An Interview with Reza Aslan on Islam, Enemies of the State, and Pres. Obama

Reza Aslan by Washington Post

With Christmas approaching in only a couple of hours, billions of individuals will join in celebration to honor one of the most momentous and beautiful occasions in religious history: the birth of Jesus Christ. For many Muslims, it may seem like merely another day of the year. However, it is also a moment for reflection on the values that Christ (known as Isa to Muslims) put forth: love, compassion, and mercy. Christ  exemplified these values in all his actions and preached the message of believing in one true God.  This, particularly, is why DL Magazine was thrilled to attend a speaking event called “Enemies of the State: Jesus, Muhammad, and Zealots of Today” featuring Reza Aslan and sponsored by Muslims for Progressive Values. Dr. Reza Aslan, an internationally acclaimed writer and scholar of religions, recently published a book titled “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” that has been highly acclaimed and made many headlines after a Fox News interview went viral. DL’s Editor Sarah Harvard had a chance to speak with Dr. Reza Aslan about Islam, Enemies of the State, and President Obama.

Aslan is an Iranian-American writer with religious degrees from Harvard University, Santa Clara University, and the University of California – Santa Barbara. At the age of 15, he converted to evangelical Christianity and converted back to Islam before attending Harvard for his Master of Theological Studies. He currently lives in Hollywood, California and  serves as an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California – Riverside and as a contributing editor for the Daily Beast.

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HARVARD: Hi Dr. Aslan, thank you so much for being here today.

ASLAN: No problem. I’m really happy to be here.

HARVARD: I have a few questions to ask you and a lot of it stems from my interactions with others on the topic of Islam. I was born Muslim. I grew up Muslim. However, all my life I have been questioning my faith. At one moment in my life I considered myself agnostic. Yet, there is this passion and a fire burning inside that has made me grow into a strong believer in Islam. I believe that this is precisely why I find you and your work so fascinating. Like me, you were born Muslim. However, you spent a great portion of your life as a convert to Christian Evangelism, but eventually became a born-again Muslim. I’m interested as to what led you to come back to Islam. Why did you decide to become a Muslim again?

ASLAN: It has to do with the symbolism and metaphors that Islam provides to think about God. All of that actually made more sense to me. When I think of God, I think about it in the terms of radical unity, which Islam talks about, and less in the terms of the trinity and incarnation, which Christianity talks about. That’s it. My faith hasn’t changed. The language in which I use my faith has changed.

HARVARD: The Qu’ran is open to interpretation and can provide justifiable reasons for many different actions based on those interpretations. I find this is a great challenge not only for the Qu’ran, but for any holy scripture. This causes a great deal of strife for young Muslims who have some small doubts in their faith. My question to you is how can these  individuals believe in Islam, or any religion for that matter, without any concrete, concise scripture?

ASLAN: Well I don’t think they should have faith in the book. I think they should have faith by using the book in the way it was intended: to help guide them; to give them a language; a means of making sense of their faith. They shouldn’t be slaves to their faith. Their faith should not be in the scripture, but in God. Secondly, this is a scripture that has been interpreted in thousands of different ways and there is nothing wrong with interpreting it in your own way.

HARVARD: Okay. Now, let’s talk about the “enemies of the state.” You have classified Jesus (pbuh) and Muhammad (pbuh) as enemies of the state in their time. I’ll be honest, I’m a libertarian. I’m for individual liberty and limited powers of authority. Personally, I see Prophet Muhammad as someone who had rebelled against the Quraish tribes; the authority.

ASLAN: Yeah I agree.

HARVARD: However, a lot of people see Muhammad as a tyrant too. They see him as someone who had implemented these doctrines, hadiths, rules, and regulations on how Muslims should live their life, as told to him by Allah through Angel Gabriel. To others, it simply doesn’t make any sense and is seen as authoritarian. In those regards, would you still consider Muhammad as someone who was an enemy of the state?

ASLAN: There is a big difference between the society that Muhammad revolted against and the society that he built; that he himself built, not what his followers did. What he himself built every night and day. The society that he revolted against was one in which the power was in the hands of a few individuals. There was a huge gap between the wealthy and poor. It was a society in which the weakest and the poorest of society were cast aside. However, the society in which he built was one in which power was equally divided. A society where everyone was worth exactly the same. A society in which the chief protection was for the ones who were poor and weak; those who could not take of themselves. I would say that alone indicates that the notion of him as a tyrant would be a misunderstanding, and he was neither a caliph or a king.

HARVARD: This brings me to my final question. We’ve been talking about the concept, or this idea, of  “enemies of a state.” It is no doubt today that Muslims are often seen in that regard, but more unfavorably than how we would have viewed Muhammad and Jesus, as we have discussed. Today Muslim-Americans are affected by many policies implemented through both the Bush and Obama administration. On one hand we have domestic policies that infringe upon many civil liberties among Americans, whether that may be the NDAA or the PATRIOT Act. On the other hand, Muslim-Americans are also tackled with the ever expansive foreign policy of the United States through covert operations and the US drone warfare program. To close it off for tonight I’d like to hear your opinions, or thoughts, on President Obama’s current national security and foreign policy that has largely targeted and affected many Muslim-Americans.

ASLAN: I don’t think he can actually be held responsible for the national security of our state nor could he be held responsible for the illegal observation and intelligence gathering of American Muslims. That is sort of beyond his purview and it did start much, much earlier than his administration. However, he could be held responsible for every non-combatant killed by a drone, which is thousands of people… And that’s a war crime– I mean there is no other way you can say it. When you break the international law, that’s a war crime. So he bears a lot of  responsibility for the drone attacks, but I don’t think you can blame him on the fact that the FBI are spying on Muslims.

HARVARD: Alright, that’s pretty much it! Once again, thank you so much for your time. Hope you enjoy your time in DC.

ASLAN: It was my pleasure. Please keep in touch and I wish you the best of luck in your endeavors.

CORRECTION 12/29/13: The original published version of this interview stated that Reza Aslan rejected “reincarnation”. That is incorrect; he states that he rejected “incarnation”. DL Magazine regrets the transcribing error. Thank you.

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Sarah Harvard
Sarah can be found daydreaming about being the hybrid of Fareed Zakaria and Anthony Bourdain. She has won several awards in journalism including the Critic's Choice Award in Critical Essay and the Enterprise's Journalist of the Year award. She has interviewed prominent figures like Noam Chomsky, Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz, Reza Aslan and Icona Pop. She has an array of interest in US-Middle East Relations, national security, culture in America and post-punk revival bands.

5 Comments

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