How many scholars of religions also run a film company? And how many members of the Council on Foreign Relations can claim an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop? In all likelihood, just one. Reza Aslan, whose bestselling books No god but God and Beyond Fundamentalism have established him as a sought-after expert on Islam and the role of religion in the contemporary world, is also a contributing editor at The Daily Beast and chief creative officer of BoomGen, a company that helps to develop films from or about the Middle East. He earned his Ph.D. in the sociology of religions at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and currently teaches creative writing at the University’s Riverside campus.
This interview was conducted in conjunction with the SSRC’s projects on Spirituality, Political Engagement, and Public Life and Religion and International Affairs.—ed.
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NS: Last April in Pasadena, California, I heard you announce, for the first time, your support for a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestine situation. What convinced you of that position?
RA: What has brought me to the bi-national state, instead of the two-state solution, are the enormous obstacles, both political and religious, in the way of implementing the peace process as it was defined in UN Security Council Resolution 242. To be as frank as I can possibly be, there’s not much left of a Palestinian state. Every single day, more Palestinian land is being irretrievably lost to Israeli settlements, so time is running out. These are the realities on the ground in the region.
I also have to say that, for years now, the two-state solution that I’ve been championing in my writings, speeches, and discussions with political leaders has not been exactly aligned with my political and philosophical outlook. I am a globalist. I believe fully in the promise of globalization. We are fast approaching a world without borders, without boundaries, and the ethno-nationalist conception of nationhood that was so much a part of the twentieth-century way of thinking, especially when it came to the establishment of the state of Israel, is no longer feasible in the twenty-first. A two-state solution is anachronistic. The rest of the world is starting to look like the EU, so why are we trying to create something that would be anathema to that in Israel-Palestine?
NS: In this and other questions of geopolitics, how does your training as a scholar of religion affect your thinking?
RA: When I say that I’m a scholar of religions, people sometimes think that what I do is textual exegesis. My job is to talk about the role that religion plays in human societies. We have to understand that all religions, in all parts of the world, are always more a matter of identity than they are a matter of belief. We in the United States, a quintessentially Protestant country, have been lulled into the false idea that religion is about one’s private, confessional experience. It’s not, not even here in the United States. When one says “I am a Muslim,” “I am a Jew,” or “I am a Christian” that person is making an identity statement. Religion is about who you are in an indeterminate world. It’s about your worldview. It encompasses every aspect of your identity, from where you live to how you vote. To think that we can have a full and complete conception of the world, and of international relations, without literacy in religion is, in the twenty-first century, absurd.
NS: What about your training in fiction writing? It’s an unusual set of skills for the kind of work that you do.
RA: I suppose it is. To be perfectly honest, though, for me, everything is about storytelling. Whether it’s the work that I do in religious studies, in international relations, in fiction, or in film production, storytelling is the key to building bridges and fostering mutual understanding. If we can tap into the narratives of other people, it gives us a better window into their religion, their politics, and their social and economic circumstances than any policy briefing could.
Why is it that the vast majority of Americans are so pro-Israel? It’s because they have fully absorbed the Jewish narrative in a way that they haven’t when it comes to the Palestinian narrative. The story of Israel is a good story. It’s a compelling story. And it’s one that Americans get. But they haven’t had an opportunity to hear, let alone absorb, the Palestinian narrative. For me, a more just and equitable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not about convincing people of the merits of any given policy; it’s about making sure that both narratives are equally understood. I think of myself not just as a scholar or a commentator or a writer or a filmmaker. I think of myself, first and foremost, as a storyteller, and these are the various avenues that allow me to tell a story.
NS: In the beginning of No god but God, you talk about faith as a uniting force and religion as a dividing force, which is a familiar distinction in a lot of contemporary American spiritualities.
RA: It’s the core of mysticism, regardless of your religion.
NS: Does that approach come out of your own mystical practice?
RA: Most definitely. I take very seriously the Sufi notion that religion is an external shell that has to be shattered in order for the individual to be able to unite with the divine. The path that you take is irrelevant; the destination is what’s important. That affects not only my scholarship and my writing about religion, but my own spirituality as well. I think of myself as a person of faith; I believe that there is a reality beyond the material realm, and I want to commune with that reality. But what I’m talking about is so ineffable that I need a language of symbols and metaphors in order to make sense of it to myself and to communicate those ideas to other people. The difference between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is the same as the difference between French, German, and Spanish. They’re different languages to describe identical sentiments. For me, the language, the symbols, and the metaphors that make the most sense are those provided by Islam: the notion of the oneness of God, the conception of divine unity. These make sense to me in a way that the symbol of the suffering servant on the cross does not, in a way that the symbol of the void in Hinduism does not, and in a way that the symbol of the wheel of rebirth in Buddhism does not. I value those other symbols and languages, and, indeed, I’m literate in them, just as I can communicate in French and Arabic. But I think in English. And I feel my spirituality in the language of Islam.
NS: How does that sense of ultimate sameness affect how you think about globalization? Are religions going to blend together in some sort of spiritual Wal-Mart? Or is there still room for specificity?
RA: Actually, as a result of globalization religions are becoming even more fragmented and fractured. The Internet has taken away old geopolitical divisions, but entirely new communities are now forming online. Communities are no longer bound by geography or territorial limitations. From the dawn of man, the definition of society consisted of the people who were around you. For the first time in history, that’s no longer the case. Society can be defined as anything. An Evangelical kid in Detroit may have more in common with a Buddhist kid in Malaysia—because they can connect through their common interests—than he does with the Evangelical next door to him.
Muslims are already familiar with this phenomenon. Because Islam is a religion of one-and-a-half billion people, it has no center, no core. There is no such thing as an umma [the worldwide community of Muslims] anymore. The idea of a united Muslim community made sense when the Prophet Muhammad was alive and there were a couple hundred Muslims. But, fourteen hundred years later, one-and-a-half billion Muslims do not relate to each other on any level—not even religiously, and certainly not ethnically or culturally. To say that there’s a thing out there called the united Muslim community of faith is a fabrication. If such a thing as the “virtual umma” can be said to exist, it is now literally a virtual umma; it exists online, in hundreds of different micro-ummas. I think that what is happening in Islam is what you’re going to see happening all over the world, in all religions.
NS: You declared in No god but God that a Muslim reformation is underway. What sorts of signposts do you see among Muslim communities around the world?
RA: This reformation that I’m talking about is one hundred years old, and it took the destruction of the Twin Towers for Americans to become aware of it. I think of “reformation” as a universal phenomenon, stripped of its European and Christian connotations, to be understood as the inevitable tension that arises in religions, between institutions and individuals, over who has the authority to define a faith. With the Internet, which quite clearly parallels the printing press in the Christian reformation, we’re seeing an unprecedented individualization of Islam, in which the schools of law and religious institutions that had a monopoly on the meaning and message of Islam for fourteen centuries are beginning to lose that authority to those who are seizing it for themselves. I always say—in a not-quite-joking way—that a century from now, scholars may place Osama bin Laden alongside the other great reformation radicals of the world like Martin Luther, Hans Hut, and Thomas Müntzer. He is another in a long line of individuals who have seized the authority from institutions to define their religion for themselves.
NS: Do you have any insights about how public discourse is changing in the new media age? Are there certain avenues that you think have the most potential? Are there certain things that we’ve relied on and that you think are about to go?
RA: Besides print? I’ll tell you what. I had a very strange experience last year in the midst of the “green” uprising in Iran. I was running two computers, with Twitter on one and Facebook on the other, back and forth with my mobile, and then, of course, just out of habit, I had CNN on the television. But that week I noticed that the way CNN was reporting the news on Iran was by pointing a camera at a computer showing Twitter and Facebook. Something occurred to me: Why am I watching CNN tell me what I learned on Facebook six hours ago? Why don’t I just cut out the middleman altogether and go straight to the source? At that moment, in a very visceral way, all the hypothetical and theoretical issues about the death of old media came to me in one moment of enlightenment. Honestly, I rarely watch the news anymore. When I go around the country talking to young people, especially in universities, no matter what the topic is, eventually somebody asks me, “What’s a good news source?” I used to have a long, protracted answer to that question. Now the answer is pretty easy: if your news comes with commercials, it’s not news. Simple.
I’m not a prognosticator. I don’t know where this is all going to go. But I do know that we have reached that point at which the argument that you can’t trust what you read on the Internet no longer holds water as it did a decade ago. The democratization of journalism has hit a tipping point, such that it’s now quite easy to discern, as a consumer of information, who is and who is not trustworthy. People are always complaining that the problem with the Internet is that there’s no journalistic integrity. Bloggers aren’t bound by the same rules that traditional journalists are—that’s absolutely true. But the benefit of the Internet is that it’s self-policing. People know who is worth reading and who is not. If you’re not worth reading, if you can’t be trusted, you very quickly go away. In the mainstream media if you’re not worth watching, you can stick around as long as Nike or Coca-Cola is willing to pay to keep you on the air.
NS: You’re a businessman too. So, if there aren’t going to be commercials, how will the news be paid for?
RA: My honest answer is that I don’t know yet. Everyone is still trying to figure out what the new revenue models are going to be. But if there is money to be made in any enterprise, people will find a way.
NS: What do you think the academy needs to do in order to step up to the plate with new media? What can scholars do to be able to speak relevantly, the way you have, to the public—and to each other as well?
RA: I’m very pessimistic about this. Academics have been reveling so long in their own private language, speaking to each other and not to anyone else, that it’s going to be very hard to break through the current paradigm. I’ll give you an example. I wasn’t finished with my Ph.D. when No god but God came out. The book was very successful, but life became miserable for me in my department. Professors who had been working with me suddenly turned their backs to me. Unnecessary obstacles were put in my way. There was an attitude—not just amongst the professors, but amongst my fellow students as well—of Who the hell do you think you are? How dare you take this discussion that we’re having in a room with four people and make it palatable to a large and popular audience? Things got so bad that I actually had to switch departments, and I ended up getting my degree from a different department altogether. That, to me, is an example of the problem academia has, which earns it legitimate criticism for being out of touch with the concerns of people outside of its walls.
NS: How do you think scholars can learn to take part in broader conversations?
RA: It’s often a total waste of time. You can’t be trained to speak to the media in a weekend seminar before going on Anderson Cooper. You have to be immersed in the kind of world in which there is no division between the academic and the popular. I honestly think that the best hope that we have is to foster a new kind of student, one who doesn’t spend eight years in the basement of Widener Library at Harvard poring over a thirteenth-century manuscript and writing a dissertation on the changes in the vowel markings of a sentence. That kind of scholarship has a very small role in the world we live in now. We need scholars who understand that there is no division between the world of academia and the popular world. Trying to take staid academics and teach them to use words with fewer syllables is not the way to break that wall down.
NS: Doesn’t something stand to be lost in terms of pursuing knowledge for its own sake, or rigorous scholarship on topics that don’t happen to be in the headlines at a given moment? Isn’t academia’s ability to think in the long term, to focus on things that no one else is focusing on, something valuable?
RA: It’s certainly valuable, but its value has greatly diminished. The ascent of new communications technologies has forced thinkers to take seriously the consequences of their ideas and to engage in the open market of ideas in a much more robust way than in previous centuries.
NS: What about translator figures—a Malcolm Gladwell, for instance—who dive into scholarly texts and turn them into books that nonspecialists can read and be inspired by? Do you think that their contribution is inadequate?
RA: I don’t think that it’s inadequate. But if the hope is to get academe to do that work itself instead of relying on third parties, then the only way is to start at the graduate level. I know Malcolm quite well, and I can tell you that any academic would gladly take his $40,000 speaking fees and six- or seven-figure book deals if they could. My point is that they could.
NS: I understand that you have a new book about Jesus in the works. What can we expect from it?
RA: It is actually a biography of Jesus of Nazareth, a look at Jesus the radical political figure, whose more—let’s just say—problematic ideas were whitewashed in the canonized Gospels.
NS: Are you reading Jesus through the Islamic tradition?
RA: No. This is a straight-up biography of the man named Jesus of Nazareth. Who was this man? What can we know about him and his times? And how can we translate what we think were his words and actions into an idea of what he really meant and what he actually thought?
NS: Why is this character so important to you? Why Jesus?
RA: I have always been fascinated by him. While I was in high school, I converted to Evangelical Christianity and got to know Jesus as a devotee. Then, when I went away from that and back to my Muslim roots, I took a love for Jesus’ message with me into a new way of thinking about what Jesus actually meant and how that message applies to people outside of the Evangelical community. I became incredibly fascinated with the historical Nazarene who walked on this Earth for such a brief time. I’ve come to the conclusion, in twenty years of academic research, that there was absolutely nothing special, unusual, or extraordinary about Jesus of Nazareth. He was one of dozens of people who were saying the exact same things, doing the exact same things, performing the exact same miracles, in this incredibly turbulent time and place called first-century Palestine. The much more interesting question, to me, is: why do we remember Jesus, and why have we forgotten all the rest of them?
Jesus himself was the quintessential reformer. Whatever else you think Jesus said, his message can be simplified into this one, fundamental truth: the Temple does not have the right to define what it means to be Jewish; authority rests in the hands of individual Jews, and they need no mediator to tell them how to reach God. If that doesn’t sound like Martin Luther and, frankly, like Bin Laden, then you’re not paying attention.