Imagine you begin to see the Nazis gaining influence in Germany. Imagine they have already killed several thousand Jews and are talking of killing more. Imagine the German people are doing nothing to stop them, and most are too afraid even to speak out against them. Then imagine somebody writes a book saying, "What are you worried about? Nine in ten Germans are moderate. Only one in ten Germans think the concentration camps are COMPLETELY justified. So stop saying there's a problem with Germany. If you keep saying there's a problem with Germany, you're nothing but a paranoid, racist Germaphobe." Imagine that, and you'd have something like "Who Speaks for Islam?"
Espositio and Mogahed reassure westerners that Muslims are just like westerners, but caution them that Muslims are totally different than westerners and so westerners have to be careful not to offend them. (I know, it's confusing.) To prove their point, they use a set of Gallup Poll data that is not available to the public for examination. (That's OK. They'll be happy to interpret the data for you.) The ultimate message of this book is: stop being such and Islamaphobic bigot. Stop suggesting that terrorism has something to do with Muslims. Stop saying that Islam is oppresive to women. Stop suggesting that fanaticism is a greater problem in modern Islam than it is in modern Judaism or Christianity.
The book has its virtues. It provides a helpful overview of Muslim denominations and the history of western/Islamic relations. It reminds the western reader that Islam is not a monolith and dispels the neo-conservative and liberal myths that inside every Muslim is an American just dying to get out. It cautions westerners that if they hope to improve the lives of Muslims, reform should be promoted within an Islamic framework, since Muslim pride will resist any changes that seem to imply Western cultural superiority. And it reminds liberals who are concerned abut how we Americans appear to Muslims that the number one thing Muslims dislike about us is our sexual liberalism.
Now for my difficulties. The authors refuse to consider the possibility that there is anything in Islam that might make it difficult for progress, freedom, equality, and religious tolerance to take hold in Muslim countries. They dispel Western concerns about Islam by calling them "myths," rather than by actually marshalling a great deal of evidence to the contrary. For instance, it's a "myth" that Muslims are the "culprits" in terrorism. To explain how this is only a myth, the authors offer several paragraphs condemning the bigotry and Islamaphobia of westerners. They don't actually suggest who it was who flew those airplanes into the World Trade Center or blew up the buses in England or the trains in Spain, if not Muslims. Perhaps they were Anglicans. But no matter if they were Muslims, because what we really need to understand, the authors tell us, is that Muslim reactions are the result of a Western lack of respect for Islam, and Muslim actions have to be "understood in context."
When, for instance, the Pope makes a negative statement about Islam, and Muslims react by beating Christians and setting their churches on fire, those beatings and burnings are the fault of the Pope's insensitivity, and not any reflection whatsoever on the influence of Islam as a religion. When a cartoonist ridicules the Prophet, and Muslims react by setting cars on fire and damaging property, we have to understand that the vandalism and destruction is the fault of western rudeness, and not any reflection whatsoever on the influence of Islam as a religion. (It's interesting to note, however, that Jews did not react to Pope Benedict's reinstament of The Prayer for the Jews by burning churches and beating Christians; nor did the Catholics react to the "Dung Virgin Mary" by setting cars on fire.)
In the event that you are an Islamaphobic bigot who believes Islam has a problem restraining its radical fringe, you can rest assured that, according to Esposito and Mogahed's analysis of the Gallup Poll data, nine in ten Muslims are moderate. They don't mention this, but, if you do the math, that means there are a mere ONE HUNDRED MILLION "radicalized" Muslims in the world. So, if you were a westerner killed today by a terrorist while you sat peacefully at your computer at work, the Muslims who would delight in your death number only one-third the entire population of the United States. Be comforted.
Of course, there is also the question of how the authors are defining "moderate" when they say that nine in ten Muslims are "moderate." The authors don't actually say what, specifically, they mean by "moderate," but it's clear from piecing together the scattered information that a "moderate" can include any of the following: a Muslim who wants to see the imposition of sharia law; a Muslim who believes women should not have equal legal rights as men; a Muslim who believes suicide bombings of civilians is justified, or a Muslim who believes the 9/11 attacks were "partially justified." Indeed, it seems that the only thing that excludes a Muslim from being counted as "moderate" in the authors' analysis is if he or she answers that the 9/11 attacks were "completely justified." So be comforted. Only 100 million Muslims think the 9/11 attacks were "COMPLETELY justified."
How do the authors attempt to re-inform the misguided westerner, who so prejudicially believes that Muslims are, _on average_, somewhat more likely to want to punish apostasy, repress women, drive the Jews into the sea, and riot in response to religious slights than are, say, Methodists? First, they are certain to quote primarily the verses from the Koran enjoining peace and tolerance, and they are prudent to omit all but one verse enjoining violence and exclusion. Then they make careful use of vocabulary, beginning with their frequently repeated claim that Islam means "a strong commitment to God." (In what language? Literally translated, it means "submission," but I suppose that's too rough for western ears.) They speak of the empire the Muslims "created," of course, and not of the empire they "conquered." They speak of the great books they "collected" (certainly not "plundered") from the West at the height of their empire. The language is all very warm and inviting and non-threatening.
Next, the authors level assumptions about Islamic terrorism by making some surprising claims about Christians, such as this remarkable accusation: "The vast majority of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil have been perpetrated by Christian terrorist groups in the past 15 years." Oh, really? Could you name two or three of these "Christian terrorist groups" please? No. No group names will be given. Not one. Just a blanket statement. In fact, the only name they mention at all is Timothy McVeigh, whom they classify as a "Christian terrorist," despite the fact that he never committed his acts in the name of Christ, never screamed "Praise Jesus!", never claimed to be motivated by religion, and described himself as an "agnostic," telling his friends, "Science is my religion."
For a book on polls, "Who Speaks for Islam?" contains a surprisingly limited number of raw statistics. The most frequently used word in the book is the vague "many." Sometimes the authors will make a statement and then support it not by reference to the Gallup poll, but by reference to a single anecdote. When the data is contradictory, they don't notice or comment. Finally, the authors do not seem willing to consider the obvious possibility that very different cultures might interpret the same questions very differently, so even if their answers are similar, they may not mean the same thing.
This book seems to be one more entry in the litany of suggestions that, really, all fundamentalists of all religions are EQUALLY dangerous, and, really, all religions and scriptures are EQUALLY conducive to peace, economic prosperity, freedom, gender equality, and religious tolerance. If the state of the world's predominantly Muslim nations doesn't seem to substantiate the fact that Islam is perfectly compatible with democracy, religious freedom, and gender equality, then the reason can't possibly have anything at all to do with Islam. How then does one explain the relative prevalence of oppression in the Muslim world, if one cannot cite Islam as even a single factor? I'm not sure, but from reading this book, I think it has something to do with the fact that the U.S. and the U.K. are all a bunch of arrogant, smug, small-minded meddlers, and if we would just stop criticizing Islam and instead start miraculously fixing the economic infrastructures of all Muslim countries without, at the same time, interfering in the internal affairs of Islamic states, we wouldn't have to worry about honor killings, genital mutilations, filmmaker stabbings, suicide bombings, busses blowing up, or airplanes flying into office buildings.
I am more than willing to believe that women-oppressing, terrorist-supporting Muslims represent a radical fringe in Islam, but when a fringe numbers 100 million people, that fringe ought to be a subject of genuine concern. And even if 9 in 10 Muslims are moderate (as they probably are, if you're using a very BROAD definition of "moderate"), that still leaves us with the question as to why mainstream Islam fails to repress its radical fringe in the same way mainstream Christianity represses and contains and (when necessary) punishes its radical fringe. Why does Islam's radical fringe have such influence and such free reign, such power to silence Islam's moderates? The book speaks of the "silenced" moderate majority, but if the moderates are "silenced," they aren't "speaking" for Islam, are they? And so really the book has answered its own title question, and the answer is not encouraging....