Americans who fear Islamic terrorism will only change their minds about Muslims through increased relationships with them, a best-selling author said Wednesday.
"Relationships change people's minds," Reza Aslan said during a speech at UW-Eau Claire's Schofield Auditorium. "If you know one Muslim, it cuts in half your negativity of Islam."
Sixty-eight percent of Americans have no Muslim friends, and nearly 90 percent have never been to a mosque, he said.
Aslan's presentation, "Beyond Fundamentalism: Religion, Tolerance and the Modern World," concluded the university's Forum series this year.
Aslan is the host of the CNN spiritual adventure series "Believer," in which he participates in endurance worship, rituals and rites of passage to learn about worlds that have been molded by faith and tradition.
Aslan has also appeared on "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," among other high-profile outlets.
He has written two books on religion: "No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam" and "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth."
There were 372 mass shootings in the U.S. in 2015 and nearly all of them were unrelated to Islamic terrorism, Aslan said.
"You are more likely to be shot by a toddler in the U.S. than you are by an Islamic terrorist," he said.
By far, more Americans have died at the hand of right-wing terrorists than Islamic terrorists, Aslan said.
Even in the aftermath of 9/11 nearly 15 years ago, "there really wasn't an overwhelming backlash against Muslims in this country," he said.
But there is a 20 percent increase in anti-Muslim sentiment in this country since then. The rise of al-Qaida and ISIS is a factor but a small one, Aslan said.
"By the tens of thousands, the vast majority of ISIS victims are other Muslims," he said.
Other factors are the rise of hate groups over the past 10 years — such as Jihad Watch, Atlas Shrugs, and Middle East Forum — and the media and politicians who push the anti-Muslim propaganda. The two Republican presidential front runners, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, respectively, want armed police patroling Muslim neighborhoods and keeping Muslims from coming into the U.S., Aslan said.
"These views are crazy, but they are pretty mainstream," he said. "Forty percent of Americans want a registry of Muslims, and over 50 percent of Americans want a shutdown of Muslim entries into the U.S."
The rhetoric of Cruz and Trump "is hugely damaging to our security. There are real consequences in that rhetoric," he said.
Bigotry is a fear, not a lack of knowledge, "and no amount of information is going to change this," Aslan said.
Muslims make up just 1 percent of the U.S. population, and surveys show they are the least likely of any religious group to support the use of violence in this country for any reason, he said.
In decades past, there were anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish movements in the U.S. A generation from now, we will look at today's anti-Muslim sentiments with shame, Aslan said.
"We will find somebody else to hate, but it's going to happen. But it requires a slow building of relationships," he said. "Together, we can all keep America beautiful. That's my challenge to you."