On Oct. 4, writer, commentator, and scholar of religions Reza Aslan spoke to the Lakeside community about defining American identity, Islamophobia, and the power of relationships in combating fear and bigotry.
Aslan was the Belanich Family Speaker on Ethics and Politics, which supports a lecture or debate on political, ethical, or philosophical subjects, with the intent of promoting open discussion. His books include best-sellers “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” and “No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam,” the latter named one of the 100 most important books of the past decade by the scholarly Blackwell Publishers, and “God: A Human History,” which comes out this fall. Learn about the other three speakers this year on the Lakeside Lecture Series webpage.
Aslan began his assembly presentation to Upper School students, faculty, and staff by sharing a little of his personal history. Born in Iran, he moved with his family to the United States in 1979, just prior to the Iran hostage crisis and a time of profound anti-Iranian and anti-Muslim sentiment in America. “It was a weird experience to have my identity demonized or otherized,” remarked Aslan, who responded by trying to distance himself from his culture, heritage, and religion.
Aslan moved to discussing the concept of American identity, which, unlike many other countries, derives not from homogeneity but from a commitment to certain principles and ideals. “It’s kind of a beautiful thing … [that] what defines you as American … is the ideas that you accept,” he said. The problem, however, is that “in times of societal stress … it becomes difficult to define those values … [and] the easiest way to define yourself … is to define yourself in opposition to someone else.” He touched on points throughout history when groups within America were singled out: Catholics in the 1890s; Jews between the two world wars; Japanese-Americans during World War II; African-Americans; people who identify as LGBT; and Muslims.
“What do we do about this?” he asked. The answer is not information. “Bigotry is a result of fear, not a result of ignorance,” he said. “And fear is impervious to data.”
What does make a difference is relationships. “If you know a person as a person – not as a race or creed – it becomes very difficult to assign them an identity because you can’t think of them as a label. You think of them as a human being.” As the country became more diverse, more people knew someone who was Catholic, Jewish, African-American – who was different than themselves. “We all have a role to play,” said Aslan. “Each individual here can define what America means, simply on the values that we espouse. Each one of us becomes a living representative of the nation as a whole.”
His evening lecture for the larger Lakeside community covered similar themes but focused more explicitly on how organized groups and individuals within the country use fear and bigotry for specific purposes – including political ones.
Aslan also spent time during the day with smaller groups of students. During a lunch with representatives from Upper School student government, he fielded questions on a wide range of topics ranging from his life path (including working with Jon Stewart) to the inevitability of the violence of religious reformation. In one particularly interesting thread, Aslan talked about his experience converting to Christianity and then back to Islam and explained the many factors that drove his choices. History teacher Meg Johnson, who advises student government, remarked: “Hearing someone speak not only about religious scholarship in a removed sense, but about how they navigated being both a scholar of religions and a religious person, was of particular interest to the group.”
After the assembly lecture, Aslan had a fast-flowing conversation with students in a comparative government class who had prepared by reading several of his articles. “It was an exciting opportunity to see students grappling with the issues that he brought up,” said history teacher Nadia Selim, who is in her first year teaching at Lakeside. “Some of them didn’t agree [with him] but they were thinking about what he said, making connections to material they had learned in class, and realizing the importance of their role in making change.”