To many young Americans, the recent anti-Muslim sentiment that has swept across America may seem freshly disturbing.
But according to Reza Aslan, author of the New York Times bestseller “No God but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam,” the minority hatred is nothing new. It just hasn’t always been aimed so squarely at Muslims.
Aslan will speak at Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill on Sunday, April 17, 1:30 p.m., with a presentation called “Islam Today,” presented by the Pittsburgh Middle East Institute, Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee, the Michael Berger Gallery and Temple Sinai.
The Iranian-born Muslim writer rose to prominence in recent years after “No God but God” found him arguing that Western imperialism and textual misinterpretations helped cause common misconceptions about Islam, and its subsequent demonization in the eyes of so many Americans. He went on to be a voice of reason on Muslim issues as a guest on shows including “Real Time with Bill Maher,” “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “Meet the Press.”
“[At Temple Sinai] I’ll be speaking about the Children of Abraham, about the problems of interfaith cooperation,” Aslan told the Chronicle. “We all believe that the three faiths should be able to communicate and connect on issues of mutual concern, so why isn’t it happening to the degree that it should?”
To Deborah Fidel, executive director of PAJC, Aslan is an important voice for a Jewish audience because. “It behooves us to learn about other religious minorities who are facing a lot of the same issues and struggles we are,” she said, “so that we can find common cause and build coalitions and create alliances.”
As a community so intrinsically tied to Israel and the Middle East, “we spend a lot of time thinking and talking about Muslims and Islam, quoting passages from the
Koran. “We talk about what Muslims think or what they want, but we often don’t actually ask them,” she said. “We need to actually know what they think and believe.”
Aslan has similarly spent time helping the public to form a more comprehensive view of the Muslim populace. His 2010 book, “Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes From the Modern Middle East,” is a literature anthology from Middle Eastern authors little known in the West.
“The impression that many people in America have of the Middle East is that it’s a region steeped only in religion and politics, which is absolutely not the case,” said Aslan. “Music, film and literature all really matter.”
With “Tablet & Pen,” Aslan hopes to begin chainging the way Americans view the Middle East, a view that is so often shaped solely by “watching the news media,” he said.
Leading the charge to change those views, said Aslan, are the recent uprisings.
“Watching people with the same hopes that many Americans have for themselves have broken down those walls and barriers that separate people of the West from the Middle East,” said Aslan.
The author has exhaustively worked to change the way large portions of Americans view Muslims in this country, too, as the sentiments of characters including Terry Jones, the Florida pastor notorious for burning a Koran, continue to grow. Last month, Aslan appeared on “The Colbert Report” to discuss the congressional hearings on radicalized Islam led by Rep. Peter King.
“We’re in a time where Islam has become other-ized,” said Aslan. “Muslim Americans are seen as an enemy within. We see despicable protests outside mosques, berating women and children going into a house of worship. We haven’t seen these scenes in this country for more than a generation. The fact that they’re back, with such venom, should concern every American.”
But while the anti-Muslim sentiments of many Americans are the result of, “This nation that looks to some kind of scapegoat,” said Aslan.
“In the same way we look back on the anti-Jewish zealots of the late 19th and early 20th centuries with shame and derision, that’s how we’ll look back on these anti-Muslim zealots. I’m confident that this era will pass. We are the most diverse country in the world for a reason, regardless of how much people try to stop that diversity.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)