The following is an excerpt from the 2013 Presidential Address (“Islam in the Public Square”) of John Esposito for the American Academy of Religion. His entire talk is free to read online here.
The response of colleagues and family to my chosen career was interesting: Why study Islam, they asked. When I began to speak publicly, both Muslims and Christians asked why I studied Islam, but they had very different agendas in their mind. The best comment I heard was “You’ll never get a job!” At that time I was a young Catholic theologian teaching scripture and theology, and there would always be theology and religion departments.
When I was looking for a job in 1972, only one job advertised was narrowly in Islamic Studies, and the other was in World Religions at the College of the Holy Cross. When interviewed by the incoming chair at Holy Cross, I noted that Hinduism and Buddhism were my minors (in addition to an MA in theology) and that my major was Islam. He pointedly answered, “We are not looking for somebody in Islam,” and even worse, he said, “I prefer somebody in Japanese and Chinese.”
Training in Islam was totally absent for the military and foreign service officers. And not only that, our foreign service officers in the field were not encouraged to look at religion. When the Iranian Revolution came along, a friend who had been in the embassy said that there was no contact with the ulama, no going into the universities and dealing with faculty or the students in Islamic studies. Indeed, when you talked to analysts in the field reporting back to Washington or consultants on risk assessment in countries, they never looked at the religion factor. And so when Iran came along, people saw it as an epi-phenomenon. (more…)