Pakistan Has Many Positives – Prof. Esposito
By Aisha Chapra


Above (L to R ): Professor John Esposito, Ambassador Jehangir Karamat and DCM Mohammad Sadiq
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 April 25.
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 Asia.
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 not democratic.
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 faces today.
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.

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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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