Reza Aslan, the internationally acclaimed author of "No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam" (Random House, 2005, $25.95), will speak in Jackson on Wednesday, Feb. 22, as part of the Millsaps Arts & Lecture Series. A native of Iran, Aslan has a master's of theological studies from Harvard and is a doctoral candidate at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He will reflect on Islam, the fastest-growing religion in the world, challenging the "clash of civilizations" mentality and the "hijacking" of his faith by power-hungry demagogues, self-serving clergy, and radical fundamentalists.
In the prologue to your book, you state, "This book is, above all else, an argument for reform." What are aspects of Islam that provide religious and philosophical support for this movement toward reform?
Islam has always been a religion of reason, an eminently rational and philosophical religion. Within Islamic tradition, that's already there. Because of Saudi Arabian Islam introduced about a century ago, a different strain of intolerance and rigidity arose. This has become the Western image of Islam, which has given the West a skewed vision. My book shows the development of those ideas.
What in your view are the most critical components of those needed reforms?
Theologically, the most critical component is Koranic exegesis. At the beginning of the 20th century, there was an attempt to strip the Bible of its theological connotations and critique it as a work of art and literature. This led to religious reform and liberalization in Christianity. That tradition has just begun in Islam, and it is really necessary—looking at scripture as more than scripture, in the historical context in which it was written. Until 30 to 40 years ago, only the mullahs (clerics) were allowed to read the Koran. Today, women, Westerners and converts to Islam are reading the Koran with new interpretative methodologies. In the last 50 years, the Koran has been translated into more languages than in the preceding 1,400 years. This is where the real work of reform rests.
You state in your book that "[w]hat is taking place now in the Muslim world is an internal conflict between Muslims, not an external battle between Islam and the West." In light of this, what could the United States and other Western governments do, if anything, that would improve the chances of reform occurring?
First, realize what is going on. The idea of "clash of civilizations" is what many think began on the day after Sept. 11, but an Islamic reformation had been going on for some time before that. This process has been hampered by Western colonialism, Cold War policies and the war on terrorism, which have created real obstacles to internal Islamic reform. We need to give support and opportunities to the voices of reform to make them heard and provide an ideological counterweight to the puritanical and fundamentalist Wahhabists, who have had enormous financial support from within Saudi Arabia. Moderate voices need to have levels of support.
Is there anything that leaders of Christian churches might do, or not do, that would improve the chances of reform occurring in Islam while minimizing violence?
Christian leaders in the U.S. are in a unique place to promote multiculturalism and tolerance—unfortunately, the direct opposite is occurring. Leaders like Franklin Graham have called Islam a "wicked religion," and that rings loudly in the Muslim world and plays into the jihadists' hands, who are saying that this is a war against Islam. But this is not a religious war.
This year, democratic elections have brought Hamas to power in Palestine and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency in Iran. How do those developments affect your thinking?
Admadinejad is a separate issue, not an indication of Iran becoming more conservative, but of Iran's internal politics. In the elections in Palestine—as well in Lebanon and Egypt—this is what I am talking about. Hamas came to power not because they are against Israel, but because they were the only ones cleaning the streets and running the hospitals, while Fatah, rampant with corruption, was not. This is about the most exciting thing that could have happened—if these parties moderate their behavior and represent their constituencies.
Given Muslim resistance to separation of church and state, how likely is a "genuinely liberal democracy" to take root in an Islamic country?
There's nothing at all in conflict between Islam and democracy. In a democracy a set of principles must be in place. It must represent the morals and traditions of that society. If a country is 78 percent Christian, the moral values of Christianity will be represented. The same will happen in an Islamic country. What must be understood is that religious and ethnic pluralism must not be violated, even in a Muslim framework. This is happening in the political experiment in Iraq—but it has a long way to go.
What is the controversy over the Mohammed cartoons published in Europe showing us about the clash between the Islamic world and the West?
That is how it has been presented—secular freedoms against religious dogma. But this is not about the depiction of Mohammed. Yes, there are prohibitions against depicting the prophets, but they are sparsely enforced. In many markets in the Islamic world you will find depictions of Mohammed and other prophets. That's not the issue here—it is how he was depicted, to promote stereotypes that are present in Europe.
If Mohammed had been depicted performing a charitable deed rather than wearing a turban resembling a bomb, would the depiction have provoked unrest?
I think plenty of Muslims would have been unhappy with any depiction, but in no way would it have risen to the level that this negative and stereotypical depiction has caused. This is part of the tension that has been bubbling in Europe for decades. Only months later after these cartoons were published were they spread—deliberately by certain extremists—into the Muslim world to support the propaganda that Islam is under attack by the West.
How has your early childhood escape from Iran with your parents during the aftermath of the 1979 Revolution shaped your views?
That's where my interest in religion first began—seeing the power that religious symbols have in motivating people. In college I had the opportunity to direct that interest into my studies.
What impact do you hope that "No god but God" will have, both in the Islamic community and beyond?
I have heard from thousands of Muslims and have yet to receive a single negative comment, even from those who disagree. Muslims are glad to see a book like this. People are happy that someone is approaching this topic from a non-ideological perspective—a counterweight to other perspectives.
Dude is some kind of smart, i saw him on the daily show when the book came out. Makes some outstanding points and observations and is eloquent enough to convert an extremist to more of the definition of islam.