The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?, 3rd edition by John Esposito is quite interesting reading. The six chapters are
- "Contemporary Islam: Reformation or Revolution", in which he explains the nature of the reformist (tajdid=revival and islah=reform) movements in Islam (also see his Voices of Resurgent Islam)
- "Islam and the West: Roots of Conflict, Cooperation, and Confrontation", in which he gives a quick (and often sanitized) history of the interactions of the cultures
- "The West Triumphant: Muslim Responses"
- "Islam and the State: Dynamics of the Resurgence"
- "Islamic Organizations: Soldiers of God"
- "Islam and the West: A Clash of Civilizations", in which he summarizes and explains that unless we can distinguish those organizations which try to Islamize their societies peacefully (and generally in opposition to corrupt governments) from those which are violent, we will feel unnecessarily threatened.
Esposito is quite knowledgeable about the distinctions among Muslim social and political groups and their goals, and the reasons they developed the way they did. This makes his oversights all the more dramatic and frustrating. He clearly explains the influences that European colonialism has had on Muslim attitudes, but fails to look back in history to discover if attitudes were ever substantially different. He insists on an equivalence of attitudes: "Each faith sees the other as militant, somewhat barbaric and fanatical in its religious zeal, determined to conquor, convert, or eradicate the other, and thus and obstacle and threat to the realization of God's will."
Esposito's view of the conflict between secularism and Islamism seems pretty even-handed: the secularism can be as "fundamentalist" as any Islamist. Indeed, the case could be made far stronger than he actually tries to make it that secularism is as much a matter of faith as any positive religion. (It is not his purpose to explain that secularism is not required for a secular government; and most Islamists I've read don't notice that either.) That the devout should find secularism offensive is perfectly natural, and that people should gravitate to religious groups opposed to a corrupt government is also natural--especially if the groups spend time and effort on social work. Some certainly do: the Muslim Brotherhood offers what is essentially a parallel government with much superior social services in Egypt (and to some extent in Turkey).
Esposito's ruling principle is that it is possible for Western governments and media to distinguish between terrorist and reformist (even if radical) groups in order to oppose the first and perhaps assist the second. This is certainly true in an academic sense. In practice there are serious problems. We have tried this in the past: for example with Saddam Hussain in the first Gulf War. But, as Esposito notes, even this secular leader who had just attacked a Muslim country was able to wrap himself in the mantle of anti-Western Islam and harvest massive support around the Muslim world.
We Western infidels are not allowed to distinguish between Muslims and attack our enemies among them without others banding together to their defence. That defence may be only verbal, but the response is quite dramatic.
He devotes several pages to bin Laden (this is post Kenya embassy bombings but pre 9-11). "Given Bin Laden's championing of popular causes, the need to provide hard evidence establishing the connection between Bin Laden and acts of terrorism became even more necessary. Although such evidence would not necessarily discredit him in the eyes of fellow extremists, it would destroy his credibility more broadly in the Muslim world as well as provide grounds for a more aggressive policy to capture him or destroy his network and training camps. Without it, the United States placed itself in the difficult position of engaging in a pre-emptive strike and violating international law and the borders of a sovereign nation." (about the Sudan pharmecutical plant owned by Bin Laden). It is perhaps unfair to expect prescience in pundits, but it is interesting to see that even with evidence that Bin Laden was a terrorist he was not broadly discredited. On the contrary, in a curious example of double-think, the evidence is simultaneously dismissed as Jewish lies and accepted as showing that Bin Laden is a glorious jihadist/shahid.
Yes, by all means read this book. But don't trust his political conclusions.