Comparative religions scholar Reza Aslan

The noted religious scholar and No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam” author, who predicted the youth-centered Arab uprising in the Middle East and North Africa, outlines the impact that the Arab Spring will have on U.S. foreign policy.

Comparative religions scholar Reza Aslan was born in Iran and studied at Harvard, where he was president of the World Conference on Religion and Peace, a U.N. organization committed to global understanding. He's also a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and has taught at the University of Southern California's Public Diplomacy Center and UC Riverside. The award-winning writer is also a contributing editor for The Daily Beast and has book titles that include No god but God—listed by Blackwell Publishers as one of the 100 most important books of the past decade.


Tavis: Reza Aslan is a noted religious scholar and best-selling author whose seminal text, “No God but God,” has been updated in paperback as we approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

He is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Reza, as always, good to have you on this program.

Reza Aslan: Thanks, Tavis, great to be back.

Tavis: It seems to me – and this is certainly possible in the Middle East, the region that you cover so well – it seems to me that the world has changed at least three times since you were last here.

Barber: It’s really amazing. It’s amazing when you think about it –

Tavis: Forget the book, since you were last on this set.

Aslan: This is a decade that started with this terrible attack on New York and D.C. in the name of this ideology, this Islamic extremist ideology that was so ascendant 10 years ago, and the decade is ending with this new ideology that has really put the final nail in the coffin of Al Qaeda. It’s such an amazing thing, to watch this profound transformation in 10 years’ time.

Tavis: What do you think is most responsible for this profound transformation?

Aslan: Honestly, it’s just a matter of people finally getting a chance to be heard. This isn’t something new. I’ve been talking about the fact that there’s this youth bulge in the Middle East that’s going to be demanding democracy and going to force out these Western-backed dictatorships for years.

It’s just that it was the perfect storm, where they finally had the opportunity to actually make themselves heard. They were able to take advantage of some of these new communication technologies to communicate with each other, and more importantly to communicate with the outside world.

It was just a matter of time that once it got started it was going to catch like fire across the region, and it’s not over yet.

Tavis: Let me pick up on a phrase that you used, at the risk of getting both of us in trouble, because – and I get it – around this time of commemoration people get touchy and there might be something impolitic, say, that offends people, and I don’t mean to do that.

But to your point now about this decade and the challenge and the overthrow of these Western-backed dictatorships, what role do we accept? How culpable is the U.S. in this stuff lingering for as long as it did, honestly, given that some of these dictators that you mentioned were, in fact, Western-backed.

Aslan: Look, for 50 years we’ve had this policy in this region that it’s better to support a single dictator than to allow the people to have a voice for themselves, because our interests, our economic interests, our national security interests are better served by these dictators.

Well, we know now that that’s been false. We know that we’ve gotten neither democracy nor stability out of that deal, and the fact is that a lot of the problems that we’ve had with the rise of Islamic radicalism and extremism, with groups like Al Qaeda, even groups like the Taliban, have been directly a part of the foreign policy decisions that we have made in the region that have been so predicated on our own interests at the expense of the interests of the people of the Middle East. That’s changed.

We can talk all day about what’s different now about the Middle East and what do these revolutions actually mean. There’s a lot about it, but the one thing that’s really important for Americans to understand is that the old relationship that we used to have with this region is over. The days in which we thought that all that mattered was a good, comfortable relationship with one guy in charge, it’s over.

Now we have to understand that the mores, values, opinions, interests, aspirations of the people of the Middle East have to be at the forefront of our minds, and I really hope that President Obama manages to kind of shift American foreign policy in that direction.

Tavis: What’s the danger in dancing with the devil that you don’t know versus the devil that you do know?

Aslan: This has been the discussion of the so-called realist camp for years. We don’t know what comes next, and what if it’s worse? What if we get another Iran instead of the dictator that we know?

You can make a pretty good argument for that, but the point is that the question is moot. It really doesn’t matter anymore. This is what we have now, and it may be a little bit uncomfortable, it may be difficult to know exactly what kind of government is going to arise in, say, Libya or in Egypt, will it be friendly to America, will it have our best interests in its mind?

Probably not. But the point is that this is what we’ve got, and we can either be on the right side of history by supporting these democracy activists, by helping them financially, helping them politically, or we can continue to pretend that we can somehow go back to the old days in which there’s just this one guy that’s in our back pocket.

Tavis: To your credit, and one can call it prescient, one can call it prophetic, but to my mind, at least, six or seven years ago you were out front saying that there was going to be this youth bulge. You predicted that young folk were going to rise up in this region of the world and they did, and we now see the results, thankfully, I think, in this region.

So that’s what you already knew was coming down the pike. With regard to the updated edition of “No God but God,” what most surprised you about what you had to update, what you had to rewrite or revisit or amend? What most surprised you in the updated edition?

Aslan: Two things. One, the women’s movement, the role of women. I did talk a lot about that, about sort of this surge of Islamic feminism. Women all over the world trying to reconcile their feminine identity with their religious faith, and not allowing men to speak for them any longer about what the Qur’an means and says about them, what Islam says about the role of women, and deciding that for themselves.

I was able to kind of really go back and update that and talk a lot more about the role that women have played in these revolutions, the role that women have played in the political sphere in Muslim majority countries. That was really an exciting development to me.

Tavis: Before you go to point number two, has it really changed, seriously, that much for women?

Aslan: It really has, and part of it, I have to tell you, goes back to this youth bulge thing. You’re talking about a region that’s 75 percent under the age of 35. This is an intelligent, well-educated, globalized group. They’re on the Internet, they’ve got satellite TV, they see the world around them. They don’t share their parents’ ideas about the traditional gender roles of where men should be and where women should be.

All you have to do is look at the crowds at Tahrir Square in Egypt. It was men and women side-by-side, fighting together. Same thing in Iran in 2009, with the Green Movement. It was women who were actually at the forefront of that movement.

In a way, young people don’t have those same sticking points when it comes to the old ways of gender relations. It’s one of many things about their parents’ generation that they have kind of discarded.

The other issue, of course, is the role of the Internet. Now, I talked a lot about the Internet and how it’s completely changing the worldwide community of faith, the uma, and one of the things that’s really fascinating is the role that sort of Web 2.0 and social media has had in creating what I call the virtual uma, right?

There’s been this desire for the 1.5 billion Muslims around the world to reunite, become that community that the prophet Muhammad always wanted for them when there was 700 Muslims.

Now when you have 1.5 billion Muslims, that’s impossible, but what’s really fascinating about what’s happening with Facebook and Twitter and all these social media technologies is that new communities are starting to form so that this kid in Indonesia, this Muslim kid in Indonesia, has more in common with a Muslim kid in let’s say Las Vegas than he has with anyone in his own community. New communities, new identities forming online.

Tavis: I guess the question is, where social networking is concerned and social media is concerned, these outlets you reference now, whether or not what we’re seeing, vis-à-vis social media, is it leading to just overthrow or is it leading to democratization? Those are two very different things.

Aslan: Yeah, two very, very different things, and when you look at Tunisia and Egypt and now Libya and hopefully very soon Syria and Yemen, we’ve got a ways to go from the revolution to democracy. It’s a long path. We’ve been on it for 250 years; we’re still trying to figure it out, as you well know.

But I think the important thing is that what social media has done – and you can exaggerate it, of course, but there’s one thing that all of us can agree on – it has finally broken the monopoly that these authoritarian regimes have had on the levers of communication.

If you live in Egypt or in Libya or in Tunisia or in Syria four years ago, one man had control over the television, over the radio, over what you read, over what you saw, over how you communicated with each other, over how you communicated with the outside world – that’s over.

The notion that you can now – you don’t need a leader, you don’t need that one person who is the democracy activist, the Gandhi in the front, to lead everyone together. All you need is a mobile texting network, and all of a sudden you can go from 1,000 people to 100,000 people to 1 million people on the streets at once. It is a global revolution, not just a revolution in the Middle East.

Tavis: What do, though, these geopolitical shifts in this region mean, ultimately, for the U.S. and its relation to the region? I’m almost always afraid to ask that question about the region because the region itself is so disparate, as you know. Anyway, I digress.

Aslan: Of course, of course. No, it’s a very complex, very diverse region, as you rightly say. I think we have a golden opportunity here. President Obama came to power wanting to change the relationship between the United States and the Muslim world, and you can argue whether he’s done anything to actually further that relationship.

I have been very critical about his foreign policy decisions towards the Middle East, and particularly towards Israel and Palestine. But now he’s been given a gift on a silver platter. These young people want a different relationship with the United States. This isn’t an anti-American revolution. This is an anti-Israeli revolution, this is a pro-democracy, this is a pro-dignity, it’s a human rights revolution.

It’s very important for the administration to be out in front, not just with words but also with money. We give Egypt, the Egyptian military, $2 billion a year to buy weapons and tear gas and tanks, et cetera. Not to save themselves from some outside force but to save themselves from an internal disruption.

How about half of that money goes to building schools, goes to building civilian infrastructure, goes to building the democratic infrastructure necessary to create a peaceful transition.

Tavis: Isn’t that nation-building?

Aslan: It is nation-building, but it’s nation-building on the cheap. People gave Obama a lot of flak for “leading from behind” with regard to Libya, but let’s talk about what leading from behind looked like. Six months, the dictator is gone. It cost us $1 billion, which I’m pretty sure is how much we spend in a couple of hours in Iraq.

Tavis: The one thing that you would argue 10 years after 9/11 that we can most do as a nation in this region, the thing that we can most do to make sure that those lives lost 10 years ago were not lost in vain?

Aslan: I think we were trying for 10 years to defeat Al Qaeda both as a terrorist organization, which we’ve done a marvelous job doing, but also as an idea. As an ideology, as a movement, which we didn’t do a very good job of doing – the sort of Bush generation us vs. them, you’re either on our side or you’re with the terrorists mentality was a disaster.

It really helped the Al Qaeda ideology spread, even to those who may not have agreed with Al Qaeda, but nevertheless decided that if it comes to being on one side or the other, I choose the other.

The people on the streets of Egypt and Tunisia and Libya and Syria and Iran have done more to defeat the ideology of Al Qaeda than anything that the United States has done. They have shown that there is a third way, that with peaceful protest you can have an end to dictatorship and a role for human dignity, a role for your religious faith in society.

If we can support that, if we can help them make this transition to a stable democracy, that in and of itself is more that we can do to destroy the ideology behind Islamic terrorism than any action, any bomb, any amount of money that we ourselves spend.

Tavis: It is an international best seller. It’s called “No God but God,” written by Reza Aslan. Reza, good to have you on the program, and thanks as always for sharing your insights.

Aslan: My pleasure. Thanks.

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Last modified: September 9, 2011 at 2:07 pm