Rosenblatt Forum on Sunday, November 16th.Reza Aslan is an internationally acclaimed writer and scholar of religions. A fellow at the University of Southern California's Center on Public Diplomacy and Middle East Analyst for CBS News, Aslan is the author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam and How to Win a Cosmic War, which will be released in April 2009. Aslan was gracious enough to answer some of my questions about Jews living in Islamic lands. He will appear at the Museum's annual
Jamie Kenney (JK): In 1945, there were approximately 800,000 Jews living in communities throughout the Arab world. Today, there are fewer than 7,000. What do you predict the future holds for these communities?
Reza Aslan (RA): It depends on whether you are talking about the Arab world or the Middle East. The largest Jewish community in the Middle East lives in Iran and quite comfortable, as a matter of fact. Most Iranian Jews would say their national and religious identities coexist in a comfortable way. The future demographics in that region in regard to Jewish populations, however, will look more like Israel and Palestine: there’s this polarity right now and until that conflict can be settled in a way that seems just to both sides, it’s hard to see how these things will improve. It’s the elephant in the room that has to be dealt with. But to see these two communities as intrinsically at odds as a result of centuries old religious hatred is false. It’s historically inaccurate. What we see as Anti-Semitism in the Arab world is borrowed from Europe. It’s a result of the same processes of nationalism that has led to conflict and war that we have seen between ethnic and cultural groups around the world. What is happening between Jews and Muslims is part of the same phenomenon between India and Pakistan, in the former Yugoslavia, and between Pakistan and Bangladesh. It’s a conflict of identity more so than religion… [though] religion is part of one’s identity, so it’s inseparable.
JK: What should Muslims and Jews know about one another?
RA: They are the same people. They come from the same people, they have the so many historical, mythical, cultural, and religious commonalities. What we think of as Islam today was so much openly absorbed from Judaism—unapologetically. So many of those commonalities have been brushed aside and replaced with conflicting conceptions of nationalism and this 20th century identity formation.
JK: Your book No god but God talks about Islamic Reformation--young people worldwide “reinterpreting” Islam. Does this offer new opportunities for Muslims and Jews?
RA: By definition, if you are taking away authority from where it has rested for centuries, you are promoting innovation. But because there isn’t a single centralize authority, you have a cacophony of voices, and some are going to be louder than others. There’s no value judgment in this, it’s inevitable. How one figures out which voices are going to dominate and what the future may hold depends not just on the actions of young Muslims themselves, but the social context in which they live. Right now, for instance, the war on terror has really taken away the voice of the more moderate movements within the Muslim world. It’s hard to talk about democracy when democracy means chaos and hypocrisy. Western powers have a far greater role to play in the future of Islam, but not in the way they have had. The west has no role in Islam’s internal changes, but it has a role in the platform and addressing its grievances.
JK: You work with a great group called Abraham’s Vision; could you talk a little bit about that?
RA: So many groups try to bring Muslims and Jews together, particularly with young people. [These groups] try to create a sense of unity and cooperation. What is unique about what we do is take these people and put them in intentionally uncomfortable situations. Rather than go to Jerusalem we go to Bosnia, to show where these kinds of conflicts and sentiments can lead. It’s incredibly moving for these kids. The second part of this is the community programs where we do after school-programs [across the country] at Jewish schools to teach about Islam and Muslim schools to teach about Judaism. It's a great program.
JK: What issues will you address at the Rosenblatt Forum?
RA: Part of what I am going to talk about is to delve a little bit deeper into the historical relationship and even the mythic relationship between these two people. What we have been witnessing in the past half century is an exception to the historical rule, and there is a hope that as the political situation becomes clearer and people become more comfortable with it those relationships can revert to a place of cooperation.