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.

But, in reality, for ten years before the Iranian Revolution, Islam was being used by Gaafar Nimeiry in Sudan, by Anwar Sadat in Egypt, by Muammar Gadhafi in Libya, and by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in Pakistan to legitimate their form of nationalism and to mobilize support. And in Pakistan, before Iran, both secular socialist Bhutto and religious parties were calling for Nizami Islam, an Islamic system of government. All of that was under the radar.

What about book proposals? I sent out reams of book proposals. No answers. Three people, including Oxford University Press, responded “Great idea. No market.” After the Iranian Revolution, in five weeks, I received three book contracts. Books on Islam? The general consensus was “No need to produce another one, we already have H. A. R. Gibb and Fazlur Rahman,” books which were originally cast in the early 1960s. The great reformers were seen as Muhammad Abduh and Muhammad Iqbal. Abduh died in 1905. Iqbal died in 1938. And those were the last people being talked about even when I did my graduate work in the 1970s.

The turning point, then, was the Iranian Revolution and fear of its export. That raised American and European interests in the Middle East, all of which had to do with oil, oil, oil, and the safety and security of Israel. These interests put Islam on the front burner both with publishing and with the media. But what was the state of knowledge of Islam in popular culture? I remember that during the Iranian Revolution, every morning we’d get a report on our hostages. Barry Serafin would go to the gate to talk to spokeswoman, Maryam (Mary). She would begin with Bismillahi al-Rahman al-Rahim and then recite a short passage from the Quran. By about the third day, Barry was telling her, in effect, could you skip the opening? So here we were worrying about what they might be doing to our hostages, but we didn’t realize how insulting it was to say “Let’s cut to the chase here!” Our levels of ignorance were also illustrated by Tom Brokaw, who explained, “For our viewers I should mention that Islam is one of the world’s religions. It has a scripture called the Quran and its prophet is named Muhammad.” Think about that! So we faced big challenges.