Countering and perhaps shifting the paradigms that the Western world holds toward the Islamic world, religious scholar Reza Aslan will give a Santa Barbara audience this Sunday a closer look into the War on Terror.
Author of this year’s No god but God, Aslan, in conversation with fellow religion scholar Jack Miles, will examine the frequently misunderstood Islamic religion and culture. Tickets to the Arts & Lectures event, which will take place at 3 p.m. Sunday in Victoria Hall Theater in Santa Barbara, are $10 for the general public and $8 for students.
“I think the big misconception is that Islam is some kind of foreign or exotic religion when in reality Islam is part of this biblical tradition [Jews and Christians share],” Aslan said in a phone interview last week. “Muslims revere all the prophets of the scripture and the Bible… They see the Quran as a continuation of the scriptures.”
Aslan – a UCSB history of religions Ph.D. student – has waded into the endless stream of news stories about Islamic extremists, Iraq, Iran, Palestine, Hamas, al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden to analyze and create a unique perspective that brushes aside some traditional arguments.
A standard theory held by many scholars such as Samuel Huntington claims the West is embroiled in a “clash of civilizations” with the Islamic world. Aslan said, however. that what the West perceives as a war against its culture is anything but.
The attacks of 9/11 and the London bombings, he said, are symptoms of an “Islamic Reformation” much like the Protestant Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries. In their search for power, jihadists are fighting against the majority of Muslims to push them toward a radical form of their religion, he said. Aslan argues that jihadists are not trying to wage a war against America with its attacks, but rather are trying to change the direction of Islam.
The fight to define the mainstream of Islam has spread to the West, but still remains entrenched among Muslims, he said.
“Before September 11 these jihadists … were really a very small, very powerless group with very little influence in the Muslim world,” Aslan said. “The attacks were a means of dragging the U.S. into these internal conflicts with the express purpose of using the U.S. response as a way of galvanizing support.”
Jihadists especially use the rhetorical responses of the Bush Administration in their propaganda, he said. When President Bush uses the term “crusades,” or when Americans mention fighting in the Middle East as a battle between Christianity and Islam, Muslims – even those who are not extremists – worry their culture is threatened and is being attacked. These fears play directly into the hands of the terrorists, Aslan said.
“The [Bush] Administration has been framing [the war] in these cosmic terms… using very Christian rhetoric,” Aslan said. “I think we have to remember that religion is a very powerful language. It has the power to present some very complex social, political and economic situations into simple terms. When the president says ‘This is a battle between good and evil,’ even a child can understand those terms.”
Simplification and appealing to the public’s innate sense of morality hinders the process of understanding the Islamic world or revealing true motives, he said. Morally reductive terms such as “good” and “evil” do not explain the incredibly complex situation in the Middle East, he said.
Besides refusing the notion that the Islamic world is designed to fight the Western, Aslan said he does not believe Islam is incompatible with democracy – a frequent criticism in America.
“It’s ridiculous to say anything is incompatible with democracy,” he said. “Democracy is just a set of principles… They’re just these elements that you throw into a bowl. You can throw anything else you want into that bowl.”
Not only is Islam compatible with democracy, and not only will it likely succeed – given the chance – in countries such as Iraq, but based on Islam’s heritage it will probably thrive, Aslan said. More than any other religion, he said, Islam advocates key tenets of democracy, like egalitarianism.
As an example, Aslan cited the way the peoples of the Arabian Peninsula selected leaders around the time Islam was created. Leaders were not appointed by birthright, but were chosen and supported by members of the tribe.
“Even rights and privileges given to [Islamic] women [at that time] were rights and privileges not given to Christian women for another 1,000 years,” he said. “Islam, in particular because of its egalitarian and democratic past, is far more open in terms of a democratic framework than Christianity.”
While Aslan has studied the broader aspects of Islam, such as its compatibility with democracy, he also critiques specific political situations in the Middle East and the actions of the United States toward Muslim countries.
The recent controversy over uranium enrichment in Iran serves a perfect example. Aslan said that scolding the government with sanctions will do nothing but harm the country’s people. Sanctions will not topple the Iranian government, he said, but will give more power to it, by starving the people and weakening attempts to promote democracy.
“For 25 years we’ve had pretty much one idea, and that’s sanctions, sanctions, sanctions [in hopes] of breaking down the [Iranian regime],” he said. “The very opposite has happened… More sanctions are not going to do anything at all, even if we get the international community to agree.”
Aslan, who was born in Iran, said the U.S. and other countries should employ a different strategy with Iran to avoid disaster, such as offering to work with the country to develop its nuclear power generation program.
Western powers, fortunately, have ample time to discuss options and plans of actions, Aslan said, as acting in haste could halt real progress toward peace.
“According to the CIA, even if Iran were given unfettered access to the nuclear market it would take them a decade to build a nuclear weapon,” Aslan said. “This isn’t the smoking gun with the mushroom cloud argument… There is not a state of emergency. There is plenty of time.”