Internationally renowned writer and scholar of religions Reza Aslan exploded into our collective consciousness a few years ago with his first New York Times Bestseller: “No god but God, the Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam,” offering up a uniquely positive perspective on Islam to a terrified post 9-11 audience. Three years later, Aslan is making waves again with his second book, “How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror,” in which he explores how apocalyptic thinking plagues every religious tradition, every inspired nationalism, and argues that it cannot be defeated with brute force, upon which it thrives.
A leading columnist at the Daily Beast (thedailybeast.com), Aslan has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, as well as many other media outlets. He has degrees in Religions from Santa Clara University, Harvard University, and the University of California, Santa Barbara, as well as a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa, where he was named the Truman Capote Fellow in Fiction. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities, and the Pacific Council on International Policy. He serves on the board of directors for both the Ploughshares Fund, which gives grants for peace and security issues, Abraham's Vision, an interfaith peace organization, and PEN USA.
Aslan’s first book is the New York Times Bestseller, “No god but God” which has been translated into thirteen languages, short-listed for the Guardian First Book Award in the UK, and nominated for a PEN USA award for research Non-Fiction. Born in Iran, Aslan now lives in Los Angeles where he is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside.
PAAIA’s Rudi Bakhtiar sat down with Aslan on his book tour through Washington DC this week.
Rudi: You’ve been travelling all over the states in the past few weeks since your book launch. You’ve been on The Daily Show with John Stewart, CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360, and you’re on Bill Maher on Friday. Are you exhausted or energized?
Reza: Both. It is really hard to complain about the fact that I get to travel around the world and share my ideas with people. That said, it is exhausting to constantly be “on” all the time. After I have finished a lecture, I can barely move. All I want to do is get back to the hotel and crash.
Rudi: In your book “How to Win a Cosmic War” you make the case that “The War on Terror” is unwinnable because it’s the wrong war to fight. So what is the answer to religious extremism?
Reza: It depends on the cause of the religious extremism. That is really the biggest mistake we have made in the so-called War on Terror. We have lumped together every movement, organization, non-state entity, and nation-state that calls itself Muslim and uses terrorism as a tactic into a single category, as though they all want the same things, or are motivated by the same grievances. Some groups are acting out of specific socio-economic concerns. Some groups, like al-Qaeda, are fighting what I call a cosmic war—a war of the imagination. For these latter groups, there is little that we can do but confront them militarily. For the former groups, we must address the underlying social, economic, and political grievances that fuel their particular brand of extremism.
Rudi: Your first book “No god but God” hit the New York Times Best Sellers list. What is it that draws you to these controversial religious themes?
Reza: I have always been interested in religion and the power it has to shape society. Maybe it is because I lived through the Iranian revolution. Maybe because I myself am a person of faith and so I take religion seriously. There is just something about the phenomenon of religious faith that fascinates me.
Rudi: Are you religious yourself?
Reza: I believe in God and I strive to have a spiritual life. I am unconvinced by arguments that nothing exists beyond the material realm.
Rudi: What is the biggest challenge in tackling some of these sensitive issues, especially in our Iranian American community?
Reza: There is so much emotion wrapped around issues of Islam among Iranians in the US. The older generation especially has so much anger and resentment toward the Islamic Republic that it is sometimes hard to have a rational discussion about what is best for the future of Iran. I know because my father feels the same way. But I always have to remind people that what they want for Iranians back in Iran is irrelevant. We need to focus on what Iranians in Iran want and figure out how to get it for them by using the system that is already in place.
Rudi: In light of your socio-economic based solutions to fighting “terrorism”, what did President Obama’s election mean to you?
Reza: It was huge. This is a man who has presented himself as the bridge between the civilizations. A man with a Muslim father and a Christian mother who understands how the world views the US. I think he’s doing a marvelous job so far.
Rudi: You’re not only about to publish your third book, but you’re also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities, and the Pacific Council on International Policy. You also serve on the board of directors for both the Ploughshares Fund, which gives grants for peace and security issues, Abraham's Vision, an interfaith peace organization, and PEN USA. And you write for one of the most popular blogs DailyBeast.com. How do you manage it all? Does that leave any time for fun?
Reza: No. I have no fun at all. Thank God my work is so much fun. My job is my hobby so I can’t complain.
Rudi: You are also Cofounder and Chief Creative Officer of BoomGen Studios, a hub for creative content from and about the Middle East. What are some of the exciting projects you are working on?
Reza: We work with a number of large studios and filmmakers to make sure that their projects dealing with the Middle East are successful and that they are made with integrity. We have a number of our film projects in various stages of development but I’m not allowed to talk about those just yet!
Rudi: When was the last time you were in Iran?
Reza: I went to Iran for eight weeks in 2005 and just hung out with family, traveled around a lot, and talked to young people about what they wanted for the future. It was an amazing trip!
Rudi: Favorite Iran story?
Reza: I had a teenage girl ask me, when she found out I lived in the US, how I liked living in a theocracy. This was in 2005 at the height of the Bush Administration. It was hilarious.
Rudi: How old were you when you moved to the U.S.?
Reza: I came to the US at the age of seven. We originally landed in Oklahoma but it did not take long to figure out there were other places in the states worth living in. So we moved to the Bay Area and that’s where I grew up. I went to High School in San Jose and college at Santa Clara University, where the Jesuits taught me everything I know!
Rudi: You’re very well travelled. What’s the most fascinating place you’ve visited and why?
Reza: I loved living in Morocco for about four months in 2000. It was incredible. I lived in Fes and spent a lot of time in Marrakesh, which is the last place on earth where the orientalist fantasy of the Middle East still exists.
Rudi: Now that you have put this book to bed, what’s next?
Reza: I have an anthology of literature of Middle East that Norton will publish in the Fall of 2010. Then I am deciding which of two books will be published next. I have a historical novel that’s been dying to see the light of day and a book on Jesus I have always wanted to write.
Rudi: What keeps you up at night?
Rudi: What do you like to watch?
Reza: I love 30 Rock and Lost. And I never miss the Daily Show.
Rudi: Favorite music?
Reza: I like hip hop and electronic music. But I also like Rock and Roll.
Rudi: Give me some names!
Reza: Mos Def for sure. And I live for Radiohead.
Rudi: Anyone special in your life?
Reza: Nope. I am single and available ladies!
Rudi: Where are you most likely to be on a Friday night?
Reza: These days with my beautiful puppy Nick. I can’t stand being away from him for even a moment.
Rudi: Maybe that’s why you’re single?!
Reza: Thanks Mom!
Rudi: Any exciting plans this summer?
Reza: Just touring.
Rudi: What’s it like growing up as Leila Forouhar’s nephew? ☺
Reza: That’s all everyone wants to know! I love Leila. She is so good to me. She has promised to sing at my wedding though I’m not sure if that’s ever going to happen.
Rudi: I wouldn’t have expected such skepticism from the optimist who believes “cosmic wars” can be won! Are you saying it's easier to win a cosmic war than get married these days?
Reza: Well they're both battles between good and evil.
If you live in Los Angeles, you can join Reza Aslan when he debuts his new book, “How to Win A Cosmic War: God Globalization and the War on Terror,” at Largo at the Coronet, Saturday, May 2, 2009. Doors open 7:30 pm, show starts at 8:30 pm. Joining Reza are indie rocker Kutsal and her musicians, and hip hop innovator Omar Offendum.
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