John Esposito, a top American scholar of Islam, addressed a large and culturally diverse audience in Samford's Wright Center Concert Hall Oct. 9. His topic, ""Is Terrorism Ever Permitted in Islam?," addressed a key point of concern in both Muslim and non-Muslim cultures and ranged over a host of complex issues from U.S. foreign policy to the nature of faith and causes of violent radicalism.
Esposito, an acclaimed and prolific author and advisor to the U.S. Department of State, is also University Professor, Professor of Religion and International Affairs, Professor of Islamic Studies and Founding Director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.
The scholar made clear that that there is no simple answer to the question he posed--a question that could be asked of most religions, including Christianity. "Historically," he said, " religious traditions have their dark side…engaging in violence in the name of god." Frequently drawing parallels between Muslim and Christian extremists, Esposito made clear the common tendency for humans to fall short of their highest standards. Muslim's, like other believers, struggle with the meaning of their scripture and faith traditions, he said.
"The Qu'ran does not advocate or condone illegitimate violence or terrorism," Esposito said, noting that even the violence Islam deems justified is bound by law.
"According to Islamic law," Esposito said, "for a war to be morally justified it must be fought in defense of the faith, it cannot be waged primarily for material gain or possession, it must respect the rights of noncombatants-their lives, freedom and property--, it must not harm women, children, old people and invalids, or torture prisoners of war or demolish places of worship or kill religious leaders."
So, how do Jihadist terrorists justify their acts of violence? Esposito said radicalized, violent Muslim sects, clergy and individuals couch their acts in the language of approved exceptions and notions of a greater good. As a violent Christian might justify the bombing of an abortion clinic, a Jihadist might justify the bombing of some perceived threat to the designs of god. "Defensive warfare, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder," Esposito noted.
But when Jihadists warp their faith to permit acts of violence against innocents, shouldn't mainstream Muslims condemn them? They have, Esposito said in answer to a question often heard in recent years. Although largely ignored by U.S. media, he said, the Amman Message of 2004 and A Common Word of 2007 are strong and widely-supported Muslim condemnations of terrorism.
While acknowledging that violence exists in the Muslim world, Esposito said it is not necessarily integral to Islamic teaching. Most Muslims, he said, do not subscribe to the Jihadists' justification of violence.