Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Reza Aslan Rocks Kansas City

“I am certain that David Petraeus wishes he could be here in Kansas City instead of Afghanistan.” – Reza Aslan
Last night I attended the annual awards banquet of the International Relations Council of Kansas City. Originally, the keynote speaker was supposed to be General David Petraeus. When Petraeus got reassigned to Afghanistan, the IRC managed to get Reza Aslan, an Iranian-American public intellectual and author, to fill in. I could not have been happier. Dr. Aslan’s address was a tour de force.

Recognizing that he was filling in for General Petraeus, Dr. Aslan began his lecture by painting a pessimistic picture of counter-insurgency efforts in Afghanistan. He explained counter-insurgency theory, listed the factors necessary for a counter-insurgency to be successful, and then explained why he believes a counter-insurgency strategy won’t work in Afghanistan.

Switching gears, Dr. Aslan turned his remarks to the “War on Terror.” He asked where the war on terror is being lost. His answer, surprisingly, was Europe. He presented an overview of Islamophobic laws throughout Europe, from French bans on certain kinds of Islamic head coverings, to Switzerland banning the construction of minarets, to political parties in The Netherlands and Germany trying to pass anti-Islamic legislation and even calling for Muslims to be kicked out of the country.

His point was this: the “War on Terror” is a war of ideas which can only be won by convincing people that your ideas are better than other ideas. He asked us to put ourselves in the shoes of a young Muslim, 19 or 20 years old, in France. Laws are being passed to limit your religious expression. Politicians are using you as a scapegoat. The message is delivered over and over again that you are to be feared, that you are a threat, and that the country needs to resist being “Islamicized.” Does this seem like a good strategy for encouraging moderate and liberal Islam and discouraging religious extremism? I didn’t think so.

The lecture then moved to the United States and his comments were made within the context of the debate about the construction of an Islamic cultural center close to Ground Zero in Manhattan. Dr. Aslan argued that the greatest weapon America possesses in the “War on Terror” is the combined experience of the 8 million Muslims living in the United States. He provided demographic data that shows that American Muslims are better off economically than non-Muslims and that the 8 million Muslims in America have a combined discretionary spending power of $150 billion annually. The Muslim experience in America has been one of economic prosperity, religious liberty, and democratic pluralism. And, that is the reality that wins points for the United States in the worldwide war of ideas.

Therefore, the stupidest thing the United States can do is to succumb to the same kind of Islamophobic scapegoating and fear-mongering that has plagued Western Europe. We see this fear-mongering not only in the debate about the Cordoba Institute in New York City, but also in various religio-political groups that are planning to burn the Qur’an on September 11 and protest the “Islamicization” of America by staging demonstrations outside of American mosques. In fact, on September 11, 2010, Newt Gingrich will be headlining a demonstration against the Cordoba Institute in Manhattan. For this event Gingrich will be flying in neo-fascist Dutch politician Geert Wilders who has, among other things, advocated banning the Qur’an, prohibiting the construction of mosques, taxing women who wear headscarves, banning Muslim immigration to the Netherlands and advocating the removal of all settled Muslim immigrants from the country.

Aslan asked rhetorically: How do US soldiers in Afghanistan do effective counter-insurgency work when the country they represent is publicly burning the Qur’an? When Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf travels around the globe on behalf of the US State Department to promote the idea that American democracy is compatible with Islam, how exactly is he to be taken seriously when US politicians are lining up to score political points by criticizing the Islamic cultural center he plans to build?

Dr. Aslan proceeded to list a number of facts about the Islamic Cultural Center, its backers, and the widespread support it has received from the NYC interfaith community and the city’s planning commission. He also argued that the “sensitivity” argument against building the Cultural Center does not hold water.

In the section of his speech that impressed me the least, Reza Aslan turned to the principles of religious liberty. He argued that a person who values religious liberty cannot say, “I believe in religious freedom, but…” This argument just does not hold. I can complete that sentence a hundred different ways that wouldn't be inconsistent with valuing religious freedom and I bet Dr. Aslan can as well.
“I believe in religious freedom, but I think burning the Qur’an is ignorant, offensive, and that people who would do this are ugly souls filled with hatred.”

“I believe in religious freedom, but I abhor the hatred spewed by Fred Phelps and his followers.”

“I believe in religious freedom, but I oppose those who use religion to persecute and deny the civil rights of gay, lesbians, bisexual, and transgender individuals and families.”

“I believe in religious freedom, but I am deeply concerned about so-called 'Christian Identity' white supremacist groups. I believe that these groups should be monitored closely and prosecuted ruthlessly when they violate the law.”
Personally, I do not see any contradiction between valuing religious liberty and criticizing the actions of religious groups. At the same time, I would tend to agree with Dr. Aslan that most of those who object to the Cordoba Institute either do not understand the project or are being politically opportunistic at the expense of American Muslims and US relations with the Muslim world.

Dr. Reza Aslan capped the evening with a brilliant assessment of US relations with Iran. All in all, a fantastic lecture and a fantastic evening at the International Relations Council annual awards banquet.