John Esposito Takes 'Islam' Out of ISIS

“He’s the head apologist,” read a note passed to this reporter from a liberal friend during Georgetown University professor John Esposito’s August 28 address on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) at Washington, D.C.’s National Press Club.  The Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (ACMCU) founding director reiterated his hackneyed arguments, long dominant in academia and government, that Islamic radicals’ depredations stem from societal ills, not Islamic doctrine.

ISIS, Radicalization, and the Politics of Violence and Alienation," accompanied by box lunches, attracted about fifty, many capital event regulars, including Georgetown’s Berkley Center fellow Stanley Kober and Library of Congress Iraq specialist Michael Albin.  Holocaust quasi-denier Ken Meyercord, Zainab Chaudry from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and an elderly woman who, at past events, alleged American government experiments in satellite mind control, also attended.

As a previous conference has shown, Esposito’s years of scholarship accord with the event organizer, the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID), a deceptively radical organization he helped found in 1999.  CSID’s William Lawrence introduced Esposito as “one of the leading voices on understanding Islam in the world” on “one of the best panels that I can imagine” on ISIS.  Lawrence noted that the Islamic State is a “name that many don’t want to give” ISIS, although ISIS jihadists from forty nationalities seemed to differ.

Esposito argued that, like al-Qaeda, ISIS’s “transnational caliphate” represented an “extraordinarily violent brand of Islam” and a “warped and distorted Salafi ideology.”  ISIS actions “fly in the face of proscriptions in Islamic law” against killing civilians and other atrocities, he added.  Esposito claimed that groups like ISIS justify their actions as a response to extraordinary circumstances, echoing analysis that a jihad imperative to expand Islamic rule can override other Islamic norms.

The “primary drivers are to be found elsewhere” outside Islam for groups like ISIS, Esposito asserted – namely, in a “long list of grievances,” the “main reason” cited in videos of ISIS beheadings.  This execution method had no particular Islamic basis, he claimed, Quran 8:12 and 47:4 notwithstanding, being merely a terror means for autocratic regimes and criminal groups like Mexican cartels.  Unmentioned by Esposito, “grievances” in Islamic doctrine justify “defensive” jihad.

Esposito condemned “[m]assive violations of human rights,” including Middle Eastern dictatorships such as Egypt and the recent Israeli “massive slaughter of Gazans,” a common canard belied by careful analysis.  “Not speaking out and condemning” the “things that are devastating” of “traditional allies” like Israel or Arab regimes “alienates … Muslim democrats” and creates “disaffected youth” who feel that they “must act.”

Complementing “moral outrage” over matters like “anti-imperialism,” Western Muslims also join groups like ISIS to attain a “sense of meaning, purpose and belonging” while “living in a hostile society.”  Although “Islamophobic groups” correlate Islamic piety with violence, Esposito claimed, evidence suggested that such jihadists were “religious novices.”  He failed to explain, though, why other marginal groups in modern societies such as Mexican or non-Muslim Indian immigrants do not abandon welfare states for orgies of violence abroad.

Suggesting that ISIS’s vision does indeed have Islamic inspiration, Esposito recalled a Turkish officer once saying that the term “caliphate vibrates” for “even secular Turks.”  Many Muslims “look back … with pride” on the caliphate, if not as a model for modern governance.  Most Muslims surveyed worldwide seek “some form of sharia” in a democracy.

The “caliphate … the Islamic state … has a resonance,” Esposito’s fellow panelist from the Brookings Institution, Middle East scholar Shadi Hamid, noted, even among Hamid’s rather secular American Muslim acquaintances.  Muslims in places like Nigeria will thus “copycat” ISIS.  Islam, the “greatest civilization the world had ever seen,” had a “fall from grace” in this commonplace yet too infrequently critiqued hagiographical historical fata morgana.

Breaking from Esposito’s position, Hamid noted that “this ‘Islam is peace’ narrative is starting to grate on me a little bit … Islam is … what Muslims will it to be.”  “Almost a U.N.,” he continued, ISIS jihadists “take governance pretty seriously” concerning matters like sharia courts and water distribution.  Esposito’s supposed social outcasts and novices “actually hold … and … run territory” equivalent to the United Kingdom with four million inhabitants.  “More brutal” than other Middle East regimes, ISIS is “less arbitrary.”

“Islamists were willing to test … out” democracy, Hamid noted.  Yet the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (MB)'s overthrow created the conclusion that the “Islamic state is only possible through force of arms,” suggesting that common principles united MB and ISIS’s differing tactics.  Indeed, Egyptian and United Arab Emirate airstrikes in Libya, not Syria, indicated that “many … countries see mainstream political Islam” such as MB “as more of a threat” than ISIS.

Thirteen years after 9/11, an expert panel still gropes between blaming “grievances” of poverty and injustice supposedly caused by the United States, Israel, and non-Muslims in general and sectarian Islamic ideology for recurring jihad-sharia outrages.  Whether ISIS differs from Israel’s opponents such as Hamas and other MB affiliates, though, remains thereby an unanswered question.  How would, moreover, a MB-run Egypt be any better than regimes of varying Islamic piety throughout the region, particularly with respect to Christians currently suffering Islamic persecution?  Iran’s Shiite Islamic Republic and its Shiite Hezbollah proxies, meanwhile, repress Iraqi and Syrian Sunni Muslims in an intra-Muslim sectarian conflict far bloodier than any American or Israeli Middle East actions.  Such pressing concerns deserve better than past and present Islamic illusions depressingly prevalent in Middle East studies and policymaking circles beyond.

Andrew E. Harrod is a freelance researcher and writer who holds a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a J.D. from George Washington University Law School.  He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project; follow him on twitter at @AEHarrod.  He wrote this essay for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.

If you experience technical problems, please write to