Georgetown’s Catholic Apologist for Islam


November 1, 2011

A non-Muslim activist lawyer has filed charges of discrimination against the Catholic University of America with the District of Columbia Office of Human Rights (OHR). The university is discriminating against Muslim students, he contends, by “forcing” them to conduct Islamic prayer services in rooms filled with crucifixes and other symbols of the Catholic faith. The subtext of his complaint is that it should be incumbent upon a Catholic university to deny its own identity by creating areas where no sign of Christianity is present; as egregious as that is, however, a far more serious assault on the Catholic identity of a Catholic university is going on across town at Georgetown. There, at the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (ACMCU), the problem is not only acute but chronic.

Faithful Catholic students have long known to steer clear of Georgetown’s offerings on Islam and the Middle East in general, as they’re highly politicized and tend to demonize Christians and Christianity, as well as the United States and the West. Meanwhile, the theology department has been widely criticized for its doubtful orthodoxy. In an interview for Choosing the Right College (also edited by Crisis editor Dr. John Zmirak), one student summed up the problem when he said of most members of the theology faculty: “It’s not just that they’re not clearly Catholic. You really haven’t a clue if they’re even Christian.” These two problems – purveying a radical, anti-Christian, anti-American political line in Middle East and Islamic studies classes, and flouting Catholic orthodoxy – coalesce into one at the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center.

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Founded in 1993 as the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, the center changed its name in December 2005, when the Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal gave it $20 million. Prince Alwaleed first came to the attention of Americans right after the 9/11 attacks, when he gave a $10 million check to New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, while condemning “all forms of terrorism” and calling on the U.S. to “re-examine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stance toward the Palestinian cause.” Giuliani saw this as implying that American policies were responsible for 9/11, and indignantly returned Alwaleed’s check.

The Saudi billionaire found news mogul Rupert Murdoch more compliant in November 2005, when rioters shouting “Allahu akbar!” (“God is great!”) were burning churches and synagogues all over France but scrupulously avoiding mosques. Alwaleed noticed that Fox News, alone among American news outlets, was calling the unrest “Muslim riots.” The Prince recalled with particular satisfaction what happened next: “I picked up the phone and called Murdoch… (and told him) these are not Muslim riots, these are riots out of poverty. Within 30 minutes, the title was changed from Muslim riots to civil riots.”

At Fox, Alwaleed has Murdoch; at Georgetown, he has John L. Esposito. Esposito is the director of the ACMCU, a professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown, and one of the most prominent scholars of Islam and the Middle East in the nation; the Wall Street Journal once hailed him as “America’s foremost authority and interpreter of Islam.” He is the author of numerous popular books on Islam, and, according to the Investigative Project on Terrorism, has been “called upon often to brief government agencies about Islam, including the State Department, FBI, CIA, Homeland Security and various branches of the military.”

Esposito reportedly spent ten years in a monastery, is still identified as a Catholic, and is frequently invited to address Catholic audiences. However, emblematic of the doubtful orthodoxy, or even of the doubtful Christianity, of the perspective he brings to the Alwaleed Center was an extraordinarily curious remark he made shortly after September 11, 2001: Esposito said that he was “pleasantly surprised” that after the attacks the rate of conversions to Islam in America had not fallen off, but had actually increased.

The Second Vatican Council states “the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims: these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day” (Lumen Gentium, 16). It also says that “the Church has also a high regard for the Muslims” and calls upon Muslims and Christians to make “a sincere effort” to “achieve mutual understanding” (Nostra Aetate, 3). It does not exempt Muslims from the Church’s duty to preach the Gospel to all nations (Matthew 28:19-20) and to “proclaim without fail, Christ who is the way, the truth and the life” (Nostra Aetate, 2). The call to hold individual Muslims in “high regard” does not conceivably justify encouraging or taking pleasure in conversions to Islam, even for liberal Catholic academics.

While cheering conversions to Islam, Esposito has downplayed persecution of Christians in Muslim countries. Journalist Cinnamon Stillwell reports that when speaking in Stanford in 2008, Esposito did not welcome questions about that persecution: “When asked about the well-documented violence against Christians in Iraq and the persecution of Christians throughout the Muslim world, Esposito resorted at first to obfuscation and then bullying. After trying to chalk up the violence merely to ‘primitive’ behavior, he cut off one young woman angrily, telling her that it was ‘an absurd question.’” Esposito, according to Stillwell, claimed that “all religions produce violence,” and offered up “a litany of talking points in which he compared random and universally condemned acts of violence among Christians and Jews to the routine and often sanctioned bloodshed emanating from the Muslim world.”

During his Stanford talk Esposito displayed a deep hostility toward Christianity: “He referenced the Crusades three times in the first ten minutes, each in the false context of acts of purely Christian aggression. In a relativistic attempt to paint all religions as equally problematic, Esposito compared Islamic terrorists to ‘Christian militants,’ and referred repeatedly to ‘Christians blowing up abortion clinics’ and the ‘Christian Right.’” He didn’t mention that the handful of abortion clinic bombers were universally condemned by all Christian authorities, while the thousands of Islamic jihadists who have perpetrated attacks worldwide in the name of Islam since 9/11 generally enjoy the blessing of Muslim clerics.

Esposito generally tends to blame Christians for friction between Muslims and Christians. In his 2002 book What Everybody Needs to Know about Islam (Oxford University Press), he acknowledges that “Muslim-Christian relations have deteriorated,” and lays the responsibility for that deterioration squarely at the feet of Evangelical Christian leaders in the U.S. – and Jews: “The creation of the state of Israel has contributed to the deterioration of relations and the Christian fundamentalists like Robertson, Graham and Falwell have been the source of intolerance, persecution, violence and terrorism.”

Meanwhile, Esposito has praised one of the most notable of those clerics who exhort their people to violence. He has called Muslim Brotherhood Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who advocates suicide bombings, a champion of a “reformist interpretation of Islam and its relationship to democracy, pluralism and human rights.” An indication of Qaradawi’s firm commitment to “democracy, pluralism and human rights” came in January 2009, when during a Friday sermon broadcast on Al-Jazeera, he prayed that Allah would kill all the Jews: “Oh Allah, take this oppressive, Jewish, Zionist band of people. Oh Allah, do not spare a single one of them. Oh Allah, count their numbers, and kill them, down to the very last one.” He also declared: “Throughout history, Allah has imposed upon the [Jews] people who would punish them for their corruption. The last punishment was carried out by [Adolf] Hitler.”

To be sure, Esposito’s endorsement of Qaradawi may have been based on incomplete knowledge, although Qaradawi has made his positions abundantly clear in over a hundred books and an enormously popular television show on Al-Jazeera. The same cannot be said, however, of Esposito’s association with the unsavory Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which he has called a “phenomenal organization.” Esposito has spoken at CAIR fundraisers in order, he explained, to “show solidarity not only with the Holy Land Fund [that is, the Holy Land Foundation], but also with CAIR.” The Holy Land Foundation was shut down and prosecuted for funneling money to the jihad terror group Hamas, which once boasted on its website about its murders of civilians in pizza parlors and on buses; the Justice Department named CAIR an unindicted co-conspirator in the case.

CAIR operatives have repeatedly refused to denounce Hamas and Hizballah as terrorist groups. (Esposito himself also refuses to condemn Hamas, as the Investigative Project notes: “In a 2000 interview in The United Association for Studies and Research’s (UASR) Middle East Affairs Journal, Esposito refused to condemn Hamas, which at the time was already designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) by the U.S. State Department.”) Several former CAIR officials have been convicted of various crimes related to jihad terror. CAIR cofounder and longtime Board chairman Omar Ahmad was reported as saying in 1998 that “Islam isn’t in America to be equal to any other faith, but to become dominant. The Koran should be the highest authority in America, and Islam the only accepted religion on earth.” CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper has said: “I wouldn’t want to create the impression that I wouldn’t like the government of the United States to be Islamic sometime in the future.”

CAIR is a spinoff of the Islamic Association for Palestine (IAP), which is listed in the 1991 Muslim Brotherhood memorandum on strategy in the U.S. as part of its “grand jihad” aimed at “eliminating and destroying Western civilization from within.” The IAP was itself later shut down for being a Hamas front.

The unsavory associations multiply. Esposito has also co-edited a book, Islam and Secularism in the Middle East, with Azzam Tamimi. Palestinian political scientist Muhammad Muslih calls Tamimi “a Hamas member.” Tamimi has said: “I admire the Taliban; they are courageous,” and “I support Hamas.” When University of South Florida computer science professor Sami al-Arian was accused of involvement with the leadership of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which has claimed responsibility for the murders of several civilians, he became a cause célèbre, with his defenders ascribing his prosecution to “Islamophobia.” Esposito rushed to his defense, avowing: “Sami Al-Arian’s a very good friend of mine.” In 2008, Esposito advocated for al-Arian’s release, saying:

Sami Al-Arian is a proud, dedicated and committed American as well as a proud and committed Palestinian. He is an extraordinarily bright, articulate scholar and intellectual-activist, a man of conscience with a strong commitment to peace and social justice.

Al-Arian later pled guilty to “conspiring to provide services to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), a specially designated terrorist organization, in violation of U.S. law.” He is under house arrest. Al-Arian also, according to Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA), has “longstanding connections to associates of al Qaeda.” Wolf quotes a federal affidavit noting that “‘Sheik Rahman (the ‘Blind Sheik’) visited Al-Arian at his residence in Tampa and spoke at his mosque.’ Rahman is currently serving a life sentence in U.S. prison for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center attack and additional terror plots.”

Also associated with the Blind Sheik is the man Esposito calls “my old friend Siraj”: the popular Muslim speaker Siraj Wahhaj. Wahhaj was designated a “potential unindicted co-conspirator” in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing for taking the Blind Sheik to speak at mosques in New York and New Jersey in the early 1990s. Wahhaj has warned that the United States will fall unless it “accepts the Islamic agenda.” He has also asserted that “if only Muslims were clever politically, they could take over the United States and replace its constitutional government with a caliphate.”

While numbering among his “friends” unapologetic Islamic supremacists and abettors of terrorism, Esposito demonizes those who have sounded the alarm about Islamic jihad activity. He has called Bernard Lewis, perhaps the leading scholar of Islam in the West, “one of the Darth Vaders of the world” for daring to suggest that Islam needed reform. On another occasion he referred to Lewis and critics of Islamic jihad activity including Daniel Pipes, Steve Emerson, and Martin Kramer, as a “legion of devils.” He has also attacked Fouad Ajami and V.S. Naipaul, among others, for not sharing his warmly positive view of Islamic supremacism and jihad.

Esposito’s close ties to Islamic supremacists and jihadists, and repeated defenses and whitewashes of their ideology, which increasingly victimizes Christians around the world, is a blot on Georgetown’s record. CUA may take a crucifix out of one room to placate its Muslim students; however, by employing Esposito for so many years and according him such prestige, Georgetown has done far more immense and lasting damage to its Catholic identity. The Christians in Egypt, Pakistan, and Indonesia who face increasingly virulent Muslim persecution deserve better from one of the nation’s foremost Catholic universities than the showcasing of the premier Roman Catholic apologist for Islamic jihad.


For more on these issues, check out the debate between Mr. Spencer and Prof. Peter Kreeft of Boston College on the topic: “Is the Only Good Muslim a Bad Muslim?”


  • Robert Spencer

    Robert Spencer is the author of several critically acclaimed books about Islam, including the New York Times bestsellers The Truth about Muhammad and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades). He is a columnist for FrontPage Magazine and the director of Jihad Watch.

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