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.