Pakistan Has Many Positives
– Prof. Esposito
By Aisha Chapra
Above (L to R ): Professor John
Esposito, Ambassador Jehangir Karamat and DCM Mohammad
Below: A section of the audience
Washington, DC: On August
14, 2004, the Government of Pakistan announced the conferment
of Hilal-i-Quaid-i-Azam on Professor John L. Esposito in
recognition of his valuable contribution in the field of
Islamic literature and his remarkable role in promoting
understanding between the West and the Islamic World. To
confer Hilal-i-Quaid-i-Azam on Professor Esposito, the Embassy
of Pakistan in Washington arranged an award ceremony on
DCM Mohammad Sadiq initiated the award ceremony stating
that “Professor Esposito is one of the greatest scholars
on Islam and the Muslim world today.” Welcoming the
guests, he spoke of the Embassy building as quintessentially
Pakistani in character. It seems traditional from outside,
but is modern and practical from the inside. The DCM then
invited the Ambassador to read out the citation and present
Hillal-i-Quaid-i-Azam to Professor Esposito.
Ambassador Jehangir Karamat introduced John Esposito, Professor
of Religion, International Affairs and Islamic Studies at
Georgetown University. Esposito is Founding Director of
the Centre for Muslim-Christian Understanding at the Walsh
School of Foreign Service. Professor Esposito had served
as President of the Middle East Studies Association of North
America and the American Council for the Study of Islamic
Societies. He also held the Vice Chair of the Centre for
the Study of Islam and Democracy.
Professor Esposito has devoted his entire scholarly career
to the study of Islam, focusing on its religious as well
as cultural and political dimensions. His works cover a
vast area, from history of Islamic civilization to the impact
of the more recent Islamic movements across the world. He
has written over 30 books, ranging from Oxford History of
Islam to the four volumes of Encyclopedia of the Modern
Islamic World. His books and articles have been translated
into Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Bahasa Indonesia, Turkish, Japanese,
Chinese and several European languages.
Professor Esposito’s contribution to promoting harmony
and understanding between the West and the Islamic World
is unparalleled. He presents objective and balanced analysis
of contemporary issues of vital significance such as Islam
and democracy, the status of women in Muslim societies and
the disdainful tendency of linking Islam with terrorism.
While accepting the award, Professor John L. Esposito was
moved to tears. He described how his studies in Islam and
his connection with Pakistan were both unplanned. He first
trained in Catholicism, then studied Hinduism and Buddhism,
when a professor of his suggested that he complete the world
religions by taking a course in Islam. After that, Professor
Esposito worked mainly on Islam and the Middle East and
also lived in Saudi Arabia. In 1973 Professor Esposito went
to Pakistan which “also came about by quite an accident”.
In Pakistan he studied and learned about Islam in South
Professor Esposito then moved on to discuss how people must
appreciate where America stands today when it comes to Islam.
In the 1960’s Islam was invisible in the US, but now
one can find mosques in all parts of the country. Also,
Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world, in the
US and in Europe.
However, Islam has been portrayed in the American media
by negative images and perceptions. America’s first
introduction to Islam was in 1979 through the Iranian revolution
and the headlines “America held hostage” by
Muslim extremists in Tehran. This brought Professor Esposito
to the observation that since 1979, Islam has consistently
been seen in the US through headline events. During the
1980’s the mention of a “green” menace
came about with countries like Iran and Libya on US’s
radar. During the 1990’s, the Gulf War and the post-Gulf
War period brought in the concept of “Clash of Civilizations”.
Since 9/11 the media headlines focus on a clash between
democratic and undemocratic, between civilized and uncivilized.
Even though President Bush distinguishes between extremist
Islam and Muslims, there are some post-9/11 realities. Initially,
the government was just after Osama Bin Laden. Then, the
“wrongdoers” were expanded to the Axis of Evil
— then to terrorists in Iraq and Palestine.
The challenge that democracy faces in the world today is
to show that it is not being created in strategic self-interest
of a greater power but truly in the pursuit of democratization.
Another challenge for democracy in the Middle East and Afghanistan
is that it cannot be configured to what America considers
as ‘right’. Essentially, this means that these
countries must achieve true self-determination.
Today, the challenges for the Bush administration are to
match their rhetoric and policy with their actions. Professor
Esposito stressed that though the military can contain terrorists,
terrorism can only be effectively eradicated through public
diplomacy and foreign policy. He continued that the US policy
of democratization should also apply to allies that are
In addition, there needs to be an evaluation of US aid to
developing countries for improving economies and education.
He questioned, “What is educational reform?”
and how is it actually being carried out. “What about
supporting Muslim governments and building civil society
through democratic institutions?” He pointed out that
democracy is not achievable just by a simple change of government
— from authoritarian to elected — it takes time
for democracy to be entrenched in the minds of the people
living in previously undemocratic conditions.
Professor Esposito then discussed the Islamic world and
the challenges it faces today. Firstly, the Islamic world
needs to show that it is democratic, pluralistic, tolerant
and accepting. Most importantly, the Islamic world needs
to work with the ‘Ummah’ — the worldwide
Muslim community and its identity. Because, the real threats
today are to the Muslim world and Islam. Lastly, he said
that the Islamic world needs to focus on reform, adding
that it must concentrate on its theology, its education
and its legal structure to adapt Islam to the threats it
Professor Esposito also spoke about Pakistan. There have
been successes and pitfalls in governance. Islam has been
used as a political tool, democracies have struggled to
gain legitimacy and leaders have been corrupt. There is
sectarianism between Shittes and Sunnies, with its intolerance
and violence. Yet the positives are many too — the
voices from people who have lived in Pakistan and their
ideas have been translated in education. Not just to focus
in on Iqbal, but the other Pakistani scholars who have written
great things about Islam and modernity.
Professor Esposito concluded with a statement about the
danger of an “unholy alliance in the US — the
neo-conservatives with the militant Christian right.”
America will not be the America we all love and know if
these people get into power and he urged the community here
to stand up against such a change.
In the Q & A session Professor Esposito was asked his
opinion on the new pope and the effect he will have on Muslim
and Christian understanding. Professor Esposito replied
that he hopes the Pope will genuinely be a great leader
and take on the new circumstances that face him.
Another question was about the media representation of Muslims
in America and what can be done to improve it. Professor
Esposito remarked that the US media is largely at fault
for a lot of misperceptions and also that he has never seen
such a tame media in American history. The media has stopped
challenging the president and government institutions like
it used to in the 1960’s and 1970’s. He said,
“I was watching BBC the other day and a journalist
kept on arguing with Prime Minister Tony Blair, that reminded
me of the Dan Rather of the 1970’s, but we don’t
see that in our media anymore”. There were several
other questions on Islam and the US.
The ceremony was followed by a dinner that was served in
the Jamshed Marker Hall. The distinguished guests of the
evening included: former US Ambassadors to Pakistan Nancy
Powell and Robert Oakley; Ambassador Dennis Kux; Professor
Walter Anderson of Johns Hopkins; Professor John Voll, Chair
of Christian-Muslim Understanding Center at Georgetown University;
and renowned academics Professor Osman Bakar, Professor
Robert Haddad, Professor Shireen Hunter, and Professor Seyyed
Hossein Nazr; officials; community representatives and many
others who admire Professor John L. Esposito and his work.