WASHINGTON, DC – From the release of Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi (who is incidentally half-Japanese) to the elections in Iran, Iranians continue to be quite the headline-nabbing theme du jour. And we’ve got another one for you to add to the list of Iranian notables: Dr. Reza Aslan. An assistant professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, Aslan is a coveted commentator on CNN, CBS, NPR, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Reza Aslan, who calls legendary Iranian-singer Leila Forouhar: “khaaleh” (aunt), is not your archetypal Iranian-American overachiever. He is, as we see it, an unequivocally profound-thinker and indispensable intellectual who clearly wants to give back to the global community by publicizing unambiguous facts about the roots of terrorism, religious extremism, and the hovering (and perhaps sometimes intentionally-ignored) constituents of warmongering.
Dr. Aslan, who in addition to writing for some of the world’s leading publications, is the author of No God But God:The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam (his first book) – which was translated into thirteen different languages and received multiple awards – has blessed us (and your library) with yet another must-have book, How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror. In the book, Aslan emphasizes the importance of acknowledging and “addressing grievances” – from both sides – as it is a requisite in moving forward and/or recovering from any sort of conflict: international or domestic.
The easy-to-read and comprehensible book – which took eighteen months to complete – landed the subject-matter expert even more tv-appearances on politics-centric shows like: The Jon Stewart Show and Realtime with Bill Maher (still available On Demand). Reza’s passion and distinctly razor-sharp responses aren’t the only reasons why we see his thinking-fashion and writings as a sort of referential epi-source, more-so, it’s his uncanny skills in discussing decidedly-emotionaland largely-misconstrued topics without being offensive to either side. In a segment on Maher’s HBO show, and in response to Maher’s implication that “stoning [due to religious beliefs is common in the Middle East]”, Dr. Aslan rebutted: “People kill people [not religion(s)].” If Dr. Aslan’s charm and approachable demeanor doesn’t result in Hollywood taking notice and giving him his own talk-show, then we’d like the Obama-Administration to hire him as their enlightener (and therefore saviour in this “war on terror” which is still very much alive, despite the current administration’s choice to discontinue the use of the terror-inducing and oxymoron of a phrase) by making him a leader in the decision-making process as it pertains to foreign policy. How productive has having people in charge who probably haven’t even traveled to Iran been so far? Not very. The “decider” – whose retaliatory approach only made America a contributor to the escalation of strife, not the diffusion of it – is probably playing golf somewhere while his even more shamefully-reckless friend, Dick, is still aimlessly shooting at something. So, bring on the “enlightener” Mr. Obama. We’re waiting.
Conflict is sometimes derived from miscommunication, and just like so many of you, we question: “Why does religion, the one thing that’s supposed to bring us closer together, tear us so far apart?” Well, to continue on with our attempts at puns, How to Win a Cosmic Waris the answer to all your prayers and questions on the matter. Buy your copy and give yourself the chance at a better understanding of the clashes that have resulted in so much unnecessary hatred and destruction.
The style in which Aslan’s equiangular insight decoticates the copious (and often overlooked) layers of interwoven components that are involved in the creation, existence, and strengthening of religious fundamentalism (and therefore elements of war), is appealing, impactful, inspiring, and inimitably his own. His ending line in the epilogue portion of his highly-acclaimed book, How to Win a Comsic Wars: Gold Globalization and the War on Terror, which some are predicting is on its way to becoming a best-seller and is certain to make you start thinking differently, he quotes, “E pluribus unum universitatum. Out of one, many.” Now, if only our world-leaders would follow these few but eternally-relevant words that decorate the Seal of the United States, we might be on our way to evolving as a civilization. We look forward to the day. (Should it happen in our lifetime.)
The handsome media-personality’s humorous, likeable, and relatable attitude all increase the likelihood that Dr. Reza Aslan is (and will remain) an influential member of our society for a long time to come. Enjoy our exclusive one-on-one interview with the impressive and delightful Dr. Reza Aslan. Click here to follow him on Twitter.
SKS: You mention in your book that you too felt the aftereffects of 9/11 – as far as treatment by other Americans – can you share a specific story that stands out in your mind?
RA: There is not a specific story. It was more of a sense that I was being looked at differently. Friends would call or shoot me emails, asking me if I was OK, or if there was anything that they could do for me. I couldn’t figure out what they meant until it suddenly occurred to me that they were recognizing what I was slower to recognize, which is that an us versus them mentality was starting to form in the United States. And immigrants like me, who felt like neither us nor them, were stuck in the middle.
Have you been to Iran?
Sure, my last trip was in 2005.
How was that experience for you?
It was remarkable. It was an amazing trip. I went there for about 8 weeks and saw all of my family, traveled all around the country, did a lot of writing. I reconnected to a world that I had missed but which had always been a big part of me. I can’t wait to go back again. I’ve been trying to go back for about a year now, but haven’t had the chance or the time to do so. But I really hope to go back real soon.
What is your personal impression of the Iranian people? The ones that live in Iran?
It’s funny. They get all the satellite stations based in WestwoodandBeverly Hills. They understand the attitude of Iranian-Americans towards them and towards the country. And to be perfectly frank they’re somewhat dismissive of it. They enjoy the music. They enjoy the videos. As you know entertainment is in such short supply in Iran. But the political messages, the revolutionary messages that filter through to Iran from these incredibly wealthy Iranian-Americans who’ve spent three decades living in places like Hollywood and Beverly Hills seems so disassociated from the reality faced by most Iranians in Iran that it’s almost comical. When you ask Iranians what they believe “the problem” is, rarely do they say, “the problem is Islamic law” or “our problem is the mullahs”, or “my problem is that I have to wear a veil when I go outside the door”. What they usually say is: “the problem is the economy.” I mean when you see Iranians with three degrees driving a cab for a living, you realize that the only way to “fix” Iran is through engagement and economic development, something a lot of the older generation of Iranian-Americans among the exile community here in the United States are not interested in.
Is the Iranian-American voice important in improving relations?
It’s relevant so far as it focuses on what Iranians want and need, not we think they want and need. We, in the exile community have to put aside all of our ideological reservations, just as the cleric regime has to put aside its ideology in order to better Iran. We have to focus on the material needs of our families back in Iran. Instead we spent our time talking about stirring up revolution amongst the young people in Iran. To be honest with you when I talk to young Iranians about how they feel about that kind of sentiment, their answer is: “screw you guys and your Persian palaces. Get us jobs!”
Ultimately, we’re all human beings. So, do you think that Iranians and Americans are more alike than they are different?
I think that of any culture in the entire Muslim world, the one that has most in common with American culture is the Iranian culture. I have traveled throughout this entire country giving lecture after lecture, and inevitably, somebody comes up to me afterwards, some American, and says, “I just came back from Iran. I went there on a tourist trip.” And they always say the exact same thing: how much Iranians love America and American culture, and American traditions, values, customs, and ideals. The thing that I think Iranians and Americans have most in common is that they both understand religion to be very much a part of one’s culture and national identity. There is no more religious country in the developed world than the United States. In many ways, Iranians and Americans speak the same cultural language, we see the world very much in the same way.
Did you meet any Iranian-Israelis on your trip to Israel?
No. Most of the Iranian-Jews I know live next to me in Los Angeles. But I will say that it was a strange experience trying to get into Israel with an American passport that said I was born in Iran. They were very suspicious about what I was doing there, and why I was there. They wanted to know who my father was, who my grandfather was, where did they live, when was the last time I was in Iran, etc. etc.
Are you proud to be Persian/Iranian?
Are you kidding? Of course I’m proud to be Iranian. It’s formed everything about my personality and my culture, and who I am as a human being. I define myself according to my Iranian national identity. It’s an extricable part of who I am as a person.
What does being Iranian-American mean to you?
The great thing about being in the United States is that our national identity is so malleable and so infinitely hyphen-able. There are very few places where you feel comfortable saying I am Iranian-slash-whatever. I find absolutely no contradiction between my American and Iranian identities. I feel very comfortable with both of them. My Iranian identity informs how I feel about being American, my American identity informs how I feel about being Iranian.
Havetheeffects of the “war on terror” been counterproductive?
No question. Partly because it has become infused with what I call a Cosmic War mentality. At this point “war on terror” has become synonymous, in much of the world, with “war on Islam” – and so in a sense it’s just backfired, making any attempts to reach out and forge alliances with the international community that much harder. I, for one, am glad that the Obama Administration decided to drop the phrase. Good riddance.
Why is Iran involved so heavily in the fight for Palestinian freedom and Arab nations aren’t?
The Palestinian situation has become a universal symbol, a rallying point around which a transnational identity is being formed. And Iran, which sees itself as a superpower, a power that represents not just Iranians or even Shiites but the larger Muslim world, is going to try and use Palestine as a means of exerting its influence. Frankly, it’s worked. When you go to some of these Sunni-Arab countries, they think very highly of Ahmadinejad and Iran. But this is a strategic issue as well. Iran sees Hamas as a kind of insurance policy against an Israeli attack on Iranian soil. There’s a real strategic reason for Iran reaching out to Hamas and Hezbollah.
How do you feel about these terms: third-world country and/or developing country?
I certainly prefer “developing-country”. Obviously, when you talk about first—world or third-world, you’re applying value-judgments which show how you think about the world. So I would use terms like “developed-world” and “developing-world.”
Why do you think Pakistan is seen as an ally and Iran isn’t? After all, Pakistan has nuclear arms and they are openly in communication with Al-Qaeda?
What makes them an ally, as far as the US is concerned, is whether they agree with American Foreign Policy. And Pakistan does. Thanks to, at this point $12 billion, over the last decade, in funding.
You say that “religious transnationalist movements cannot be contained within any boundaries,” does that mean there’s no formula to solve this problem?
There is a formula. It’s actually a well-written formula that has been put to use defusing other transnationalist movements. You address the grievances that fuel the movement thereby making the movement irrelevant.
American culture is an individualistic one, do you believe that being so consumed with work and monthly bills has anything to do with Americans’ lack of effort in learning more about the Middle East?
I think there are a couple of things. One, it’s the pursuit of the American Dream, which is such an individualistic idea, and the other is the media in this country: it’s a commercial enterprise. They’re there to sell you a product. And as everyone knows, what sells products is sex, violence, terror, and fear. The media is, in its own self-interest, going to promote a more fear-mongering, terrorizing section of the world. Finding the truth starts with recognizing that you are being fed a message. You can’t just toss out the media, you just have to understand the message through the filter. Once you see the filter, then you can get a much better sense of what’s going on. Also, cross over to other media sources that don’t function on a commercial platform; that would provide a much more objective view of the world, like NPR and BBC.
Do you think it’s easier to be African-American or Iranian-American in America?
I don’t know. I don’t know what it’s like to be African-American. I’m satisfied being an Iranian-American as it is.
On page 59 of your book, you write about Bush’s use of the word “crusade” and Bin Laden’s statement: “he took the words right out of our mouths,” – does the word crusade have a legitimate place in 2009?
No because this is no simple word. This is a word that is viewed with very real connotations of religious warfare and more specifically, the word in Arabic means “war of the cross.” This is a word that is infused with a cosmic war mentality.
Do you think that the ones who benefit from the “business of war”, people whose names we may never know, are the ones stirring the pot?
Well, there’s no question that there are forces on both sides of this conflict that benefit from an escalation not just of the rhetoric, but of the military component as well. War is a profitable enterprise. So in a sense we have to recognize that there are people who do have certain advantages in making sure that this conflict continues to escalate. But, we also have to recognize that the only way to create a sense of global peace and security that is so necessary, not just for our well-being but for the pursuit of our national security and economic interests, is to scale back on the never-ending eternal conflicts like the “war on terror”.
America is made up of so many different cultures why is the Christian intent so amplified? Doesn’t democracy mean: “for the people”? Or does it mean: “for some of the people”?
Look 80% of this country defines itself as Christian. 50% define themselves as Evangelicals. That’s a 150 million people. It’s crazy to think that in a democratic society the morals and values of the majority wouldn’t have a role to play in the way in which a country defines itself as a nation. We have issues that should be purely legal issues like: gay marriage or abortion. Rarely do we talk about them as matters of law. We talk about them as matters of morality; specifically Christian morality.
How do you feel about the reports that the US military is handing out bibles in Iraq and Afghanistan?
We’re engaged in a conflict with a transnational movement that believes that this is a war between Christianity and Islam. I’ve been told that soldiers on the ground in tanks and hummers are passing out evangelical literature, passing out New Testaments translated into Arabic and Urdu. This is just proof of what al-Qaeda is saying: that is a religious war. This is hurting our interests. This is a cancer in our armed forces that has to be taken care of, otherwise these wars are going to go on forever. My organization the Military Religious Freedom Foundation has been working diligently for the past five years to try to get the Senate or the House of Representatives to launch an investigation into the armed forces and see how evangelical groups have infiltrated the US Military.
What about the environment? Is any of this going to matter if we’re all dead?
There are obviously much larger issues that are truly existential. Far more important that the threat of terror is the threat of global warming.
Favorite Iranian food?
I could live off of tah-deeg [crunchy rice at the bottom of the pot] for the rest of my life. If I had nothing to eat from now to the day I die except tah-deeg, I’d be happy.
I’ve got a book that’s coming out next fall called: Words Without Borders. It’s an anthology of literature: fiction and non-fiction poetry from the Middle East. It’s translated to English from Urdu, Turkish, Hebrew, and Arabic. It’s sort of an attempt to tell the stories of the last century in that region. I’m really excited about that.