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Author examines roots of America's anti-Muslim sentiment

At a time of economic uncertainty with constant demographic shifts in the United States, more Americans identify themselves not by who they are, but by who they are not – and increasingly that’s “not being Muslim.” International scholar Reza Aslan explored that trend in a Wednesday lecture where he cautioned his McCrary Theatre audience that rising anti-Muslim rhetoric is, in fact, putting America at risk.

“What is foreign, exotic, unfamiliar or fearful is being tagged as ‘Islam,’” said author and scholar Reza Aslan in a Nov. 10 lecture sponsored by the Truitt Center for Religious and Spiritual Life and by the Liberal Arts Forum.

The Nov. 10 talk, "Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in the Age of Globalization," was hosted by the Liberal Arts Forum and the Truitt Center for Religious and Spiritual Life.

The author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam focused much of his criticism on political leaders and public figures such as Newt Gingrich and Bill O’Reilly for their inflammatory comments related to Islam, notably in regard to the Muslim community center proposed in Lower Manhattan.

By saying that “we’ll let you build your mosque at Ground Zero when you let us building a church in Mecca,” as Gingrich has remarked, it provides fodder to radical clerics overseas who can tells Muslims that America is not the beacon of religious freedom that it claims to be, Aslan said.

Is such rhetoric dangerous? Aslan points to National Security Advisor Jim Jones, Gen. David Petraeus, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who all have said yes. “These are the people telling us that this rhetoric is putting us at greater risk!” Aslan said. “It’s not my opinion. It’s from the people who would actually know.”

Simple rhetoric is one part of the problem. Anti-Muslim sentiment among Americans is another. There’s an identity crisis in this nation, Aslan said, where it’s more difficult for people to say what America means. Since the United States is a nation of immigrants, there is no collective identity through culture or religion, but instead an allegiance to a set of common political principles.

What’s the easiest way to find a common identity? By showing opposition to someone else. Being a “majority minority” nation in the coming years “scares the hell out of people,” he said.

That’s why “not being Muslim” is a unifying theme for people. “Islam in this country has become ‘other-ized,’ a kind of receptacle into which Americans are dumping all their fears and anxieties,” Aslan said. “What is foreign, exotic, unfamiliar or fearful is being tagged as ‘Islam.’”

But the United States has been here before, he said. In the 19th century, Catholic immigrants from Ireland were treated the same way. In the 1920s, the targets were Jews from Eastern Europe. Quakers and Mormons have also been subjected to vitriol.

He said that while only a small comfort, in each of those instances, succeeding generations of Americans have reflected back on the ostracism of others in disgust. The same will eventually happen for Muslims. "Make no mistake," he said. "In another generation, we will look back at these anti-Muslim zealots with the exact same shame, the exact same derision, the exact same mockery.

Aslan is currently a contributing editor at the online site The Daily Beast as well as a frequent and recognizable guest on television news and commentary shows. He offers concise analysis on the future of Islam, the ongoing reform of Islamic republics, and the struggle of followers who must reconcile faith with contemporary attitudes as well as persistent anti-Islamic fears.

No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam has been translated into 13 languages, and named one of the 100 most important books of the last decade. Aslan is also the author of How to Win a Cosmic War, and editor of an upcoming anthology from Norton titled Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East.

Born in Iran, he lives in Los Angeles and is associate professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities, and the Pacific Council on International Policy. He earned degrees in religions from Santa Clara University, Harvard University, and the University of California, Santa Barbara, as well as a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa, where he was named the Truman Capote Fellow in Fiction.

Aslan also is president and CEO of Aslan Media Inc., whose holdings include BoomGen Studios, a mini-motion picture and media company focused entirely on entertainment about the Greater Middle East and its Diaspora communities. He serves on the board of directors of the Ploughshares Fund, which gives grants for peace and security issues, Abraham's Vision, an interfaith peace organization, and PEN USA, which champions the rights of writers under siege around the world.

Eric Townsend,
11/11/2010 11:47 AM