This interview was conducted in Iowa City on April 7, 2005. Reza Aslan is the author of “No god But God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam.” (Random House 2005)
Bio on Reza Aslan from his webpage: Reza Aslan earned a Bachelor of Arts in Religion from Santa Clara University, a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard University, a Master of Fine Arts in Fiction from the University of Iowa, and is currently a Doctoral Candidate in History of Religions at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Until recently, he was both Visiting Assistant Professor of Islamic and Middle East Studies at the University of Iowa and the Truman Capote Fellow in Fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has served as a legislative assistant for the Friends’ Committee on National Legislation in Washington D.C., and was elected president of Harvard’s Chapter of the World Conference on Religion and Peace, a United Nations Organization committed to solving religious conflicts throughout the world. His work has appeared in popular magazines and academic journals. Born in Iran, he now lives in Santa Barbara and New Orleans. No god but God is his first book.
What prompted you to write “No god but God?”
RA: Part of it came from courses I was teaching here at the University of Iowa on religion and Islam, faith and practice, modernism, religion and politics. I was genuinely surprised at how popular these courses were and the hunger that people had to learn about the things I was talking about. I never knew that the subjects I was studying would hold so much interest for the people outside of my experience but they did.
The other thing was my agent thought of condensing the material covered in these courses into a book for the general readership. Now it was a different experience for me since I consider myself a novelist but I don’t get worked up by silly genres. In my mind there are two types of writing: good writing and bad writing.
So I changed gears and wrote this book the way I would write any fiction project. I just told a story, a narrative about the evolution of faith and process in Islam. I think the reason that the book has been well received is it’s not written like an academic text – I wouldn’t know how to do that anyway.
There’s a continuing sense that Americans misunderstand Islam, I take it this was part of your motivation. Some of the reviewers credit you for writing to the novice.
RA: There are two audiences for this book. One is the general Western audience who know very little about religion in general and little about Islam. I wanted to give them a sense of what Islam is as well as the true story of Islam which has been hijacked by extremist groups. But I also wanted to give them a sense of what is religion and the role that Islam plays within the intimately bonded mystery of religion.
My second audience is other Muslims; the first and second generation Muslims growing up in America as I did, who are reconciling their faith and values and traditions of their homeland with their adopted homes. I wanted to explain to them that Islam is not an exotic religion of the past but a modern religion that can be adaptable and there are modern Muslims who come to that religion in this world just as modern Christians and Jews come to their religion the same way.
This is a difficult task when you hear so many prominent Americans deride Islam as a religion of peace and categorize it as a threat to America.
RA: When I wrote this book I knew I was going to get a lot of criticism and perhaps even threats from other Muslims that are more traditional. Look at the flak that Jim Wallis has taken for “God’s Politics” from the conservative Christians. But what has been very strange is so far I have yet to receive anything like that at all. I’ve been getting e-mails and letters from American and Canadian Muslims who are thanking me for writing a book that tells everyone else what they’ve been trying to say for years.
I’ve gotten criticism from some American conservative bloggers who say I’m an apologist for Islam and have distorted the true meaning of the faith. It’s curious to me how a blogger in South Bend, Indiana knows more about the Islamic religion than I do.
Within the scope of your book, do you think the Americans can bring democratic reforms to the Middle East in the way they are going about it, or have we blundered into a culture that we haven’t understood?
RA: The great irony of all of this is the President by his own admission, had such a simplistic view of the complexion of Middle East culture and politics that he really didn’t know what he had gotten into, you know, this belief that all we had to do was drop some bombs on Baghdad and Iraqis would be throwing flowers at us and some kind of Jeffersonian democracy would bloom in Iraq. Anyone who knew anything about the region knew this was ludicrous.
But when I say that there is great irony here what I mean is that maybe we needed someone with such a simplistic view to allow the Muslims to take advantage of the opportunity presented to them to build an indigenous Islamic democracy.
What I mean is that what has made Iraq a success is that the Iraqis have succeeded despite the American blunders. Iraqis themselves in the early stages of this postwar wrangling co-opted the agenda of the Americans; they co-opted the election process
Well al-Sistani was the one that forced this election on the Bush administration.
RA: Yes, precisely – by taking this out of the hands of the coalition, they rewrote the narrative of the Iraqi war. And, the President is tying his line to the process that the Iraqis started.
Now that the Iraqis have decided to create their own vision of what Iraq is to look like, that vision is spreading to the rest of the Islamic world.
So the President’s version may come to pass, not because of the Americans’ actions but because the Iraqis were able to create a post-war Iraq in their own image and to give an example to other Middle Eastern countries that they don’t need the United States to achieve this – they can do it themselves.
But, if Bush wants to take credit for that, that’s OK with me. The important thing is that we encourage this indigenous process. Now the democracy that comes out of this wrangling will be nothing like what the administration would like it to be – they’ll be disappointed in the results — but that’s irrelevant. The important part is that it came from within. You cannot import a democracy.
You’re Iranian by birth – do you fear the US will attack Iran?
RA: There is no chance of any military action against Iran. I think that a big part of Bush’s rhetoric is to keep Iran on its toes. I think that this administration understands that pushing Iran too hard destroys any chance of peace and stability in Iraq.
RA: Iran plays a big role in maintaining peace and stability in Iraq. If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t have anywhere near the results we have now. If Iran is pushed, they’ll unleash their forces on Iraq and all chances of peace and stability in Iraq go out the window.
But while you and I might understand that, the problem is that the Iranians do not. I was in Iran recently and let me tell you, the people are absolutely convinced the bombs will fall any minute now. They are beefing up their military and readying them to fight an insurgency should the Americans come in.
Even Iranian moderates are talking belligerently to the US — they’re putting up a good front and hinting at their capabilities to attack with a nuclear weapon, which no one, including the CIA, believe they have. But they learned from the lessons of Iraq and North Korea that even the illusion of having a nuclear weapon is enough to keep the Americans at bay.
And the other thing is because Iran is preparing for an attack, they’ve cracked down on dissent from the opposition in the country. In the current Presidential elections being run, even most reform minded politicians running have had to stop talking about social reform and freedoms and talk only about national security. And that’s precisely what the hard-line conservatives want to talk about because they can win that argument. They can’t win the argument on social reform. There does seem to be somewhat scary parallels between what is going on there and our recent Presidential election — we couldn’t talk about social programs but instead talked mainly about national security.
There’s a good deal of conflict, especially in France with the prohibitions against wearing the hijab (head covering or veil) and I did a story last year on Muslim teen girls who wear the hijab in public school – you point out that wearing it was once a status symbol – what is important for Westerners to understand about the role of women who voluntarily wear the head covering?
RA: “The veil is seen as a symbol of Islam but like all symbols, it’s meaningless unless interpreted. The veil is as much a symbol of oppression of women as it is an expression of Muslim femininity. The strangeness of this is that if you go to a country where the veil is either mandatory or there is a lot of pressure to wear it, you’ll find the vast majority of women are against it. But, if you go to a country like Turkey where the veil is outlawed in much of the public realm — in the latest polls, 70 percent of the Muslim women want to remove that law.
I stress to people that the veil is a voluntary thing. That Muslim women should be allowed to choose for themselves whether to wear it. It’s not up to me or any government to decide that. It’s not any of my business.
What did your experience at the University of Iowa both as a professor of Islamic Studies and in the Writer’s Workshop give you in terms of introspection to both writing as a craft and the way Midwestern Americans see Islam?
First on writing as a craft:
RA: Well it taught me that writing IS a craft! It’s something that has to be done like any other art form. I mean, you’re either a painter or you’re not. You can go to school and learn how to mix paints but these are just tools — the ‘art’ is internal and so is writing.
That’s the great thing about the Workshop — they realize that they can’t teach you to write but they give you the tools to develop the craft.
And I believe that’s a testament to Frank Conroy (editor’s note: Conroy, director of the University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop since 1987 and author of “Stop-Time,” died at his Iowa City home of colon cancer on April 6, the day before this interview. Aslan decided to dedicate his reading the evening of April 7 to Conroy’s memory), who pulled me here and I’m quite moved and saddened by his death.
He taught me that writing is a noble profession; that writers are almost chivalrous in their profession — noble people embarked on a noble task. He also taught me that writing is also a job and if you want writing to be a job, you have to treat it like a job. You have to get up in the morning, punch the clock and write for six or seven hours a day. You can’t take a sick day from writing.
When I was writing “No god But God” I was under a huge deadline while writing it – I wrote it in about 13-14 months. But because I had been taught to treat writing like a job, that helped me.
I never took that seriously as a young writer. I used to say ‘I’m an artist; I have to be moved to write.’ Well, that’s not what Frank taught me. He said you’re an artist, fine, but a craftsman as well and you have to work every day.
On the Midwest view of Islam and the Middle East:
RA” Like most Californians and people who grew up on the coasts, we have such a biased picture of the Midwest and that comes from ignorance. When I came to Iowa a lot of my colleagues at Harvard and Stanford chuckled at me – what could one do in Iowa?
But I have to tell you I was absolutely blown away by the literacy of this state, by the interest of this state and by the liberalism of this state, especially after 9-11.
I kept hearing from colleagues from New York University and Stanford and other places about how much trouble they were having teaching after 9-11. They were telling me the trouble they were having with pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian factions at their schools and how free speech was being stifled by people from organizations like Campus Watch and the like.
But here at the University of Iowa, I had nothing but support and interest from all sectors. The Department of Religion here gave me so much freedom and support that I was actually shocked by all the support as well as the desire of the students to learn about Islam and the Middle East and you couldn’t find that (interest) anywhere on the coasts.
I was so blessed to be here when 9-11 happened and have the support of this community. People also tend to forget that the largest and oldest Muslim community in America is here in Iowa.
Iowans are so desirous of learning about other cultures. I think that people in California and New York have already formed their opinions and they’re crystallized and they aren’t really interested in gaining any other information that doesn’t support their biases. But those biases don’t exist to the same extent in Iowa.
I truly feel that God brought me here at that particular time for that reason alone – to be with these people while they were going through that tragic occurrence and to be among people who really wanted to understand why that tragedy occurred.
After 9-11, the attendance in my Introduction to Islam class went from 35 to 270 in one semester. And all along, my department was there for me at every level. David Klemm, the chairman of the Department of Religion, who sat down and said to me whatever I needed they would give me. No junior faculty member was ever given the support and freedom I was given.
What is your hope for the future for Islam and for Islam in the United States?
RA: I believe we are living in the time of the Islamic reformation. In fact, I think we are living in the twilight of that reformation.
For me, the word reform is defined by its inevitability. This process cannot be stopped; it can be slowed down for a time but reform is inevitable. It’s an historic reformation taking place within Islam — it’s adapting itself to the realities of the world around it.
I think we’ll see the same process we saw in the Christian reformation from doctrinal absolutism to doctrinal relativism; toward a truly indigenous Islamic enlightenment.
And it’s up to us as Muslims in the US to give voice to that for our brothers and sisters who don’t have the voice or the same ability to speak out as we do.
I am very nervous about the relationship between the United States and the Muslim world. We’re an incredibly easy target for fundamentalists, for Arab autocrats or anyone who wants to rally others to their cause. All they have to do is connect Israel or the United States to their cause.
So what we have to do is we need to figure out a way to express our American moral values to the Muslim world and the most concrete step we can take is to first and foremost address the problem with Palestine.
We need to take away the excuses that our ideological opponents have for blaming their problems on the United States. And the biggest excuse is the disproportionate power struggle between Israel and Palestine.
If we can encourage a fair and lasting peace in that region, you’ll be amazed at how quickly Muslim opinion about the US will change in the region.