When Gabriel Said Reynolds, Professor of Islamic Studies and Theology at Notre Dame, handed the mic over to Reza Aslan, I’ll admit I wasn’t sure what to expect. Mr. Aslan took the podium as Professor Reynolds sat in the moderator’s chair. As the applause died down, anticipatory silence seeped into the overcrowded Jordan Auditorium. We all knew we were here to learn about Islam and ISIS. Not the most light-hearted of topics. Mr. Aslan, however, thanked the audience quietly before noticing Professor Reynolds watching him as attentively as the rest of the audience.
“Gabriel, are you gonna stare at me the whole time? Because that’s awkward and weird.”
The room broke into laughter, and with that, Mr. Aslan eased us into what became an hour and a half of discussing the facts—and myths—regarding Islamic faith, the Muslim community, and radicalized religious terrorism.
Aslan, holding degrees from Santa Clara University, Harvard Divinity School, the University of Iowa, and UC Santa Barbara, is personally familiar with war and terrorism. His family fled from Iran in 1979, during the Iranian Revolution, when Aslan was seven years old. He remarked on the difficulties of growing up as an Iranian child in America in the eighties, during the height of the Iran hostage crisis. At one point, Aslan even pretended to be Mexican, smirking and adding, “Which shows you how little I understood about America.” Because being Mexican in America didn’t exactly help his case.
Humor aside, Aslan is very much aware of anti-Muslim sentiments in America. He began by placing these issues in the scope of our most prevalent news exposure: the presidential race. Specifically, Aslan noted that this election has emphasized anti-Muslim rhetoric to a degree with which no prior election has reached. (He added fondly, “I sorta miss the days of Newt Gingrich.”)
Aslan drove home an important point: the anti-Muslim attitudes of these candidates are surprisingly mainstream. How else would people like Trump and Cruz win support? They are excelling, in part, because they have capitalized on the American society’s fear of Muslims and Islamic terrorism.
However, Aslan warned against demeaning this fear. A fear of terrorism is a valid fear, because it is a real, albeit small, possibility. This fear stems partially from the fact that many Americans make no attempt to differentiate between the Islamic faith and the radicalized Islamic ideology of groups like ISIS. We live in a nation that is around 70% Christian and only 1% Muslim. Aslan pointed out that, with the overwhelming of Christian-identifying citizens in America, it is much easier to dismiss, for instance, the pro-life shooter who attacks Planned Parenthood, or Dylann Roof’s execution of worshippers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, as “mentally unstable” and “fringe” members of society. When a non-white person who is Muslim acts out in the name of radicalized religion, the knee-jerk reaction is to associate that (incorrectly) with the small proportion of normative, peaceful Muslim communities in America and elsewhere.
The fact of the matter, though, is that these attacks do happen, they cultivate fear, and so they must be addressed. Aslan highlighted two responses to those threats, both of which are flawed. The first is to disassociate terrorism from “real” Islam. Muslims do this, as do many non-Muslims in the attempt to be allies. Aslan argued, however, that this rhetoric is damaging in its own right. Anyone who says they are acting in the name of Islam is, ultimately, a Muslim and should be taken seriously as such. Attempting to separate religious extremists’ violence is, in short, equivalent to looking at a broken limb or a cancerous tumor and saying, “It’s okay, this isn’t really a part of my body.”
The opposite reaction, equally damaging, is to claim that these acts of terrorism are a manifestation of true Islam. This is the quick fix, shouted by many presidential candidates today; but it is, in the words of Aslan, unsophisticated. The side of terrorism that many people ignore is that the overwhelming majority of victims of groups such as ISIS are Muslims themselves. The Muslim community has splintered amongst those who side with or against jihadist and other radical groups. According to Aslan, there is a global phenomenon taking place in the Islamic faith, and in many ways, Americans have become “not-so-innocent bystanders” in the conflict. This violence is not isolated to a source in the Middle East, and solving the problem—if a solution is to be found anytime soon—will require a global perspective.
Aslan also pointed out the religious and political trends over the last century that have laid the groundwork for religious extremism. These trends are not exclusive to Islam—all religions have displayed the same trends. The first is the rise in what Aslan referred to as religious nationalism. In the case of Islam, this is “Islamism.” It is a political philosophy by which citizens of a state should shape their identity around a shared religion, and make this the foundation of their state. “Christianism” is arguably just as prevalent: many people today, according to Aslan, think the USA is a distinctly Christian state and that we should define ourselves legally, socially and culturally based on Christianity (a speech by Huckabee in 2008 included his goal to “Amend the constitution so that it’s in God’s standards”). Aslan stated that religious nationalism has swept the globe and all religious denominations and that it comes in both peaceful and violent forms in each community.
Jihadism, the second trend, is not the same as religious nationalism. Aslan explained that whereas religious nationalism aims to reform a single region, country or culture, jihadism is radical, “anti-nationalist” Islamic ideology. Jihadist groups aim to consolidate the world into a single order under their control (the caliphate). Society in the caliphate would be divided solely between believers and unbelievers. Interestingly, Aslan pointed out that just as with religious nationalism, jihadists also divide into peaceful and violent groups. Some aim to create the caliphate through democratic means while others seek to achieve this by force. That is where groups like ISIS, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda arise.
Aslan concluded his lecture with theories on how to remedy the rise in religious terrorism in general and specifically relating to Islam. Fundamentally, he argued that we must “stop pretending that religion is something unique…that is separate from the other things that make us who we are.” Saying “I am a Muslim,” “I am a Christian,” etc. has become a statement of identification with a particular group in today’s world—Aslan argued that it is no longer simply “a statement of faith.” Accepting that there is a very real religious component to extremist groups’ violence will encourage religious communities to provide their own defenses and counterarguments to these groups, rather than pretending that terrorist acts are not “really” part of their faith community.
Adding to that, Aslan urged for the recognition of the role of politics in fostering constructive dialogues between and across communities. There must be a space made for peaceful, political Islam. The minute you repress a group expressing religious nationalism, you have radicalized that group, according to Aslan. Democratic means of deciding whether these ideas are acceptable or not in society is the key to moderating the debate in communities everywhere, not just the Middle East.
We must “stop pretending that religion is something unique…that is separate from the other things that make us who we are.”
Since religion is a matter of identity, attacking that identity continuously does nothing but feed the problem. It gives validity to violent groups like ISIS who capitalize on the fear and isolation felt by Muslim communities in order to recruit its members from around the globe. Aslan attested to an important role that we as Notre Dame students—and citizens of the United States—must keep in mind in the coming months. Regardless of our religious background and practices, or lack thereof, it is important to accept the growing and changing relationship between religion and politics in order to play our part in resolving the conflict. How we approach religious and political dialogue, and how we use our democratic influence in the upcoming election, will be key to opening the avenues of positive, constructive dialogue in our country and globally.