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Who Speaks for Islam and for Christianity?


Christianity and Islam represent the world’s two largest religious faiths today – with an estimated 2 billion Christians and 1.3 billion Muslims. During this month when Muslims celebrate Eid al-Adha and Christians celebrate Christmas, VOA News Now’s Press Conference USA explores the question: Who speaks for Islam and who speaks for Christianity?

John Esposito, founding director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington, is the author of 35 books on Islam and a leading exponent of interfaith dialogue. He is also editor-in-chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World. By birth John Esposito is a member of the Roman Catholic Church, the largest of the world’s Christian denominations. He is thus uniquely placed to address the question of “who speaks” for the members of each of these two world religions.

Appearing on VOA’s English radio program Press Conference USA with hosts Judith Latham and Navbahor Imamova, Esposito discussed new information from his book Who Speaks for Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think. Co-authored with Dalia Mogahed of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, the book grew out of a Gallup Poll that he calls the largest and most comprehensive survey of the Muslim world. In that survey of some 90 countries, Esposito says ordinary Muslims – the “silent, mainstream majority” – speak about how they regard the West, how they feel about democracy, human rights, violence, and how they view the relationship of religion to their lives.

Esposito says while non-Muslims sometimes view Islam as a single, unified force described by events like the dramatic attacks of 9-11, the Muslim world is actually extraordinarily diverse in terms of languages, cultures, political structures, and attitudes toward peace, democracy, and women’s rights. However, many Muslims have genuine differences with the United States – especially on foreign policy, which Esposito says is one of the major causes of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world.

In Muslim belief, John Esposito points to a sura from the Qur’an, which recalls how God made humankind into “nations and tribes for you to get to know one another – not that you may despise one another.” What that means, he says, is that God has chosen to create a world of diversity. He suggests that these words from the Qur’an send a message that is contrary to narrow-mindedness and religious extremism – to the kind of position that implies, “I’m right. You’re wrong” – and they in fact preach a language of religious and political pluralism.

Some religions have adopted rationales on when it is legitimate to fight – the “just war” theory in Christianity, the idea in Hinduism that there are times when people are “obligated to fight,” and the concept of “jihad” in Islam. Esposito notes that jihad has two meanings – to strive to lead a virtuous Muslim life and to defend oneself and one’s community. However, some political leaders have embarked on military campaigns that they represented as defensive.

Regarding the question of who speaks – or who can speak – for Christianity, people often fail to appreciate that in Christendom, as in Islam, there is in fact no central authority who can speak for all Christians. And while the Pope is the central authority for Roman Catholicism, he does not speak for Orthodoxy and its various national churches (Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, and so forth), for Anglicanism, or for Protestantism. These denominations have their own central authorities, and their religious leaders have greater or lesser amounts of authority, depending on the denomination. For example, since the Reformation of the 16th century, Protestants have preached the individual interpretation of scripture and the priesthood of every believer. So, in a sense, no other Protestant Christian can speak for any other member of his faith. Islam also recognizes the opportunity for ijtihad, the individual study and interpretation of the Qur’an.

Esposito says there is a “broadening of the base” of the notion of religious authority, especially in the more liberal forms of faith. Although that may make for a more diverse and chaotic situation, he argues, it can serve as a check on those religious authorities who would legitimate what he calls “illegitimate wars.” Esposito says that means recognizing that each person has his or her own conscience to live with and will make individual choices in the area of faith and morality.

John Esposito says that most Muslims expect that Barack Obama will be what he calls a “more internationalist president.” That’s partly because of his parents and his schooling – a child with a Kenyan father, who studied in Indonesia and in Hawaii and then went on to Harvard University to pursue a law degree. Esposito says Muslims generally see the U.S. President-elect as someone who emphasizes diplomacy more than military intervention. Nonetheless, the real test of the new administration, the professor says, will come on specific issues, such as Middle East peace, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

To listen to the full program click here.

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