Comparative religions scholar Reza Aslan

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Comparative religions scholar and author of Tablet & Pen discusses U.S. relations with Iran and explains why—on the Iran question—President Obama has ‘played it perfectly.’

Reza Aslan is a comparative religions scholar. Born in Iran, he studied at Harvard, where he was president of the World Conference on Religion and Peace, a U.N. organization committed to global understanding. Aslan is also a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and was Visiting Assistant Professor of Islamic and Middle East Studies at the University of Iowa. His work has appeared in several publications, including USA Today and U.S. News & World Report. An award-winning writer, his latest book is How to Win a Cosmic War.



Tavis: Reza Aslan has established himself as one of the brightest religious scholars of his generation with books like No God But God and How to Win a Cosmic War. His latest, though, is an anthology of Middle Eastern literature. It’s called Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East. Reza, good to have you back on this program.
Reza Aslan: Thanks, Tavis. It’s great to see you again.
Tavis: Good to see you. Let me start with some news of the day, of the week, I should say. Then we’ll jump into the text, Tablet & Pen. So roll back to Sunday past. Iran confesses to the world that they have made advanced with uranium. That’s significant – although not unexpected, but significant in part because those advances could lead to being able to fuel reactors, could lead to even fueling atom bombs.
That’s their announcement on Sunday. They do that in advance of a meeting on Monday with six other world powers where we are told at least 75 percent of that conversation was about nuclear issues. So just bring me up to date now as you see it where the world is in this, shall we say, song and dance with Iran about nuclear issues.
Aslan: Well, it’s a good thing that we’re talking again. That’s an important thing. The P5-plus-1, the Security Council plus Germany, have been wanting to get back at the negotiating table with Iran for quite some time.
But the bad news is that Iran wants to talk about everything except their nuclear program. They want to talk about regional cooperation, they want to talk about the sanctions issues, and it seems like the western powers want to talk about nothing more than the nuclear issue.
So we have to, at a certain point, figure out what it is that we want from Iran. Do we want them to stop enriching uranium or do we want them to not weaponize their program? I don’t think we’ve figured this out yet, Tavis, which is why these conversations keep going back and forth about, well, you’ve got to stop your enrichment program.
If that’s what we’re pushing for, we’re wasting our time. Iran has made it very clear, particularly with this announcement that you were saying, that they’ve got their own yellow cake now, they don’t need to import it, that nothing is going to stop these centrifuges from stopping running.
But it seems that there is still plenty of room for discussion here about how to keep Iran from weaponizing its program if we can sit down with them and figure out why they would want a nuclear weapon in this first place. No one asks this question. Why does Iran want a nuclear weapon? Have you heard anyone actually ask this question?
Tavis: The answer to that would be, you think?
Aslan: Well, look. I mean, Iran has some very legitimate security concerns. From the American perspective, there’s no question that Iran is a threat to our national security except that, from the Iranian perspective, we have literally encircled Iran with American troops including two or three warships in the Persian Gulf.
From the Israeli perspective, no question that Iran is a threat to Israel’s national security. From the Iranian perspective, Israel is the one with the untold number of nukes pointed at Tehran as we speak. So I think we need to take their paranoia a little bit seriously.
You know, Barack Obama, when he was running for president, he made an astounding claim when he said that, when he becomes president, he’s going to explicitly and publicly take regime change off the table so that the conversation with Iran could be had on an even keel. He’s yet to do that and we know now these assassination attempts against Iran’s nuclear scientists.
We have a clandestine program to force or compel some of their scientists to defect. It’s called “brain drain.” The CIA’s been putting it in place since 2005. And we’ve been selling all this faulty material, this booby-trapped material, which has resulted in derailing their program somewhat, delaying it somewhat.
So I think that Iran’s paranoia is somewhat justified and we need to have an adult conversation about what we’re willing to give and what Iran is willing to give.
Tavis: You mentioned President Obama as a candidate. We are taking this TV show to Washington in January on the event of the halfway point of the first term of this administration.
So we’re going to Washington for a roundtable with major thinkers and influencers and policymakers, thought leaders, on this show. It’s gonna be a conversation spread over three nights in January talking to these persons about where we are vis-à-vis the future of this country at the halfway mark, again, of President Obama’s first term. You’ll hear more about that come January in our eighth season.
I raise that to ask, since you mentioned his name, how his administration is conducting business. How are they doing this dance at the halfway mark of his first term with Iran? Are you hopeful? Are you disappointed? Are you skeptical? You are what?
Aslan: Well, listen. I know that I have kind of a contrary opinion about this from a lot of my colleagues. But I think that, when it comes to Iran, President Obama has played it perfectly. He has gotten very good advice from some of his Iran experts. I think, if I were to sort of summarize that advice into a simple sentence, it would be “Stay out of it.”
This is the thing about Iran. The economy is on the brink of collapse. Ahmadinejad has the lowest approval ratings of, you know, any leader in that region and that’s pretty low. In fact, there were impeachment proceedings that went forward in the Parliament not too long ago in order to impeach him. Everyone in Iran recognizes that the targeted sanctions are starting to work. The international isolation because of its nuclear program is becoming unsustainable over there.
So in a sense, the more the president stays out of it, the more he allows the internal dynamics in Iran to play their course, I think the more successful we’ll be in getting Iran to the point where we want it.
Tavis: For those who may have just been confused by your point, earlier you suggested or said that we should take Ahmadinejad’s paranoia more seriously on the one hand. Now you’re suggesting that we stay out of it. For those who see those two points as exclusive, connect them for me.
Aslan: We’re sitting across the table from the Iranians, America and the United States. That’s a good thing, except that in that discussion, whether we’re talking about nukes or sanctions or whatever, the Iranians know that the Americans’ ultimate goal is regime change. That’s been our goal for three decades.
If we take that off the table, if we say to the Iranians, “Look, we know you have some serious, some legitimate, security concerns, we get it and we’re willing to address those concerns,” then we’re in a place where we can actually talk. Now the great irony of that is that, if we get there, then we remove the United States as the boogey man in the region.
Tavis: Got it. But can the U.S. really stay out of it if what we are afraid of is that they are going to weaponize with these advances they’re making vis-à-vis uranium?
Aslan: Well, we know, of course, our intelligence community has told us that Iran is much further away from that possibility than we actually think. The Israeli government tends to disagree, but let’s be fair. The Israeli government has for a decade been saying that Iran is 12 or 18 months away from nuclear weapons. It seems as though they’re having much more difficulty with the technology and certainly all this clandestine stuff that I was talking about is actually having an effect.
So Iran is a bit further from having nuclear weapons than we think it is, so that gives us the opportunity to actually create the situation in which Iran wouldn’t want nuclear weapons. That’s the key here. We have to address the fact of why they want it, why are they so paranoid, and that might give us an opening to allow them to have a robust nuclear program without the weapons.
Tavis: This new text suggests to me that you believe that literature and art can help shrink that divide. Tell me why. Tell me how. Tell me about the book.
Aslan: Well, you know, Tavis, I don’t have to tell you that anti-Muslim sentiment, anti-Middle Eastern sentiment in this country is at unprecedented levels. I think that part of that has to do with the fact that’s precisely what you’re saying.
We tend to look at this region solely through the lens of religion and politics as though that’s all that matters to the peoples of the Middle East. But when you go to the Middle East, what they are more concerned about is art and literature and music and film.
I mean, they have some of the greatest artistic traditions in the history of the world and it’s something that Americans are just completely not familiar with. This is particularly true with literature. There’s a collection of poems, short stories, fiction, nonfiction translated from Arabic, Urdu, Turkish and Persian, some for the very first time.
Some of these guys are titans of global literature. Some of them a little less known, but what they provide is a unique window into the people of this region, not the leaders of the region. We’re talking about a region of the world in which, you know, freedoms of press, freedoms of speech, are suppressed if not just downright forbidden.
So the only voices we ever hear in the United States are the voices of their leaders and you know that there is a chasm that separates the leaders of this region from the people of the region. And the only opportunities that we have as Americans to get to know the people on the street is through the arts, through the literature, through music, and that’s what I’m trying to provide here.
Tavis: You talked about the leaders and the people so that, in this country, the value that the people, the American people, get from reading this book is what? And the value that our leaders, diplomats, will get from reading this book is what?
Aslan: Very good question. Both our leaders and our people see only a very limited view of this region. It’s what we see on the media, etc., etc. Maybe some people will watch some Persian movies or maybe some people will listen to some Arab pop music and they’ll think, “Wow, these people are just like us.”
But for the most part, we are separated from them by this sort of chasm of misunderstanding and it’s literature that breaks through those bounds, those barriers, and helps us to know each other as human beings. For our leaders who tend to think that, you know, the Saudi regime speaks for the Saudis or the Qatari regime speaks for the Qataris, especially now with this Wiki Leak dump, right?
We hear that they want us to bomb Iran. Well, of course, the leaders want us to bomb Iran. We’re doing their dirty work for them. But what do the people want? That’s what’s important because the people are gonna be the future of that region, the hope for stability and for rapprochement and for communication.
Tavis: This is a labor of love for Reza Aslan. It’s a part of an anthology from Words Without Borders, so all the proceeds go to that program, not even to Reza’s pocket. So it is, again, a labor of love from best-selling author, Reza Aslan. The new text is called Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East. Reza, congratulations, and good to have you back on this program.
Aslan: Any time, Tavis. Thank you.
Tavis: My pleasure.
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Last modified: September 6, 2011 at 2:10 pm