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The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality
Book Review
Raqib Javed Omer


Author: John L. Esposito

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Year: 1999


The book explains various misconceptions of the west about Islam. The book also provides a detailed history and Islam’s interaction with the west during various times in history.

Chapter 1: Contemporary Islam: Reformation or Revolution:

This chapter starts by discussing the basic worldview on Islam. The main idea projected is that fundamentalism is the main term attached to Islam by the world, whereas there is only a small fraction of Muslims who actually belong to this specific group. Islam in general is more of a diverse type than one that only promotes terrorism and killing.

The existence of brilliant Muslim doctors, teachers and engineers etc provide solid examples of diversity and safe nature of Islam. With advancement in technology and communication providing more and more exposure to Islam, and with the prayer and the fast acting as good sources of re-awakening, more and more people are turning to this safer side of religion which is generally thought to be a religion of fundamentalists and terrorists.

The chapter further continues by explaining the general trends in the recent history of Islam.

The major downfall of Islam is marked by 1967 when Israel beats the Arab forces followed by the loss of Jerusalem. This is remembered as a major disaster and also a turning point in Islamic history.

The downfall of the Muslims continued and in 1969 when the Chinese and Malay Muslim riots reach their peak, this proved to be a major threat to Islamic revivalism.

Pakistan – Bangladesh civil war (1971) further weakened the Muslim positions as Bangladesh is separated from the rest of Pakistan.

The deterioration of the Muslim community doesn’t end here. Shiite Muslim riots in various parts of the world further divided the Muslims into smaller sects weakening their position as a whole. During these years, Islam went through a period of major crisis, westernization and modernization widened the gap between the rich and the poor. Worsening economic conditions and the increasing conflict between the Muslims reached its peak.

These ever-deteriorating conditions of the Muslims changed their trend during the 1970s. Main highlights included the 1973 war of Egypt against Israel. The war was never won but the Muslims considered it to be a victory for them as they thought that an American backed Israel could never be defeated.

The Arab oil boycott also provided the Muslims with that economic muscle, and also proved the dependence of the west on the Middle East.

The most important event in terms of demonstrating the power of a resurgent Islam was the Iranian revolution of 1978-1979. Shah used the oil revenues to bring about a wave of modernization in the Muslim world. Large scale modernization activities took place including the setup of an army whose strength could be compared to that of the Israel away.  

Chapter 2: Islam and the West: Roots of Conflict, Co-operation and Confrontation

This chapter discusses the history of Islam and its comparison with Christianity. It then explains Islam’s early interaction with the west.

Despite the fact that Islam and Christianity have a mutual message and mission for the world, due to the early success of Islam there was never any mutual co-operation between the two religions. Islam initially was a minority, and then slowly became a majority with many of the Christians actually converting to Islam. As the author explains, the major reason for this change was that Islam is a very tolerable religion and all non believers are allowed to practice their religion freely. Another reason highlighted is that of Islam’s emphasis on equality of people and no discrimination in terms of race, colour, creed or cast.

The chapter continues to summarize the major events in the history of Islam including times of initial boom when Islam had a vast empire and the high caliphal period which was a time of cultural fluorescence in areas of philosophy and science with “Ibn Sina” and “Ibn Rushd” as prominent names.

This period was followed by the crusades and the Ottoman Empire after which the Islamic empire lost its strength leaving the Muslims on the defensive side. This was followed by a period of moral reconstruction amongst them Muslims.

Chapter 3: The West Triumphant: Muslim Responses

This chapter explains the activities of the Muslims and their interaction with the rest of the world during the nineteenth century.

By the nineteenth century, a clear shift of power had occurred and European colonization and the large scale spread of western power were on its way. The Muslim world reacted differently to the challenge of colonialism. Some Muslims resorted to complete rejection and withdrawal with western education and foreign languages boycotted. Others adopted the path of secularism and westernization which resulted in a class of highly educated Muslim elites modernized and western in thought.

In between the two extremes, fell the people who took the middle path of Islamic modernism. The author summarizes the role of people like Jamal al-din al-Afghani (1838-97), Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905), Iqbal, Taha Husain and many others in developing a better Muslim attitude towards the west.

Chapter 4: Islam and the State: Dynamics of the Resurgence

This chapter summarizes the recent history of various Islamic states highlighting their internal activities and their relation with other countries.

Islamic states can be divided into three different types namely Islamic, Muslim and Secular. On one extreme, lies Saudi Arabia as the only example of an Islamic state with all laws and rules set according to the shari‘ah. On the other extreme are the secular states with Turkey as the leading example where Islam is only restricted to personal life. Other countries that lie in the Muslim category fall within the two extremes. There are several states discussed, a brief summary of a few important ones are as follows.

Libya was initially a poor and west dependant country till oil was discovered there in 1959. Mu‘ammar Qadhdhafi comes into power in 1969. With the introduction of the green book and an intense islamization, Qadhafi’s support for terrorism worsened its relations with the west and this is when Islam was firstly associated to terrorism.

Chapter 5: Islamic Organizations: Soldiers of God

This chapter gives a detailed explanation of the nature and roles of various Islamic organizations in recent history. The chapter starts with introducing “the Muslim Brotherhood” and the Jama‘at-i Islami as the main Islamic organizations and gives some history about their founders (Hasan al-Banna and Syed Qutub of brotherhood and ‘Abu al-‘A‘la Mawdudi for the Jama‘at). The chapter then continues to provide detailed information about other organizations that sprung up later in various parts of the world. These organizations include Lebanon’s AMAL and Hizbullah, Algeria’s FLN and many others. The chapter carries immense detail about these organizations which is hard to summarize in a few pages.

The overall conclusion of this chapter mainly is that Islam is a diverse religion and so are the Islamic organizations with different goals and attitudes towards the west. Apart from a few stereotypical ones, the majority shares a common view on the transformation of society. These organizations are well disciplined and highly motivated, while some engage into violence others have made their way into politics. These organizations may not be successful as a whole but have been very successful in responding to people’s problems; answering issues related to identity, faith and authenticity.

Chapter 6: Islam and the West: A Clash of Civilizations

This is the last chapter of this book. Here the author compares Islam to the west and explains the western viewpoint on Islam. Even though Islam and Christianity share the same roots, the two have always been in a state of struggle against each other. Majority of the west views Muslims as terrorists; they consider Islam to be a political, cultural and demographic threat to the west. Bernard Lewis’s “Roots of Muslim Rage” and P. Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations” have been influential in prompting this idea.

The author also explains that the Muslims settled in the west are constantly being “othered” unlike other minorities present in the same region. The reason explained is that the Muslims are considered to be a threat for the west. The author quotes several examples that prove this as incorrect. As one Muslim leader noted in France “Our only ambition is to become good Muslims and good French citizens….But as long as people wage campaigns on the peril of Islam, as long as we let rancour and frustrations accumulate, we will encourage all forms of radicalization”.1

Esposito emphasizes that the Islamic movements need to show the world that Muslims are effective problem solvers and not just critics. They need to keep aside their internal power struggles and re-emerge as single and united.

The United States need to avoid portraying itself as an intervening state in Islamization programs. They should recognize ideological differences between the west and Islam, and should accept or tolerate them to the greatest extent possible.

The author finally concludes by explaining that Islamic countries have been on a path of change especially during the nineties. With no other Iranian style Islamic revolutions and the emergence of new elite that is educated and more Islamically oriented, with greater pressure for political liberalization and democratization, Islam is moving towards prosperity and not towards fundamentalism and terrorism.


Keeping in mind that the book is written by an American author, it is a brave attempt to go against the normal western view on Islam. The book provides convincing facts and arguments about the difference in the western view on Islam and the actual reality. However I also see the book as a mere narration of facts about Islamic history that complicate the reader to a large extent. I feel that the author should have provided with more of arguments and his analysis of the history instead of narrating what had happened in the past.

It is quite possible that I am only feeling that the book is a mere narration of history just because I have studied Islam throughout my life and the content provided by the author is not new to me. This may however not be the case for the western audience who have little or no knowledge about Islamic history.





1. John L. Esposito, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 80.

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