Headline-grabbing stories about a British-based Muslim academic’s public support for “martyrdom” last weekend missed a key detail: His mentor and frequent collaborator is a high-profile scholar who has been consulted repeatedly by the FBI, Professor John Esposito of Georgetown University.
Mr. Esposito has long courted controversy — most recently when the Georgetown-based center he founded in 1993 accepted $20 million last year from (and took the name of) a notorious Saudi prince. Yet, the professor has somehow been able to maintain a relatively high reputation in academic and government circles alike.
That Mr. Esposito is still largely respected owes to the subtlety of his apologism. He acknowledges that there is radicalism in Islam, and he generally avoids defending the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah. Even as he argues for engaging Islamists, he does so without overtly endorsing their worldview. But Mr. Esposito skillfully downplays the threat posed by radical Islam, and as demonstrated by his close affiliation with Azzam Tamimi, who told a massive crowd in the UK on Sunday that “dying for your beliefs is just,” he willingly associates with avowed cheerleaders of Islamic terrorism.
Mr. Esposito’s defenders — and there are many — claim that his critics conflate his practical advice that Islamists cannot simply be ignored with apologism for radical Islam. While such an answer may be appealing for those who believe in giving the benefit of the doubt, it simply doesn’t square with the facts.
Although Mr. Esposito is less transparent than most apologists for radical Islam, he is more than a mere apologist. He defends supporters of Islamic terrorism. He even mentors them.
Mr. Esposito has lavished praise on two prominent advocates of Islamic terrorism: former University of South Florida professor (and convicted terrorist) Sami al-Arian, and al Jazeera phenomenon Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi.
When the university moved to fire al-Arian in April 2002, Mr. Esposito wrote to the university’s president that he was “stunned, astonished, and saddened.” While naysayers point to acquittals on eight of 17 charges brought against him, al-Arian was indisputably an avowed Islamic radical long before September 11. Among other examples, he played host in the early to mid-1990s to some of the most notorious jihadists in the world, all of which was well-documented by the Tampa Tribune and in the 1994 PBS documentary “Jihad in America” by Steven Emerson.
Even more troubling is the affection Mr. Esposito has displayed for Sheikh Qaradawi. In 2003, he fawned over Mr. Qaradawi’s “reformist interpretation of Islam and its relationship to democracy, pluralism and human rights.” The famous cleric, though, has issued fatwas endorsing suicide bombings in Israel and has said that those who kill Americans in Iraq are “martyrs” with “good intentions.” Mr. Qaradawi also supports the killing of homosexuals or anyone who has converted away from Islam.
With neither al-Arian nor Mr. Qaradawi does Mr. Esposito have any plausible deniability. But he doesn’t owe nearly as much of an explanation for those sleights of hand as he does for his still un-severed relationship with his protege, Mr. Tamimi.
In 2000, Mr. Esposito co-edited with Mr. Tamimi a book called “Islam and Secularism.” The next year, Mr. Tamimi published a biography of Tunisian Islamist Rachid Ghannouchi, which was part of a series edited by Mr. Esposito. In the book’s introduction, Mr. Tamimi calls Mr. Esposito his “ustadh,” or teacher.
To this day, Mr. Esposito sits on the board of advisers of the Institute for Islamic Political Thought, founded and run by Mr. Tamimi, who confirmed this fact during a phone interview. He’s had multiple opportunities when comments by Mr. Tamimi should have prompted his resignation. None did.
A November 2001 Spanish newspaper article about an interview with Mr. Tamimi was titled “I admire the Taliban; they are courageous.” The following July at a speech in South Africa, Mr. Tamimi paid stirring tribute to “martyrs” who blow themselves up. Then in 2004, Mr. Tamimi expressed to the BBC his desire to become a suicide bomber: “If I can go to Palestine and sacrifice myself I would do it.”
What’s most disconcerting about the case of Mr. Tamimi is not that someone who studied under and later worked with Mr. Esposito could turn out to be so noxious. It’s that someone like Mr. Tamimi almost certainly could not have kept hidden his real and deeply held beliefs from his mentor and collaborator.
In two separate phone interviews, Mr. Tamimi was quite freewheeling. Though he gave the standard disclaimer that “any killing of innocent people is unacceptable,” he quickly clarified — or rather, contradicted — his statement. When asked if this applies to “innocent people in Israel,” he responded, “Palestine is a special case.” How so? “It is legitimate for the Palestinians to fight the Israelis who are occupying their land.” Does this apply to Americans and Brits killed in Iraq? “Of course it holds true in Iraq.”
Mr. Tamimi’s only testy moment during the interview came when asked if it was morally acceptable to kill Americans who are only in Iraq to rebuild things like roads and schools. He snapped, “It is not my responsibility to tell the Iraqi people who they can kill or not.”
To put it gently, Mr. Tamimi is not afraid to express radical views to a stranger, or for that matter, to 8,000 people in Manchester. It raises the question: What kind of venom has he spewed privately to Mr. Esposito?
Better yet, what has Mr. Esposito said back?
Joel Mowbray occasionally writes for The Washington Times.