On Nov. 10 Reza Aslan came to speak at Elon. He’s a writer, political commentator and Islamic scholar. Though he is a contributing editor for The Daily Beast, he tells people not to call him a journalist, as they have very technical skills and ethics and he didn’t study them. He started his own media organization, Aslan Media Inc, to try to give more factual, objective information about the Middle East (the organization has something like citizen reporters scattered around the area who watch for stories).
Aslan’s speech was titled, “Beyond Fundamentalism.” He spoke of combating racist, hateful comments and rhetoric that are becoming more commonplace in America.
He said such comments are common in Europe. Laws are passed in Switzerland banning the building of a certain part of a mosque, in France banning women from wearing head coverings. This minority population is being bigoted, attacked, scapegoated, pointed fingers at, restricted. Aslan said he came to the United States because this kind of restriction and talk would never happen here — yet it has.
Aslan compared the scapegoating we’re witnessing of Muslims to the exact same thing that happened to Jews, Catholics, Quakers, so on and so forth. Every minority, every wave of immigrants that comes to America has been taunted with these restrictions and hateful speech — they were always cast as the outsider, the “other.” It is exactly this type of casting others off into another distinction, making them different, that starts a buildup of hatred, misunderstanding and thus violence. It’s happened in the past. Why can’t we keep it from happening again?
Aslan laughed at, mocked, the politicians and members of the media who are spewing hatred and misinformation about Muslims — who are encouraging Islamaphobia. People like Sharron Angle (who made up a city in Texas), Glenn Beck, Rick Nager, dfdfd. He pointed out that they’re wrong, so we can and should laugh at them. But we should also be doing something about it. And I like how he gave us ideas of what we could do (as speakers often just lay out the problem and describe it, but don’t give us the next step of what we can do).
I had the privilege to have dinner with Aslan and the Liberal Arts Forum at Elon before the speech. I sat at his table and we discussed journalism. As an aspiring print journalist, it was interesting to see his views on the media now. He said he believes that if you get your news and it has commercials, you’re not really getting news, you’re getting a product. And this is somewhat true, television news is a business, they need to sell ads. The same is true for print journalism. But I’ve been finding that television journalists and pundits like to yell at each other and get out their emotions and not tell facts of the stories. So Aslan had a point. We can’t always trust politicians and the media to be telling us the truth, the only truth. There is always something left out, some opinion that they didn’t agree with and thus left out. As citizens, we have to make sure we’re watching the news with a grain of salt. We have to go to different news sources to see the different sides, we have to learn how to “see through” the media, how to be media literate.
Aslan spoke of one way to begin to fix the growing misunderstanding of Muslims, Islam and the hatred is to build relationships between people. It is when people have relationships that they connect, relate, and feel like they know and understand another. In order to make these others, whoever the “other” may be, less of a foreign person and more of a human, we have to make an effort (and they have to make an effort) to form meaningful relationships with people. This is how to begin to understand someone different from you — by interacting with them.
A statistic he gave explained that when people know just one person of a certain faith, belief, who is the “other,” different than what they believe, it cuts down greatly on xenophobia, hatred, misunderstanding. So if people know just one Muslim, they will remember that person, think of their humanity, when they begin to generalize and hate.
I thought it was interesting how Aslan said it’s not knowledge, not education, that can create relationships. He encouraged people to be involved in the arts, literature, theatre, music, painting, etc. The arts are how to build relationships, the arts are where to build relationships, he said.
So, what do you think about schools cutting the budget for the arts? The arts are almost the first thing to go when money is in need — math and science always stay.