An audience came to see author Reza Aslan speak about religion, identity and America's future, filling the 500-seat University of Oregon Straub Hall Auditorium on Tuesday evening.
The event was the first of a series from the Oregon Humanities Center, which brings in guest speakers to discuss current issues. Aslan is well-known from his political punditry on major news networks, such as CNN, MSNBC and Fox News.
In the latter, he is featured in a viral video where a religion correspondent asks why he wrote his book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth about Jesus, despite being Muslim, in which he responds that his faith is irrelevant to his work as a religious scholar.
Iran-born with a San Francisco Bay Area-upbringing, Aslan said he always felt a strong sense of national identity, despite watching Iranians antagonized on television: from former wrestler The Iron Sheik to the film Not Without my Daughter.
"We [as Americans] define our national identity based on our adherence to a set of common values," Aslan said at the event. "For me, as a kid, that worked just fine. I had no problem negotiating my Iranian identity with my American identity."
But Aslan said that over the last 5 to 6 years, islamophobia is starting to reach unprecedented heights, citing a 2015 YouGov poll which found that 55 percent of Americans view Islam unfavorably (3.9 percent margin of error) and noting that it is 16 points higher than another poll's findings after 9/11.
Aslan said he feels these increases are due to presidential candidate Donald Trump's rhetoric towards Muslims, which he said involves tapping into fears — and has violent consequences.
Aslan stated that 2015 set a record for the number of mosque attacks in the country: 78 mosques were destroyed or vandalised.
"It is true that this fear is palpable. And let's be honest ... many of you are actually threatened by terrorism in this country ... just not Islamic terrorism."
Aslan said that in 2015, there were 372 mass shootings in the United States — and two were perpetrated by Muslims — citing a report by the Department of Homeland Security which shows that there have been more attacks by anti-government groups than Muslims in the United States.
"It's not really about Islam ... It is a crisis of identity," Aslan said. "The easiest way to identify yourself is in opposition to an 'other.'"
For Aslan, the only thing that can change fears of Muslims is relationships. 68 percent of Americans responded in the same YouGov poll that they do not have any Muslim friends.
"The single greatest determinant is whether you know a Muslim or not," he said. "If you know that individual as a human being ... then it becomes difficult not to recognize yourself in that person."