REZA ASLAN: An Interview

REZA ASLAN: An Interview

Zahir Janmohamed recently sat down with REZA ASLAN to interview him about his latest book, No god But God, and to discuss the current situation in Iran. Until recently, Asian was both Visiting Assistant Professor of Islamic and Middle East Studies at the University of Iowa and the Truman Capote Fellow in Fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His articles have appeared in Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Slate, Boston Globe, the Washington Post, and the Nation and he has appeared on Meet The Press, Hardball, The Daily Show, and Nightline. No god but God is his first book.

ISLAMICA | Thank you for joining us, Reza. What initially intrigued and struck me about your book was your unique and refreshingly creative style of prose. As a graduate of the famous Iowa’s writer’s workshop, can you talk about your approach to writing this book? How did your experience in creative writing inform and shape the prose of this book?

REZAASLAN | There is a tendency in literary circles to talk about the different genres of writing such as non-fiction, fiction, poetry, biography, etc. But to me there are only two genres of writing: good writing and bad writing.

When I approached this ostensibly nonfiction book, I approached it in the only way I knew how – which is to write it as though I were writing a fiction book or a novel. I think that really helps for two reasons. First is a lot of things I talk about in this book are really complex such as issues of religion, politics of the Middle East, and the corresponding nuances of these two. I knew if I wanted to appeal to a larger audience, I would need to present these issues in a manner that would engage the reader.

Second, the thesis of the book is that religion is in itself a story. It is not so much a history as a story and I wanted to make sure that these myths, these sacred stories appear and sound no different than the secular stories that we talk about and to show that there is a collision between scripture and the stories that we read today. So it became a very good way of writing a book about religion to write about it in this novelized way.

ISLAMICA | As someone who is actively engaged in speaking about Islam, how do you reconcile the fact that although there is a rise of awareness about Islam in America, there is also a rise in hate crimes against Muslim, Arabs, and South Asians?

REZAASLAN | What makes this country so unique is that we are almost entirely a nation of immigrants. We have engrained in us this desire for pluralism, this knowledge for other cultures. But we also have this isolationism and this notion that what we have is fine the way it is and we do not want anything to change.

The U.S. is often referred to as a melting pot. But the U.S. is really more like a sponge. We take other ideas, other cultures and turn them into Americanism. That is what is happening with Islam. This is of course the fastest growing religion and many sociologists think that in another decade Islam’s growth in America will exceed that of Judaism and Muslims could be the largest religious minority in America.

It is time to understand that Islam is not a foreign or exotic religion. This is a religion of your brothers, sisters, teachers, politicians, etc. The flipside of that is there are always going to be those people whose sense of Americanism is fixed because America is not an ethnic identity, rather it is an ideological identity and any ideological identity requires another ideology, a counter ideology to define itself like communism.

ISLAMICA | Mahmood Mamdani, author of “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim” writes that “Terrorism is not a necessary effect of religious tendencies, whether fundamentalist or secular. Rather it is born of political encounters.” What is your assessment of Mamdani’s comments?

REZAASLAN | It is absolutely correct. We tend to refer to this phenomenon as jihadism because it is a type of revivalism and because it has perverted the doctrinal definition of Islam. We also tend to refer to it as Islamic terrorism because we see it as a form of terrorism that is religious in nature.

But I think that is an incorrect way of looking at it. Religion is nothing more than a language, a way of defining other ideologies, other social and political constructs. So what we see as religious terrorism is born not out of religion itself but is but born out of political, social, and economic grievances, many of which are very legitimate and that lead to these public displays of violence.

Where does religion fit into it? It makes these grievances understandable to the terrorists and is also a means of reaching out for support. Terrorism is above all a symbolic act. The reason why it is a public display of violence is that it is not trying to make social change or political change but to reach out to other people, to galvanize support for their cause, to provide this illusion of power. It makes the terrorists seem far more than they actually are. We know – and this is not just true of Islam but of all religions – that the best way to appeal to the masses is to use religious language. Let us not forget that according to the president, we are fighting of war of good versus evil. This is precisely the language used to filter ideologies down to the masses. It is the language of religion that holds this popularity. So we have to be careful and understand that these grievances are not religious grievances but are just framed using religious language. We have to make that separation.

ISLAMICA | Let’s talk about Iran. Some have argued that Ahmedi nejad is a hardliner and a regressive development in Iran. Others applaud him for his simplicity and for being a non-turbaned/clerical leader. What are your perceptions about the recent election in Iran?

REZA ASLAN | If you really want to understand Ahmedinejad as a candidate you need not look any further than George Bush. These two are precisely the same kind of politician. Both have very little political experience. Ahmedinejad was never elected to a position before, he was appointed mayor. Both present themselves as men of the people. They speak in this simple way. At least George Bush gives this impression that he speaks in a simple way. Both are leaders who have very little experience in what it takes to lead a country and so they surround themselves by people who share their political ideology and feed that ideology to the leader.

So the similarity between Ahmedinejad and Bush is that they are both essentially figureheads. They are the person at the top who represents the people, the ideology at the bottom. In Bush’s case it is evangelical neo-conservatism and in Ahmedinejad’s case it is neo-revolutionary, this revival of the original Islamic version of the revolutionary principles.
ISLAMICA | Does his election cause concern?

REZA ASLAN | I think it causes concern because the people who latched on to Ahmedinejad and are now feeding him the ideology that he is expressing, are people who are not good, either for Iran’s domestic position or its international position. Now that said, I think Ahmedinejad, like George Bush, has a real strain of independence in him as well and there have been many cases in which Bush has gone against his neo-conservative, even his evangelical base, and made these very independent decisions.

Ahmedinejad became president because he would fight corruption in Iran. It is amazing that so many, myself included, were so surprised by his victory when in reality he was the only person talking about the one thing that all Iranians, regardless of their class, or piety, care about. That is the collapsed economy that makes life in Iran unbearable for so many people. The problem is, and I think Ahmedinejad realizes this, that corruption at the highest level is being led by the clerics, these same clerics who latched on to Ahmedinejad.

I think at some point Ahmedinejad is going to have to realize that if he wants to tackle corruption, then he is going to have to tackle the very people who are legitimating his rule. If he chooses not to, if he chooses to back down, then he is going to loose the support of the Iranian people. The problem is that the only thing left would be his social conservatism, which I do not think is as hard-lined as its being made out to seem. But if that social conservatism is all that he offers, then he will run into some problems with the very people who voted him into power. Let’s remember it was not the poor people who voted him into power, it was the youth, the middle class, it was the constituencies who traditionally sided with the reformists. So if he starts to go against their wishes, then in many ways Iran will accelerate toward its inevitable outcome, which is this freer and more democratic Iran.

So in a very absurd way, this could be the best thing that has happened if Ahmedinejad is truly stifled in his crusade against corruption.

ISLAMICA | Can you comment for a moment about the Iranian youth you met during your summer 2004 tour of Iran. Most youth in Iran were too young to remember the Shah and only know of the stern Islamic republic. As a young Iranian-American yourself, what do you think the Iranian youth want today? Do they want to see a diminished, absent, perhaps reformed role of Islam in state politics?

REZA ASLAN | Iran’s youth have to be divided into three categories. I think the older generation, to which I belong, spent their twenties working tirelessly at great cost to create a freer, more democratic Iran. The Iran that their parents envisioned. That group has fractured into three. There are those who have simply become revolutionary and who believe that the only way to cure Iran is to raze it to the ground and start all over again. Many of these youth that I met were actually welcoming the possibility of a U.S. invasion. These were middle class, 30-year-olds who kept saying “let the bombs rain down because that is the only way we will be able to start again.” It is very sad actually.

There are also those who believe that the way to make change is through the political sphere but who say we still we need to kick these Mullahs out and create an entirely new, secular government. Finally there are those who say we can continue to work with this government, we can continue to work within the confines of what we have to create: lasting, democratic change. My generation has really fractured along those three lines.

What I found most interesting when I went there is that the younger generation is completely beyond this debate. They have no interest in this debate at all. What they want is to just live the lives that they have already eked out for themselves. They have managed to create this private space within Iran in which they have certain freedoms and certain rights. They can mingle with each other in ways they have not been able to, they have access to the internet in ways that the older generation did not. They have access to movies and to American culture. They themselves do not want to be a part of this debate. Instead they say that rather than talk about how Iran needs to be changed, we are just going to live as though Iran has been changed. At first when 1 saw that I thought this is a bad thing because this is going to be the future generation of Iran. But then the more I thought about it I realized that this is a sign of how inevitable political change and reform is in Iran and that this generation is living as though it is already there. They ignore their elders and have decided we are going to change society from the ground up instead of from the top down. And that I think is a very exciting thing.

ISLAMICA | Do you think this applies to women’s issues, and specifically, the chador/hijab?

REZA ASLAN | Absolutely. What is interesting is that after the revolution, after the initial period in which women’s rights were severely curtailed, women had to come together to assess and determine what it means to have a genuine women’s movement. During the Shah, the Iranian women’s movement was basically mimicking the western feminist movement. At that time all modernist movements were westernized in nature. But since the revolution, women have had access to education and literacy in far greater ways than they did under the Shah. In fact, literacy rates in Iran are almost compar able to the west. There are far more women who are in government now than were in government during the Shah. I think what’s happened in many ways is that women were forced to confront, in post-revolutionary Iran, what it is that they hold dear and value. While it is true that the issue of the hijab does occupy a number of their minds, it is simply not an important issue. There are so many things that far outweigh how one can dress in public. This is true at least among the Iranian women that I know and even among the younger generation.

ISLAMICA | You write that “the Islamic reformation is already here.” How can we as Muslim Americans be a vanguard in that movement?

REZA ASLAN | I think if the Islamic reformation is going to come to fruition in our lifetime, then it is going to be led by Muslim Americans. The thing about Islam in America, and this has much more to do about America than it does about Islam, is that Islam since its inception has been constantly adapting and reforming. The reason why Islam is one of the great religions of the world is because it so seamlessly absorbed disparate cultures, traditions, religious beliefs and values throughout the world, from India to China to the United States. But I think what’s wonderful about American culture is that because it is a culture already so steeped in faith, a lot of the problems that Muslims in Europe face with their identity, such as the debate of whether they are European or Muslims is not the case here. I think that a lot of Muslims see that to be American and Muslim is a profoundly simple thing. That sense of reconciliation – of bridging tradition with the modern world – is essentially what American Muslims are: an example of that successful reconciliation, of blending tradition with American values. It is up to us, because we have the voice, and because we have the power to do so, to provide the language, the tools, the methodology and the theory to help our brothers and sisters who do not have the same voice because that we do because of the various political and religious bondage that they experience.

Now the problem with the Islamic reformation is if it is a western phenomenon, how is it going to make any difference to the people in the Middle East? It is true that there is going to be somewhat of a disconnect. However, I think that disconnect is highly exaggerated because, 1 ) I know that our brothers and sisters look to American Muslims as an example. They really look at us to understand how we can reconcile these values with the modern world; and 2) even if you look at the very foundation of Islamic modernism, the very beginning of it 150 years ago, this was a process that did not begin in the colonized lands. In other words, it did not really begin in places like Egypt or India (although that’s where it came to fruition) but rather it began in the Ottoman empire, it began amongst the Young Turks. These were people who were not colonized and were able, because of freedom and access to education, to help define what this would look like.

They provided the language, they provide the tools and then it was Egyptian and Indian Muslims who took that language and put it into practice. And that’s precisely where we are now.

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