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Esposito, John L. . "Contemporary Islam: Challenges and Opportunities." In The Oxford History of Islam. Ed. John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Jul 13, 2020. <>.


Esposito, John L. . "Contemporary Islam: Challenges and Opportunities." In The Oxford History of Islam. , edited by John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed Jul 13, 2020).

Contemporary Islam: Challenges and Opportunities


John L. Esposito

While many people speak of “Islam and Muslims” in monolithic terms, throughout history these terms have represented multiple images and realities. The story of Islam in the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries is one of exponential growth, increasing demographic, geographic and cultural diversity, and also increasing interconnectedness. Though it is common to think of Islam and Muslims as being geographically centered in the Arab world (where in fact less than a quarter of the world’s Muslims reside), borders do not confine Muslims. Islam is becoming an increasingly borderless religion, encompassing many nationalities, ethnic and tribal groups, cultures, languages, and customs. Today, in addition to the fact that the majority of the world’s Muslims live in Asia and Africa, Islam is a major and fast-growing religion in Europe and America.

The world’s 1.8 billion Muslims live in some 57 countries and substantial populations live in Europe, and North America. Today, major Muslim communities not only reside in Dakar, Cairo, Damascus, Khartoum, Riyadh, Tehran, Islamabad, and Kuala Lumpur, but also in London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Washington, D.C. The geographic diversity is reflected in linguistic diversity as well; Muslims speak not only Arabic and Persian, but Turkish, Urdu, Swahili, Bahasa, Chinese, French, German, Danish, Spanish, and English. Additionally, diversity is seen in women’s dress, educational and professional opportunities, and participation in society. Women are sexually segregated, required to cover their entire bodies and are not permitted to drive cars in Saudi Arabia and in Afghanistan under the Taliban. However, women in other Muslim societies dress in many diverse fashions, drive cars, ride motorcycles, and function professionally with men in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia and Senegal, among others. In addition, in Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia Muslim women have served as heads of their governments.

With 1.6 of the world’s 7 billion inhabitants, some project that Muslims will make up nearly a quarter of the world’s population of an estimated 8.3 billion in the year 2030. And, a majority of the world’s Muslims—about 60 percent—will continue to live in the Asia-Pacific region, while 20 percent will live in the North Africa and Middle East region. In the United States, projections show that the Muslim population will more than double in the next two decades, from 2.6 million in 2010 to 6.2 million in 2030. In Europe, the population is expected to increase by one-third to comprise 8 percent of the continent.

Eighty-five percent of the world’s Muslims are Sunni. Shia Muslims, who predominately live in Iran, Iraq and Bahrain, represent 15 percent of the world’s Muslim population. Shii represent further diversity in their three main divisions: the Zaydis, the Ismailis, led today by the Harvard-educated Aga Khan, and the Ithna Ashari, who are the majority population in Iran and Iraq. Sectarian differences are more important in some countries, and less important in others. According to Pew, many Muslims around the world either do not know, or do not care about such differences. Muslims in the Middle East and South Asia tend to be most keenly aware of sectarian distinctions as witnessed in sectarian conflicts and violence in, among others, Iraq, Pakistan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Syria.

In the mid-twentieth century, which may well be remembered as one of the most dynamic in Islamic history, Muslim societies from Morocco to Indonesia shed their colonial past. However, for many, national independence was a move from subjugation to European imperialism to authoritarian nation states. While some Gulf nations discovered oil, experienced great prosperity and thus grappled with pitfalls of abundance, other Muslim populations struggled with poverty, high unemployment and inadequate educational systems.

From the late 1970s, a dominant and persistent narrative of contemporary Islam has been the nexus between the political and religious spheres. The Iranian revolution (1978-79) and Soviet-Afghan War were accompanied by an Islamic resurgence from the Arab world to Southeast Asia, an increase not only in personal piety but also in the role of Islamic ideologies and movements in Muslim politics, both mainstream and extremist. For many rulers and elites in the Muslim world and Western governments alike, the fall of a mighty shah of Iran, whose oil wealth, formidable security forces, and Western support made him appear invincible, had seemed unthinkable. This event proved to be the first in a series (the Iran-Iraq war, hijackings and attacks on Western embassies, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, the rise of Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda and the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks in the US and Europe respectively) that catapulted the specter of “Islamic fundamentalism” and the threat of global terrorism to the forefront of public policy debates, and dominated international media. These events became the lens through which contemporary Islam and Muslim politics were viewed, often obscuring other significant religious, political and social dimensions.

Just as many were blindsided by Iran’s “Islamic Revolution,” in the second decade of the 21st century, unexpected popular Arab uprisings and revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya signaled a new watershed moment, stunning the global community when longtime authoritarian regimes were toppled and new governments elected by their citizens for the first time.

The Resurgence of Islam in Muslim Politics

In the late 1960’s and 1970’s the resurgence of religion in politics was rooted in the reassertion and greater presence of religion in personal and public life. . Many in Muslim societies became more observant (emphasizing prayer, fasting, dress, family values, etc.) and rejected what they saw as the failures of secular and ethnic forms of nationalism, Western capitalism and socialism. As an alternative, religious rhetoric, symbols, actors and organizations all became the legitimate sources used to inform and mobilize groups. Moderates and extremists alike attempted to articulate a new religiously based ideology and vision for their societies.

Major issues of political and social injustice (wealth disparity, authoritarian governments, repression, corruption) were intertwined with desires to re-appropriate a more authentically rooted national, cultural and religious identity and values not dominated by and dependent on Western paradigms and culture. In the latter decades of the 20th century, several visible crises proved to be catalytic in the rise of political Islam. Among them were the 1967 Arab-Israeli war (Six Day War) in which Israel decisively defeated the combined Arab armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, and transformed the liberation of Palestine into a transnational Islamic issue; the destruction of the Indonesian Communist Party (at the time, the largest in the entire non-communist world) and the establishment of an aggressively secular nationalist “New Order” government in Indonesia in 1965-1966; the 1969 Malay-Chinese riots in Kuala Lumpur, which reflected growing tensions between the Malay Muslim majority and a significant Chinese minority; the Lebanese Civil war (1975-1990), which led to the emergence of major Shia groups; and the Iranian Revolution of 1978-1979, a historic event which wielded a long-term global impact and crystallized views in the West of Islam as the new global threat, successor to the fallen Soviet Union.

While most Islamic movements were formed in response to domestic conditions, international events such as the Soviet-Afghan War, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and resistance and “liberation” struggles in Bosnia, Kashmir, and Chechnya also played a role. The failure of the West as an Arab and Muslim ally and pervasive fears that Western culture would dominate and displace indigenous identity, faith and traditions were two of the most influential factors in the shift towards societies that are more deeply rooted in religion. For many, westernization was merely a modern form of colonialism that resulted in overdependence on the west, what the prominent Iranian intellectual Jalal Al-e Ahmed called “Westoxification” (gharbzadegi). Islamic activists and movements (sometimes referred to as Islamists), as well as mainstream reformers and violent radicals, all asserted that the cure for this ailment was a return to a more indigenous and authentic sense of history and values, a reaffirmation of the centrality of Islam. They believed that religion provided a comprehensive framework for Muslim society, both public and private.

In the late 1970s and into the 1980s the world viewed Islam primarily through the lens of the Iranian revolution and fears of its export, as well as subsequent acts of violence and terror (hijackings, attacks on American and European embassies, the killings of Marines in Beirut). However, in the 1990s a “quiet revolution” was emerging as Muslim political activists and Islamic organizations sought to gradually reform their societies from within, through political and social activism. In Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Kuwait, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia, Islamic candidates were elected as mayors and parliamentarians and appointed to cabinet level positions. In Turkey, a country hailed by many as the bastion of secularism, Necmettin Erbakan was the first leader of an Islamic party to be elected Prime Minister (1996-1997); in Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim, who founded the Muslim Youth Movement (ABIM) in 1971, served as deputy prime minister from 1993 to 1998; and in Indonesia, Abdurrahman Wahid, the leader of the country’s largest Islamic movement, Nahdlatul Ulama, was elected president by the People’s Consultative Assembly in 1999. Islamic organizations and associations mushroomed, providing much needed social services, including educational, medical, dental, legal, and social welfare. Their services were also an implicit indictment of the failure of existing regimes to do so.

At the same time, a dangerous militant minority (leaders from movements like Egypt’s Islamic Jihad and Gamaa Islamiyya (Islamic Group), Algeria’s GIA, HAMAS in Palestine and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and Southeast Asia’s Jemaah Islamiyah also left their mark in the latter years of the 20th century. Like Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, they believed that they had a mandate from God to establish their vision of what an Islamic society should be. For them, not only were regimes antithetical to that vision, but also fellow Muslims who stood in their way were regarded as the enemies of God, apostates from “true Islam” whom they called kuffar, or non-believers. The West was perceived as engaged in a neo-imperialist religious battle, a Judeo-Christian Western conspiracy supporting un-Islamic regimes, and occupation of Muslim majority lands, and providing biased support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Violence was regarded as a necessary and divinely sanctioned response. With the dawn of the 21st century, Islam had become entrapped in a narrative of conflict and violence.

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