Dr. Esposito and the seven-percent solution

“Bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”

—Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit

Professor John L. Esposito runs a slick operation at Georgetown with $20 million of funding from Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. The shared agenda of these two is to make us all feel guilty for having wondered, after 9/11, about Saudis, Muslims, and the contemporary teaching of Islam. Esposito now has a new book (with co-author Dalia Mogahed, who runs something called the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies), bearing the pretentious title Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think. It’s based on gleanings from the Gallup World Poll.

The core argument of the book is that only 7% of Muslims are “politically radicalized,” and that “about 9 in 10 Muslims are moderate.” On what does this factoid rest? The authors explain (pp. 69-70):

According to the Gallup Poll, 7% of respondents think that the 9/11 attacks were “completely” justified and view the United States unfavorably…. the 7%, whom we’ll call “the politically radicalized” because of their radical political orientation… are a potential source for recruitment or support for terrorist groups.

So an essential precondition for being “politically radicalized” is to believe that 9/11 was “completely” justified. The pool of support is only 7%. Don’t you feel relieved?

Yet a year and a half ago, Esposito and Mogahed used a different definition of “radical,” in interpreting respondents’ answers to Gallup’s 9/11 question. In November 2006, they gave this definition:

Respondents who said 9/11 was unjustified (1 or 2 on a 5-point scale, where 1 is totally unjustified and 5 is completely justified) are classified as moderates. Respondents who said 9/11 was justified (4 or 5 on the same scale) are classified as radicals.

Wait a minute…. In 2006, then, these same authors defined “radicals” not only as Muslims who thought 9/11 was “completely justified” (5 on their scale), but those who thought it was largely justified (4 on their scale).

So for their new book, they’ve drastically narrowed their own definition of “radical,” to get to that 7% figure. And they’ve also spread the impression in the media that the other 93% are “moderates.” In 2006, their “moderates” included only Muslims who thought 9/11 was “totally” or largely unjustified (who answered 1 or 2 on a 5-point scale, where 1 is “totally unjustified”). But what about Muslims who answered with 3 or 4? Well, they weren’t “moderates” by 2006 standards. The 3’s were neither “moderates” nor “radicals,” and the 4’s were “radicals.” But this year, they’ve all been upgraded to “moderate” class, because they didn’t “completely justify” 9/11. Whether they largely justified it, or half-justified it, they’re all “moderates” now.

That’s certainly how the press has interpreted it. Here, for example, is the Agence France-Presse report on Esposito’s “findings”:

About 93 percent of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims are moderates and only seven percent are politically radical, according to the poll, based on more than 50,000 interviews.

Can there be a more distorted interpretation than that? Sure. Here’s the Deutsche Presse-Agentur, reporting the same “findings”:

The overwhelming majority of Muslims—93 percent—condemned the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.

Ah. So anyone who didn’t “completely justify” 9/11 is now thought to have somehow condemned it.

Because there’s no hard data in their book, just these percentages, the authors are directly responsible for the confusion they’ve created. Do they care? The “9 in 10 Muslims are moderates” mantra (p. 97) is precisely the “statistic” the authors want to stick in your head. To get it there, Esposito and Mogahed simply jiggled their own definition of “radical”—not my definition, mind you, but theirs. In the introduction to the book, the authors write: “Let the data lead the discourse.” What they’ve done is let their discourse dice the data.

So Esposito and Mogahed believe that a Muslim who thinks that 9/11 was three-quarters justified or half-justified (perhaps that’s bringing down just one of the Twin Towers?) is still a “moderate.” This allows them to leap to the conclusion that terrorism in the name of Islam is just… well, an aberration, like violent crime in America. Here it is, perhaps the most absurd passage ever written about terrorism:

Many continue to ask: If Muslims truly reject terrorism, why does it continue to flourish in Muslim lands? What these results indicate is that terrorism is as much an “out group” activity as any other violent crime. Just as the fact that violent crimes continue to occur throughout U.S. cities does not indicate Americans’ silent acquiescence to them, the continued terrorist violence is not proof that Muslims tolerate it. An abundance of statistical evidence indicates the opposite. (p. 95)

Of course, in America we don’t have vast numbers of people who completely or largely or half-justify violent crime. We don’t have bishops and journalists extolling its virtues. We don’t teach our children that they’ll go to paradise for killing a night attendant at a 7-11. And we don’t wait for someone else to fight our crime; we police ourselves. Terrorism continues to flourish in the Muslim world precisely because many of Esposito’s newly redefined “moderates” justify, excuse, and tolerate it—enough to allow it to burrow into the culture. This is why Who Speaks for Islam? is such a dangerous compendium of misinformation. Its purpose is to persuade us that Muslims don’t have to do much of anything, and that the onus is on us—to banish “Islamophobia,” or change our policies, or address the “grievances” of the “radicals.” The book is a slick version of 9/11 denial. Its message is that the terrorists did what they did despite being Arabs and Muslims.

Nowhere in the book, by the way, do the authors say just what percentage of Muslims think that 9/11 wasn’t done by Arabs, which you would imagine should preface any question about whether or not they think it was justified. Gallup, in its first major poll of world Muslim opinion after 9/11, reported that 61 percent of Muslims believed Arabs weren’t responsible for the attacks, and 21 percent said they didn’t know. A very large Pew poll of Muslim world opinion in 2006 reported the following:

In one of the survey’s most striking findings, majorities in Indonesia, Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan say that they do not believe groups of Arabs carried out the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The percentage of Turks expressing disbelief that Arabs carried out the 9/11 attacks has increased from 43% in a 2002 Gallup survey to 59% currently. And this attitude is not limited to Muslims in predominantly Muslim countries—56% of British Muslims say they do not believe Arabs carried out the terror attacks against the U.S., compared with just 17% who do.

How can a book subtitled What a Billion Muslims Really Think not make so much as a single mention of this pervasive 9/11 denial? How many hundreds of millions out of the billion think 9/11 wasn’t justified, because they suspect the CIA or the Mossad did it to smear the Muslims? And how would their believing that make them “moderate”?

On the Gallup website under “consulting,” Esposito is now billed as a “Gallup Senior Scientist.” In fact, there’s nothing “scientific” about the Saudi-fueled advocacy of John Esposito, whose underestimations of deadly trends in Islamism a decade ago contributed to the complacency that made 9/11 possible in the first place. He’s at it again, this time in partnership with the bottom-liners at Gallup. This book should carry a label on its jacket: Warning! Belief in Saudi-backed pseudo-science is dangerous to America’s health.

Update, April 12: Don’t miss Hillel Fradkin’s devastating review of Who Speaks for Islam? at Middle East Strategy at Harvard. “The book is a confidence game or fraud,” Fradkin writes, “of which Esposito should be ashamed. So too should the Gallup Organization, its publisher.”

Esposito’s predictions, right and wrong

At Middle East Strategy at Harvard (MESH), John L. Esposito has revisited a prediction he made over five years ago, in the lead-up to the Iraq war. “Five years after a U.S. war with Iraq,” he wrote in November 2002, “it is likely that the Arab world will be less democratic than more and that anti-Americanism will be stronger rather than weaker.” (Read his 2002 prediction here, and his new MESH post here.) Below I reproduce a comment I offered on his post:

John Esposito was prescient to predict that the Iraq war would damage America’s standing in the eyes of Muslims. There are different measures of the damage, and the Gallup World Poll is just one of them. But it’s indisputably the case that the Iraq war represented a blow to U.S. prestige in Muslim public opinion.

Contrast this with the ideological view of Jimmy Carter: “Even among the populations of our former close friends in the region, Egypt and Jordan, less than 5 percent look favorably on the United States today. That’s not because we invaded Iraq; they hated Saddam. It is because we don’t do anything about the Palestinian plight.” Perhaps Esposito should send a copy of his new book to the sage from Plains, Georgia, inured though he may be to all evidence. Even the leading Palestinian intellectual in America, Rashid Khalidi, would concede Esposito’s point. “Iraq has changed everything,” he has written. “In Washington, a city obsessed with the present, it was easy to forget that as recently as a few years ago, the United States was not particularly disliked in the Middle East and that al-Qaeda was a tiny underground organization with almost no popular support.” In other words, the Iraq invasion did much more damage to U.S. standing than decades of U.S. support for Israel and its occupation of Palestinian territories. It’s an important point to remember, as people search for ways to restore U.S. prestige.

But on Esposito’s other key prediction, he missed the mark. It isn’t so that the Arab world is “less democratic” than it was on the eve of the Iraq war. According to Freedom House, one Arab country, Lebanon, made a full-category upward move in this period, from “not free” to “partly free.” There were significant improvements in the scores of Iraq (and, looking next door to the Arabs, Turkey), and mild improvements in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Yemen. Egypt, bucking the trend, went down a notch in civil liberties. Overall, the Arab Middle East looks more democratic today than it was before the Iraq war—to some extent, because of it.

Esposito was at least partly wrong on another score. In 2002, he wrote that the United States “will want compliant allies and governments in the Arab world—and will fear open elections that might bring Islamist enemies to power. As a result, the United States will be forced, at the end of the day, to support strong, authoritarian governments that will rely on their security forces, political repression, and American aid.” In fact, in Iraq and the Palestinian territories, the United States promoted elections that empowered Islamist parties. True, the Bush administration has pulled back after witnessing the main consequence of its folly: the electoral legitimation of Hamas. But on balance, this administration has done more to empower Islamists than any of its predecessors.

Esposito deserves some credit there. As I once noted in a speech at Georgetown, many of the ideas that he championed in the 1990s made their way into administration thinking. These include the diversity of Islamism and its openness to moderation through inclusion in the political process. Both of these notions, I believe, are flawed, and my own criticism of Bush administration policy has focused precisely on their adoption as core policy assumptions. But John has had more of an influence on this administration than I have, so he really should give himself a pat on the back. He contributed his small share to the emergence of the string of Islamist principalities that now dot the Middle East—and that bedevil U.S. policy.

Georgetown Yankees in Prince Alwaleed’s court

In December, Harvard and Georgetown universities announced that they’d each received $20 million from Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Al Saud, for programs in Islamic studies. There’s been much commentary on this, and I’ll have more to say later. For now, I draw your attention to the photograph of the signing ceremony for the Georgetown deal.

Presumably, Alwaleed’s own photographer shot the event (it took place on November 7 at one of his properties in Paris), and it seems logical to assume that Alwaleed selected the photograph for release to the press. Anyone gazing upon it will sense immediately that this wasn’t just a signing ceremony. It was a deliberately choreographed court ritual, about power and control.

The most striking element in the mise en scène is the positioning of Prince Alwaleed. He is front and center. Immediately to his right is Georgetown president John J. DeGioia. Note that they aren’t positioned as equals—as joint partners in a shared enterprise. That’s because DeGioia is a mere a recipient of royal largesse, inferior to Prince Alwaleed. This is true not only in the formal sense that he is not of royal lineage. It’s also true in absolute terms of wealth. Georgetown’s endowment is a meager $680 million. Prince Alwaleed’s personal worth is estimated at $23.7 billion. In other words, Georgetown’s entire endowment can be tucked into the leftovers of Alwaleed’s worth, to the right of the decimal point.

It’s telling, too, that DeGioia is grinning in gratitude, while Prince Alwaleed remains expressionless. DeGioia has achieved a coup, having added greatly to the university’s endowment. It remains for Georgetown to do what it takes to put a smile on Prince Alwaleed’s face. “We are deeply honored by Prince Alwaleed’s generosity,” DeGioia said in a statement announcing the gift. It’s a telling formula. Prince Alwaleed, unlike most donors to universities, hasn’t exchanged his money for the trifling honors of academe. He has showered Georgetown with his money and his honor. Now it’s incumbent upon Georgetown to give him what he wants in return.

That’s where the figure seated at the far left comes in. He’s Georgetown professor John Esposito, founding director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, which has now been renamed for Prince Alwaleed. Esposito, more than any other academic, contributed to American complacency prior to 9/11. He peers out from this photograph as if to say: I’m back. Indeed he is, having proved that he’s still a magnet for Arab and Muslim money. Prince Alwaleed apparently decided that while Esposito’s reputation may be dented, the professor still has some value in him. (Remember, too, that the prince made his fortune buying up distressed stock.) So Esposito’s now a bought and paid-for subsidiary, and he’s signed himself over in his own hand, as this photograph attests. (But Esposito, to his credit, doesn’t undersell himself. A recent profile reported that he’d unloaded his trophy Hillandale home to the NFL commissioner, downsizing to a Bethesda, Maryland condo, while keeping his getaway on the Maryland shore and a “dream home” on the Florida coast. He collects up to $30,000 for speaking to groups that support his message. Advocating for foreign interests from within the academy can be a lucrative vocation.)

What’s also striking, too, is that DeGioia and Esposito have crossed the Atlantic to accept the gift in Paris—specifically, at the Hotel George V, owned by Prince Alwaleed. The great Arabian prince cannot be troubled to come to Georgetown, but rather summons his newly-acquired agents to his outlying campsite to collect their gift, hear his wishes, and take oaths to do his bidding.

Finally, note that the scene is flanked by two national flags, of the United States and Saudi Arabia. Georgetown is a private university (with its own flag), and Prince Alwaleed is a private businessman. The agreement between them isn’t a treaty between governments. But the national flags send the implied message that this deal is somehow in the interests of the two countries and deserves their blessing. Prince Alwaleed thus claims to serve a higher purpose, as a self-professed “friend” of the United States and its “special relationship” with the Saudi kingdom.

I find the whole scene both fascinating and repelling. It’s the most dramatic visual confirmation of the deep corruption that Prince Alwaleed’s buying spree is spreading through academe and Middle Eastern studies. Erik Smulson, assistant vice president for communications at Georgetown, made this assurance about the gift: “The funds are designated, but there are no strings attached.” Such boiler-plate statements are ritualistic incantations. Over two years ago, I predicted that Alwaleed would reduce Middle Eastern studies to a cargo cult, with university administrators vying to win the attention of the flying prince. And I wrote this passage: “In the near future, don’t be surprised to see grinning university presidents posing with Prince Alwaleed. They will say there are no strings attached. Puris omnia pura: To the pure all things are pure.”

My prediction has come true.