Islamic scholar John Esposito says the West tends to ignore modernist impulses of Islam.

Islamophobia has increased in many societies", warns John L. Esposito, an American scholar of Islam and professor of religion, who believes that a "significant minority" around the globe think that a clash of civilisations is inevitable.

Responding to the findings of a recent Gallup poll which showed that most people do not see a clash of cultures, Esposito says an "intolerant, dangerous minority of political leaders, experts, media commentators and religious leaders believe in that clash or encourage that clash".

Esposito brushes aside the common notion in the West that Islam and democracy are incompatible and says that the main hindrance to democracy are primarily authoritarian regimes and their elites as well as religious extremists. "Self-determination, popular political participation, civil society and human rights are at the heart of democratisation and none of these is antithetical to Islam," says Esposito.


As Iraq implodes along sectarian lines, the common thinking is that Muslims are themselves a danger to Muslims. How will this sectarian violence in the Muslim world affect the West?
Sectarian violence in Iraq is a potential threat to the stability and security of other Gulf states — from Sunni majority states to a Shiite majority country like Bahrain. Shiites are a powerful political force today from Lebanon, Iran and Iraq to the Gulf and Pakistan. Western countries with their dependence on oil, and, in the case of America and several European countries, strong ties to Israel, regard a resurgent Shiism as threatening their Sunni allies and interests in the Gulf.

Europe sees Muslims as people who ‘ghettoise' themselves, hiding behind their veils and refusing to join the ‘mainstream'. Britain now wants immigrants to become more ‘British'. Will that help integrate Muslims into society?
Terrorist attacks in Europe and social upheaval have been exploited by right-wing, anti-immigrant parties and have been legitimate concerns of mainstream Europeans, both Muslims and non-Muslims. The issue is not becoming more European but whether becoming more European is defined in a way that enables Muslims to both integrate their religious faith and identity better.

In contrast to the American Muslim experience, most European Muslims have been labourers and blue collar workers who have been educationally, economically and politically disadvantaged. These factors reinforce a "ghettoised" existence.

The London bombings show that some of the younger generation of Muslims is more ‘fundamentalist' in their thinking than their parents. How do you think that happened? It is usually the new immigrants who bring with them their so-called cultural baggage.
A significant minority of Muslim youth have faced unresolved identity issues, torn between their parent's generation which often does not distinguish between religion and culture as well as between the diverse cultural expressions of Islam and European culture and society. In contrast to those Muslim youth who are more successfully integrated into European society, others react against social inequities, racism, Islamophobia and Western foreign policies in the Muslim world, from the invasion of Iraq to support for authoritarian regimes. Some are influenced by the religious discourse of militant imams.

Some Muslim scholars have called for reforms in the Islamic way of life to keep pace with changing times. Is that likely to come about and if so, in which areas of the Islamic way of life could such a restructuring happen?
Muslims have grappled with issues of renewal (tajdid) and reform (islah) since the late 19th century. Prominent religious scholars and intellectuals have called for ijtihad (reinterpretation) and reform. Individuals and movements across the Muslim world have advocated fresh interpretations of Islam while conservative voices have denied, resisted or slowed the pace of change. There are many areas of reform which affect areas such as the relationship of religion to state, society and citizenship; status and role of women; Muslim family laws; rights of religious minorities; medical ethics; curriculum reform in many, if not all madrasas.

You are the founder of the Centre of Muslim-Christian Understanding. What is its role?
We live in an interdependent world where Muslim-Christian relations are more critical than ever before. Both communities share common religious roots and issues of faith in the modern world. The Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal Centre for Muslim-Christian Understanding seeks to build bridges of understanding between the Muslim world and the West as well as between Islam and Christianity. The Centre works to counter dangerous stereotypes and fears, that shape contemporary Muslim-Christian relations.

It promotes mutual respect and understanding: addresses warnings of a clash of civilisations; issues regarding the compatibility of Islam and modern life, from democratisation and pluralism to the status of women, minorities and human rights; engages in inter-religious and inter-civilisational dialogues.

Some critics see you as an apologist for Islam who whitewashes the danger from Muslims to the West.
I write with knowledge and experience not only of texts but also of political and social contexts. I discuss not only what Islam teaches and what Muslims believe but also what diverse Muslims do.

Therefore, I write not only about mainstream Muslims but also about religious extremists and terrorists.

The best answer to your question about my critics is: consider the source.

Who are the critics and what are their political or religious agendas? Those who engage in name calling and revisionist history are ideologues with clear agendas — people like Bernard Lewis, Daniel Pipes and Martin Kramer, whose scholarship is in the service of a biased agenda that distorts any pretence of objectivity and other authors of anti-Muslim books, like Robert Spencer, who have no academic training or credentials in Islamic studies.

One final comment.
If we want to compare Islam and Christianity, for example, then the comparison should be of Christian ideals to Muslim ideals and Christian realities to Muslim realities. In our pluralistic and inter-dependent world, the rights of all believers and non-believers should be respected.