Who are you?

A scholar of religions, and writer.
  • Transcript


Question: Where are you from and how has that shaped you?


Reza Aslan: I was born in Iran in 1972 and spent my first seven years there. We came from a fairly large and well-off family. Sort of a landed aristocracy of Northern Tehran. And so I had in some ways a fairly traditional upbringing because of my father’s family. Very tribal. They’re actually Bakhtiari in heritage. So it was not uncommon for the sons, and their wives, and their children . . . for everyone to live in one giant house. My mother, on the other hand, came from sort of Iran’s _________. Her parents were stage and film actors. She came from a very large entertainment family.

nd at that time traditional households like my father’s would have seen my mother’s household – especially because her parents were divorced – as somewhat loose and perhaps not adequate to join their family. In fact, my father had already been betrothed to someone else since she was about seven years old. And even though he met my mother in college and fell in love with her, they had to essentially put an end to the relationship because my father had to marry somebody else. Fortunately for him, that woman that he was supposed to marry also fell in love, and actually had the guts to run away with her love, whereas my father didn’t. But that did open up the door for my parents to actually get married and move into my father’s house.

And so I really grew up surrounded by a very large, extended family, and in many ways was sheltered from some of the political upheavals that were taking place in ‘78 and ‘79. For the most part what I understood was happening was, you know, whatever I could see outside of my window. And you know, for a kid all that mattered is that school was canceled and that you didn’t have to . . . that you had to stay at home all the time. So I really don’t remember too much about the turmoil itself. I do sort of have a sense of the fear and the anxiety that was ever present during . . . especially those last few months before the Shah was exiled.

But we left Iran pretty much right after Ayatollah Khomeni arrived. We got all our stuff together. We were basically allowed to take one suitcase each, and got out on one of the last flights, and arrived in Oklahoma, of all places, not really knowing anything about America. So that was kind of a shock. And spent a year or so getting used to the United States by watching a lot of television . . . a lot of sitcoms, and Chips, and Bugs Bunny cartoons – and then ultimately moved to Northern California where there was a much larger area Iranian community. And that’s where I grew up in San Jose, San Francisco . . . the Bay area.


Question: What impact did the Iranian Revolution of 1979 have on Iranians in the U.S.?


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 ________; 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 _______ 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.


Question: What impact did the Revolution have on you?


Reza Aslan: 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.


July 23, 2007