Reza Aslan ’95 is an author, scholar of religions, and a major commentator on Islamic issues. Aslan doesn’t mince words, whether he’s part of an NPR roundtable or sparring with Stephen Colbert. He’s also quite the tweeter.
When Newsweek ran it’s recent incendiary “Muslim Rage” cover, it was in reaction to reaction to the hateful "film" Innocence of Muslims. Aslan was one of the many who saw the magazine as trying to capitalize on turmoil in its own way, he helped turn what seemed a less-than-thoughtful attempt at online discussion into an internet laughing stock. Read the tweets for #MuslimRage and follow Aslan on twitter at @rezaaslan. And on Oct. 11 he kicked off SCU’s 2012–13 President’s Speaker Series with a talk titled “The Promise and Perils of the Arab Spring.” You can watch the video of that talk at the end of this article.
SCM caught up with Aslan and asked about the recent Middle East protests, subverting the Newsweek cover discussion, and what might have been the sternest commencement address of all-time.
It seems like following the recent attack in Benghazi, which was conflated with an anti-Islamic film, the media got so much so wrong. How did this happen?
The media is built upon the necessity of creating narratives that can be very easily digested. I mean, the target for the media is about a third grade education. The media is also, of course, a commercial enterprise. Its purpose is to sell a product.
What’s very important to them is to have a narrative that has the same sticking power that a soap opera might have or that an NBC one-hour drama might have. So they use the narrative that this is “Muslim rage” and talk about it as though it's season two of the Arab Spring or the end of the Arab Spring—this is what we've heard from both print and TV almost to an outlet.
Of course, this was unbelievably, ridiculously, embarrassingly incorrect, and not just in the information that they were reporting. For instance, the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was a terrorist attack spurred by Ayman al-Zawahiri of Al Qaeda in retaliation for the death of Abu Yahya—this was something that we knew within 15 minutes of the attack. With the exception of CNN, no one else was talking about that.
So not only were they wrong with the information, the narrative itself was incorrect. The idea that the protests we’re seeing across the region—some of which have genuinely been about this anti-Islamic film—are representative of the end of the Arab Spring are—and I use this word quite deliberately—stupid.
There were 500 people protesting at the U.S. embassy in Cairo. There were millions upon millions who came out for the Arab Spring. There were 100 people—100 people—who protested in Benghazi. Two days ago, there were 30,000 people who were protesting against those protests and the violence. Of course, I didn’t see those people on the cover of the New York Times or Newsweek.
So again, we have to get it out of our heads that the purpose of the media is to provide us with information. The purpose of the media is to sell commercials. That is the sole purpose of the media. What sells commercials are TV dramas and soap operas—very simple, compelling narratives with sex and violence, and then people buy Viagra and soda.
So how does this trend in media factor into its portrayal of Muslims?
The best bogeyman of all is Muslims. What better bogeyman do you need than this global cadre of violent, religious zealots who represent everything that America is not—the quintessential other.
Again, even defining these protests as “Muslim protests” is quite idiotic. Across the board, maybe 20,000 people were involved in these protests, out of 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide. It doesn’t make any sense.
You mentioned the media portrayal of these protests as Arab Spring: Season Two, but is there a more nuanced take on these events where there is, in fact, a thread that ties the recent protests and the Arab Spring together?
Most definitely. All you need to do is compare these protests to the protests of 2006 over the Danish cartoons, which went on for months and months and were steeped in blood and violence. That has not been the case at all in 2012.
These protests rose up and sputtered and went away very quickly. They went away primarily because they had no lasting power, they could not spark the middle. The protests in 2006 were held during the time of these dictatorships and were very clearly organized from the top down. It was Mubarak and Ben Ali and Gaddafi and Saleh who organized those protests and used them to their advantage. The 2012 protests were organized from the ground up and any kind of ground-up movement necessitates being able to activate the people in the middle.
For instance, that’s why the Arab Spring was successful. It wasn’t just a bunch of liberals and leftists and youths. They were able to activate everyone else. But that didn’t happen this time around.
This time around, thanks to the Arab Spring, there were a cacophony of voices who were coming out condemning the attacks, condemning the film, but also allowing for an open space to discuss the issues involved in these protests. Issues of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the role of religion in society. In 2006, those conversations would have landed you in prison. In 2012, those conversations are defining the region.
So yes, you can say this is the sequel to the Arab Spring, but it was a much better sequel than what the media has presented this as.
The title of your SCU talk is "The Promise and Perils of the Arab Spring." You’ve described some of the promise, what do you see as perils?
Look at the protests, that is part of the democratic process of the Arab Spring. The notion that there are now multiple parties and multiple interests vying with one another to gain an upper hand is precisely what one would expect in an emerging democracy.
Take Egypt for an example. In the United States, what we saw was just a bunch of crazy Muslims protesting a movie. But, of course, anyone who spent more than five minutes looking at what happened in Egypt saw this was a conflict between the ruling Muslim Brotherhood and the party that is far to the right of them—the Salafi party, primarily organized by the Al-Nour Party. The only place that showed that trailer was a satellite station called Al Nas, which is owned by Saudi Wahabis and is the mouthpiece of the Al-Nour party in Egypt. What Fox News is for the GOP, Al Nas is for the Al-Nour.
The Al-Nour party, the Salafis, they used this film as a way to apply pressure to the Muslim Brotherhood, whom they do not like. They are not in cahoots with the Muslim Brotherhood in any way—they are actually to the right of the Muslim Brotherhood. The film was used in order to sort of push Mohamed Morsi [the current President of Egypt] toward their values in order to take advantage of this crisis for political gain.
Anybody in the United States should be familiar with that process—taking advantage of crisis for political gain. But this is a wholly new experience in Egypt. There have never been any political parties in Egypt! There have never been any political gains available. In answer to the question of whether the government passed the test or not, I think they passed very well. Not at first. At first, Mohamed Morsi did not do a very good job, he bent to the Salafis, he made certain comments that were geared toward his constituents and meant to appease the religious sensibilities of those he relies on for political support.
But within 15 minutes of President Obama sending that not-so-veiled threat—calling Egypt neither an ally nor an enemy—Mohamed Morsi had done a complete 180! He began to condemn the violence, canceled official government protests that were being planned, and has since said all the right things and done exactly what we would expect from a responsible governor of the largest Arab state in the world.
This is good news. This is what we want to happen. But, of course, the American mindset is so simplistic that, first, it’s difficult to understand that anything would happen in any part of the world that isn’t about us. And second, the complications of internal politics and political ramblings are things that are way beyond the attention span of even sophisticated Americans.
Shifting away from politics, you’ve spoken before about how important storytelling is for two separate cultures to understand each other. Is there some hope that if understanding isn’t coming through the media, storytelling could fill the gap?
Absolutely. Storytelling is how we understand the world. Politics is just storytelling. Nationalism is just storytelling. The way that we make sense of ourselves, our place in an indeterminate world, our community, our relations with each other, is all built on the stories we’ve constructed.
Now more than ever, storytelling through the arts—whether it’s music or film or books—really is the key here. Storytelling is how we build bridges between us, because stories have a way of defining the humanity that exists beyond the identifiers we assign to each other, whether those identifiers consist of race or religion or ethnicity or what have you.
You were one of the first on Twitter to run with the subversion of Newsweek’s #MuslimRage hashtag. Were you at all surprised with how quickly the online Muslim community took ownership of that?
I was delighted, but not surprised. This is the other thing that is important to understand about what happened, not just last month but with the Arab Spring in general. That narrative I was telling you about, that the media tries to present, is no longer monopolized by print and television media.
Even in the middle of the Arab Spring, you could turn on any channel on TV and they would be talking about the Islamic takeover of the Middle East. You had politicians and pundits warning about the Muslim Brotherhood turning Egypt into another Iran. But that narrative was broken by the fact that there are now so many other outlets, so many different analyses out there that are not tied to the broadcast networks and print magazines. So that narrative never took hold. It didn’t hurt matters that it was primarily young people protesting and young people online experiencing it.
So people refused to believe the media narrative of what was happening during the Arab Spring. I think that’s precisely why you had such overwhelming support for it in the United States.
Look at what happened recently with the protests. It took most media outlets days and days and days to separate the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the anti-film protests. It took the Twitterverse about 15 minutes to do that. I was utterly aware of what happened in Libya four days before the counterterrorism chief came out and said this was a well planned, well coordinated terror attack.
The Newsweek cover is a perfect example of this. Newsweek is just a grotesque—it signals the demise of print journalism. I mean, 20 years from now when we talk about the end of print, we’re going to talk about the Muslim Rage cover.
Forget about the lack of journalistic integrity in assigning a professional Islamophobe to write an article about Islam. Forget about the premise of the article being 100-percent incorrect. What I think was remarkable was for Newsweek to try and gin up the conversation through social media and the immediate way in which that was hijacked, not just by Muslims, but by people who have had enough. If you want to talk about the promise and perils of social media, this is a peril: You do not get to define what the media narrative is going to be from the top down any longer. And I think that is a good thing.
You’re coming back to campus very soon. What memories come to mind whenever you return to SCU?
There are so many, but I guess the one that always stays with me is the graduation address by Fr. Paul Locatelli ’60, who I think is missed by everyone.
I will never forget the president of the University addressing the graduation class of 1995—I assumed he was going to just talk about how wonderful we are and how we’re going to go off and see the world, et cetera. Instead, he spent about 15 minutes excoriating us for getting this incredibly valuable, very expensive degree, but so what? What we did with the degree and who we helped with it is all that matters.
That has never left me, that moment when Fr. Locatelli told us all to get off our high horses and go out there and make a difference in the world.
Story updated Oct. 3. Video added Nov.8.