One Billion Muslims: A Threat or a Challenge?


Islam is a religious force embracing one fifth of the world’s population, with Muslims a majority in 45 countries ranging from Africa to Southeast Asia.

A few of the billion Muslim’ are very rich, most are poor. Many live in Arab countries, but most live in Asia.

Indonesia, with 180 million Muslims, has the largest number followed by Bangladesh, India, Nigeria, and Pakistan each with about 100 million, then Turkey (60 million), Egypt (51 million) and Morocco (24 million). Republics in the former Soviet Union as well as China each have some 60 million.

The United States has four to five million Muslims, making Islam the third largest religion. By the year 2000, Islam will surpass Judaism as our second largest religion.

Over one-third of the U.S. Muslims belong to the American Muslim Mission and The Nation of Islam. Thousands of Americans are getting their first introduction to Islam by viewing Malcolm X, the movie based on a best selling autobiography in which a former criminal relates how he was redeemed by Islam.

As the two timely (This article was first published in 1993 by Washington International Magazine) books under review, both written by non-Muslims, remind us, much of what we “know” about Islam is based on fear. Islam in our media is often equated with holy war and hatred, fanaticism and violence, intolerance and the oppression of women. Just as the Qur’an teaches that God loves blacks as equally as whites, it also states that women are equal to men. In countries when this is not so – overseas as well as in our own United States – it’s not because of the religious injunctions, it is because religious injunctions have not been heeded.

Esposito [1], a professor at the College of Holy Cross and an author of five other books on Islam, says the West has an ideal vantage point for appreciating the aspirations of Muslim activists, and he urges that we see the diverse Muslims of the world as a challenge, not a threat.

Millions in North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and southern and southeast Asia aspire to greater political and liberalization and democratization. They live under domination of monarchs and military or ex-military rulers who often ban or restrict political parties, and who, at any moment, may move to all out war tactics against them.

Rather than being guided by our stated ideals and goals of freedom and self-determination, Esposito writes, U.S. leaders and media have a tendency to assume that Islam and democracy are incompatible, that the mixing of religion and politics inevitably leads to fanaticism and extremism. Yet “The American government does not equate the actions of Jewish or Christian extremist leaders or groups with Judaism or Christianity as a whole. Similarly, the American government does not condemn the mixing of religion and politics in Israel, Poland, Eastern Europe or Latin America.”

Esposito adds that Islamic candidates and organizations, when free from government repression have worked within the political system and participated in elections in Algeria, Tunisia, Turkey, Jordan, the Sudan, Egypt, Kuwait, Pakistan and Malaysia. Activists have even held cabinet level positions in the Sudan, Pakistan, Jordan and Malaysia.

Anti-Islamic voices, however, increasingly have identified any and all Muslim struggles for self determination as dangerous “fundamentalism” that represents an irrational, countercultural movement with Qaddafi and Khomeini as leaders.

Too often, Esposito reminds us, coverage of Muslims concludes that there is a monolithic Islam, believing, feeling, thinking and acting as one. While Ayatollah Khomeini was a spokesman, he was not the spokesman of Islam “There is no pope of Islam,” Esposito writes, adding that, “Recognizing the diversity and many faces of Islam counters our image of a united Islamic threat. It lessens the risk of creating self-fulfilling prophecies about the battle of the West against a radical islam.”

The second book, “The Muslim Primer,” by Western Maryland College Professor Zepp [2] is exactly what the title implies, and one that can wholeheartedly be recommended for the average American who wishes a “Beginner’s Guide to Islam” The book is an outgrowth of a six-month sabbatical which included a three-week seminar at the Duncan MacDonald Center for Islamic Studies at Hartford Theological Seminary.

Professor Zepp provides a historical context for contemporary interest in Islam, relating in a simple, easy-to-read style the contributions made by Muslims in art- such as the Arabesque form of abstraction, with calligraphy being the most noble and appreciated art form in Islam because of its association with the Qur’an.

In architecture, he mentions the creative genius as expressed in the Red Fort in Delhi, the Alhambra in Grenada, the Taj Mahal in Agra, as well as the mosque of Cordoba, the Turkish Blue Mosque in Istanbul, the Persian mosque in Isfahan.

While the Western world was living through the Middle Ages, Islam was experiencing a “Golden Age,” with Baghdad the intellectual center of this world. In physics, Muslims invented the clock pendulum, the magnetic compass, the astrolabe. Alhazen, living in the 10th century, is considered the founder of optics. Al-Khawarizmi in the 9th century invented algebra (al-jabr) which in Arabic means to restore broken parts.” He established a system of counting which became known as Arabic numerals. He names another Muslim, al-Razi, as the greatest physician in the Middle Ages. The list goes on to include some of our greatest poets and thinkers, such as Avicenna, a scholar who fused philosophy, science and medicine.

In his introduction, Sayyid Muhammad Syeed of the International Institute of Islamic Thought in Herndon, Virginia, stresses that it is in the interests of the common good of us all “to let Islam be represented objectively in the West in its real spirit. Let it be known that Islam’s mission is not the disrespect of other religions, rather an attempt to strengthen the common roots of all faiths.”


[1] “The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?, by John L. Esposito. Oxford University Press, New York.

[2] “A Muslim Primer: Beginner’s Guide to Islam, by Ira G. Zepp, Jr. With an Introduction by Sayyid Muhammad Syeed. Wakefield Editions, Westminster, MD 21158. 1992. 292 pages.

Grace Halsell served as a speech writer in the White House for President Johnson. She is the author of Journey to Jerusalem (1981) and Prophecy and Politics (1986).

Buy the relevant / Grace Halsell’s book (s) now:

The Islamic Threat : Myth or Reality? (Third Edition) - by John L. Esposito (Preface)

Prophecy and Politics : The Secret Alliance Between Israel and the U.S. Christian Right - by Grace Halsell