Religious scholar and best-selling author Reza Aslan spoke Thursday night about a recent transformation in the way Muslims are viewed in the United States.
"Fifty-six percent of Americans today believe that Islam and American values are at odds," Aslan said. He cited data from a variety of public opinion polls throughout his speech that supported his claim that Islamophobic misconceptions have become mainstream among Americans today.
Aslan delivered his keynote, titled, "Fear Inc.: The Industrializing of Islamophobia," to a full house in Lutkin Memorial Hall as part of the Muslim Cultural Students Association's Discover Islam Week.
Of course, it was impossible for Aslan to talk about this subject without mentioning the rhetoric regarding Muslims coming from certain politicians – he called out Ben Carson and Donald Trump in particular for making brash statements on the campaign trail.
"Now we're confronted with politicians who are saying things that would have been unimaginable ten or twelve years ago," Aslan said, referring to the current presidential race. "We've seen a steady rise of anti-Muslim incidents over the last decade or so, and these incidents tend to get greater as we approach election years."
McSA exec member Rimsha Ganatra said Aslan was on their radar as a potential guest speaker after seeing a viral video of his interaction with a Fox News reporter who spent an entire interview asking why Aslan, a Muslim, would write a book about Christianity, ignoring the fact that he is a religious scholar with an academic interest in Jesus.
Aslan appeared on numerous other shows from time to time as a commentator on Muslim issues but said he has since turned his attention to pop culture, which he said he thinks is more capable of affecting people's opinions than traditional news media.
Later in his speech, Aslan argued that because the majority of American Muslims are first generation immigrants, their future assimilation and acceptance into the United States is inevitable, despite the bigotry they are facing now. He compared the current state of Islam in America to the history of other religions such as Catholicism and Judaism that previously faced widespread discrimination when they were the newcomers in this country.
"He really weaved the Muslim identity cohesively with every other identity," Weinberg sophomore Archit Baskaran said. "The way he invoked the Jewish identity at the end really resonated with a lot of Jewish people in the audience and as a result I think his message was all the more clear."
The most important identity to keep in mind in this conversation, according to Aslan, is the American identity, which is unique because it's malleable and changes with each generation of new people.
"It can't be connected to a single race, color, culture, language or heritage," Aslan said. "Because it's based on a notion of ideals and values, it allows for immigrants from all over the world to feel as American as somebody who has been here for hundreds of years. That's a remarkable, miraculous aspect of the American identity that I don't think any other country can boast."