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NOW with Bill Moyers

Transcript - Interview with Dr. John Esposito

MOYERS: UNHOLY WAR: TERROR IN THE NAME OF ISLAM, the newest book from one of the world's most respected scholars of Islam. John Esposito is professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University, editor-in-chief of the four volume OXFORD ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE MODERN ISLAMIC WORLD and the author of many, many books. Thank you, Dr. Esposito for coming up from Washington.

DR. ESPOSITO: Thank you for having me.

MOYERS: Looking at that report we just saw, that — the civil war in that one probably is — one wouldn't get the impression that Indonesia is one of the — is the world's largest Muslim nation. Is that an anomaly?

DR. ESPOSITO: It's — I think it's one of the — the real problems that we face in getting people to even understand Islam. We're so focused on the Arab world which only constitutes maybe 25 percent of the world's Muslims that we forget that Asia has the vast majority of — of countries with large populations.

Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan.

MOYERS: And the Muslims there are not all of the same variety, are they not — all of the same stripe?

DR. ESPOSITO: Exactly. An enormous diversity. I mean, Indonesia itself as you know is a country of thousands of islands but also a country of many, many religions to begin with, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity as well as Islam. And although maybe 85 percent of the — the population are Muslim, they're very, very diverse.

MOYERS: So, what's at stake in — in Indonesia in fighting the war on terrorism? What — what are the mistakes we might make there?

DR. ESPOSITO: Well, I think the risk would be if we exaggerate the extent to which there's terrorism there. And we get too close to the — to the military and become associated perhaps with military crack downs that are really not against terrorists but against people who, for example, are struggling for — for independence.

The United States thing gets brush stroked by what the military does particularly if we're training the military and if we provide them as we have in the past with their military supplies. I mean, some estimates say that the United States in the past has supplied as much as 70 percent of what the Indonesia military has.

MOYERS: Even as we talk, there…there are discussion's been going on about restoring military aid to the Indonesian government. What —what do you think about that?

DR. ESPOSITO: Well, I think that it's —it's important for us to in a sense normalize our relations with Indonesia. But at the same time, I think we have to be very concerned about the Indonesian military. Their track record in the past, certainly their track record in East Timor which is why the Leahy Amendment was put into place and their track record in Aceh leaves a lot of questions. And there's been a resurgence of the military under the current government.

MOYERS: And the Leahy Amendment, explain that for us.

DR. ESPOSITO: Well, the Leahy Amendment basically says that we will not give military assistance or aid until the government is satisfied that the pursuit of the military involved in the abuses in East Timor are addressed adequately. And so far, the military has dragged its feet.

MOYERS: And they're not very benevolent toward human rights, are they?

DR. ESPOSITO: They —that would be putting it very mildly.

MOYERS: They have a bad record in Indonesia?

DR. ESPOSITO: They have an abysmal record when it comes to human rights.

MOYERS: I mean, when you saw that piece, what came to mind?

DR. ESPOSITO: Well, what came to mind is I looked at it, I immediately thought about the history of the —the military in the recent past and particularly the abuses that took place in East Timor. And also as you watch the —the military, while one needs to be concerned obviously about issues of security, there's a —they're almost in a state of denial.

It's, "Well, something happened. But, it wasn't really that bad. And really, you have to understand we have trouble controlling the situation." The Indonesian military is a very well-organized organization. And they —they can control their own if they wish.

MOYERS: Some people in Washington have told us that they think members of Al Qaeda —Al Qaeda may have fled to Indonesia. What do you think about that?

DR. ESPOSITO: Everything's possible. I think one of the —one of the difficulties we have with talking about Al Qaeda and what's happening with Al Qaeda is —is really information. I mean, if you take a look, how —how much do we know even —even with regard to what we've waged in Afghanistan let alone the Al Qaeda groups, you know?

We're told that they're in 50 to 80 countries. But, what does that mean? And part of the problem I think we have is that it's the advantage of governments, whether it's in southeast Asia or in central Asia or the Arab world to in fact at this point emphasize this danger. It's a —

MOYERS: Why?

DR. ESPOSITO: It's a way of getting aid. It's a way of getting support, getting a —additional military aid. It's always a way of saying, "Give us a green light when it comes to issues of self-determination and human rights. Look the other way because any and all opposition we have are terrorists."

MOYERS: Are we heading toward a period like that of the Cold War when in the campaign against communism, we tolerated and even embraced a lot of human rights abuses and other corruptions around the world?

DR. ESPOSITO: Oh, I think so. I think it's —it's a lot happened. I think that if you look at the situation in central Asia, central Asian governments have become far more authoritarian and have increasingly done it knowing that from the United States point of view, what we're concerned about is access to central Asian oil and to air bases. And the same can be said for a number of other parts of the Muslim world.

MOYERS: So, a lot of despicable things can be done in fighting despicable people?

DR. ESPOSITO: Yeah. The logic becomes, "Look, this is a time of terrorism. And therefore, we bend the rules." And we run that risk internationally. But, we also run it domestically in terms of the civil liberties of many of our Muslim citizens.

MOYERS: How do we Americans thread our way through such a mine laden but promising territory?

DR. ESPOSITO: Well, I think that what we really have to do whether we're dealing with Indonesia or we're dealing with —with the rest of the Islamic world is get up to speed in terms of our understanding of the diversity of both the Islam and the Muslim world which struck me after 9/11 with a number of people in Congress or in the media that simply said, "You know, I have a lot of expertise on Europe" or other areas of the world, "But, I —I really realize I don't know much about what Islam or the Muslim world are really about."

And unless we get to that point, we'll be dealing with all kinds of a) monolithic images of the religion but also of the countries and cultures. And we won't see that there's an enormous diversity there.

MOYERS: So, all Muslim nations are not alike?

DR. ESPOSITO: Not at all.

MOYERS: I mean, there are those who fear some sort of monolithic Islamic threat. Well, if you look at politics in the Muslim world, look at the relations between Iran and Iraq.

Look at the relations in the recent past between the Gulf and Iraq, the Gulf states or between Sudan, Libya, you know, and —and —and Egypt. So, you have a real diversity there. But, because we don't know these people, we lump them all together.

MOYERS: Do you think that jihad or holy war is at the heart of Islam?

DR. ESPOSITO: I think that jihad as a concept is at the heart of Islam but not holy war.

MOYERS: Explain that.

DR. ESPOSITO: Jihad in Islam means the struggle to be a good Muslim. That's its primary meaning in the QURAN. And we find that in all faiths, in Christianity and Judaism. The idea that to lead a virtuous life, to follow God's path in this worldly society is often difficult.

Jihad also means the right, indeed the obligation, of a Muslim to defend himself, herself, Islam or the Muslim community. In that sense, it's a legitimate defense. One might call it in —in the tradition of just war. But as we know, just war is a little bit like beauty in the eye of the beholder.

And so, the problem is that the notion of just war or a defense of jihad can be hijacked by extremists. This is what a bin Laden does. Bin Laden hijacks. And that's why I call it unholy war. And the way in which you see it is that bin Laden winds up saying exactly the opposite of what Islam and Islamic laws say with regard to a —a just jihad.

Islamic law says it has to be proportionate, the war. And that the war should not be targeting non-combatants. And what does bin Laden say at the end? "It's an open field. You can target Jews, Christians, Americans, Muslims," anybody who disagrees with Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda.

MOYERS: Is there an international Islamic threat then?

DR. ESPOSITO: No. I think that there are Muslims around the world, extremists, who are fighting often primarily nationally but who will come together at times in a kind of common cause. So, Al Qaeda, for example, is an umbrella group. And you have even the —the lieutenants a —around bin Laden, many of them came from Egyptian groups. They had struggled within Egypt. And then, they moved to Afghanistan.

So, with Al Qaeda, you have some groups that are, if you will, kind of more permanent members or were and others that were more or less fellow travelers. They come in. And they go out. But, we shouldn't, you know, approach this as if there's a kind of a single organization with a single CEO. The problem is there are other bin Ladens out there.

MOYERS: In Indonesia maybe?

DR. ESPOSITO: Potentially, you can have them in almost any country. But unless one sees much, much strong evidence, you have a very —you have a very dangerous group in Indonesia. Laska Jihad (PH), I mean, this is a very militant group that in fact engages in —in violence and terror and particularly targets Christians among others. It will target those that disagree with them.

MOYERS: Here's the question at the heart of your book, UNHOLY WAR: TERROR IN THE NAME OF ISLAM, can we fight terrorism without it becoming a worldwide clash of cultures?

DR. ESPOSITO: I think there's a real risk. I think we ought to be able to fight terrorism without it being a worldwide clash of cultures. But, that's going to require a good deal on everybody's part. It's going to mean that, for example, the United States pursue the war on terrorism in a very focused, proportionate way, in a way which is multilateral not unilateral.

I was pleased to see that the president is now talking about an approach to the Palestine-Israel problem that involves others. The danger has been that the United States has tended to be very unilateral in its approach. I think all of that becomes important.

It's important that the government not give a green light to oppressive regimes because if oppressive regimes continue their repression, they will radicalize mainstream as well as extremists and create the very feeding ground that the bin Ladens of the world draw off. And when you create those extremist groups at home, many of those extremist groups then become international players.

MOYERS: Dr. Esposito, I would like to continue this discussion down the road. I'd like to take it from there and keep talking about Islam if you'll come back and join us.

DR. ESPOSITO: Thanks very much.