Crescent Post Exclusive
By Arsalan Iftikhar
January 11, 2012
EDITOR’S NOTE: From time to time, The Crescent Post will bring you an exclusive interview series called ’3 Questions’ where we will pose some key questions with major policymakers and VIP thought leaders on the pressing global issues of the day.
The Crescent Post recently sat down with Reza Aslan for our exclusive ‘3 Questions’ interview series to discuss Islamophobia, the Arab Spring and other topics in our latest installment of the ’3 Questions’ interview series on The Crescent Post.
Mr. Reza Aslan is the author of the book No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, which has been translated into thirteen languages and named one of the 100 most important books of the last decade. He is also the author of How to Win a Cosmic War (published in paperback as Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in a Globalized Age), as well as editor of two volumes: Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East, and Muslims and Jews in America: Commonalties, Contentions, and Complexities.
ARSALAN IFTIKHAR (The Crescent Post): With rising levels of Islamophobia in America growing over the last ten years, in your opinion, what do you believe will be the most effective remedies in curbing anti-Muslim public sentiment within media and political circles today?
REZA ASLAN: Well, Arsalan, I will tell you what it won’t be: education. There is a belief among some in the American Muslim community that if we can just teach Americans about Islam then they would not fear or misunderstand Muslims. My question to these people is: Have you actually met Americans? Let’s face it: education is not a priority in this country. It certainly is not how perceptions are formed or minds are changed. Any first year psychology student knows that data does not reframe perceptions or beliefs, and it most certainly does not affect bigotry, which is an emotion centered in the heart, not a rational idea embedded in the mind. Think about it this way: Jews and Catholics did not go from fifth columns in the US to integral members of America’s multi-religious identity by teaching their fellow Americans about Judaism or Catholicism. On the contrary, American perceptions of those two persecuted minority groups changed as Americans became more familiar with actual Jews and Catholics. It is relationships, not knowledge, that changes people’s minds. The only way Muslims will become as accepted as Jews and Catholics in this country is if Muslim culture, arts, entertainment, music, stories, history, etc. become part of American culture. That is already happening. But we’ve got some way to go still.
A.I. (Crescent Post): We all know that the phenomenon known as the ‘Arab Spring’ was one of the biggest news stories of the year. With major political victories by Islamist parties in many North African and Middle Eastern countries, how do you respond to those people out there who say that Islam and democracy are not compatible in the 21st century?
REZA ASLAN: No one really says that anymore. Certainly no analyst or sober-minded commentator says it. Of course, there are still those who refuse to acknowledge the empirical evidence: that the three largest Muslim majority states in the world are democracies; that one-third of all Muslims live in democratic states; that without exception every single poll ever taken of people in the Middle East shows overwhelming majorities of Muslims agreeing that Islam and democracy are compatible. What’s funny is that the people in this country who still refuse to acknowledge that Islam and Democracy are compatible are the same people who want to turn America into what they like to call “a Christian nation.”
A.I. (Crescent Post): There have been high-level ‘de-radicalization’ programs in countries such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia which have had some degree of overall success. Since many counterterrorism entities are now focusing on the rise of ‘lone wolf’ extremists being self-radicalized on the Internet, what role do you believe that Muslim communities can play in helping to ensure that their youngsters do not succumb to such un-Islamic acts of violence?
REZA ASLAN: First of all, I am unconvinced by the theory upon which these de-radicalization programs are based, which is that if we get Islamic legal scholars and eminent imams to sit down with these Jihadist recruits and show them the errors in their interpretation of Islam then they will see the truth and change their ways. As I outline in Beyond Fundamentalism, Jihadism’s appeal does not come from its status as an alternative theology to mainstream Islam. It comes from its utter rejection, not just of mainstream Islamic interpretation, but of the very foundations upon which authority in Islam is built. These kids are not interested in a theological or legal debate with experts whose very authority they reject. That said, the issue of “lone wolf” terrorism is quite obviously the most dangerous security threat faced by the United States. Because such individuals are difficult for counter-terrorism and law enforcement officials to track, it is up to the American Muslim community itself to step in and police its own. Of course, despite the perception out there, that is precisely what is happening. The data show that more than half of all “homegrown terrorist” convictions in this country since 2001 have been turned in by fellow Muslims.
Arsalan Iftikhar is an international human rights lawyer, author of Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era and global managing editor for The Crescent Post in Washington DC.