Dr. Reza Aslan, an internationally acclaimed writer and scholar of religions, is a columnist at the Daily Beast. Reza Aslan 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: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, 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. His most recent book is How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror, followed by an edited anthology, Words Without Borders: Writings from the Middle East, which we will be published by Norton in 2010. Aslan is Cofounder and Chief Creative Officer of BoomGen Studios, a hub for creative content from and about the Middle East, as well as Editorial Executive of Mecca.com. Born in Iran, he now lives in Los Angeles where he is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside.
Reza Aslan: The Iranians who came to the United States in ’79 – those who sort of fled the revolution – came in two waves. The first wave were primarily the very wealthy Iranians. The aristocracy, the monarchists . . . those who were in one way or another affiliated with the regime of Mohammad Shah Pahlavi and so in many ways were given advanced warning of what was to come. So they got out. And they also managed to get out mostly with all of their fortunes intact with their Swiss bank accounts; and set up not in Northern California, but primarily in Southern California, and Los Angeles, or in an area around Brentwood and Westwood that is often referred to as Tehrangeles. They have kind of created a very insulated community. They are enormously wealthy. Very, very conservative with regard to their politics, and incredibly hard-lined when dealing with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Very much like the Cuban community in Florida, though much, much richer. We did not belong to that community. We were part of the Northern California Iranian community which was a different community. They got out a little bit later. They were primarily middle class. A lot of the intelligencia. So it was a much more educated, much less well-off, and much more politically left-leaning group than the Los Angeles community. So that’s the kind of community that I grew up in. A community that was certainly bitter and angry towards the muhlas who were ruling Iran at the time; but who nevertheless were, I think, a little bit more open in their political ideologies and were far less isolated than the Iranian community in Los Angeles. Now after living in the Bay area for something like 20 years, I now lived in Los Angeles. So now I get to see the other side of the coin in many ways. And it’s a strange experience, because there is still – 30 years later – so much anger and so much hatred for the regime in Iran that most Iranians in Southern California, particularly the older generation, really take a far more neoconservative position towards Iran and towards the larger Middle East than even the neoconservatives in the White House do. So that’s been kind of an unusual experience for me as far as community-wise goes. Individually, I think the thing that I take back most from the experience of leaving Iran in the midst of a revolution was I think it was the first time that I understood the power – the transformative power – that religion has . . . the means that religion has in order to unite disparate groups and to work towards a cause of good, a cause of social justice. Getting rid of the Shah was a good cause. It was a cause that almost every sector of Iranian society took part in; but they could only be unified – whether they were Communists, or Marxists or Liberals or Social Democrats or clerical leaders – they could only be unified by the symbols, the metaphors, the language of religion. Because even for the irreligious it was a language that actually rang true. It had the power to unify a population, to create a collective identity and to spur the kind of collective action that leads to revolutions. And so that never left me. I come from a fairly irreligious family. And all my life I had sort of experienced religion not so much at a personal level – at least not until I was in high school – but mostly kind of on a sociological and even psychological level. So it always made me very, very interested in the phenomenon of religion. And so when I, you know . . . By the time I got to college and it was time to decide what I wanted to do with my life, it was a very easy decision to start pursuing religion as an academic discipline.
Recorded on: 7/5/07