A recent Pew Center poll reports that 18 percent of Americans think President Obama is a Muslim, thanks largely to a politicized misinformation campaign. The attitude behind the numbers—the notion that Obama’s purported Islamic faith makes him untrustworthy and a threat to our national security—underlies a troubling pattern. Consider Pastor Terry Jones' aborted "Bonfire of Korans," Newt Gingrich's remarks comparing organizers of lower Manhattan's Islamic cultural center to Nazis, and Oklahoma's pre-emptive strike against Shariah law and you can see why the term "Islamophobia," so in vogue after 9/11, has re-entered the national lexicon.
For insight on this, Miller-McCune.com spoke with Reza Aslan. He's the 38-year-old religious scholar, born in Iran but raised in places like Oklahoma and California, who has been educating westerners on Islam's place in the world ever since the release of his 2005 bestseller, No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam.
And this month, Aslan's latest book, Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East, appears. The anthology of poetry and essays is another of his attempts to reframe misguided perceptions of the Middle East.
The first segment of this two-part interview with Aslan focuses on the United States. The second installment will highlight issues in Europe.
Miller-McCune.com: Among certain segments of the U.S. population, anti-Muslim sentiment seems to be increasing. What's happening?
Reza Aslan: I think it's not just that anti-Muslim sentiment is increasing; it's that these beliefs are becoming increasingly mainstream thanks to fringe characters like Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller, who six months ago were considered so radical that they never would've been involved in any kind of legitimate discussion or public debate about the role of Islam in the United States. After all, Pamela Geller, [executive director of Stop Islamization of America] who invented the phrase "mosque at ground zero," insists that President Obama has declared jihad on America and Robert Spencer [director of Jihad Watch] claims that 85 percent of all mosques in the U.S. are preaching violence and extremism, which has been debunked. I think the Department of Homeland Security would like to know where he gets his information. It's sort of like having a member of the KKK in the middle of a legitimate discussion about race in America.
M-M: How did we get to this point?
RA: Part of the reason is the economy. In times of economic distress, it's natural for people to look for scapegoats, and the current victims for this recession happen to be Mexicans and Muslims. As I often say, God help you if you happen to be a Mexican Muslim in this country right now.
Part of it also has to do with war fatigue. We have been engaged in two wars in the Middle East for a decade. We were just told by the president of the United States that one of those wars in now over and a lot of Americans are wondering what we actually got for the trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of deaths that resulted.
I also think that for a decade we've been discussing the possibility of homegrown attacks by Muslim Americans and for 10 years nothing had happened until the past year when we had two attacks back to back, one by Major Nidal Hasan at Fort Hood and the other one the attempted Times Square bombing by Faisal Shahzad. I think the true headline here is that in this time frame we've had just two attempts, but nevertheless, the fact that they came back to back has raised more suspicions.
M-M: And this includes suspicions about the president.
RA: It's not a coincidence that the same polls that show that 50 percent of Americans have a negative perception of Islam also show that 20 percent of Americans think that Barack Obama is a Muslim. That's an 8 percent jump from a year ago.
And more interestingly, amongst Republicans that number is almost 40 percent. In fact, there is a direct correlation between whether you agree with President Obama's domestic policy with regard to health care and financial reform and whether you think he's a Muslim. The more you disagree with his view, the more likely you are to believe that. That proves that Islam has become sort of a receptacle in the U.S.; it's become "otherized" in the sense that anything that's foreign or frightening or exotic is immediately tagged with this label of Islam.
M-M: In the debate over the cultural center in lower Manhattan, critics of the Imam, Feisel Rauf, say his real goal is to establish Shariah law in the West.
RA: This view is so idiotic that it's barely worth responding to. No American Muslim, zero, absolutely none, not a single one has ever, ever called for the imposition of Shariah in America. There are two countries on the planet, on the entire planet, that have Shariah in their penal system, and that's Saudi Arabia, our greatest ally-a country that, by the way, owns most of lower Manhattan and a great deal of Wall Street — and Iran, our nation's enemy. That's it. Two countries on the entire planet. [Some parts of Indonesia and states in northern Nigeria, however, have instituted Shariah for their Muslim citizens.] The declarations made by people like Newt Gingrich about how we need to pass federal laws to prevent something from happening that no one has asked to happen, is again the rankest kind of political deception. Rauf was simply calling for a system in which Islamic law courts settle matters of family disputes among the Muslim community.
M-M: But what about the notion that Shariah is incompatible with democracy because of some of the draconian punishments for adultery, sexual offenses, etc?
RA: There is no single thing as Shariah. If you are talking about penal codes, then yes, of course it's incompatible, which is why only two countries in the world allow it. But if you mean Shariah as it informs family law — marriage, divorce and inheritance — then it's no less compatible than the dozen or so Halacha courts throughout the entire country that allow observant Jews to have a religious outlet for such issues.
If you can have one in this country, you can have the other, but the notion that that has anything to do with penal law, or the imposition of Shariah on America is utter bullshit and it's used solely as a fear mechanism, as if the American Muslim community is clamoring for a law that allows them to stone adulterers. It's a boldfaced, idiotic lie. There's no place for a rational discussion with people who bring up such ridiculous notions.
M-M: This isn't the first time a religion has been singled out in this way.
RA: Yes. In [the Oct. 7, 2010] New York Times, there's a really brilliant, beautiful piece about the 200th anniversary of St. Peter's Church. About 200 years ago, back in the late 1700s, when they were trying to build this church in lower Manhattan, which is about as far from ground zero as the Islamic community center would be, the exact words and phrases, the exact violence, the exact demonstrations that we see now, were being waged against its construction. There was this notion that the church was not a place of worship, but a means for the pope to extend his dominance over the United States and that the Catholics inside couldn't possibly be true Americans because their loyalty has to go to the pope. There was this huge protest which resulted in some violence and deaths when a bunch of Protestants showed up to protest what they saw as an evil service taking place inside the church, which was actually Christmas Mass. It's not a coincidence that we're hearing the exact same stuff now about Muslims in this country that we heard about Catholics in the 19th century and that we heard about Jews in the early 20th century.
M-M: Last we spoke you said the Islamic Reformation was in full swing - yet pundits on both sides insist that a "lack" of such a reformation is the problem.
RA: You first of all, have to understand what the term "reformation" means. Reformation in all religious traditions means individualization of religion. It means the passing of authority from institutions, whether it's the temple, church or mosque into the hands of individuals, who because of their education, because of their liberty, because of their access to new ideas and technologies, whether the printing press or the Internet, have the opportunity to define for themselves, without any kind of mediation, the meaning and message of their religion. That's all reformation means, which is why reformations have always been such bloody, violent events.
M-M: I think there's this mistaken notion that a reformation is just a wonderful and peaceful transformation.
RA: Which is exactly why I say these people don't know what they're talking about when it comes to either what's going on in Islam or the reformation. What we've seen over the last 100 years in Islam is precisely what people have been asking for. Now by definition that's gonna lead to very peace-minded and pluralistic interpretations of Islam, which is what you see amongst a lot of American Muslims who have totally reconciled their Islamic values and beliefs with those of the United States. But it can also lead to very violent interpretations of Islam which is why you're mistaken if you think bin Laden is anti-reformation. He's about as progressive, when it comes to his interpretation of Islam, which is as innovative and forward looking and anti-institutional as you can possibly imagine.
M-M: Can you explain?
RA: While his interpretation of Islam may be violent and draconian, his methodology is extremely reform minded. He believes that the right to interpret the Quran does not rest solely in the hands of the clerics but in the hands of individual. That anyone has the right to issue fatwas and declare jihad — rights that for 14 centuries belonged solely to the religious authorities. You could say he has a profoundly democratic view of Islam. Though, like many reformers past and present, he believes his interpretation is the only correct one and all others are false. But make no mistake, there is nothing "conservative" or "traditionalist" about bin Laden.
The reformation is a reality. It's the results of the reformation that I think people don't recognize. The point is that when these pundits make these misguided assertions, what they really mean is that Islam is different; it's not like us. Muslims are different from Christians and Jews and if they can just become more like us, then everything will be OK. It's based not on intelligence, information, research or scholarship, it's based on this concept of Islam as "other."
M-M: So how do you see this reformation playing out?
RA: It's gonna play out the way all religious traditions have evolved, with the battle between institutions and individuals over who has the authority to define a faith. There will, of course, always be those with a louder voice who are willing to take part in violence and will seem more powerful and numerous than they really are. There will always be fundamentalists and there will always be progressives. There's nothing strange or unusual in the slightest about what's taking place in Islam and what's taking place in other religious traditions. If you wanna talk about the problems you see in the Middle East, you have to talk about the sociopolitical factors that play as much if not a greater role in these conflicts as any religion does. But Islam doesn't have a monopoly on the use of religious violence. The I.R.A. are Catholics, the Kach and Kahane movements in Israel that were eventually banned and disbanded, and even the radical settlers in Gush Emunim, those are Jews, the Tamil Tigers are Hindus, the Japanese organization Aum Shinrikyo are Shinto. All of these people have used terrorism and violence to achieve their goals.
M-M: But many people differentiate Muslims from all these other groups as being worse. Why?
RA: It's because Islam is considered the "other" in America and Europe. It's been that way for a long time. The battle between Christianity and Islam is more than 1,000 years old. The bigoted comments you hear from Christian leaders about Islam and Islamic leaders about Christianity are nothing new. Islam has always been the polarizing force through which "Christian civilization" has defined itself and vice versa. There's really nothing strange about what we're seeing now. But those statements people make are again, not about facts; they're about sentiment. They come from people's innate desire to define themselves, their ideas, and values against an "other."
Take the Christiane Amanpour show. When she asked Franklin Graham why he said Islam was an evil and wicked religion, Franklin Graham said it was because Muslims want to come to this country; they want to build mosques and they want to convert Americans to their religion. But didn't he just describe Evangelical Christians? This idea that you can just sort of pour all the things you don't want to believe about yourself into an "other," into a receptacle goes beyond the current anti-Muslim emphasis. It's part of the human condition.