Question: What is your religious background, and how has it shaped you?
Reihan Salam: My parents come from Bangladesh and both of them are Muslims and we were raised somewhat informally in that tradition. For a variety of reasons I say informal. I mean we weren’t observant in the sense of going to some kind of a religious service on a very regular basis, although certainly identified with it in this broad way and I remember praying pretty regularly. There are surahs and you’re supposed to memorize them and I remember I was taking Arabic lessons very briefly, for maybe only a couple of weeks and that I had an argument with the tutor about whether androids have souls and I remember I didn’t feel as though I was getting a very satisfactory answer regarding the androids having souls question, so I kind of shirked my duties in that regard and then I suppose had a kind of broad interest in religion as a phenomena and I think that I identify with Muslim communities in some broad sense, but I’m not all that reflective about religion per se. I kind of recoil against people who sneer at religion in part because I have a lot of friends who are devoutly religious and relatives and what have you. At the same time I think that there is such a thing as a religious impulse that some people possess or don’t posses and I think that I far more possess the spaceman who is kind of visiting Earth impulse rather than the religious impulse. Although I also have a kind of boosterishness that I think that some religious people have, but it happens not to apply to religion per se, so that is not necessarily a very good answer to your question, but that is my…those are my kind of broad impressions of religion.
Question: If not religion, what activates your “boosterish” impulse?
Reihan Salam: Well I remember once overhearing a conversation in which a guy was asked, “Where are you from?” And he said, “New Orleans.” And then the interlocutors proceeded to ask, “What was that like?” And he said something to the effect of, “What do you think it was like? All these people saying ‘y’all’ all the time.” He had this contempt for it and that really turned my stomach. I just recoiled against it, and I thought to myself, if you have objections to where you’re from, you share them with your friends who are also from New Orleans. You don’t share them with outsiders and you certainly don’t express that kind of contempt. It just seemed really untoward. And them some years later, as you may recall, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and this same guy, he proceeded to write kind of moving, you know, pieces about the devastation of his native city, and I thought to myself, this person is beneath contempt, and I just at a very, very basic gut level think that this is just not a morally praiseworthy individual, and so I guess I think that when you’re engaged with something you should work to improve it to the extent possible, be constructive. Don’t allow your boosterishness to blind you to the kind of various foibles and downsides of whatever it is that you’re associated with, but I mean do your best. Act in good faith and you know consider yourself kind of a steward of this tradition that you’re a part of whether voluntarily or involuntarily. And in a way that is a little unfair because, you know, Shelby Steele talks about the totalitarianism of black identity, the idea that one is obligated to identify with a certain thing and there is a way in which I can see how that’s problematic and maybe if we could all be wraith-like beings who are free of those associations that would be nice, but that doesn’t strike me as the world and you’re embedded in a context, and being respectful of that strikes me as reasonable.
Recorded on November 16, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen