BPR Interview: Reza Aslan

Dr. Reza Aslan is the author of the New York Times Bestseller “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.” Currently a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, Aslan was born in Iran and holds a BA in Religious Studies from Santa Clara University and a PhD in sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. 

Brown Political Review: You wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about Ben Affleck’s “lambasting” of Bill Maher with regards to Maher’s generalizations of Islam as “inherently violent.” Do you think Islam is violent?

Reza Aslan: Religions aren’t inherently anything. They’re not inherently violent, peaceful, misogynistic or pluralistic. Certainly, when you look at Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, there is an enormous amount of violence, misogyny and patriarchy that has infused those religions and their sacred texts for centuries. At the same time, those exact texts have also exuded compassion, pluralism and tolerance. The anti-theist movement focuses on the bits of savagery in scripture, on the verses of violence. They ignore the verses of love and compassion.

BPR: How do you account for the misrepresentation of Islam in our society?

RA: There’s no question that there is an extremist, violent virus, if you will, that has gripped a great many Muslims, particularly in the Middle East. Islamic terrorism and violence is very real and undeniable. It’s gripped the attention and imagination of not just Americans, but people around the world. Understandably so, when you have an organization like ISIS selling women into sex slavery, beheading individuals, killing women and children — that deserves our attention. But if that’s all that you see about Islam, it becomes very easy to associate the most extreme elements of the religion with the Muslim that lives down the street from you. The media’s job is to report on the planes that crash, not the planes that take off safely. So if all you knew about planes was what you saw on the media, then you would assume that every single plane crashes.

BPR: How might this trend be reversed?

RA: It begins with understanding where anti-Muslim bigotry comes from. For many people, particularly smart, secular, liberal groups, there is a widespread notion that bigotry is a result of ignorance. Therefore, if you could just sit down with a bigot and present him with the facts…then they would change their mind. Unfortunately, that just doesn’t happen. There are a lot of very intelligent bigots in the world, and that’s because bigotry doesn’t reside in the mind — it resides in the heart. It’s an overwhelming sense of fear of “the Other”…No amount of data is going to change a bigot’s mind because fear can’t be affected by information. The only way to change a person’s perception of “the Other” is through relationships. Studies bear this out — nearly 6 out of 10 Americans have a negative view about Islam, but 4 out of 10 Americans claim to have never met a Muslim. What we’re seeing is the result of a country that doesn’t have the ability to recognize Islam as part of the diverse religious fabric of this nation. That will change in time…We shouldn’t forget that everything being said about Muslims right now was said about Catholics at the end of the 19th century and about Jews in the 20th century.

BPR: Where does this fear of Islam come from?

RA: September 11 was a wake-up call to a lot of Americans about the problem of violence and extremism in Islam. What we’re seeing in Iraq and Syria is fearful…At the same time, it doesn’t take a genius to realize the way in which that fear has been inflated by the media and by our political and religious leaders for their own personal, political and economic gain. When you have politicians talking about the very real possibility of a member of Hamas deliberately infecting himself with Ebola and then dressing up like a Mexican and crossing over the border into Texas to kill Americans, the absolute idiocy of that statement becomes washed away by the overwhelming fear of something real, which is violent extremism. The media certainly does it too. CNN recently referred to Ebola as the “ISIS of biological agents.” It’s not that the media or politicians create this fear, it’s that they heighten it to hysterical levels for their own benefit.

BPR: How does that heightened fear and hysteria play into the average American’s view of ISIS?

RA: ISIS is definitely a threat to global peace and security. This is an organization conducting nothing less than a genocidal campaign across the Middle East…Anyone who believes that the United States can be a force for good must support some kind of military response to an organization that is bloodthirsty and draconian in its dealings. However, I’ve never met a single national security expert who seriously believes that ISIS is a direct threat to the United States. That’s not to say that terrorism is not a threat to Americans…However, when the president wants to rally Americans to a military engagement, he has no choice but to couch it in this rhetoric of national security. This kind of rhetoric has no place in this conversation, yet it has become so commonplace that not only is it tolerated, but it’s also become the political mainstream.

BPR: What advice would you give to those trying to go beyond the media’s representations of Islam and the stereotypical conceptions held in this country?

RA: The great irony is that young people are living at a time in which they have access to novel sources of information in a way that no other humans have ever had before. We are not slaves to the mainstream media. We don’t need a gatekeeper to tell us what’s going on in the Middle East. We can have direct access to that information by going online and reading newspapers and direct reports from journalists on the ground. You just can’t blame the media anymore for the ignorance of Americans about Islam or the Middle East…If you’re getting your news from CNN or Fox or MSNBC, you’re wasting your time. These are not news outlets; they’re commercial enterprises. The purpose of CNN is not to tell you what’s going on in the world. It’s to get you to the commercial so that you will buy Coca Cola or Viagra.