Book Review: Who Speaks For Islam?

July 20, 2008
Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta

Since 9/11, there is a desire from all ends of the world to know what Muslims think? And who speaks for Islam. And as it so happened, I came across a book, Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, by John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed which claimed to report on a 6-year study of what hundreds and thousands of Muslims said and a research paper on what a few Canadian Muslims said and think. Here are my thoughts about the book and paper and my thoughts about the questions itself.

Let me get one thing out straight. This book by Esposito and Mogahed is one of the most useless pieces of analysis that I have ever seen. To top it all, a whole host of other luminaries have praised the book and findings. This worries me. For reasons which I will explain, the two authors made such basic mistakes in analysis that I am frankly bewildered. Could have been written by some zonked out undergraduates and these two senior academicians must have been busy or something, and the book went to print. Also, all these various senior people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Deepak Chopra, Karen Armstrong, Vali Nasr, Jessica Stern, Robert Pape, and Ambassador Edward P. Djerejian etc. seem to have had their press people give a statement on their behalf without reading the book.

This book was so bad that I gave up after page 139 and the ironic part is the book starts with a premise that it is scientific and based on data. But still, there are some good and interesting points and in all fairness I should mention those first.

  • They do mention most Muslims live in Asia and Africa and the Muslims are wonderfully diverse in terms of language, ethnicity, customs, dress, location, nationality, and what have you. So lumping all Muslims into one bloc is as appropriate as to lump all Christians into one or all the “west” into one lump (mind you, while saying that, they go on to make the same mistake, for example in page 97)
  • Page 47 talks about how significant majorities in all Muslim countries have pushed for freedom of speech. This is a good thing indeed, although sits uneasily with the cartoon demonstrations seen across the world.
  • A 2006 Gallup poll talked about how most of Americans want the Bible as a source of legislation. This was not surprising to me, but if they add in the West and all countries which have a liberal democratic framework such as Japan, India and others, the results will be different. But the numbers from Iran are similar to that of the USA. Curious, no?
  • Countries like Iran and Indonesia do not seem to like Sharia in their legal systems, but countries such as Egypt and Jordan want it. Curious, no? Is this because the latter two countries are Arab?
  • Page 66 talks about a reasonably good point, the USA does not know what the enemy wanted or thought about. Presumably the reference is to the Al Qaeda chaps. Well, from the perspective of intelligence agents, yes, the Americans knew what Al Qaeda wanted. OBL’s sermons and speeches are well-known. And as I have also found out, I am not sure if that knowledge would have helped anyway.
  • Interference by America and other countries in the business of Muslim (and frankly many other countries) is not something that I condone, they poke their noses into far too many places and is a classic example of imperial overstretch. So yes, good point that USA is interventionist and it should stop it.
  • A good Chapter 4 on women, nice coverage of women’s issues, how they work and behave, what they wish for and what their current situation is. While the data and issues mentioned were useful, it is a bit of a confused chapter which does not draw out the basic issues facing Muslim women. How to reconcile their religion with modern life. Unfortunately, when one looks to religious books for women related issue resolution, remember that others will do the same. So while one might argue using Sharia that women should be liberated such as in page 118, remember that using the same Sharia, female genital mutilation is allowable (it is debatable, but there is a case for it, which is against what they say in page 117).

The serious mistakes that this book makes are legion. This book is not scientific, it is not based on what one would understand as standard social science data, the analysis is horrible and the report is written by a drunk undergraduate. It is clear that this book, the Gallup research and the analysis is written not for the American populace but for the international non-American populace in a polemical, biased and ignorant manner. What is curious is why these other people got all excited about it and admired something like this?

  • How come they ignored India as a source of Muslim thought? curious and a big lacunae in the study as I would posit that those results would have made a substantial contribution to this study.
  • Why call Francis Fukuyama as a former neoconservative theorist in page 29? There is no reference to political theories before or after, no reference to realism or conservatism or liberalism. But mention it they did, and this started to turn me off because it was obviously meant as a personal slur.
  • And from page 32 onwards, this book shows up one of its biggest flaws. The severe and seriously ignorance confusion between Arabs and Muslims. After spending the first chapter talking about the fact that only about 20% Arabs make up the overall Muslims, and the fact that Arabs are Christians, Druze and many other types of people, the authors promptly forget it. Being an Arab is to be part of a linguistic group, not a religious group. And because of this basic mistake, every conclusion and recommendation they draw is miserably wrong.
  • The authors also confuse the terms west, USA, the Iraqi coalition, the neoconservative movement and the like. This confusion means the authors often rely on references to “some”, “they”, as the strawman (for example pg 95 and 99). So the authors pick up one comment by a right-wing commentator, extrapolate it variously to the entire West, USA, United Kingdom, the Western Press, you name it, and then try to answer it based on a vague formula.
  • On Page 36, the authors talk about there being no difference between Islamic Law and human rights. I found it curious that they did not mention the fact the Islamic world pushed for their own declaration of human rights when they said the universal declaration of human rights was not “appropriate”.
  • The authors also seem to be confused about what Democracy means. Democracy not only means that governments are elected by the people and sovereignty rests with the people, but also the people draw up the laws and they can change it. When laws emerge from a religious book helped by religious people, it is called as a theocracy, not democracy. So when people say that they love democracy but want Sharia as a source of laws and legislation, there is a certain inconsistency which has not been explored fully.
  • Their basic problem with Arabs and Muslims shows up in the next section and then continuously onwards, why is democracy absent in so much of the Muslim world. And despite pointing to South Asia, the authors forget that India, Pakistan, Bangladesh were all beset by imperialism equally. But India, Nepal and Sri Lanka have managed to hold on to democratic standards while Pakistan and Bangladesh have not. So just pointing to Imperialism as the main reason for democracy not holding ground in Muslim countries is far too simplistic which blows their arguments to bits.
  • Page 41 shows another fascinating confusion in the minds of the authors. This time its the conflating of the “west” and “secularism”. Secularism as an idea has a long history and it is not just from the West. I am not sure the authors have understood what secularism means and the philosophy behind it. It is the only way to handle heterogeneous populations.
  • While talking about imperialism, there are some big problems with that argument. The authors did not mention the Ottoman, Mughal or other Muslim imperialistic empires. They do not mention the fact that imperialism with respect to Muslim countries has been mainly European rather than American, but let us not confuse matters there. How about the fact that Japanese imperialism overran many Muslim countries as well in the east, but let us not go there either.
  • While saying that Sharia should be a source of law and then saying that they do not want religious figures to influence laws or the constitution. Erm, who will be the people who will be working on Sharia? Non-religious people? And how will that work? And then on page 93, a theoretical construct is made up about how Sharia protects citizens from the depredations of rulers. Well, it has never worked before in a millennium, has it? So what makes one think that it will ever? And why would the mullah’s be advisors to the rulers? See the confusion?
  • Around page 56-57, the authors talk about Islam and democracy in a confused sense. And this is another example of their total ignorance of what Secularism means. They give the example of France and state funding of churches, but do not talk about the concept of “lacite’”. Plus this debate is strange. In Islam, sovereignty is with God, the Quran (plus sunnah, hadith, etc.) is the constitution and Sharia is a sort of the / part of the legal system. How on earth are they even trying to draw any equivalence here?
  • Huge clangers of mistakes are made in the analysis of political radicals starting from page 67. Very confusing. They refer to many experts without actually giving any references. The authors assume things, such as terrorism is because of poverty and unemployment, a theory that I have rarely read from any expert. And after talking about a badly and wrongly drafted expert opinion, they slip into another badly drafted argument based on media reports. No consistency and very badly framed strawman arguments. And then in page 70, they compound the mistake by devoting a full section to this type of strawman argument which might be fine in polemics and emails but not in what is purportedly a serious book.
  • For example, while they spent much time talking about how the 9/11 attackers were not religious Muslims, they do not talk about the obvious next step. So what DID bring these attackers together? I am not going to talk about the obvious answer but the fact the authors did not even understand the next step is symptomatic of the poor analysis in this book.
  • In the next section, they went out and gathered few comments from some far right commentators and build up a huge counter argument based on those foamy arguments. This sounded childish to me and disjointedly argued.
  • In page 77, the old chestnut of the Pape’s Suicide Terrorism is dug up. Well, I do not have to say this again but trying to give me references to that silly study does not fill me with confidence that this particular study is any good either. But they go on to make more mistakes like trying to say the Tamil Tigers appeal to Hindu links to the Indian Tamils.
  • Page 81 throws up more issues. While the authors talk about anti-Americanism and talk about radicals. But hey, here’s the issue. You don’t hear about antiGermanism or AntiSpanishism, but they both have terrorism issues. So is that antiwesternism? The authors refer to far right commentators but do not mention George Bush has clearly said the war on terror is not against Islam. But then, that does not fit in neatly with the author’s biases.
  • Again in page 85, there is confusion between Muslim states and Arab states. And yet again ignore the glaring counter-example of Pakistan and Bangladesh compared to India as Muslim states. Frankly, a poor argument.
  • Page 87, “the war against Islam and Muslims” is nothing new, that slogan has been raised since time immemorial I am afraid. For example, one of the big things that Mughal Aurangzeb or any of the Ottoman pashas did when faced with challenges was to raise this same slogan or words to the effect. And guess what? The open-ended question of what do you resent most about the west, the answers were “sexual and cultural promiscuity”, “ethical and moral corruption” and “hatred of Muslims”. undefined, no? and no further analysis of it either.
  • Outright inconsistencies emerge, for example in page 92. Yes, I agree with the fact that Western countries should stop interfering in the Muslim countries, while saying that, I did not notice any mention of Lebanon where Muslim countries interfere with both hands and legs. And this is where the issue comes up, because if you don’t have the clear idea that you will always find countries interfering with others, you are living in cloud cookoo land.
  • Also, curiously, they continuously confuse Sharia with Fiqh. This is not the place to go into it but for them not to make that distinction (such as in pages 92-93) is worrying. Because of this, they tend to make some basic mistakes. For example, saying that what restricted Muslim rulers from acting like tyrants was Sharia. Erm, that is wrong on both formulation as well as knowledge of history. Its fiqh and secondly, Sharia never stopped Muslim rulers from being tyrants. This also leads to a massive confusion around what the mullah’s can do about government and legal society. Are they the rulers? Advisers? Lawyers? Senior House of parliament? What? And the authors do not address this point and just leave it dangling at “advisers”.

I am now tired of listing the flaws of this book. It is useless and frankly a waste of time and money. No basic data is presented nor is the analysis rigorous. As I said, what were worrying are the legions of congratulatory messages on this book. I do not think any of the so-called great and good have read the book and if they have, they have not understood it. More curiously, why on earth are these two so-called respected academics writing such drivel? Shame on Gallup, a respected organisation for producing pap like this. So in the end, this book does not tell me what Muslims really think. Or who speaks for Islam. And the fault lies solely with the authors, not with the people who they interviewed. (Here’s something which I wrote earlier on who actually speaks for Islam and who influences Muslims) The biggest problem with the book is the underlying theme that every American who reads the book is an idiot and has this patronising theme running through it. As a public policy book, this is pathetic and I am deeply disappointed with the authors. These authors have contributed more to the civilisational schism than trying to help cover it.

Which brings me to the other paper. It was published in a peer reviewed journal called as Government Information Quarterly in 2008, written by Nadia Caidi and Susan MacDonald of the University of Toronto. The paper is entitled, Information practises of Canadian Muslims post 9/11. Now this is what research looks like. A scientifically rigorous treatment of how Muslims think and do. While the area of investigation is different (and equally important and interesting), the methods that these researchers use, the analysis they come up with, all are fascinating and much more believable than the pap that Esposito and Mogahed have come up with.

It was a good sensitive study, asking intelligent literate Canadian Muslims, about their information practices, use of information sources, attitudes and opinions about information rights in a post 9/11 world. What the authors find is the Canadian Muslims hold a deep mistrust of the media, but they think that knowledge of media and information literacy is important. They also feel there is a need for far greater introspection within Muslim societies.

But fascinating public policy recommendations drop out, about how multiculturalism can help or hinder. Some issues with the study related to the fact that they did not consider another society, United Kingdom, which has seen home-grown Muslim terrorism in 7/7. Also, they did not consider Canadian Sikh immigrant terrorism either. Both of which would have provided a much richer analysis of this factor of multiculturalism and nationalism, but that can well be done in another piece of research. Immigration was another factor but not so much. What about the information media sources in themselves? Would it help to have public advisory councils which will help improve these fellow citizens’s trust in the media? What can be done?

Both pieces of work are interesting from many perspectives. The first one is for knowing how not to do research and put across public policy recommendations on such politically and religiously sensitive issues. The second is how to utilise information and information practices for Muslims who are definitely facing Islamophobia and a feeling of being targeted. Very thought-provoking indeed and much needs to be done to address these issues (but please, not how Esposito and Mogahed do). So while we do not know what the billion Muslims think, we can do something about making sure that the information channels are better managed and transparently dealt with in order for us to draw the poison of Islamophobia and support for terrorism.

All this to be taken with a grain of piquant salt!

Dr. Bhaskar Dasgupta works in the city of London in various capacities in the financial sector. He has worked and travelled widely around the world. The articles in here relate to his current studies and are strictly his opinion and do not reflect the position of his past or current employer(s). If you do want to blame somebody, then blame my sister and editor, she is responsible for everything, the ideas, the writing, the quotes, the drive, the israeli-palestinian crisis, global warming, the ozone layer depletion and the argentinian debt crisis.
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July 20, 2008
06:39 PM

BD: I would have taken one look at Esposito's name on the cover and not bothered reading the book. He alongside Pape (and various others) are part of the post 9/11 terrorism/Islam/clash of civilizations publishing industry and seem to produce one book after another that is useless, grim and rife with basic factual errors.

On the other hand, kudos for lasting 139 pages of it. And for bringing to attention the Canadian study.

July 20, 2008
10:49 PM


pape? he is minor league perhaps you meant pipe?

July 21, 2008
12:44 AM

well, i collected the reviews of the book, and they were all so laudable that I figured, hmm, lets get hold of it.

bad mistake, its horrible

July 21, 2008
04:25 AM

temp bhai: they definitely smoke the same week from the same pipe. :-)

July 21, 2008
10:06 PM

I do not know how many pages there are in the book. Could one write a review without reading the whole book? Perhaps one can, I suppose.

Rather than reviewing it page by page I wish you reviewed it by agreeing and/or disaggreeing with their conclusions. I find your approach left me as much uninformed as ever about the book. But that may be me. Who knows? Every one else may find your review very enlightening.

July 22, 2008
12:36 AM

Morris. well, I suppose the only conclusion that I can draw from that book was that it was a waste of time to even begin that book.

For what its worth, its 230 pages, and if the silly book hasnt improved by 130 pages, then, well, you get the idea... :)

July 22, 2008
12:40 PM

Dr. BD,

Like Morris I'm a bit befuddled too! Perhaps it was a further waste of time to write such a long review of a book that was a waste of time that you could not complete? :)

July 22, 2008
01:43 PM

I'm with Morris and commonsense. you must've not found any errors on pages 97-139 so you gave up reviewing because it did not follow your mold of an error on every third page. funny how you say the book is 230 pages (it is actually 204)but that includes the appendix and endnotes. The main text itself ends on page 166, a mere 27 pages from where you stopped in disgust.

I suggest you try finishing the book. you might be surprised at what you find about Muslims and the West's views towards better relations with each other--the point of the book.

July 22, 2008
01:50 PM

Additional reviews of the book are welcome - it seems interesting, and I wish I'd picked it up at the airport bookshop today.

July 22, 2008
03:41 PM

waste of time, commonsense? not at all, its a crap book and i listed out the reasons why it was crap. I dont have to read it to the end to know that its crap. You dont have to eat a rotten banana to the end to know that its rotten, do you? :) you spit it out after the first bite :). I was charitable, kept on thinking it will get better, but to no avail.

Plus think about all the luminaries who praise it, clearly they havent read it.

nielej, here's a thought for you, why dont you review the book, specially concentrating on the part after say 139, and then I will go pick up the book again and then finish the review. And then we will see if those few pages suddenly turn a crap book into a profound book which will change my opinion. Deal?

Or since you seem to have read the book, please refer to the actual issues that i have raised of the pages that I have read and then we can debate that.

Till now, I have no reason to believe that the rest of the book is any better than the previous lot.

What I am surprised about is the sheer bad scholarship of the authors, but I am willing to be surprised, look forward to reading your thoughts, nielej and then we can have a nice natter :)

July 22, 2008
06:27 PM

""I dont have to read it to the end to know that its crap. You dont have to eat a rotten banana to the end to know that its rotten, do you? :)""

I totally agree! However, I would not write a long piece detailing how rotten the banana was. Enough time wasted on eating it in the first place, don't you think? Just a thought! :)

July 22, 2008
06:29 PM

in the great desi tradition of pointless nitpicking, i looked at the review again and was surprised at how long and detailed it is! if a journal assigns someone to review a book, it makes sense to write a negative review if the book deserves it. but this is totally voluntary! i am intrigued that you spent so much time at pointing out that crap is commonsense :)

July 23, 2008
12:44 AM

i kept on making notes as I went along, commonsense, and felt it a waste to waste them, so to say. Also as I said, i kept on hoping i will get a better insight somewhere. There are some good points, no doubt, but page after page after page...

but anyway, to get back to the basic point, it was a shame that the authors lost such a great opportunity to actually say what the Muslims think. Using this book, they actually added to the problem than resolving it.

5 years of global survey and this pap comes out. Criminal

July 23, 2008
09:34 AM

makes sense BD.

I am surprised how polite you are! In response to my pointless nitpicking, you could have legitimately responded "Mind your own business!". A true scholar you! Appreciate the review! Sure looks like a wasted opportunity if they spend 5 years on it and then rushed it...

July 23, 2008
09:37 AM


""5 years of global survey and this pap comes out. Criminal""

""Pap""? wasn't it Richard Paper?

July 23, 2008
05:14 PM

chuckles at the pun, well, it was actually pape but pun taken (if you excuse the rebound pun)

July 23, 2008
07:04 PM

yep, i did mean to pun on pape, but typed it as paper!

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