Before taking the stage Tuesday night for the Maverick Speaker Series, author and theologian Reza Aslan spoke with The Shorthorn. Aslan spoke about faith, religion, Muslim identity in America and how college students can take advantage of campus diversity to gain a better understanding and tolerance for ideas that challenge their worldview.
The Shorthorn: UTA has been recognized as the fifth most diverse campus in the nation. How can students take advantage of this distinction?
Reza Aslan: We are on the verge of becoming the first country in the world to be majority-minorities. That's an astonishing statement, and I think that for a large swath of this country, that is something to be afraid of, it's something to actually fight against.
But for people who do live in these diverse communities, like the student body at UTA, we already know how remarkable, how empowering that is. Not just because of the way it allows you to revel in your own identity, your own cultural specifics, but also in the way that the interaction between different cultures, different races, different religions allows for a kind of community that can really be a model for the rest of this country. I feel like that statistic, by itself, is probably the greatest strength of a campus like UTA.
TS: How can students take advantage of that strength?
RA: One, to reaffirm you own cultural identity. When you are in a diverse setting, it allows you to be more clear about who you are, what your background is and how those things have affected you, your identity, the choices that you make. You can revel in it in a way that you can't when you're in a more homogeneous environment.
And then two, I think, learning from other cultures, from other races, other religions. Understanding, first and foremost, the ways in which your values are so similar, despite the fact that they may seem different, because of the different ways in which we express them, but more importantly to recognize that there is something to be learned from other perspectives, other world views. There's a way to learn more about yourself by understanding how people from other places in the world, from other cultures, people who worship in a different way, how they see themselves.
TS: Do you see religion and culture as becoming more polarized in recent years?
RA: I think there are certain regions in the United States in which conversations about religion and ethnicity and race have become increasingly polarized. What I find fascinating is that statistics have repeatedly shown that those polarized conversations are happening in places that are homogenized. In other words, it's in places that have been unaffected by, for instance, immigration, in which anti-immigrant sentiments are the highest. It's places that are less diverse, in which the question of diversity and the polarized rhetoric about it comes out.
It's those parts of the United States that are untouched by these issues, where the conversation about these issues are most rabid and most heated. And I think that tells you everything you need to know about, not just the rhetoric itself, but about what to do about it.
TS: Do you see this as a result of a fear of "the other" or the unknown?
RA: All bigotry is a result of fear — fear of the other, fear of the unknown. It's a phobia. I think that the way to deal with fear is through relationships, not through data.
TS: In your opinion, what is the driving force behind violent interpretations of religion?
RA: Human beings, from the beginning of our evolution, have been tribal. We are all about in-groups and out-groups. Now whether those groups are determined by race, or by the color of your skin, or whether they're determined by your ethnicity, or by the country in which you were born in, or the god that you worship, we will find a reason to identify an opposition to an other. That's the easiest form of an identification.
And so, I don't think that there's necessarily something unique about religion that fosters violence in a way that other forms of identity, like for instance, race or nationality, don't.
What you often hear from a lot of critics of religion is that, 'Well religion has been responsible for so much violence in the world that if we got rid of it, we'd be more peaceful, more prosperous.' Apparently these people flunked high school history, because just look at the last hundred years, just look at the 20th century, the bloodiest, most violent, most beastial century in human existence, in which tens of millions of people were slaughtered in the name of religion? No, in the name of nationalism, in the name of socialism, in the name of communism. We will kill each other for any reason.
Now, religion is one of the really good reasons that we do so, because, you know, religion – particularly monotheistic religion – tends to be what I call monomythic. In other words, if there's only one god, there's only one path to that god, there's only one truth; that makes all other paths not just wrong, all of the truths not just false, but demonic. And so that kind of absolutism can very easily lead to acts of violence.
I will say that certainly right now, within the "Islamic world," in certain Muslim-majority states, you're seeing that violence at a far greater degree, but I think again, that has less to do with Islam in particular, or religion in general, as it does with the enormously destabilizing world in which, you know, these people live.
I think that for a lot of people, they think that the problem of Islamic violence is a 14th-century one. No, it's like a 50-year one, you know? And it is unquestionably tied to the colonial experience, and more importantly, the decolonizing experience and the instability that that left behind. And the way in which for many people, particularly those who are reacting to either their own power structures or the power structures of the international body — the United States, Russia, whatever — that for them, religion becomes a powerful currency for communicating those grievances to the masses, and more importantly, for doing something about it. Because at the very least, religion offers some kind of out. There is a way beyond this mess, and that way, you know, involves the other realm, it may not happen in this life, but at the very least — as opposed to so many of these other ideologies, religion says, 'There is an answer.'
TS: So what is the answer to religious violence?
RA: Religious peace! If religion is about interpretation, then these contrasting interpretations — which have always existed — will always continue to exist. And the answer to addressing them is using the power that religion itself has to foster compassion, and peace, and love, and understanding, as much as it has the power to divide and to create conflict.
TS: With your move into religion, do you see this as an attempt to contribute to this same idea as well?
RA: I think for me, I've come to the conclusion, and I did so long ago, that the way in which you reframe perceptions is through story telling. I think of myself first and foremost as a storyteller. If I'm writing about religion, that's just storytelling. If I'm commenting about politics, politics is just storytelling. Stories are we understand the world, they're how we create our perceptions in the world, and they're how we change those perceptions. Right now, the most powerful medium for storytelling is television. And so for me it's just a different platform, but it's the same mission that I've always had.