Writer and commentator Reza Aslan has been a powerful voice promoting interfaith dialogue in domestic and international politics. His most recent project is a documentary series called Believer, which looks at how different faiths engage with politics worldwide. It premieres on CNN on March 5th.
Aslan joined Worldview host Jerome McDonnell to discuss the evolving scope of religion in public life.
On religious discourse since 9/11
Reza Aslan: Polls consistently show that particularly when it comes to Muslim sentiment, people have far more negative views on Islam today, fifteen years after 9/11, than they did in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.
This has less to do with people’s impressions of Islam than it does with something that is much more detrimental. We are facing an identity crisis in this country. It has become increasingly more difficult for a wide swath of the population of the United States to adequately define what it means to be American any longer.
On defining American identity
Aslan: In other countries, nationality was based on ethnicity, religion, language or skin color. That’s never been the case in America. American identity is predicated on an acceptance of certain values, of certain ideas, and it’s a beautiful thing.
But in times of societal stress, like we are facing now, it becomes very difficult to have consensus on what those values actually mean. While it is difficult to say what it means to be American, it’s pretty easy to say what it means not to be American. In other words, it’s hard to identify yourself but it’s easy to identify yourself in opposition to someone else. So what do we do? We just find some internal ‘other’ among us and just define ourselves in opposition to whatever that is. The newest ‘other’ for Americans happens to be Muslims and Islam.
On closing the divide
Aslan: I’d love to sit here and say that the answer is to get two sides in the same room and have them communicate with each other and everything will be OK. It will not be OK. People are so entrenched that it really doesn’t help.
What I care about is the gigantic majority of us who haven’t picked a side. I think what is important is that we communicate with that group. Nineteen-point-eight percent of Americans voted for Clinton and 19.5 percent of Americans voted for Trump. Thirty percent of Americans didn’t bother to vote. That’s the battlefield as far as I’m concerned.
This is a battle for the soul of this country. I truly feel for those who are battling for a more inclusive country, a country that actually fulfills the promises made in its own constitution, a country that welcomes diverse cultures, races and sexualities. I’m not so concerned about the divide. I’m concerned about the people who aren’t paying attention.
On how to fight fear
Aslan: I always say that bigotry is not the result of ignorance. Bigotry is the result of fear, and fear is impervious to data. I could write all the books that I want. I could give you reams and reams of data, polls, surveys and information, and it still won’t dissipate the fear that you have about the ‘other.’
What actually does dissipate fear is relationships. When Muslims make up 1 percent of the population, you’re not going to get the opportunity to form relationships with them. So really, TV and movies become the most powerful form that we have to get to know someone, even if that someone is a fictional representation.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the ‘play’ button to listen to the entire interview.