American Muslim

Reza Aslan on Bush, Palestine, and Barack Obama

JON STEWART, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, NPR -- they’ve all had Reza Aslan on their shows.

In high demand for his telegenic speaking skills and vaguely hipster sense of humor, this professor at the University of California at Riverside and the best-selling author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam has become the public face of the American Muslim.

As part of the groundbreaking and often controversial “Creative Minds” lecture series at Savannah Country Day School -- last year’s appearance by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. drew an angry response from some parents at the famously conservative, upper-crust school -- Aslan will speak March 12 at 6:30 p.m. at the school’s Jelks Auditorium.

A straight-shooter, Aslan calls ‘em like he sees ‘em, equally scathing about President Bush and Arab jihadists alike. Aslan spoke to us from his L.A. office in a lengthy phone conversation about Islam, the Middle East, the U.S. presidential race, and immigration.

You live in Los Angeles, easily the most multicultural and diverse city in the country. Has that influenced your thought and writing?

Reza Aslan: Although one can say that in the U.S. we have less of an idea of this than other places in the world, because we sort of think of ourselves as an island apart from the rest of the globe, I think we’ve understood that since Sept. 11 what happens in the rest of the world does matter here. And so for me why I enjoy L.A. and places like New York and London and Paris and Shanghai is because these are global cities. They’re cities that in some way almost recreate in a microcosm what’s happening in the rest of the world.

So here in Los Angeles where you’re surrounded by these polyglottal cities, where people are speaking Spanish and French and English and Japanese and Chinese, and everyone is in these small communities yet very much fluid insofar as the communities are connected to each other through business, through social relations, etc. That to me is very exciting because that’s what’s happening in the rest of the world. So living in a place like Los Angeles, to me it’s much more than simply diverse. I get to experience globalization on a micro level.

I have a theory that the fundamentalist Muslim world, especially the Shi’ia world, are maybe the last holdouts against Western-style globalization -- McDonald’s, Starbucks, Wal-Mart. What do you think?

Reza Aslan: Well, I don’t know. Obviously globalization does involve these transnational financial networks. Right now there are essentially two Shi’ia nations: One is Iran, which is simply isolated from the rest of the world, through the U.N. and through U.S. sanctions, not through any kind of choice. And the other is Iraq, which is very fast becoming a center of investment as transnational companies begin to soak up the natural resources of that country. In the rest of the world the Shi’ia are in minority communities, so they wouldn’t really have the opportunity to make those kinds of major choices.

But if you think of globalization as having as much to do with communication issues and crosscultural issues as with transnational companies, in a sense the Shi’ia are quite ahead of the curve. The way the Shi’ia authority works is through sources of emulation, ayatollahs, who are the height of the Shi’ia educational heirarchy. And the ayatollahs are scattered all over the world, in Germany, in Russia, in Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, Syria. And because the heirarchy is so loose in Shiism you could have any one of these grand ayatollahs as your source of emulation. It’s been this way for 14 centuries.

Obviously in the past it was much more difficult to have sources of emulation in other countries or thousands of miles away from you, so it was much more localized. But what you’re seeing nowadays, through the internet and satellite TV and global mass communication networks, is those sources of emulation are beginning to be spread around.

The best example of this, of course, is the Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, who has a website, at, which has millions of hits a day and sees traffic from Indonesia to Detroit. People who -- because of his position as the grand ayatollah of Najaf, and the fact that he is now available in a way that he wasn’t before the Iraq War -- have decided to use him as their source of emulation. And so they e-mail him questions and his fatwas are the ones that they follow. So in a way, Shiism, while always ahead of the curve, is now riding the wave of globalization much more strongly than other Muslim networks.

I think if you’re talking about which group in the Islamist world is most actively anti-globalization, then you’re referring to the jihadists and the jihadist network. My mentor, Mark Juergensmeyer, refers to these groups as “anti-globalization globalists.” They are adept at using the tools of globalization in order to spread their ideology and to maintain financial connections, but ultimately their goal -- the ideology they’re spreading -- is one of anti-globalization. One that wants to rid the world of these nation-states and organize under a single caliphate. Which again, in and of itself is kind of a globalized idea. So it’s very complicated in that sense.

Sounds like you’re saying the Shi’ia are ascendant in the Muslim world, as the Sunni continue to depend on the West propping up these despotic dictatorships.

Reza Aslan: Absolutely. In fact, what you’re seeing not just in the growth of Shi’ia power -- with the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the ascendance of Shi’ia political parties in Iraq and also in the way Iran is flexing its muscle across the region -- is that Shiism, because it’s always been more open to innovation and new ideas, has evolved much more easily than Sunni Islam. Unlike Sunni Islam, which is dependent on the preservation of tradition and precedence, Shi’ia Islam is dependent on those sources of emulation, who are individuals. And their ideas are law. As their ideas change -- so does the law!

For instance, Shi’ia scholars in Iran have essentially issued a host of fatwas that are very forward-looking, fatwas that allow sex-change operations, for example. Fatwas that promote democracy. A fatwa from a Shi’ia cleric or ayatollah doesn’t require any precedent. It’s just his own judgment that matters. So if a Shi’ia cleric decides sex change operations are OK, then -- they’re OK. If another Shi’ia cleric says sex change operations are not OK, you can choose to ignore him and follow the person that says it is OK. There’s no single Shi’ia authority. Because of that, that’s why you’re seeing -- much moreso than in the Sunni world -- these exciting developments in Shi’ia political thought taking place in Iran and Iraq, and to some extent in Lebanon with Hezbollah.

I think as time passes and as Iran and Iraq do begin to settle into a more democratic future -- and I’m certain that they will -- you’ll get to a point where you’ll see the Shiia world as being the emblem of a progressive Muslim movement. Whereas in the Sunni world, which is dominated, particularly in the Arab world, by these dictatorships and despotic governments and at the same time by schools of law that are archaic and frozen in time, it’s going to take much more for these Sunni countries to advance politically, socially, and economically.

The caveat to that of course is that the largest Muslim country in the world, Indonesia, is a Sunni country and is a successful democracy. The second-largest Muslim country in the world, Turkey, is also a Sunni country and is also a successful democracy. The third-largest Muslim country in the world, believe it or not, is India -- it’s a Hindu majority country but the third-largest Muslim country -- and it’s also primarily Sunni and also a democracy. So I’m referring particularly to the Middle East and the Arab world, which has been mired in an anti-democratic history pretty much ever since they became independent.

For as long as I can remember, the truism has been that all problems in the Middle East go back to the Israel/Palestine issue. Is this still true?

Reza Aslan: The maxim you hear in all Middle Eastern classes is that the road to peace goes through Jerusalem, period. It’s sort of Middle East 101, really.

And that is absolutely true. There will never, ever be true social, political, economic, or religious change or reform until the Israeli-Palestinian situation is taken care of, for a number of reasons.

One, Palestinian intifada propaganda has become the sole, last remaining kind of Pan-Arabism. It’s basically what unites the Arab world together anymore. Culture and language and religion certainly don’t anymore, or any common cause, really. What unites them at this point is Palestine.

In a sense the situation in Palestine has become a crutch that has allowed these Arab governments, particularly the despots, to ward off and deflect any kind of personal responsibility for the lack of development in their countries, by simply pointing to the Palestinian situation. While at the same time -- and this is the horrific part of it -- doing nothing to help the Palestinians in any way.

So it’s not just that it has to be taken care of because it’s a horrific human rights situation. It has to be taken care of because you’re never going to see true, meaningful reform until you can take away this crutch that’s been used as an excuse for lack of development.

This administration came into office saying it’s not our problem, it’s not our business. They ridiculed Clinton’s eight years of shuttle diplomacy, going back and forth and trying to be personally involved in the peace process. They ridiculed that for seven years. And then they realized -- whoops! -- this really requires American leadership. Nothing can happen, no movement can occur without American leadership.

And so President Bush, after seven years in office, made his very first visit to Israel. And in that visit not only did he mispronounce the leaders’ names, both Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, as if this was the first time he’d ever heard of them, but the worst, most egregious thing was on the first day of his visit when he promised that by the time he’s out of office there will be a peace plan in place.

For people who’ve been following the peace process for the last 40 years, this was a slap in the face. This was a clear indication that this man has given absolutely no thought whatsoever to the Israeli-Palestinian process, that you can ignore it for seven years and then show up and make a ridiculous promise that in eight months everything will be taken care of.

We have a situation where not only will we soon have a new president, but possibly one with an actual Arabic name. Does this represent a real game-changing opportunity for America?

Reza Aslan: I understand there are a number of people here in the U.S. who are saying if we elect Barack Obama, just his very presence, his very face and name alone, will re-brand America’s image in the world. My argument to that is that the rest of the world doesn’t give a damn who the president is, they just care what the president does.

This is especially true of the Arab world. Maybe they’ll get a kick out of the fact that the president will have the middle name “Hussein,” but that’s where it will end. The fact of the matter is that we have, over the last seven years in a foolish foreign policy in that region, have created an intractable mess. It’ll take enormous amounts of effort and experience and knowledge and patience in order to clean up that mess. It’s not going to be simply the name of the president that’s going to make everything better.

My biggest complaint about that argument is that the people who are making that argument are also the same people who were the most gung-ho about President Bush’s Sept. 11 policy -- the war in Iraq and the war on terror. And they’re now essentially at a point where they realize they were mistaken in their support, etc.

So in a sense I feel like some of the support for Obama comes off to me as kind of a get-out-of-jail-free card. You know, why don’t we just put a new coat of paint on the problem?

Let’s say one of the Democrats is the next president. What are some specific things you’d like to see them do in the Middle East?

Reza Aslan: The first thing is that once the election is finally over we’ll finally get to hear what either Obama or Clinton really believe about the Iraq War. The promises that either one of them are making -- that they’re going to withdraw troops within the first 60 days, or within the first year -- that frankly is total bullshit.

We are not in a position to withdraw our troops from Iraq just yet. We have to do it with incredible care and responsibility. And the idea that we’ll have every American out of Iraq by 2009 is absurd. Any general, anybody on the ground will tell you that’s absurd.

Now I understand they have to make that kind of promise in order to be elected as a Democrat. But even in the ways that they promise -- both of them say we’ll withdraw the troops, in conjunction with whatever my generals recommend -- that’s just a way to get the American people ready for the fact that we’re not withdrawing the troops from Iraq. It’s not possible. It would be the greatest human catastrophe that we would be directly responsible for.

Second and most importantly we have to understand that everything, every conversation, every issue, every war, every conflict, everything in the Middle East begins and ends with the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. And that we need to have a much more robust engagement.

I will say one thing about President Bush -- and I think it says a lot about him and how useless he’s become -- he stood in Ramallah and not only was the first president to talk about a Palestinian state and a two-state solution, he stood in Ramallah and actually called for a two-state solution, a freezing of Israeli settlements and a return to the 1967 borders.

That is a miracle! The idea that those words could come out of a U.S. president’s mouth, it’s absolutely incredible. Now, because it came out of George Bush’s mouth, nobody cares and everybody just ignored it. Now that he’s lifted the cap on that kind of rhetoric, it allows the next president to really, actually make it happen.

Third -- and this is what I’m most worried about -- is that the next president, especially if it’s a Democrat, is going to have to continue Bush’s “democratization process.” They’ll have to do it in a much smarter way than Bush did. But the fact is that we have essentially paved a road in that region. We’ve told them, look, we’re going to be focused on democracy over stability for the first time in our 50-year relationship with the Middle East. You cannot close that door once it’s been opened.

And although we have shut down the process in Lebanon, in Palestine, and in Egypt -- we basically said “just kidding” to those countries after we told them we’d give them free and fair elections and obey their democratic wishes.

The next president is going to have to say look, democracy is still the focus of our foreign policy. We’re still dedicated to bringing political freedom and democratic rights, particularly to our allies in that region.

Musharraf and Mubarek and Abdullah, these guys have to know that it’s not going to be business as usual, that from now on if they want the billions and billions and billions of dollars we give them, they’re going to have to give something back in return.

So that I think is going to be very important. It’s key that the next president says to the Arab world, “Listen, we mean this. I know the previous administration gave you promises it didn’t keep, but I’m giving you this promise that we are going to be fighting for you.” It’s no longer going to be the old business of giving billions of dollars to dictators in order to maintain some kind of stability so we can suck the oil out of your region.

I think that kind of promise from an Obama or a Clinton will go a long, long way -- much longer than the color of the president’s skin or the gender of the president -- toward changing our image in that region.

That goes back to your controversial contention that secularism isn’t the key ingredient for democracy, pluralism is.

Reza Aslan: What we need to understand, as the war in Iraq proved repeatedly, is that democracy comes from the ground up. It has to be an internal process and it has to work on whatever level the people of a particular nation want it to work on.

We don’t need to remove leaders in order to bring democracy. We don’t need to get Mubarek out of office to bring democracy to Egypt. What we need to do is say, “Here’s your $2 billion. By the way, half of this now has to go to building the civilian and grassroots infrastructures necessary for there to be a functioning democratic government.”

Right now that $2 billion is used exclusively on military equipment to maintain a police state. People look at that and say, “It’s not Mubarek’s fault I don’t have any rights, it’s America’s fault.”

One thing America historically does really well is assimilate immigrants. So I don’t think Americans really understand how a country like the United Kingdom, so like America in so many ways, has allowed itself to be at the mercy of fundamentalist Muslim citizens who now openly preach jihad against their own country. How did that paradox come about?

Reza Aslan: There is a clearcut historical process that led to where London is at now. This is a country that throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s opened its doors without thought to what it believed were political refugees from countries like Egypt and Jordan and Saudi Arabia. People who were essentially expelled from those countries precisely because of their jihadist actions.

So you had all of these jihadist leaders who suddenly found themselves in London. They asked for asylum, they got it, and they’re in London with total and complete freedom in a way they never could have had in their home countries.

So first there really was an error on the part of the UK. But what allowed that error to become the huge problem that Britain goes back to the assimiliation issue you mentioned, that Muslims in the UK and other areas of Europe are people who came as guest workers after the second World War basically to clean up after that devastating war.

These were poor people, they were put into these ethnic enclaves, they were given no opportunity to assimilate into British culture, nor did they really want any opportunity. They had every intention of making some money and going back home to Algeria or Morocco or Pakistan.

But they didn’t. They stayed there and they started having kids. Never having an opportunity for citizenship or any real assimilation into European culture was OK for the parents, but it wasn’t OK for the kids, who essentially grew up as British or as French or as Dutch, but were very clearly not given the same opportunities economically and socially as their non-Muslim compatriots.

That community began to have a real identity crisis, and of course when they were coming of age the Chechen crisis occurred, which meant nothing to us in America, in which the Russians were slaughtering Chechens by the thousands.

You had the war in Bosnia in which white, blue-eyed, blond-haired Muslims were experiencing genocide. And the west was doing nothing about it until Clinton finally decided to put an end to it.

A lot of these kids were thinking, “Hold on a second. If you’re Muslim and you’re blond, white and blue-eyed and you can still be massacred, what about me?”

And that time, in one of those twists of history, was also when these ideologues and preachers were allowed into Europe in this unfettered asylum. The spark hit the gas, and you saw huge radicalization.

The situation with American Muslims is so vastly different from beginning to end. If you’re a Muslim immigrant in the U.S. you’re here because you could come here. You’re here because you could afford to be here. You’re not here as a guest worker.

That explains why Muslims in the U.S., who are very well integrated into almost every level of society, are also so well-off, so solidly middle class. Sixty percent of American Muslims own their own home. The median income for an Muslim household in America is larger than for a non-Muslim household.

You cannot underestimate how important economic and financial comfort is to assimilation. I always say when I talk about the problem of Muslim assimilation in Europe, I say you can’t compare it to Muslim assimilation in the United States. If you want to make a comparison, then compare it to Mexican immigration in America.

That’s what we’re talking about: A closed-off community that speaks its own language, stays in its own ethnic enclaves, really doesn’t assimilate very much because they think they’re going back to Mexico, are here as guest workers, many of them illegal.

The problems that we have when we talk about immigration from Mexico and all the issues involved with that, with the crazy people that want to build the wall and all that, that’s the perfect analogy for what’s taking place with Muslim immigration in Europe.

Reza Aslan speaks March 12 at 6:30 Savannah Country Day’s Jelks Auditorium. $8 in advance or $10 at the door. $5 for students, seniors and military.

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