Vali Nasr is an Iranian-American political commentator and scholar of contemporary Islam. Born in Iran, Nasr and his family immigrated to the United States following the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Nasr received a BA from Tufts University in 1981 and a masters from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 1984. He earned his PhD from MIT in political science in 1991.
Known for his view that wars within Islam will shape the future, Nasr has testified before Congress and has advised the President and Vice-President regarding sectarian violence in Iraq. Nasr is the author The Shia Revival, Democracy in Iran, and The Islamic Leviathan.
He has taught at the University of San Diego and the Naval Postgraduate School, and is currently a Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard and Professor of International Politics at Tufts. A Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Nasr has been published in Foreign Affairs, The New Republic, Foreign Policy, Time, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, among others. He is an editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Islam and has appeared on CNN, the BBC, National Public Radio, and not least of all The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report.
Question: What can Americans do to better understand the Middle East?
Vali Nasr: Well I think actually Americans can understand Middle Easterners much more than they think.
Europeans don’t believe in religion in that sense. Religion is not a big part of European politics. It’s a big part of American politics. I think we’ve come in the past years to try to explain everything through Islam too much. Islam does matter, but so does Christianity in America.
But you cannot explain everything in America – even in the South, even among religious groups – by just a religious explanation. You definitely cannot say, “Well that’s what the Bible says.” Or, “The Bible makes them that way.”
It is too much, I think, in public discussion in America; a deliberate lack of sophistication in trying to understand and analyze the Muslim world; trying to reduce everything into the language of religion; trying to say well everything is about religion.
And I think that’s an imbalance that hurts us, because it’s very easy to gloss over real issues; and then you end up in these culture explanations that to all of us appear to be unbridgeable. And then it makes Americans basically to throw up their arms and say, “We just don’t get it. We don’t understand.” But I think they do.
And it’s the same problem in the Muslim world. I think Muslims would understand Americans a lot better if they didn’t also look through a cultural, civilization lens; and they looked at Americans and American policy in terms of interest and aspiration that also drives them all the time.
When you talk about dialogue, it’s not really about, “Let me understand your religion and you should understand mine. I pray five times a day, you go to church, but we both believe in the same God.” That’s not the useful dialogue. Dialogue really means trying to understand the other sides interests and behaviors in terms of how you would have operated in a political arena as an individual.
Recorded on: Dec 3, 2007