. I will address your comments in the order you stated them.
      In response to your accusation that I am wrong because her case was eventually dismissed because there were “no 4 eye witnesses” of her alegded adultery, fortunately I have Esposito and Mogahed’s book right in front of me and I will let their words, not mine do the talking. This comes from page 37 of the Gallup Press first edition published in the United States in 2007:

      A Sharia Court of Appeal overturned her con-
      viction in 2003. According to four of the five
      judges, the original sentence violated certain
      precepts of Islamic law because: it did not
      meet the requirement that three local judges
      hear her case-only one was present at the time
      of her conviction; the defendant’s right to
      proper legal defense was not provided, and cir-
      cumstantial evidence, in this case her preg-
      nancy, was not considered sufficient evidence,
      according to Islamic law.

      As you can see, these words are clearly consistent with the information I presented in my recent online posting. In addition, there is no mentioning whatsoever in the passage of any “eye witnesses”.
      Therefore, regrettably I must inform you that you are in fact the one who is mistaken and not me.
      But much like you will accuse me later on regarding the cause of the Danish Cartoon riots, I fear you fail to understand the more important part of my argument. It matters little if our accused adulteress is set free for a lack of judges or a lack witnesses, no human being should be subject to the death penalty for adultery. While the transgression of adultery can be considered immoral, irresponsible and harmful to one’s spouse, it should not be considered a capital offense under any law be it Sharia or some western-inspired civil code. Fortunately many Muslims feel this way, that such a punishment is morally unjustified. To illustrate this, I will include a link to a BBC news story which mentions the opposition of Nigerian women’s groups to this form of punishment:
      It is important to note that the holy scriptures and early practices our three monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have very old origins. Not only are they the products of a specific time, (as for Islam roughly the 7 th century AD) but also of a specific geographic place, (in Islam’s case the Arabian Peninsula). Therefore, they can reflect the concerns of that particular place and time. Historians have noted that due to the problems surrounding the concerns of parentage and inheritance, there were strong moral taboos against adultery. In all likelihood, prohibitions and punishments regarding this sin were included in the holy texts of our Great Religions. But, as we move into a modern, secular world we must struggle to adapt these beliefs and practices to our contemporary setting. Echos of this sentiment can be found in the writings of many notable Muslim luminaries such as Tahar Ben Jelloun, Khaled M. Abou El Fadl and Anouar Majid.
      On to your second comment regarding Esposito and Mogahed’s comparing the recent Danish cartoon riots with the Watts Riots of 1965 and in many ways, you are right. I was going to mention that portion of their argument in my post but for purposes of brevity and laziness, (mostly laziness I’m afraid) I elected not to. In retrospect, I wish I would have mentioned it in my post, as it is central to the explanation of the book’s two authors.
      But, related to their point, there is a weakness in Esposito and Mogahed’s relating of the two events. While the authors spend a lot of time discussing the various social and political factors which set the stage for the Watts Riots as well as mentioning the police action as the “trigger mechanism” for the riots, they fail to dig deeper in reasons why there were widespread riots in the Muslim world over the cartoons. According to the book’s authors, based on the recent Gallup Poll, both Americans and Muslims share surprisingly similar views on morality and the role of religion. If that is the case, why haven’t more American religious conservatives rioted when faced with offense material such as pornography, blasphemy and atheistic writing ? Could it be that we in the US are shaped by a number of influences such as secularism, religious pluralism, democratic institutions and rule of law ? Hard to say, but I think Esposito and Mogahed should have explored those possibilities but did not.
      By the way, I will include a link to a rather good op-ed piece by Pulitzer-prize winning editorial writer Leonard Pitts. Not only does he raise those some kind of questions, he is a liberal and not a xenophobic ultra-conservative. Oddly enough he makes no effort to liken the Danish Cartoon riots to the Watts Riots. I say odd because he is also an African-American and no stranger to the forces which helped give force to the Watts Riots:
      Now, why do I think their book is a bit lacking ? My guess is they intended their book to be an introductory work and not an in depth one. To me that makes sense. If that is the case, perhaps I expected too much from the two authors. Maybe the points I raised are outside the scope of their intended purpose. Hard to say.
      And one last thing, in case you might be wondering, I would never urge a reader of my blog NOT to read a particular book. I think people should read anything and everything and then make up their minds what they think of the material. Years ago I once had a history professor who liked to assign books to his class that he did not agree with. At the time I thought it was a silly idea. But as the years have gone by, I am come to appreciate the wisdom which motivated his methods. I hope someday in about 20 years you too will appreciate the wisdom of others.

  5. Pingback: Islam: Opposing Viewpoints | Maphead's Book Blog

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