Months after Karen Hughes assumed the role of diplomat-at-large to the Muslim world, she told Time magazine that one of her two key influences on understanding Islam was Georgetown professor John Esposito. She’s not alone. The FBI has repeatedly consulted him, and much of academia holds him in high regard.
But when he’s not busy shaping U.S. policy toward the Muslim world, Esposito mentors a man who wishes he could be a suicide bomber and who recently (and publicly) reinforced his support for “martyrdom.” He has collaborated on two books with Dr. Azzam Tamimi, and he still maintains a close relationship with him to this day.
Despite rubbing elbows with elites in government and academe, Esposito’s mentoring of an avowed “martyrdom” supporter actually fits in line with his overall record. He has publicly defended known advocates of Islamic terrorism, and although he was considered a leading expert on political Islam in the 1990s, he was downplaying the threat posed by the Taliban and bin Laden right up until 9/11.
While Esposito has long courted controversy—most recently when the Georgetown-based center he founded in 1993 accepted $20 million last year from (and took the name of) a notorious Saudi prince—he has somehow been able to maintain a relatively high reputation in academic and government circles.
That Esposito is still largely respected owes to the subtlety of his apologism. He acknowledges that there is radicalism in Islam, and he generally avoids defending the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah. Even as he argues for engaging Islamists, he does so without overtly endorsing their worldview. But Esposito skillfully minimizes the threat posed by radical Islam, and as demonstrated by his close affiliation with Dr. Tamimi, who told a massive crowd in the UK last week that “dying for your beliefs is just,” he willingly associates with avowed cheerleaders of Islamic terrorism.
Esposito’s defenders—and there are many—claim that his critics conflate his practical advice that Islamists cannot simply be ignored with apologism for radical Islam. While such an answer may be appealing for those who believe in giving the benefit of the doubt, it simply doesn’t square with the facts.
Although Esposito is less transparent than most apologists for radical Islam, the Georgetown scholar is more than a mere apologist. He defends supporters of Islamic terrorism. He even mentors them.
Downplaying the Taliban
Though most Americans before 9/11 were not aware of the Taliban or the threat they posed, there were a significant number of experts warning about the ascendancy of the so-called religious students movement in Afghanistan. Esposito was not one of them.
A Nexis search reveals that between bylines and quotes, Esposito’s name appeared over 200 times between 1994, the year the Taliban first emerged, and Sept. 10, 2001. Only a handful of times did he mention the Islamic tyrants, and just once did he say something that could be deemed critical. In a quote, he called the Taliban “radical.” That was it.
Despite being listed in an August 2000 Associated Press article as a “specialist in Asiatic Islam,” he did nothing to warn policymakers about the dangers of the Taliban. Quite the opposite, in fact. But it wasn’t just the Taliban he downplayed. Esposito was the most vocal advocate of embracing, rather than fearing, Islamist movements that started gaining traction in the early 1990’s.
His 1992 book “The Islamic Threat : Myth or Reality?” unsurprisingly comes down mostly on the side of “myth.” The closing paragraph concludes: “Islam and most Islamic movements are not necessarily anti-Western, anti-American, or anti-democratic. … [T]hey do not necessarily threaten American interests. Our challenge is to better understand the history and realities of the Muslim world.” As Daniel Pipes noted in a Wall Street Journal review of the book, Esposito even recommended that U.S. foreign policy should “be carried on in the context in which ideological differences between the West and Islam are recognized and, to the greatest extent possible, accepted or at least tolerated.”
At a time when others were sounding the alarm about the well-documented brutality of the Taliban, Esposito was urging for calm. In a lengthy Commonweal article in September 1997, Esposito dedicated 4,000 words to extolling “the richness and diversity of the Muslim experience.” The only reference to the Taliban was in the opening, where he implied that the capture of Kabul had received far too much attention.
In what was somehow not a career-killer, Esposito—shortly before 9/11—argued that bin Laden was not nearly as great a threat as advertised, that his danger was needlessly hyped by the media. From the issue of Fletcher Forum of World Affairs that was still on newsstands on September 11, here is Esposito in his own words:
“Bin Laden is the best thing that has come along, if you are an intelligence officer, if you are an authoritarian regime, or if you want to paint Islamist activism as a threat. There’s a danger in making Bin Laden the poster boy of global terrorism, and not realizing that there are a lot of other forces involved in global terrorism. Bin Laden has become the new symbol, following in the footsteps of Qaddafi, Khomeini, and Sheikh Omar Abdur Rahman. Bin Laden is a perfect media symbol: He’s tall, gaunt, striking, and always has a Kalashnikov with him. As long as we focus on these images we continue to see Islam and Islamic activism through the prism of ayatollahs and Iran, of Bin Laden and the Afghan Arabs.”
Defending Known Terror Supporters
While he merely downplays the threat posed by Islamic terrorists, Esposito has openly lauded terror supporters. The Georgetown academic has lavished praise on two in particular: former University of South Florida professor (and convicted terrorist) Sami al-Arian, and al-Jazeera phenomenon Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi.
When USF moved to fire al-Arian in April 2002, Esposito wrote to the university’s president that he was “stunned, astonished, and saddened.” While naysayers point to acquittals he received on a number of charges, al-Arian pleaded guilty after the trial, admitting that he was, in fact, a key leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad. But even before the admission that was an Islamic terrorist, al-Arian was indisputably an avowed Islamic radical long before 9/11. Among other examples, the former USF professor played host in the early- to mid-’90s to some of the most notorious jihadists in the world, all of which was well-documented by the Tampa Tribune and in the 1994 PBS documentary, “Jihad in America,” by Steven Emerson.
In other words, the public record on al-Arian was more than well-enough established as of April 2002 that there was simply no way that Esposito could have been “stunned” or “astonished.”
Even more troubling is the affection Esposito has displayed for Sheikh Qaradawi. In 2003, he fawned over Qaradawi’s “reformist interpretation of Islam and its relationship to democracy, pluralism and human rights.” The famous cleric, though, has issued fatwas endorsing suicide bombings in Israel and has said that those who kill Americans in Iraq are “martyrs” with “good intentions.” Qaradawi also supports the killing of gays or anyone who has converted away from Islam.
With neither al-Arian nor Qaradawi does Esposito have any plausible deniability. Both his defenses of those terror supporters were not isolated, according to counterterrorism consultant Daveed Gartenstein-Ross. “Esposito has committed himself to general apologetics for Islamist movements, minimizing or completely ignoring the hateful rhetoric and ideas embodied in and expressed by these groups.”
Nowhere is this more true than with his still un-severed relationship with his protégé, Azzam Tamimi.
Tamimi’s Teacher and Partner
Since Tamimi’s stirring support for “martyrdom” in Manchester, Britain, last week, Esposito has been curiously silent. He refused repeated requests by this columnist for comment. Esposito shouldn’t be expected to criticize every radical statement made by a fellow professor, but he has a duty to speak up when the academic in question is inextricably linked to him.
Scholar Martin Kramer, who has done more careful analysis of both men than anyone, goes one step further, saying in an interview for this column that Esposito has done a great deal to raise his protégé’s profile by “manufacturing Tamimi’s credentials as an academic author.”
In 2000, Esposito co-edited with Tamimi a book called “Islam and Secularism.” The next year, Tamimi published a biography of Tunisian Islamist Rachid Ghannouchi, which was part of a series edited by Esposito. In the book’s introduction, Tamimi calls Esposito his “ustadh,” or teacher.
Even after Tamimi’s repeated support for the Islamic terrorist groups such as the Taliban and Hamas, Esposito still sits on the board of advisors of the Institute for Islamic Political Thought, founded and run by Tamimi, who confirmed this fact during a phone interview. He’s had multiple opportunities when comments by Tamimi should have prompted his resignation. None did.
A November 2001 Spanish newspaper article about an interview with Dr. Tamimi was titled, “I admire the Taliban; they are courageous.” The following July at a speech in South Africa, Dr. Tamimi paid stirring tribute to “martyrs” who blow themselves up. Then in 2004, Dr. Tamimi expressed to the BBC his desire to become a suicide bomber: “If I can go to Palestine and sacrifice myself I would do it.”
What’s most disconcerting about the case of Tamimi is not that someone who studied under and later worked with Esposito could turn out to be so noxious. It’s that someone like Tamimi almost certainly could not have kept hidden his real—and deeply-held—beliefs from his mentor and collaborator.
In two separate phone interviews, Tamimi was quite freewheeling. Though he gave the standard disclaimer that “any killing of innocent people is unacceptable,” he quickly clarified—or rather, contradicted—his statement. When asked if this applies to “innocent people in Israel,” he responded, “Palestine is a special case.” How so? “It is legitimate for the Palestinians to fight the Israelis who are occupying their land.” Does this apply to Americans and Brits killed in Iraq? “Of course it holds true in Iraq.”
Tamimi’s only testy moment during either interview came when asked if it was morally acceptable to kill Americans who are only in Iraq to rebuild things like roads and schools. He snapped, “It is not my responsibility to tell the Iraqi people who they can kill or not.”
To put it gently, Tamimi is not afraid to express radical views to a stranger, or for that matter, to 8,000 people in Manchester. It raises the question: What kind of venom has he spewed privately to Esposito?
Better yet, what has Esposito said back?
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