Ask Professor Esposito


The fame of Professor John Esposito, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, rests upon his purported ability to sort Islamist extremists from Islamist moderates. Too often, he warns us, we wind up throwing all of the Islamists into one box. That’s a mistake, and to avoid it, we need none other than Professor Esposito, with his finely honed sense of who is extreme and who isn’t.

So I am puzzled. Professor Esposito has an academic partnership with one Azzam Tamimi, a Palestinian residing in London. They have co-edited a book. Tamimi has published another book in a series edited by Esposito (in the preface, Tamimi calls Esposito “my ustadh,” my teacher). Tamimi also runs something called the Institute of Islamic Political Thought in London. Esposito sits on its board of advisors—the only American to do so. In short, this seems to be a close liaison. The problem is, Azzam Tamimi is Hamas.

This is no great secret. Palestinian political scientist Muhammad Muslih, in a study on the foreign policy of Hamas done for the Council on Foreign Relations, calls Tamimi “a Hamas member” (p. 18). Yes, he is an “academic” of sorts: he has a Ph.D. in political theory from the (ten-year-old) University of Westminster. And yes, he sometimes has interesting things to say about Islam and democracy. But would Professor Esposito have us believe that Tamimi is one of his Islamist “moderates”?

Consider, for example, an interview given by Tamimi to the Spanish daily La Vanguardia, issue of November 11, 2001. Headline: “I admire the Taliban; they are courageous.” Tamimi begins by assuring the interviewer that “everyone” in the Arab world cheered upon seeing the Twin Towers fall. “Excuse me,” says the interviewer, “did you understand my question?” Tamimi: “In the Arab and Muslim countries, everyone jumped for joy. That’s what you asked me, isn’t it?” The interview continues in this vein, to a point where Tamimi accuses the United States propping up all of the dictators in the Arab world. “They must be eliminated if anything is to change.” Interviewer: “And how to eliminate them?” Tamimi: “The people of those countries should rebel, fight, sacrifice, spill blood. The French Revolution cost lives. The American revolution cost lives. Liberty is not given, it is taken!” Later, Tamimi gives his solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict: “The Israelis stole our houses, which are today occupied by Jews from Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Morocco, Ethiopia, Brooklyn. They should return to their homes, and give ours back to us!…That’s non-negotiable. Therefore I support Hamas.”

Want more? In March, Tamimi accused the United States of shutting down mosques; a spokesperson of the U.S. embassy in London replied that his accusations “don’t seem to be based on valid evidence or any evidence at all.” Yet lo and behold, in May he turned up at a mosque in northern Virginia, where he gave an extreme lecture calling for the elimination of Israel (a Muslim press report described him as “visibly agitated”). In July, he was in South Africa, hammering at the same theme: “You do not share your home with a burglar and a thief; why wish this for the Palestinians? All of Palestine is for them.” And those suicide bombers?

Do not call them suicide bombers, call them shuhada [martyrs] as they have not escaped the miseries of life. They gave their life. Life is sacred, but some things like truth and justice are more sacred than life. They are not desperate, they are hopefuls…[The Israelis] have guns, we have the human bomb. We love death, they love life.

Now I don’t maintain that Tamimi is a terrorist or a material supporter of terrorism. I don’t even suggest that the United States should keep him from his appointed rounds in this country. (He was on the program of a dubious “peace” conference convened last month at the University of Rhode Island.) Perhaps he comes and goes so freely as part of some brilliant State Department scheme to keep a line out to Hamas. But Tamimi should be recognized for what he is: an unabashed apologist for a listed terrorist group.

And this brings us back to Tamimi’s liaison with Ustadh Esposito. After all, if Tamimi is some sort of “moderate”—and a candidate for close scholarly collaboration—then one wonders just where Professor Esposito would draw the line. My impression is that he has never met an Islamist he didn’t like. And I am left puzzled at just what an Islamist would have to say to enter his bad books.

But Professor Esposito can always prove me wrong. For example, he might resign from the board of Tamimi’s institute, in light of Tamimi’s statements over the past year. I’d welcome such a move on this very weblog. For despite Professor Esposito’s long record of error in interpreting Islamism, I haven’t despaired of him yet.

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