Religious scholar Reza Aslan: Confront Islamophobia, overcome fear

Reza Aslan visited FIU to discuss ways to confront Islamophobia.

Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiments are widespread. From politics to media to entertainment, misinformation about Muslims is pervasive.

To share ways to confront Islamophobia in the United States and abroad, religious scholar and former CNN commentator Reza Aslan visited FIU as part of the sixth Geopolitical Summit – one of the university’s signature events featuring distinguished intellectuals discussing some of the most pressing current topics.

“We continue to be an institution that is focused on relevance, focused on impact, focused on taking responsibility,” FIU President Mark B. Rosenberg said. “Incivility is far too common in speech and action.”

Rosenberg called for a re-dedication to civility and justice, and viewed the summit as a stake in the ground to promote these values.

“In the years since 9/11, anti-Muslim sentiment has been on the rise in the U.S. and abroad, fueled by fear, misunderstanding and negative stereotypes,” said John F. Stack, Jr., founding dean of the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs. “Today we hope to counteract that fear with knowledge, compassion and mutual understanding.”

Aslan began his talk by sharing some of his own story. At the height of the Iran hostage crisis in the 1980s, Aslan was 7 years old – and, as he said, trying not to be awkward.

“It was very important for me to distance myself from my identity,” Aslan recalled. “I spent a good part of the ’80s pretending to be Mexican.”

Things have gotten worse.

“Anti-Muslim sentiments are higher today than after 9/11,” he said, discussing homegrown terrorism and the fear this incites from society.

In reality, Muslim acts of terror are not as prevalent as they often seem in the media. Aslan said, for 2011-2015, the Department of Homeland Security and FBI categorized 89 terrorist attacks. Only 11 were perpetrated by Muslims and the rest by non-Muslims. Eighteen of the 89 attacks targeted Muslims.

But 44 percent of the press coverage focused on the 11 attacks by muslims, according to Aslan. Such disproportionate coverage as well as the work of anti-Muslim organizations that spread misinformation help propagate anti-Muslim sentiment.

Aslan told the crowd that Islamophobia – or prejudice toward any group – isn’t about the particular group being vilified.

“It’s about our identity crisis,” he said. “This is not a Muslim issue. This is about America. We have such a strong identity. In times of societal stress, it becomes harder and harder for us to define what those values mean. The easiest way to define oneself is in opposition to another.

“Bigotry is not the result of ignorance,” he said. “Bigotry is the result of fear. Fear of the other, [fear of] losing one’s sense of self, sometimes fear of progress.”

Fear is not a problem of the mind, but a problem of the heart. And no amount of knowledge, Aslan said, changes the heart.

So what will change the heart? How can we tear down barriers?

“Through relationships,” Aslan said. “Not knowledge of information, but knowledge of people. We have to figure out how as a country to reject those that divide us and make good on the promise of this country.”