At an April 13 lecture at the University of California, Riverside, UCR creative writing professor and self-styled expert on Islam and the Middle East Reza Aslan employed biased sources, isolated statistics, and ad hominem attacks to blame critics of radical Islam for the alleged rise in “Islamophobia” in post-9/11 America.
“Islamophobia: The Real Enemy” was delivered before a student-dominated audience of some three hundred who laughed heartily at Aslan’s fashionably anti-American jokes, clearly responding to his personable, hip demeanor. Dressed casually in jeans, no tie, and an untucked shirt, he was, effectively, one of them.
Aslan explained that, “as a Middle Easterner, as a Muslim,” Islamophobia was “a personal issue” that had been “brought home on a personal level.” The child of Iranian immigrants who came to California in the early 1980s at the height of the hostage crisis—or, as Aslan put it, “an era in which Iran, the Middle East, and Muslims were being demonized”—he described how “tough” it was to be “Iranian/Muslim.” Consequently, he tried to “separate himself from his heritage, culture, [and] religion,” by “pretending to be a Mexican,” which, he joked, “tells you how little I understood America . . . they don’t like Mexicans, either.” The audience responded with knowing laughter.
Praising America as “a unique . . . country of immigrants” united by “adherence to a set of values,” Aslan claimed this unity is tested “in times of societal stress,” particularly after 9/11, when, he alleged, there was an “unprecedented surge of Islamophobia” and “every passing year, the numbers” got “higher and higher.” Citing alarming figures depicting a country awash in “mosque burnings” and anti-Muslim violence, he alluded to FBI statistics without acknowledging that, in 2013, sixty percent of religiously motivated hate crimes targeted Jews, while only eleven percent were directed at Muslims.
The visual aids projected onto the large screen behind him revealed the bias of at least one of his sources. Relying primarily upon the left-wing Center for American Progress (CAP)’s inaccurate 2011 report, “Fear, Inc. The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America,” Aslan sought to blame the supposed rise in “Islamophobia” on:
[A] well-planned, well-executed deliberate attempt to turn Muslims into an internal enemy by a very small cabal of individuals and organizations that have been funded to the tune of nearly 46 million dollars.
CAP’s report explained, Aslan noted, why “after 9/11, there was a rallying around Muslims,” but “the further away we got from 9/11, the higher the anti-Muslim sentiment” grew. He contended that it was “not a naturally evolving process” based on Americans’ reaction to real world events, but the work of handful of “misinformation experts,” “pseudo-scholars,” and “hate groups.” He bemoaned that their “reports are cited” by the media, politicians, and the “average American” as “actual studies,” even as he quoted the vacuous CAP report to a university audience.
One of the report’s targets, Middle East Forum president Daniel Pipes—whom Aslan dubbed, “the intellectual Islamophobe”—has pointed out that, in addition to CAP’s “predictable leftist-Islamist alarmism about those of us trying to warn the world of lawful Islamism,” its financial allegations are faulty, it has “a budget many times larger than all of the organizations it attacks,” and “its secret Business Alliance has a host of corporate donors.” Presumably, Aslan did no research into the four-year-old CAP report, nor into its second, equally tendentious iteration, before largely basing his lecture on its findings.
Rather than rigorous critique, Aslan insulted those named in the report (Islam scholar Robert Spencer is a “moron,” blogger and activist Pamela Geller is the “screeching queen of Islamophobia”), took quotes out of context, and belittled such dissidents from the Muslim world as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Brigitte Gabriel. Referring to the anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism of 1920s America, Aslan made an asinine comparison to two anti-Semitic figures of that period, Fr. Charles Coughlin and Henry Ford:
The Charles Coughlins of today never tire of preaching about the Judeo-Christian values upon which this country was founded. . . . A generation from now, they will look back at this time the same way people look at the 20s—with disgust. They will be as disgusted with Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer as Coughlin and Ford.
He then asked the audience:
What kind of America do you want to live in? The divisive America that the anti-Muslim ideologues preach or the one that finds unity in diversity and celebrates differences?
Aslan never defined “Islamophobia” beyond calling it “bigotry towards Muslims.” Avoiding reference to the authoritarianism, sectarian conflict, misogyny, persecution of religious minorities, and other human rights abuses emanating from the Muslim world, he provided no context for this purported fear. As for Islamic terrorism, he blithely declared, “None of you are going to die by a terrorist; you have more to fear from a Lazy Boy [recliner].
To the obvious fact that it’s erroneous to accuse “anyone who criticizes Islam of being Islamophobic,” Aslan responded in typical profanity-laden style: “That’s bulls**t!” Asserting that criticizing Islam is tantamount to attacking all Muslims, he added, “If it involves an entire group of people, you’re a bigot.” He eventually chalked up such prejudice to a “problem with America . . . a crisis of identity,” concluding, “The problem isn’t with Islam, it’s not with Muslims.”
By peddling this view to a broad audience, Aslan inoculates radical Islam from criticism. He claimed that, “Ninety percent of my efforts now are in the fields of film, pop culture, [and] fiction” and that, “the reason I teach creative writing . . . is that nothing I do will have as much influence as a sitcom.” Referencing the influence of the television show “Will & Grace” on Americans’ views of homosexuality, Aslan observed, correctly, that popular culture has the power to change the public’s beliefs on core issues.
No doubt, Aslan will continue lecturing receptive young audiences on the perils of “Islamophobia,” and he won’t be alone. The 2015 annual conference of the Islamophobia Research & Documentation Project at the University of California, Berkeley focused on developing a field of “Islamophobia studies.” The subject is all the rage in Middle East studies and throughout academe, which is doing its utmost to distract attention from the backdrop of supremacism, dysfunction, and bellicosity in the region. Americans should beware the protestations of Aslan and his fellow travelers, for they intend not to educate, but to mislead.