The Future of Islam by John L. Esposito (Oxford University Press, 2010) Reviewed by James A. Reilly

Written by admin on August 3rd, 2010

John Esposito makes the case that what he calls the “mainstream” of Muslims worldwide are engaged in vigorous debate about their future as communities, and the future of Islam as a faith, in the modern world. He introduces his readers to clerical and lay thinkers, writers, televangelists and political figures from Muslim communities and societies who are engaged with issues of Islam and democracy, Islam and human rights (including especially women’s rights), Islam and citizenship, the role of Muslims living in Western lands, and the place of Islamic law in the modern world. The book’s geographic breadth is wide, encompassing Muslim personalities — men and women — from the Arab world, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Europe, and North America.

His protagonists’ methodologies, like their geographic origins and national identities, are diverse. Some can be characterized as progressive and liberal, whilst others are deeply conservative. Some argue for a reinterpretation of early Islamic sources; others argue for a reassertion of traditional understandings of Islam against present-day attempts to bowdlerize Islam and turn the religion into a political ideology. What Esposito’s protagonists have in common, however, is that they are critical of “extremist” Islam. “Extremists” are defined by their advocacy of political violence; or of misogynistic and narrowly punitive understandings of Islamic law; or of intolerance toward other religions, and of sectarian attitudes vis-à-vis other Muslims. Again and again Esposito asserts that the extremists of various types do indeed have followings, but that they lie outside the “mainstream” understandings of Islam to which most Muslims subscribe and which are most relevant to the future of Islam and of Muslims.

Esposito is a liberal American scholar writing for an American audience. Thus many of his comparative references are to American phenomena. One goal of his book is to normalize Islam and Muslims, to portray the religion and its members as part of a wider Abrahamic moral tradition with which Americans are assumed to be comfortable. Another goal of his book is to prescribe approaches for US policy and policymakers dealing with the Muslim world (i.e., Muslim-majority countries for the most part). Esposito emphasizes the importance of dialogue, mutual comprehension, and identification of shared interests rather than what he sees as a Bush-era preoccupation with “security” and “terrorism” as determining factors in US-Muslim relations. Written in the glow of Barack Obama’s June 2009 speech in Cairo, The Future of Islam expresses hope that US relations with the Muslim world are about to take a turn for the better, under the aegis of a new US administration prepared to act according to new criteria. The year that has passed since this book went to press has not been kind to its author’s more optimistic assumptions.

Because Esposito presents the future of Islam and of Muslims as a foreign policy challenge, his book is less successful in achieving the author’s clear wish to normalize Muslims as part of American society. Interpreting “them” to “us,” The Future of Islam reinforces a framework that defines Muslims as outsiders, as foreigners who need skilled interlocutors in American society. For the past generation, few academic interlocutors have been as skilled, tenacious and prolific as John Esposito. But as Muslims assert a role for themselves as American citizens by right and not by sufferance, a different kind of discourse will need to develop.

James A. Reilly is a Professor in the Department of Near & Middle Eastern Civilizations, University of Toronto

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