In his seminal work, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Samuel P. Huntington likened what he characterised as 'the Islamic Resurgence' both to Marxism and, more usefully in his view, to the Protestant Reformation.199 The former was textually based and looked forward to 'the perfect society' which would be achieved through a process of change and rejection of key elements of the status quo. The latter inveighed against corruption and stagnation, and espoused purification and reform of religion.200 Huntington saw only one major difference between the Islamic Resurgence and the Protestant Reformation: while the latter, in the main, was a phenomenon which affected Northern Europe, the former had become a marked feature of virtually every country with a substantial population of Muslims over the last fifteen years.201 For Huntington, this rise in Islamic awareness and identity posed one of the major threats to the world order in the twenty-first century. If the solution that is Islam proves not to be the universal panacea envisaged by its more passionate, so-called 'fundamentalist' followers, then the West may be blamed for Islam's failures.202 In Huntington's world-view, the theme of ineluctable clash is the leitmotiv of first choice.
John L. Esposito begs leave to differ. Identifying Huntington's thesis of 'a clash of civilisations', originally adumbrated in article form,203 as one of two pieces which had a particular influence204 - the other was Bernard Lewis' article 'The Roots of Muslim Rage'205 - Esposito undertakes a masterly demolition of the Huntington/ Lewis view:
A sensationalized monolithic approach reinforces facile generalizations and stereotypes rather than challenging our understanding of the 'who' and the 'why' of history, the causes or reasons behind the headlines. This selective analysis fails to tell the whole story, to provide the full context for Muslim attitudes, events, actions and fails to account for the diversity of Muslim practice.206
An undifferentiated fear of Islam, whereby the actions of the few are used to judge the many, seems to have replaced the Western atavistic Cold War fear of communism.207 For Esposito, Huntington's emphasis on seeing history in terms of 'sources of conflict' inevitably emphasises difference and otherness.208
The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? incorporates a question mark in its title, and its contents are themselves structured neatly between two question marks: after an Introduction,209 Chapter 1 is entitled 'Contemporary Islam: Reformation or Revolution?',210 while the concluding Chapter 6 bears the title 'Islam and the West: A Clash of Civilizations?'211 In between these two key chapters, Esposito examines the twin themes of 'Islam and the West: Roots of Conflict, Cooperation and Confron-tation'212 and 'The West Triumphant: Muslim Responses'213 on the one hand, and a contrasting pair of themes, 'Islam and the State: Dynamics of the Resurgence'214 and 'Islamic Organization: Soldiers of God',215 on the other. The whole work is brilliantly and succinctly conceived and structured and provides a welcome epilogue and update to Norman Daniel's classic volumes Islam and the West: The Making of an Image216 and Islam, Europe and Empire.217 In the words of the critic in the Times Higher Education Supplement, 'we hear the authentic voices of Islam, sense the genuine mood of the Muslims and even share their fears and hopes'.218
In his book, which the author 'never intended to write',219 Esposito answers the two seminal questions posed in the two chapter headings mentioned above: instead of the Western, value-laden term 'Islamic fundamentalism', he prefers to speak in terms of Islamic revivalism, activism and reform, as well as social transformation and, thus, reformation;220 and he mentions in his extensive concluding chapter that 'the challenge of political Islam need not always result in a threat to regional stability or Western interests'.221 In short, Esposito's volume, even though it was published several years before what is termed in America '9/11', provides a constant prophylactic for the doom-mongers, Eastern and Western, who are imbued with an overarching sense of the 'otherness' of Islam and who perceive that religion as totally inimical to all but its most fundamental interpreters and adherents. The spectre of the Ottoman Turk at the gate of Vienna,222 in other words, despite 9/11, is not the essential, or even the only, paradigm for the twenty-first century in the eyes of modern historians of religion like Esposito.
While neither advocating nor articulating a particular historical method or approach, Esposito wrote his book in 1992 (with a new edition in 1995) in response to what he perceived as the need 'to address the issue of an Islamic threat and to place it in historical perspective'223 as well as from a desire 'to initiate a dialogue among scholars and policymakers'.224 The book may thus be said to have a foot in several camps ranging from modern histories of Islam through international relations and dialogic Islam to the spheres of religious revival or 'fundamentalism'.'225
The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality ? endeavours to place what has been perceived as 'the challenge or threat of Islam in perspective, and discuss the vitality of Islam as a global force and the history of its relations with the West'.226 The horrific events of 9/11 have not rendered its basic arguments ineffective or invalid. This is because it discusses, above all, the 'variegated nature of Islamic resurgence,227 although there are many recurring themes as well.228 Esposito's volume remains an excellent example of a certain scholarly eirenic tendency towards Islam among several historians of religion in the pre-9/11 period.
Was this article helpful?