On Being with Krista Tippett

Reza Aslan

Islam's Reformation

Last Updated

November 20, 2014

In a probing and personal conversation, Reza Aslan opens a refreshing window on religion in the world and Islam in particular. It’s a longer view of history and humanity than news cycles invite — certainly when it comes to the Arab Spring, or to ISIS. His life is a kind of prism on the fluid story of religion in this century. But in a globalized world, we all have a personal stake in how this story unfolds.


Image of Reza Aslan

Reza Aslan is the founder of Aslan Media, a social media network for news and entertainment about the Middle East and the world. A scholar of religions, he is currently professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. His books include Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in the Age of GlobalizationNo God But God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, and Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.


November 20, 2014

[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]

REZA ASLAN:The Islamic reformation has been going on for decades. We just look at the Muslim world. We see violence, and we don’t realize that that violence is a direct result of the reformation, not proof that one is needed.

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: Today, in a probing and personal conversation, Reza Aslan opens a refreshing window on religion in the world and Islam in particular. It’s a longer view of history and humanity than news cycles invite — certainly when it comes to the Arab Spring, or to ISIS. And Reza Aslan’s own life is a kind of prism on the fluid story of religion in this century. But in a globalized world, we all have a personal stake in how this story unfolds.

I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.

[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]

MS. TIPPETT: Reza Aslan’s best selling books include No God But God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, and Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. He grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and he was born in Tehran.

MS. TIPPETT: You may know that I always start my interviews by asking about the religious and spiritual background of your childhood. How would — where you start to tell that story?

DR. ASLAN: I was born in Iran. I like to sometimes joke that I come from a long line of lukewarm Muslims and exuberant atheists.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Right.

DR. ASLAN: My mother was the lukewarm Muslim, my father the exuberant atheist. The kind of atheist who always had a pocket full of prophet Muhammad jokes that he would pull out at inappropriate times. That kind of atheist. [laughs]

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Right.

DR. ASLAN: In a sense that my father’s atheism actually ended up serving us well, because if you recall, in the Revolution of 1979, when the Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran, he made a great show of pretending that he had no interest in any politics or government position. He said that he wanted to just simply go back to his home and his mosque and his family, and be left alone. My father, who’s never trusted anyone wearing a turban didn’t believe him for a minute, and thought that it would be a good idea for us to leave Iran until things settled down. That, of course, was three decades ago, and things did not settle down.


DR. ASLAN: And turns out my father was right about Khomeini, which he reminded me on a daily basis until the day of his death. [laughs]

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Yeah, somewhere you wrote that after you left Iran, our lives were scrubbed of all trace of God.

DR. ASLAN: Well, this was the 1980s, of course.


DR. ASLAN: It wasn’t exactly the best time in the world to be a Muslim in the United States, as opposed to now, when it’s fantastic.

MS. TIPPETT: That’s right. [laughs] What did you feel was against you in the 1980s?

DR. ASLAN: Well, this was, of course, the height of the Iran hostage crisis.

MS. TIPPETT: Oh, yeah. Okay.

DR. ASLAN: 444 days.

MS. TIPPETT: Okay. Mm-hmm.

DR. ASLAN: In which Americans were being held hostage in Iran. And for a seven-year-old boy, trying his hardest to fit in, it was important for me to separate myself as much as possible from my culture, my heritage, my nationality, certainly my religion. I’ve admitted on numerous occasions that I spent a good part of the 1980s pretending to be Mexican.

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Somehow I missed that in my preparations.

And then you’ve also written, and especially in your last book, you’ve written about this period in which you — I believe as a teenager, you discovered Christianity. And heard…

DR. ASLAN: That’s right.

MS. TIPPETT: …the gospel stories. And that, you’ve said that this, for the time, gave you a framework and a language to express a sense of spiritual longing that you’d always had.

DR. ASLAN: Yeah. That’s a great way of putting it. Because I think the experience of revolutionary Iran really seared into my consciousness, even as a child, the power that religion has to transform a society, for good and for bad.

And then when I went to high school, when I was 15 years old, I went with some friends to an Evangelical youth camp in northern California. And it was there that I first heard the gospel story. This incredible story about the God of heaven and earth coming down in the form of a child, of dying for our sins, the promise that anyone who believed in him would also never die but have eternal life. I had never heard anything like this before in my life. It was a transformative experience for me. I immediately converted to this particularly conservative brand of Evangelical Christianity. And then, spent the next four, five years or so preaching that gospel as I had heard it to everyone [laughs] whether they wanted to hear it or not, frankly.

MS. TIPPETT: Including your…

DR. ASLAN: I was one of those…

MS. TIPPETT: …your lukewarm Muslim mother?

DR. ASLAN: Even my lukewarm Muslim mother, whom I converted to Christianity.

MS. TIPPETT: Did you really?

DR. ASLAN: And who to this day, is a devout, believing Christian.

MS. TIPPETT: That is so interesting. But at some point, you no longer identified as Christian. Did you still find that you — I’m interested in like, where are the roots of, how did you come to understand yourself as someone whose scholarly passion would be about writing and speaking, and kind of curating parts of our cultural discussion about religion, our cultural knowledge about religion? And again, where did Islam or your Muslim past, come to seem interesting in a new way?

DR. ASLAN: Well, a couple of things happened. I went to a Catholic Jesuit university. And so, what was amazing to me was as my sort of belief in evangelical Christianity began to crumble, the sort of Catholic conception of Christianity was there for me to land on.

And at the same time, of course, what I was learning was about what religion itself is. That religion is not faith. That it’s the language that a community of faith uses to communicate with each other, the ineffable experience of faith.

And so what happened to me was the sudden realization that spiritually, I had not changed. I still believed in God. I still had a fulfilling and active spiritual life. But that the metaphors that were provided to me by Christianity, were no longer satisfactory.

And, interestingly enough, it was the Jesuits at my university themselves who, recognizing this in me, encouraged me to delve back into the faith of my forefathers.


DR. ASLAN: I knew nothing.

MS. TIPPETT: …your mother tongue. [laughs]

DR. ASLAN: That’s right.


DR. ASLAN: That’s precisely it.


DR. ASLAN: I knew nothing about Islam. I’d never read…


DR. ASLAN: …the Qur’an. I don’t remember ever going to a mosque. And, they gave me some books to look at and some ideas to ponder upon, and what I discovered was a language of symbols and metaphors that reflected what I already believed about God and the relationship between the Creator and creation, about my place in the world.

And that here was a group of symbols, a group of metaphors, that helped me express to myself, and to other people, what I already believed.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. It was like it was like a homecoming, it sounds like.

DR. ASLAN: It was. So, I often joke that I had an emotional conversion to Christianity, but an intellectual conversion to Islam.


DR. ASLAN: But that’s very true.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. So, you’ve also said it this way. You’ve said, “religion, it must be understood, is not faith, it is the story of faith.”

DR. ASLAN: Right.

MS. TIPPETT: And what I think has been so important about your work these last years is really pulling back the lens and kind of telling the story of this faith, and what I’ve sometimes pointed out to people is that Islam is 600 years younger than Christianity, and 600 years ago, roughly, Christians were waging global holy wars and burning heretics at the stake. That Christianity has also, at another time, gone through comparable trauma that also lasted generations and generations and generations.

DR. ASLAN: Well, that’s certainly true that all great religions deal with the same conflicts of politics, and violence, and the struggle to reconcile with the realities of a changing, evolving and modern world. Part of the reason why I started the the book about Islam and the origins of the religion.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. ASLAN: 300 years before the birth of Islam is that I think there’s this misunderstanding, amongst most people of faith that prophets sort of grow up in some kind of cultural or religious vacuum. That a prophet is somebody that just plopped down to earth from heaven, and with a ready-made message, in which they found a brand new religion. But prophets don’t invent religions. Prophets are reformers of the religions that they themselves grow up in.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

DR. ASLAN: Jesus did not invent Christianity. Jesus was a Jew. He was reforming Judaism.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. ASLAN: The Buddha did not invent Buddhism. The Buddha was a Hindu. He was reforming Hinduism.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. ASLAN: We have to understand that our prophets are intimately connected to the worlds out of which they arise. And so, for me, when I write about the origins of particular religions, it’s very important to recognize how seamless that transition from the era before and during and after the prophet actually is. And that’s certainly the case with the prophet Muhammad.

[music: “Selling Books” by Michael Brook]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today with Iranian-American writer and scholar of religions, Reza Aslan.

MS. TIPPETT: I’ve experienced in these years speaking with Muslims that that the notion of Islam needing a reformation, or just really the language of reformation doesn’t work for a lot of people, and you know, certainly what doesn’t work is Christians saying, well, what Islam needs, what Muslims need is, they need to have a reformation like we had a reformation.

I [laughs] you know, but I notice that you do use that language. And you make this interesting suggestion that — you say it this way, that a reformation has — within Islam has been taking place already for nearly a century, that the Islamic reformation is already here. We are living in it. So tell me what you see, what you’re describing, when you make that statement.

DR. ASLAN: When we use the term reformation, what we mean is the fundamental conflict that is inherent in all religious traditions, as I say, between who gets to define the faith. Is it the institution? Or is it the individuals? That was ultimately what the Christian reformation was about.

In the United States, we refer to it as the Protestant reformation, as though this was some sort of conflict between Protestant reform and Catholic intransigence, and by golly, the Protestants won. But of course, that’s not what happened. This was…

MS. TIPPETT: Now, Martin Luther’s another one who just wanted to be a better Catholic, right?

DR. ASLAN: [laughs] Right.


DR. ASLAN: And by the way, who was absolutely, bloodily unforgiving of any fellow reformer who happened to disagree with his particular interpretation.

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Right. Yeah, so, well, there’s that, too.

DR. ASLAN: When you say that an individual should be able to interpret a faith however he or she wants to, then of course you are opening up a can of proverbial worms, if you will.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. ASLAN: What you are saying, then, is that every interpretation is now equally valid, and the result, of course, is not just a cacophony of voices, but, a situation whereby it’s usually the loudest and most violent voices that tend to carry the day. That process of reformation, the passing of institutional authority into individual hands, has been, taking place in Islam for a century. Really, since the twilight of the colonial era.


DR. ASLAN: In which the ulama, the religious authorities, which for 14 centuries have maintained an absolute grip, a monopoly, over the meaning and message of Islam, primarily because they were the only ones who could read the Qur’an to begin with.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. ASLAN: That that authority began to crumble, as we saw widespread access to new and novel sources of information, dramatic increases in literacy and education across the Middle East and the larger Muslim world. And of course, a heightening sense of individualism, which was a direct result of the colonial…

MS. TIPPETT: That’s right.

DR. ASLAN: …experience.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, yeah.

DR. ASLAN: And, now, anyone can just simply go to the text for themselves, this is what Martin Luther dreamed of when he said sola scriptura.

MS. TIPPETT: Yes. Yes.

DR. ASLAN: Without mediation, without an imam or a member of the ulama telling them what the text means, and they can come up with their own interpretations. And, of course, as what necessarily happens in this kind of situation, what you have as a result are individualistic interpretations that promote peace, and tolerance, and feminism, and democracy. And you have individualistic interpretations that promote violence, and misogyny, and hatred, and terror. And because Islam, a religion of 1.6 billion people, the second largest religion in the world, has no centralized religious authority, there is no Muslim pope, there is no…


DR. ASLAN: …Muslim Vatican, no one can say who is and who is not a proper Muslim, what is and what is not proper Islamic behavior. What you have is just a shouting match between all of these individualized interpretations fighting amongst each other while also fighting amongst the institutions of the Muslim world.

The Islamic reformation has been going on for decades. We just look at the Muslim world. We see violence, and we don’t realize that that violence is a direct result of the reformation…

DR. ASLAN: …not proof that one is needed.

MS. TIPPETT: Very interesting. You know, just reading your story, I’m so struck also by how your personal history has intersected with this. I mean…

DR. ASLAN: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: … you know, as you say, you were born in Iran, you describe leaving Iran with your family as part of this frantic mob with the sense that the borders might close any minute, and the airplanes be grounded but before that going out into the streets with your sister when Ayatollah Khomeini came back to Iran, and joining people who were singing and dancing, and shouting about freedom and liberty and democracy. Today, that Iranian revolution is one of the, I suppose, one of the symbols for many people in the west of…

DR. ASLAN: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: … reactionary Islam, but in fact, it was very much a part of that dynamic of the end of colonialism.

DR. ASLAN: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: …right? And that kind of the cycle that we do as human beings, of reform and pushback, and that’s what we’re seeing in Egypt now. but as you say there’s a much bigger picture here of a historical trajectory that has many chapters yet to unfold if we can just get a bigger perspective on it.

DR. ASLAN: That’s right. And I think that that’s what I mean when I say that there’s nothing unique or different about Islam as a global religion. And I think looking around the world and seeing the way that Muslims are living their experience of their faith in enormous diversity and eclecticism in which Muslim majority states are trying to reconcile religion and religious identity with the necessities of a modern constitutional state, one that adheres to fundamental human rights, and women’s rights, et cetera, et cetera.

And to the very discussions taking place, you know, in individual mosques between young people and an older generation. Younger generations who are, as I say, no longer willing to let imams, define for themselves, what this religion is about, and want to do it on their own. And, that, to me, of course, is very exciting. I mean, we’re watching…


DR. ASLAN: …this incredibly, transformational moment in what will soon be the largest religion in the world, right before our eyes. And of course, it’s attended to with conflict and violence and often bloodshed, because these are complicated arguments. They are about people’s very identities. And of course they’re going to be steeped in violence. It’s in many ways, hard to avoid when you think about it.


DR. ASLAN: …at the same time, it’s an exciting time to be alive. It’s an exciting time to watch this moment of history unfurl before our eyes, especially for those of us who spend their lives writing about ancient history [laughs]…

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Right.

DR. ASLAN: …to be able to be a part of that history — it’s quite thrilling. I don’t mean this in a flippant way. I mean, there is a lot to be concerned about. But…


DR. ASLAN: …I do think that we need to have, as you say, a much more, broad, historical perspective about what’s taking place in large parts of the Muslim world.

MS. TIPPETT: But the tricky thing is that, as, you know, to say that there’s nothing unusual in the the broad sweep of things, in this trajectory of Islam as global religion, as a human institution, even, you might say it is happening. This reformation, has burst onto the surface of world events in the 21st century.

DR. ASLAN: Right.

MS. TIPPETT: In a globalized world. So…

DR. ASLAN: In a globalized world.

MS. TIPPETT: …so — right…

DR. ASLAN: With 24 hour news and…

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, with 24 hour news…

DR. ASLAN: …immediate access.

MS. TIPPETT: Exactly. With globalized communications, with globalized transportation, globalized weapons, right? To the extent that, Christianity’s century of bloodshed that accompanied that transition. Islam’s internal crisis, Islam’s ferment, Islam’s reformation, whatever you want to call it, becomes everyone’s [laughs] ferment, crisis…

DR. ASLAN: Right.

MS. TIPPETT: …reformation. And that is different. And I do think the issue now is that in this moment where we are so saturated with news, right, where the news comes at us 24/7 and it’s the same bad news over and over, I think people…

DR. ASLAN: Right.

MS. TIPPETT: …do internalize the bad news stories as the norm and particularly in terms of Islam, the Muslim world, right.

DR. ASLAN: There is no question about that. You’re right.

MS. TIPPETT: Those images all are being internalized as the norm.

DR. ASLAN: Well, and then it becomes very easy to then look at an image of a Muslim on TV and apply that to the Muslim living down the street from you.


DR. ASLAN: Because you know nothing else.


DR. ASLAN: But I do think that in that truth is also the answer, because as any social psychologist will tell you, minds are not changed, perceptions are not transformed by data. I think that there is this knee-jerk response, particularly from liberals, to bigotry where they will say that, well, bigotry, it’s just a result of ignorance and that if, if you just simply gave a bigot, proper information, he would no longer be a bigot.

That’s a nice idea. It’s just not true.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. ASLAN: Bigotry is not the result of…

MS. TIPPETT: Very cerebral.

DR. ASLAN: …ignorance.


DR. ASLAN: Yes, exactly.


DR. ASLAN: Bigotry is the result of fear.

DR. ASLAN: And fear is impervious to data.


DR. ASLAN: You show all the numbers that you want to, about the — the reality of Muslims and Islamic life around the world, and it wouldn’t really make a difference, because the person who has these anti-Muslims sentiments is reacting from a place of fear. And so the only answer therefore is, to replace that fear with relationships.

You know, we are at a point right now in the United States in which nearly six out of 10 Americans have a negative view of Islam. But even more remarkably is that less than four out of 10 Americans claim to have ever met a Muslim.


DR. ASLAN: which makes sense. Only 1% of the population of America is Muslim.

And so, I do think that that slow steady process whereby people begin to know more and more Muslims, recognize Islam as a part of the religious fabric of this country, that that is going to be what ultimately offsets the overwhelmingly negative response that Americans have towards Muslims. It’s going to take a while, but I do want to also say that it’s inevitable. We should always remember that everything that is being said about Muslims in the United States, that they’re foreign, that they’re not like us, that they don’t share our values, that you can’t possibly be both a Muslim and an American. Everything that is being said about Muslims in America right now, was said about Jews about in the interwar period, was said about Catholics at the end of the 19th century.


DR. ASLAN: I mean, we passed laws in this country to curb Catholic immigration in the United States. And yet, both Catholics and Jews are very much a part of the religious fabric of the United States today. Not because Americans learned more about Catholicism or Judaism, but because Americans simply got to know more Jews and Catholics.

[music: “Knights of Columbus” by Halloween, Alaska]

MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again and share this conversation with Reza Aslan through our website, onbeing.org.

I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.

[music: “Knights of Columbus” by Halloween, Alaska]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today: with religious scholar and writer, Reza Aslan. We’re exploring his provocative and hopeful perspective on the evolution of Islam — a long view of history and humanity that news cycles obscure.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m think as we’re talking about speaking right after 9/11 with Ingrid Mattson, who a convert to Islam who at that point had become the first female Vice President of the Islamic Society of North America, and…

DR. ASLAN: Ultimately the president, as well.

MS. TIPPETT: And ultimately the president the following year. But I remember her saying, — she and others talking about how at that turn of the century, so many Muslims came to the United States, as did so many people of all kinds of other diversity, after the 1965 immigration laws were changed and people from other parts of the world than Europe started to come here in different numbers. And that you now had the generations coming to adulthood who were going to start to be mainstream leaders, you know, these kind of organically integrated into American life as citizens and professional people as you’re describing.

And then 9/11 happened, and it was just this terrible, terrible, terrible setback to that.

DR. ASLAN: Well, it was a setback to the perception of Muslims.

MS. TIPPETT: I mean, you were there. That would…

DR. ASLAN: …maybe two-thirds.

MS. TIPPETT: … how did you experience — how old were you then on 9/11?

DR. ASLAN: Oh boy. I guess…

MS. TIPPETT: So it was — like 30, something like this?

DR. ASLAN: Yeah, about — almost 30.


DR. ASLAN: Less than 30.


DR. ASLAN: Less than 30.


DR. ASLAN: No, I mean, I remember it quite clearly. And remember, recognizing immediately what was about to happen. And, I think that because 9/11 happened so long ago, we don’t really remember the reality of what happened, which is that this nation did not descend into Islamophobic violence. On the contrary…


DR. ASLAN: …what you saw…


DR. ASLAN: What you saw in the months immediately after 9/11 was this country rallying to Muslims.


DR. ASLAN: The government rallying to Muslims. In fact, the argument that I heard as I was advising the national terrorism organizations, various congress people, over and over again, what I heard was that, look, if we are actually engaged in a war of ideas, then the best weapon in our arsenal…


DR. ASLAN: …is the millions of Muslims in the United States who have perfectly integrated themselves into this culture. That have assimilated fully, have achieved enormous success here.


DR. ASLAN: That they have to be at the front lines of this argument. You know, from what I’ve seen, about 2/3, of America’s Muslim population is considered first-generation. That’s extraordinary.

I should say, first and foremost, that, Islam in the United States goes all the way back to the beginning. The first Muslims…


DR. ASLAN: …that came to America were brought here on slave ships.



MS. TIPPETT: And then —

DR. ASLAN: …the resurgence…

MS. TIPPETT: …1/3 of Muslims are, African-American, and that’s…

DR. ASLAN: That’s right.

MS. TIPPETT: …an entire different story…

DR. ASLAN: That’s right, absolutely correct.

MS. TIPPETT: …in there. Third, fourth, fifth generation, yeah.

DR. ASLAN: Completely. Absolutely.


DR. ASLAN: But particularly among immigrants, about 2/3 are first-generation.


DR. ASLAN: and so, this is a very new wave of immigrants in the United States. And they’ve had enormous success.


DR. ASLAN: I mean, enormous amount of wealth and education. Just go to Silicon Valley. Look at these tech companies.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. But have had to constantly define themselves over against these images…


MS. TIPPETT: …that are just ever present, right? And there’s…

DR. ASLAN: Tirelessly…

MS. TIPPETT: …this self-consciousness…

DR. ASLAN: …though, yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: Yes. There’s this need to defend and a self-consciousness about being Muslim, you know, just returning to this theme of religion in the world, and our collective encounter with religion in the world, there’s been this kind of [laughs] I would say tragic convergence of fear of Muslims, and of Islam, and then, added to that, in a few years into this century, the emergence of the new atheists, the new atheism.

I want to say that as an observer of religion myself, you know, what’s kind of interesting to me about the new atheist movement, I don’t think people talk about very much, is that the culture has moved on, and there’s been a lot of really interesting, kind of, synthesis and integration, and, conversation across divides of religious and non-religious secular and religious. but the new atheism still seems to stick or kind of become a lightning rod.

DR. ASLAN: Well, they get all the attention.

MS. TIPPETT: They get all the attention and with Islam…

DR. ASLAN: Like…

MS. TIPPETT: …in particular.

DR. ASLAN: …extremists in any community.

Well, first of all, I think new atheism is the wrong term for this movement. The proper term is anti-theism, and that’s…

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. ASLAN: …not a new idea. Anti-theism goes all the way back to the 18th century. In fact, the very first time in which the word itself was defined by the Oxford English Dictionary was in 1833. Anti-theism is a subset of atheism. To put it in its simplest way, an atheist doesn’t believe in God, and so therefore, subscribes to no religion. An anti-theist believes religion itself is an insidious, inherent evil that must be excised from society. Forcibly so.


DR. ASLAN: If necessary. It’s irrational. It’s backward. That anyone who follows a religion, is not just wrong but stupid. And the reason I think that it’s very important to call it what it is, is because, I think the biggest fault of this movement is that it gives atheism such a bad name.

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Right.

DR. ASLAN: Some of my intellectual heroes were atheists. Schopenhauer, Feuerbach, Freud, Marx, you know, but the difference is that these individuals, criticized religion from a place of expertise. They actually understood what religion was, and so they criticized it as such.


DR. ASLAN: Whereas, you don’t…

MS. TIPPETT: …I think more importantly, they were talking about something, and not just about what they disagreed with. There was a constructive…

DR. ASLAN: Right.

MS. TIPPETT: …there was something being created and constructed, rather than just torn down.

DR. ASLAN: Exactly. Whereas what you’re seeing from the anti-theist movement is you’re right, a minority view amongst atheists. And by the way, this has been proven out. The University of Tennessee did a very interesting study recently in which they discovered that of the roughly 2 ½ percent of Americans who self-describe as atheist, only 15 percent fall into the category of anti-theism.


DR. ASLAN: And so, what I hear from a lot of atheists, which is ironic, because I hear the same thing from a lot of Muslims, is that these guys don’t represent me.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. ASLAN: Please don’t put me in the same camp as these guys. I don’t believe in God, I don’t believe in religion, but I don’t think that religious people are stupid. I don’t think that religion should be forcefully removed from society. And so, I do believe that there is something quite extremist and radical about this movement that has to be rejected by atheists themselves in the same way I would say the exact same thing about extremists and radicals in any community.

MS. TIPPETT: And you’ve done some interesting conversation and public writing with Chris Stedman, who’s a humanist and — I think humanist and interfaith activist.

DR. ASLAN: And a prominent atheist.

MS. TIPPETT: Yes. That’s — yeah. But an atheist who wants to say what atheists and humanists can stand for, generatively.

DR. ASLAN: Instead of what they don’t stand for.

MS. TIPPETT: In society. Yes.

DR. ASLAN: Exactly.

MS. TIPPETT: Yes. Yes. Yeah. Interesting.

DR. ASLAN: You know, to call yourself an atheist, is to make certain conclusions about the nature of reality, where morals come from, how people should respond to each other.

MS. TIPPETT: Well, that’s also — I mean, it doesn’t say that much, just like it doesn’t say that much to say you’re Christian or Muslim or Jewish, right?

DR. ASLAN: Right.

MS. TIPPETT: That’s what…

DR. ASLAN: Very, very good.

MS. TIPPETT: …content does your life give it? And it doesn’t actually say that much about what you believe or how you live.

DR. ASLAN: Mm-hmm. Precisely.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm. I want to ask you [laughs] so you know [laughs] what I wrote down in my notes. Muslim world. [laughs] I have to say, I don’t know why people can’t — journalists, at least, can’t figure out how to say this word. Like [laughs]. Right, I mean, even just look at the “s”. All right. So, anyway. But Muslim world, which is just such an unfortunate phrase that’s entered…

DR. ASLAN: It is.

MS. TIPPETT: … entered…

DR. ASLAN: Who would ever…

MS. TIPPETT: …the lexicon.

DR. ASLAN: …who would ever say the phrase the Christian world?

MS. TIPPETT: The Christian world.

DR. ASLAN: Who would say that?

MS. TIPPETT: Well, they might say it, but it wouldn’t take them very far in the conversation because they’d be forced to become more specific. and…

DR. ASLAN: Well, again, it goes…

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. ASLAN: …back to that fundamental error that we started with. Which is that no person in their right mind would possibly think that Christianity is one thing, that the Christianity that one…


DR. ASLAN: …experiences in suburban Chicago is the same Christianity that one would experience in the hills of Guatemala or in South Korea, or in Eritrea.


DR. ASLAN: Everyone would just, by nature, recognize that Christianity is infinitely diverse.

MS. TIPPETT: It’s an ecosystem.

DR. ASLAN: And yet…


DR. ASLAN: And yet…

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. ASLAN: …it’s such a leap of logic for them to think the same of another religion, like Islam.


DR. ASLAN: A religion of 1.6 billion people. A religion that exists in every corner of the world. That is as diverse, if not even more diverse than Christianity.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. But, that’s why these conversations are important, and we have to have them over and over again. Because one thing we know about ourselves physiologically now as we understand our brains is that we instinctively imagine less diversity in the other group, than we know there…

DR. ASLAN: Right.

MS. TIPPETT: …to be. Like, we all know that in our own group, you know, starting with our own family there are people we love and have lots in common with, and there are people who drive us crazy. And we just know how to get along with them. Right. But we imagine somehow that there’s this homogeneity in others…

DR. ASLAN: Well, and when I say that the process of otherization, that’s exactly…

MS. TIPPETT: yeah.

DR. ASLAN: …what I mean.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. So, let me just ask you the question this way. If I say the phrase, “the Muslim world,” how do you begin to make sense? What comes to mind for you? What are the connotations that are contained in that phrase? How would you start to illuminate that, and unpack it?

DR. ASLAN: Well, the connotations are that there is something monolithic…


DR. ASLAN: …fixed, and static…

MS. TIPPETT: …but if you — right, I know, but if…

DR. ASLAN: …about Islam.

MS. TIPPETT: If I asked you to take that phrase apart, to start with that phrase and say, you know, the only way this makes sense, I mean, these are all the things that come to mind for you when you think the Muslim world.

DR. ASLAN: Right. So, I guess what I’m saying…

MS. TIPPETT: Could you redeem the phrase? I’m asking [laughs].

DR. ASLAN: I have tried. I have tried my hardest to just excise the phrase from my vocabulary altogether.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Well, I have, too, yeah.

DR. ASLAN: And anytime anyone uses it, I try to get them to stop using it.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. ASLAN: I talk a lot about Muslim majority countries.


DR. ASLAN: That’s I think one way of putting it. But the truth of the matter is that there is very little that Muslims around the world have in common with each other. I mean, people will say, well, they all believe in the Qur’an, but that doesn’t really make any sense. The Qur’an is a scripture. It’s not something to believe in. You can call it the divine word of God, if you want to, but it’s sort of a way of — it’s a moral code. It’s a way of living your life. And so people are going to come at it quite differently, depending on their own prejudices and preconceived notions.

You can say, well, but they don’t all pray the same way? Well, no, actually they don’t all pray the same way. The Shia pray three times, the Sunni pray five times there is, some difference in the rituals of the prayer.

Well, don’t they all follow Islamic law? No. There’s six different schools of Islamic law, and even within those schools, there’s enormous diversity of opinion, and idea.

Well, don’t they all believe that the same thing? Don’t they all believe, you know, at the very least, the profession of faith, there is no god, but God and Muhammad is God’s messenger? Yes, but many of them think of that phrase in vastly different ways.


DR. ASLAN: The Sufi’s see that not as a statement of monotheism, but as a statement about the very nature of reality, the very nature of God. So, [laughs] it, you know…


DR. ASLAN: …as a scholar of religions, I just — I can’t say these phrases, like Muslim world with any kind of you know, reality to it.

MS. TIPPETT: That’s good. I think that’s good. That’s helpful. Let me ask you…

DR. ASLAN: Truly — truly, Krista…

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. ASLAN: …I have trouble even saying the word “Islam.” I mean, the scholar in me wants to add an “s.” Wants to say “Islams.”


DR. ASLAN: But, you know, obviously that’s — if we’re having conversations, and particularly the conversations that I have with the media, those kinds of things have to be much more simplified, and so…

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. ASLAN: …look, even I use the phrase “Muslim world” sometimes. And [laughs] I try my hardest not to.

[music: “Nocturno” by Bajofondo Tango Club]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today: with Iranian-American writer and scholar of religions, Reza Aslan.

MS. TIPPETT: And, as I said when we started speaking, I love your broad view of history, and of time. And I think that’s so valuable to bring to how we take in the news these days. having said that there’s this terrible irony that for everyone who’s been trying to distinguish between people who do terrible acts in the name of Islam and get all the coverage…

Then there’s this terrible tragedy that at this moment in time, 13 years after 9/11, you have this awful group, which calls…

DR. ASLAN: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: …itself the Islamic State, you know, which just triggers a lot of things again. I mean, the language is powerful.

DR. ASLAN: Mm-hmm. Oh, absolutely. And they’re masters at that, too. I mean, the very notion of the caliphate I think is fascinating. There is no religious authority in the world that accepts, the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate. And yet the very fact that they have called it that, they’ve done something that Muslims…

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. ASLAN: …have just — have never done, have never dared to do, the symbolic significance of that cannot be…

MS. TIPPETT: Cannot be over-emphasized.

DR. ASLAN: …over-exaggerated.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, here’s a Tweet. This was on your Twitter feed. Speaking to the head of ISIS, one of those key figures. “Hey, so-called caliph, try reading Rules of War established by first caliph.” [laughs] You know, the guy you named yourself after.

DR. ASLAN: [laughs] Yes. Abu Bakr.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. because every indication is that of all the Islamist movements, this seems to be the least religiously informed.

DR. ASLAN: And what you see is a real lack of religious literacy…

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Right.

DR. ASLAN: ..among these…

MS. TIPPETT: Basic literacy.

DR. ASLAN: …organizations.


DR. ASLAN: and reams and reams have been written about this very subject.


DR. ASLAN: And why that is. But it is important to sort of label these organizations correctly, if we’re going to deal with them.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. ASLAN: In the right way. The sort of knee-jerk notion of Hamas is ISIS, Hezbollah is Al Qaeda, they’re all the same, is not just illogical, it’s dangerous.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

DR. ASLAN: Because then you’re assuming that they require the same response.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. ASLAN: And they most certainly do not.

MS. TIPPETT: I want to ask you just briefly about with your broad view of time, how you see, I don’t know what we’re calling the Arab Spring now. But the Arab Spring and the evolutionary, the development, how you look at that and think about that, and the generations ahead.

DR. ASLAN: I think the Arab Spring was a direct result of the reformation process…


DR. ASLAN: …that I’m talking about.


DR. ASLAN: And it’s a process that’s continuing. You know, I often say the lid has been taken off.


DR. ASLAN: And there’s no putting it back…


DR. ASLAN: …regardless of how much violence, the state uses. These individuals, these young people, 75% of whom are under the age of 30, are not going to put up with the old structures any longer.


DR. ASLAN: whether it’s religious structures or political structures. What they need is assistance from the outside world. They haven’t received that assistance in the same way that I think that they deserve, but I do truly and honestly believe that change, dramatic change, is inevitable.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. ASLAN: In fact, it’s already underway. I had a nice conversation with one of the original Egyptian youth activists that launched the Tahrir Square protests. And many years later, in the west, we just think well, that that was a complete failure. The Arab Spring became…

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Right. Right.

DR. ASLAN: …the Muslim — and it’s over now. And I was interviewing him for something, and he said, you know, “I feel very awkward talking about this.” And I said, “why?” He said, “you’re asking me to talk about a revolution that is still ongoing.”


DR. ASLAN: “That we’re in the midst of right now. I know that in your mind the revolution is over, but that’s not what it feels like when you’re in Egypt.”

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. And that’s what…

DR. ASLAN: It’s still very much going.

MS. TIPPETT: …history — that’s the story history would tell us as well, if we were paying attention.

DR. ASLAN: Precisely.

MS. TIPPETT: I just want to ask you, you know, you have talked about, the great question, can Islam now be used to establish a genuinely liberal democracy in the Middle East and beyond? Can a modern Islamic state reconcile, reason, and revelation. And, for all that you’ve said and the persuasive case you’ve made that, that there’s nothing extraordinary about this religion’s, historical trajectory.

I do want to ask you about how you think the particularities of Islam, the inner life of Islam, and I mean its spiritual and aesthetic particularities, how this reconciliation of reason and revelation that will be part of Islam’s reformation, as you call it, how it will be distinctive because of the nature of this faith.

DR. ASLAN: Mm, that’s a very good question. I do think it’s important to recognize that 1/3 of all Muslims live in democracies that of the top 10 most populous Muslim countries in the world, I believe, I think six or even seven of them, are representative democracies. So this notion that Islam can’t…


DR. ASLAN: …be reconciled with democracy is empirically false. But you bring up a very good point, which is that there’s no such thing as a single vision of democracy, that it’s going to be reflective of the values, the culture, of the people who make it up.


DR. ASLAN: And there is something distinctive. There is something truly distinctive in that regard when it comes to Islam, as opposed to at the very least Protestant Christianity. And it goes back to this question of individualism. There is, regardless of the tectonic changes that are taking place before our eyes within Islam, something deeply and profoundly communal about the faith.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. ASLAN: In a way that one does not see so much with, say, Protestant Christianity. Less so with, of course, Catholic Christianity, but not so much with Protestant Christianity, which…

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

DR. ASLAN: …is so steeped in this concept of individualism. Whereas, if I were to say it in a very general sense, you get sort of an opposite sense in a lot of Muslim societies. The idea that the community is more important than the individuals. And so, a lot of the laws tend to reflect that sense. And certainly as these democracies begin to arise in these formerly autocratic, dictatorial regions, you are going to see something distinctive about that democracy, which reflects the communal values, the communal worldview that Islam in many way represents. How that defines itself in the formation of laws and customs, that’s a much more complex question. But, I do think that that is something to be cognizant of. And that one shouldn’t ignore. I don’t think it in any way, lessens the value or the function of a democratic society in a Muslim majority state. But I do think that it does make it somewhat distinctive, as you say.

MS. TIPPETT: That’s really interesting to think about. Thank you for that.

So, a point you’ve made that just seems so important for people in the U.S. and in the west to keep hearing, you are not at all, I mean, and, you know, I want you to say this in the context of this conversation, that you have condemned the actions of ISIS, for example, in the absolute strongest terms, and talked about the rightness of a kind of military reprisal against those kinds of militants…

DR. ASLAN: Though it is funny that I have to…

MS. TIPPETT: I know.

DR. ASLAN: …actually preface my comments…

MS. TIPPETT: I know. It’s just…

DR. ASLAN: …on that.

MS. TIPPETT: I know.

DR. ASLAN: But I get it.

MS. TIPPETT: You know what I mean? I need to get that on the record. Whether it’s in the show or not. But, also what you point out, and again that just feels more important to me to point out, is that, you know, at the same time, that there are atrocities, very highly-publicized atrocities, happening in the world today in the name of Islam. It’s also Muslims who are on the front line of combatting that. And Muslims who are on the front line of that violence for the most part.

DR. ASLAN: Yeah. Well, I think I understand the desire for Muslims, and indeed, for any community of faith, to reject extremists within their community…


DR. ASLAN: …as not them. You hear this all the time. Muslims saying, you know, ISIS is not Islamic. That their actions are so outrageous and so beyond the pale, so against what Islam stands for, that they are simply not Muslims. The problem is, no one gets to say who is and who is not a Muslim.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Right. Right.

DR. ASLAN: A Muslim by definition is anyone who calls himself a Muslim.


DR. ASLAN: And if he says that he is carrying out these atrocities in the name of Islam, let’s just go ahead and take his word for it, rather than sort of denying that. I think the danger when we do so is that we sort of try to brush it off. We try to pretend that extremism is not a problem.


DR. ASLAN: Because these extremists aren’t really part of us.


DR. ASLAN: And so we can just ignore them. but of course, we can’t ignore them. We do need to deal with the fact that there is a very real problem of violence and extremism among Muslims in large parts, of Muslim majority countries, in particular, the Middle East. And that many of those actions are done in the name of Islam. And that there is something within Islam, something within the Qur’an that propels those people in these heinous, barbaric actions. Let’s not deny that. At the same time, considering that the people that ISIS are killing are also Muslims…

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. For the most part. Yeah.

DR. ASLAN: …and that the people who are fighting ISIS are also Muslims…


DR. ASLAN: …ISIS’s Islamic identity may be a fact that we shouldn’t deny, but it doesn’t really say that much about Islam.


DR. ASLAN: as a global religion.

MS. TIPPETT: So, my final question to you would be what makes you despair right now, and what gives you the most hope?

DR. ASLAN: What makes me despair is the state of our media. And again, I say this as part of that media. I have sat in a lot of editorial meetings, for particularly cable news broadcasters. And I have sat in writer’s rooms for late night dramas, soap opera dramas. I can’t tell you the difference between those two rooms. they function almost exactly in the same way. So that despairs me.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. ASLAN: But, what really gives me hope is individuals. And it goes back to what I’ve been saying throughout this interview, which is the key to all of this is relationships. Because I know individuals in the U.S., around the world, in multiple religious faiths, and people with no faith at all. And I recognize that the values that these individuals share are identical, that they are struggling with the same struggles, they have the same hopes, and the same aspirations. that they are horrified with the way that the world is progressing, and they are actively trying to do something about it.

And, when I experience that, I am energized. I am filled with optimism. And I see the — and also, I have to say because I have a much more historical perspective on things, I see where we’ve been, and so I think I have a better sense of where we’re going. We have a progress of society that is unstoppable. People, I think, are afraid of fundamentalism, because they see that it’s resurgent. But we have to remember that fundamentalism is a reactionary phenomenon, not an independent one.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

DR. ASLAN: It is a reaction to the natural progress of…

MS. TIPPETT: To change, yeah.

DR. ASLAN: …society. And so when I see fundamentalism surge, I know that what is really happening is that the natural progress of society is surging. And that fundamentalism is just reacting to it. So, I choose to focus on the progress, not the reaction to it.

[music:“Making Amends” by Andy McNeill]

MS. TIPPETT: Reza Aslan is the founder of Aslan Media, a social media network for news and entertainment about the Middle East and the world, and a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. His books include Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in the Age of Globalization, No God But God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, and Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

[music:“Making Amends” by Andy McNeill]

MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again or share this conversation with Reza Aslan at onbeing.org.

On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Chris Jones, David Schimke, and Bekah Johnson.

[music: “Vitalic” by Solid State]

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