Last Thursday night, I had the pleasure of hosting a Dean's Fellows event at which Reza Aslan, author of "Zealot" and "No God but God," spoke to a packed house in Jordan Auditorium on the topic of "Islam and ISIS." When all the seats were filled, people began to sit on stairways, or on ledges, or in the overflow rooms with video feeds elsewhere in the building. Clearly, Aslan's fame preceded him.
Now Aslan's fame is due not only to his books, but also perhaps above all to his exchanges with hosts on Fox News and CNN. In one of these exchanges Aslan, a Muslim, defends his scholarly credentials to write a work on the historical Jesus, and in another he accuses the media (and Bill Maher in particular) of spreading simplistic, hurtful stereotypes of Islam. Through these appearances Aslan has become famous as a critic of anti-Islamic bigotry.
There was some of this sort of criticism last Thursday (he told the audience that he "throws up in his mouth" every time he tries to pronounce the words "Donald Trump"), but there was also a different sort of message, a message that might have surprised many of those in the audience. Aslan repeated on a number of occasions that it is not enough for Muslims — or for that matter, non-Muslims — simply to declare that ISIS (or any other jihadi group) is not Islamic, or that their bloodletting has nothing to do with Islam. As Aslan put it: "If someone says they're a Muslim, they're a Muslim."
This was only one of the surprises in Aslan's entertaining talk (he also shared his belief that the Qur'an, the Bible and the Beatles' Abbey Road are all inspired), but it does raise an important point. For years now public figures in the West, Muslim and non-Muslim, have been repeating, almost as a mantra, the message that Islam is a religion of peace and that jihad is only a peaceful struggle against sin, or a defensive struggle against aggression. This was the principal message of President Obama when he visited a Baltimore mosque last week. It was also the message of George W. Bush almost 15 years earlier when he visited a DC mosque after the 9/11 attacks. He declared simply: "That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace."
Aslan's point, of course, is not that Islam is violent. His point is that Islam is complicated. Speaking about the Qur'an, he insisted that it contains passages which seem to promote coexistence with unbelievers and passages which seem to promote war against them. In fact, violent jihadi groups do use material in the Qur'an (and the hadith, or the traditions associated with Muhammad) to justify their actions and to inspire other Muslims to join them. To see their interpretations in action one need only check out their flashy English language online magazine: Dabiq.
In other words, the material in the Qur'an which is used to justify jihadism can't be wished away, ISIS can't be defeated with the hashtag #UnIslamicState, and the appeal of jihadi rhetoric to many can't be denied. Most experts estimate that more than 30,000 foreigners have travelled to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS. And the problem is not only ISIS: extremist movements continue to grow in popularity in the Sunni world, from Boko Haram in northern Nigeria to various movements in Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. As Aslan pointed out, the victims of these extremist movements are very often other Muslims. It should not be forgotten, however, that many of these movements specifically target those whom they label unbelievers or apostates, including Christians, Yezidis and Shi'ite Muslims. The only sin of those killed while they were sipping coffee at cafes in a Christian neighborhood in Qamishle, Syria in December was being Christian. The only sin of the Yezidi women who have been made into sex slaves was being Yezidi. The only sin of those killed while praying at a Shi'ite mosque in Bangladesh in November was being Shi'ite.
As a Catholic university, Notre Dame should constantly look for ways to defend those — Christians and others — who are persecuted for their religious identity. In the beautiful Vatican II document "Dignitatis Humanae" the Church declares that all people have a right to religious freedom which "has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person." One way the University is already doing this is through the dynamic program organized by professor Dan Philpott, Under Caesar's Sword (http://ucs.nd.edu/). We should support his efforts. We who live in the security and comfort of the West should not be silent about the fate of those (Christians and others) who live under the shadow of groups such as ISIS. We must tirelessly advocate for religious freedom everywhere and for everyone — for Christians, for Muslims and even for ex-Muslims who are threatened by the Islamic law of apostasy.
The only effective way to advocate for the cause of religious freedom is together with Muslim friends such as Reza Aslan (who, as he shared with the audience last Thursday, spent part of his life as a Christian). Groups such as ISIS cannot be ignored or wished away. They must be confronted, and we must do so together.