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Islam's pulse in the US

Iranian-American author Reza Aslan on rising anti-Muslim feelings, Bin Laden's 'similarities' with Freddie Mercury and the shared values of faith

  • By Syed Hamad Ali, Special to Weekend Review
  • Published: 00:00 July 15, 2011
  • Weekend Review

Reza Aslan
  • Image Credit: Photo courtesy: Random House
  • Reza Aslan's latest book, ‘Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East’, is an anthology with selections from countries as diverse as Iran, Turkey, Morocco and Pakistan.

An internationally renowned Iranian-American scholar of religion, Reza Aslan has authored a number of important books. His work includes No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam, named among the 100 most important books of the past decade.

Born in 1972 in Iran, his family fled to the United States after the 1979 revolution. Today he is a leading voice on Islam in America, invited on popular US talk shows such as Jon Stewart and Bill Maher. Recently he was one of the guests on a show hosted by Christiane Amanpour — provocatively titled Should Americans Fear Islam?

When one of the panellists used the word "they" to try to generalise atrocities committed by a minority of Muslims, Aslan shot back: "Islam is unquestionably the most eclectic, the most diverse, religion in the history of the world. This concept of just using the word ‘they' to describe 1.5 billion people is actually the definition of bigotry." The audience broke into applause.

His latest book, Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East, is an anthology with selections from countries as diverse as Iran, Turkey, Morocco and Pakistan. It has works by more than 70 writers, including Khalil Gibran, Orhan Pamuk and Mahmoud Darwish. Aslan is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and teaches Creative Writing at the University of California.

Besides his credentials in religion, he also has another claim to fame — his aunt is the famous Iranian singer Laila Forouhar. "Among Iranians in the US I am known far more as Laila's nephew," he says.

On a recent London trip, Weekend Review caught up with the author at the hotel he was staying in. Over a bowl of cereal and a cup of coffee, Aslan spoke candidly about rising anti-Muslim feelings in America, why he compares Osama Bin Laden to rock star Freddie Mercury and the one question on Islam he no longer answers.

You don't believe there is such a thing as a Middle East. Why?

Because "Middle East" was created by Europeans to define a land that is diverse in its cultures, in its languages and in its religions. And primarily as a way to doodily-up that land and exploit it for its resources by colonialists. But I use the term "Middle East" because I recognise that the region has certain things in common — and that is that common history with European colonialism and Western imperialism.

Because I was going to say it is in the title of your latest book as well — ‘Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East'.

It is a term that has become convention and, indeed, the reason I have put it in the book is that I want to accept the connotations of the term and actually say that, well, that is true. There is actually something which this diverse region does share in common. But that commonality is in its literature. The literary history of this region is the only thing, in my opinion, they share in common.

But where does the ‘Tablet and Pen' come from?

It comes from a poem by Faiz Ahmad Faiz, the sort of Pakistani national poet. And it is about how with a tablet and pen, words of a poet, he can bring down governments and rebuild societies. It is an indication of the power that the word has to reshape the world and I thought that made the perfect poem to use as the title of the book.

We are approaching the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Has the image of Islam in America improved in this period?

No, on the contrary most polls indicate that the perception of Islam is far worse today. Polls show that anti-Muslim sentiment in America is far higher today than it was even in the immediate aftermath of September 11. So, if anything, I think people are getting more anti-Islamic in America the further we get from September 11 instead of less, as one would expect.

What is the reason for that?

There are a number of reasons. Certainly the poor economy has played a role in times of economic hardship. It is natural for people to look for scapegoats to dump all their troubles on and right now it seems the preferred scapegoats are Muslims.

I also think that there is a sense of war-weariness in America. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were launched with a great deal of patriotic fanfare. And I think that as time passes, a lot of that patriotism has begun to fade away and, instead, people are beginning to question the reason for these conflicts. Even Republicans are beginning to question the reason.

And then I think there has been a series of so-called home-grown terror attacks over the past couple of years that have begun to question the hypothesis that many people have — that American Muslims were immune from these kinds of extremist ideologies. But in general I just think that the tenor in the US and the tenor in US politics are quite different, and it allows for a far greater degree of anti-Muslim sentiment than it did during the Bush years.

In an interview you said ‘100 years from now we might put Osama Bin Laden in the same category as Martin Luther'. Was that a compliment?

No. Martin Luther was, by 21st-century standards, quite a violent and despicable man who called for the death of thousands of people during the peasant revolts, including children, so that their homes should be burnt to the ground. The important thing to understand about Luther is that his theory of sola scriptura, which stated that the authority to define scripture should be in the hands of individuals, really meant that it should be in his hands. And for that reason, soon after he nailed his thesis to the church door, he became the primary obstacle to the reformation. People such as Thomas Muntzer, Hans Hut, Jacob Hutter, even John Calvin, saw Luther as the problem — not the solution.

I think the reason that Bin Laden really has the same role is because, like Luther, like all great religious reformers in the past, he had challenged the authority of the religious institutions in unprecedented ways. I mean, ultimately, Bin Laden's argument was that the Ulema does not have the sole authority to define Islam. That authority lies in the hands of individuals, which is why he would issue his own fatwas. He would, you know, declare jihad and set himself up as an alternative source of authority, all things that, according to traditional Islamic law, an engineer such as him would have no right to do. In that sense, he is quite Lutheran. It is what we would now refer to as a Protestant idea — putting faith into the hands of individuals and not in the hands of institutions. That was the crux of Bin Laden's theological reformation.

You have also — on an ideological level — compared Bin Laden to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. So are you saying she is like Martin Luther as well?

No. I think what I am saying in that regard is that there are people who believe that Islam is a monolithic religion. That all Muslims believe the same thing and that Islam is one religious faith, one religious ideology. And that is what Bin Laden thought. That is what Hirsi Ali thinks. And they are both wrong in the most ignorant sense of the term. So ideologically speaking, I don't see a difference between those two.

You know, Hirsi Ali is not a scholar, not an expert. She is someone who had a terrible experience living in the worst place on Earth — Somalia — and has used her celebrity status to make these absurd generalisations about what is unquestionably the most diverse, the most eclectic religion in the world.

The kind of idiocy that represents is very much in tune with the kind of idiocy we see from someone such as Bin Laden, who also believes that there is this one idea of Islam — his idea of Islam. And that Muslims who do not agree with his theological views are apostates and heretics.

Have you met Hirsi Ali?

[Nods a yes.]

Your impression of her?

I don't have a very good impression of Hirsi Ali. I don't believe she is qualified to be making the comments she is making. She is not a scholar, as I have said. She has done no research whatsoever.

She has never done any field work. She claims to speak for Muslim feminists and yet every Muslim feminist I know would want nothing to do with her. For me her simple-mindedness is an indication of her total ignorance of the topic that she claims to be an expert in.

Any other famous historical or contemporary person you would like to compare to Bin Laden?

Sure, how about I compare him to Freddie Mercury?

Freddie Mercury?

Yeah, why not? I love Freddie Mercury. That is not to say I love Bin Laden. No, look — he is a modern-day rock star. His charisma is unmatched. There is a reason why it has become almost impossible to replace him. Al Zawahiri, please, he is an old man nobody likes. And Anwar Al Awlaki, he may be young and he may be a little more technology-literate, but he just simply does not have the charisma Bin Laden had. I mean, whether you are a Western journalist or a young Muslim living in Somalia or Sudan, one thing you could not deny is that there was something very powerful in his demeanour, in his tone of voice, in the way he carried himself. You felt as though you were in the presence of a celebrity when you were around him.

You believe that America is not a secular state. Is that a good thing?

Well, if by that you mean it is a country that values religion and wants religion to play a role in public life, I think it is a good thing. I think religion is something that, for most people in the world, has social implications — and that could be for both good and bad. The idea of repressing the public role of religion has never worked. Doesn't work in places such as Turkey and Egypt, doesn't work in places such as France and the United Kingdom, and it wouldn't work in the US. I think that, as I have said before, the key to true pluralistic democracy is not secularism but pluralism. It is the idea that there are multiple religions, multiple ethnicities and that as long as everyone obeys the law, one should be able to practise one's faith at one field.

In America, even the most rabid Islamophobe is horrified at the laws passed in France banning women from wearing certain versions of the veil. Even the most rabid Islamophobe is horrified at the laws passed in Switzerland to ban the construction of minarets. Americans may think Islam is an evil religion. But they cannot imagine that the rights of Muslims who worship could be taken away. I think that is really what separates the American concept of religious freedom from what we see in large parts of Europe.

So Protestantism is the dominant religion in America?

Yes, America is a Protestant country, it was founded by Protestants, it is very much based on Protestant morality. Our very national heritage, our customs and mores, are deeply rooted in Protestantism.

Are American Muslims better integrated than those in Britain?

I think most definitely. But there are two things I need to say. One, the path to integration goes through economics. Everybody knows American Muslims are far wealthier then their co-religionists in Europe and in the UK. Partly, it has to do with immigration patterns. The history of Muslim immigration in Europe dates back to the Second World War and the idea of guest workers coming here to clean up the devastation. If you are a Muslim immigrated to the US, it is because you were able to. That is what I am trying to say. So you already had a certain level of education, a certain level of skill, a certain level of financial comfort because otherwise we wouldn't have let you in. And that explains why the median income for a Muslim household in the US is larger than for a non-Muslim household. Sixty per cent of Muslims in America own homes. Not too long ago, a company did a report in which it said the combined annual income for the Middle Eastern community in the US is $120 billion (Dh440.4 billion). That is a lot of money. So it is a fundamental fact that the richer you are, the easier it is to assimilate into a culture.

But I think there is another issue here. I think in a larger sense, the problem here is that in America, even though there are those who are xenophobic, who are anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant, there is a fundamental truth that the country is made up of immigrants. And immigrants have an opportunity to assimilate into society if they want to, if they follow the rules. Whereas in Europe, immigration, particularly immigration from Middle East and north Africa, is seen as something foreign, disruptive and intrusive.

But Europeans are more aware of global issues.

True. Being closer to the Middle East makes Europeans more knowledgeable but that doesn't make them more tolerant of it.

Your wife, Jessica Jackley, is a Christian. Do you two have ‘cosmic battles' in the bedroom? (‘How to win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization and the End of the War' is one of his books.)

No [Laughs]. In fact, when her parents, who are conservative Christians, discovered that she was in love with and going to marry a Muslim, they asked her, "Aren't you worried that your values are different?" And she said the "truth is that my values and Reza's are closer than anyone else I have ever met". I think what it indicates is that while the metaphors we may use to describe our faiths may be different, the values are all the same.

And you are also the nephew of Iranian singer Laila Forouhar.

The thing I am most famous for.

Has she read your books?

She is not a very good English reader, despite being in America for 20 years. But she is quite proud of me and we have a wonderful relationship.

What is the one question about Islam you are most tired of answering?

"Where is the moderate voice of Islam?" That is a question I don't even answer any more. It is a question that already assumes an answer and it is a question that assumes that the voice of extremism is the norm and that moderates are somehow an exception to it.

Syed Hamad Ali is an independent writer based in London.

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