Reza Aslan on What the New Atheists Get Wrong About Islam

Dr. Reza Aslan, author of the book
Photo: Bret Hartman/The Washington Post

In the recent culture-war flare-ups over Islam, the side arguing that the religion is inherently dangerous and violent has tended to be overrepresented in the media, pulling together an unlikely coalition of right-wingers and otherwise-liberal pundits like Bill Maher, as well as New Atheists such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.

There aren’t a lot of well-known figures on the other side of the debate, but Reza Aslan seems particularly comfortable in the role. The University of California, Riverside professor has carved out a niche as a particularly vocal opposition figure calling for a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between faith and behavior, and last week, he penned a New York Times op-ed in response to a highly watched Real Time With Bill Maher segment in which Ben Affleck confronted Maher and Harris over what he saw as Islamophobic rhetoric.

Science of Us recently spoke with Aslan about what he sees as profound weaknesses in the New Atheist worldview, the rise of ISIS, and why it’s important to understand the differences between various Islam-influenced terror groups.

So let’s say you had Bill Maher and Sam Harris as a sort of captive audience in a lecture hall for a half hour, and only a half hour. What would you focus on? What do you want them to hear that you don’t think they’re hearing?
This is going to sound odd to say, but probably nothing, because when you are dealing with that kind of level of certainty, whether you are talking about a religious fundamentalist, or an atheist fundamentalist, which is precisely what someone like Sam Harris is, it’s really a waste of time to try to argue either data points or logical reasoning, because they have already made up their mind and it becomes kind of useless to have that kind of conversation.

I think it’s important to understand that when Bill and I have a debate on his show, or when Sam and I have a debate, as we’ve had on more than one occasion, we are not talking to each other; we’re talking to the people in the middle. And that points to the problem of these conversations to begin with, is that you often do have very entrenched worldviews that are being discussed, not particular arguments or opinions, not differing interpretations of data points, but just two different worldviews: one worldview [that] sees religion as insidious, as irrational, as responsible for all the evil in the world, and one worldview that sees religion as an ideology like any other ideology, no different whatsoever, from secularism or nationalism or socialism. As any ideology, it is completely up to an individual to interpret it.

If I were to put the difference in those worldviews in the simplest way … someone like Sam Harris or Bill Maher sees religion as defining people of faith, their values, their motivations, and I see people as defining their religion.

What do you mean by that?
I think the principle fallacy of not just to the so-called New Atheists, but I think of a lot of critics of religion, is that they believe that people derive their values, their morals, from their religion. That, as every scholar of religion in the world will tell you, is false.

People don’t derive their values from their religion — they bring their values to their religion. Which is why religions like Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, [and] Islam, are experienced in such profound, wide diversity. Two individuals can look at the exact same text and come away with radically different interpretations. Those interpretations have nothing to do with the text, which is, after all, just words on a page, and everything to do with the cultural, nationalistic, ethnic, political prejudices and preconceived notions that the individual brings to the text. That is the most basic, logical idea that you could possibly imagine, and yet for some reason, it seems to get lost in the incredibly simplistic rhetoric around religion and the lived experience of religion.

People get the causality confused, then? Your argument is that it’s not that these texts or these religions are causing, say, violent behavior — it’s that certain values that people bring to the religion or the text, values that were already there, are the cause of the violence?
Yes. It seems like a logical viewpoint — if you are just a person who doesn’t know much about the history, philosophy, sociology of religion — it seems like a logical thing to say that people get their values from their scriptures. It’s just intrinsically false. That’s not what happens. People do not derive their values from their scriptures — they insert their values into their scriptures.

In the United States, just two centuries ago, both slave owners and abolitionists not only used the same Bible to justify their conflicting viewpoints, they used the exact same verses. That’s the power of scripture, it’s the power of religion: It’s infinitely malleable. We do not read scriptures that were written 5000 years ago still because they’re true — we read them because they’re malleable, because they can address the ever-evolving need of a community, of an individual, because they can be shaped to whatever one’s political ideology is. You have Christians in the hills of Guatemala who view Jesus as a liberating warrior who takes up arms against the oppressor, and Christians in midwestern Chicago who believe that Jesus wants you to drive a Bentley. Who’s right? They both are! That’s why Jesus matters.

So it sounds like you’re saying that someone like Bill Maher is taking what is sort of a Rorschach test and treating it like a how-to guide or an instruction set, when that’s not really what it is.
That’s a very nice way of putting it, yeah. I mean, it’s an understandable but almost comically simplistic view of religion, which is, I think, just to get off-topic for a moment, the entire problem with the so-called New Atheist movement is that it gives atheism a bad name. This is not the philosophical atheism of Schopenhauer or Marx or Freud or Feuerbach. This is a sort of unthinking, simplistic religious criticism. It is primarily being fostered by individuals — like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins — who have absolutely no background in the study of religion at all.

Most of my intellectual heroes are atheists, but they were experts in religion, and so they were able to offer critiques of it that came from a place of knowledge, from a sophistication of education, of research. What we’re seeing now instead is a sort of armchair atheism — people who are inundated by what they see on the news or in media, and who then draw these incredibly simplistic generalizations about religion in general based on these examples that they see.

Or, in the case of someone like Harris, they will scour a scripture for bits of savagery as though that is considered “research,” and then make these grand pronouncements about the lived experience of billions of people of faith. And then, when confronted with the fact that these scriptures can be interpreted in a multiplicity of ways, they will often make an argument somewhat akin to, Yes, but those who read these scriptures in a “figurative”or “metaphorical” way, they’re not the real Christians, they’re not the real Jews or the real Muslims. The great irony is that a lot of these New Atheists, memes when it comes to religion, they tend to read the scripture more literally than most religious literalists do.

But that’s always struck me as one particularly strong argument on the New Atheists’ side. All these texts — or at least the Quran and the Old Testament, and parts of the New Testament — they do pretty specifically and clearly give people permission to kill nonbelievers. I know it’s a matter of interpretation and most people ignore those parts, but isn’t it at least reasonable to argue that these books shouldn’t be the centerpiece of your sense of morality?
This is the thing — it’s not that you can interpret away problematic parts of a scripture. It’s that the scriptures are inundated with conflicting sentiments about almost every subject. In other words, the same Torah that tells Jews to love their neighbor also tells them to kill every single man, woman, and child who doesn’t worship Yahweh. The same Jesus who told his disciples to give away their cloaks to the needy also told them to sell their cloaks and buy swords. The same Quran that tells believers if you kill a single individual, it’s as though you’ve killed all of humanity, also tells them to slay every idolater wherever you find them.

So, how do you, as an individual, confront that text? It’s so basic, a child can understand: The way that you would give credence or emphasis to one verse as opposed to the other has everything to do with who you are. That’s why they have to sort of constantly go back to this notion of an almost comical lack of sophistication in the conversations that we are having about religion. And to me, there’s a shocking inability to understand what, as I say, a child would understand, which is that religions are neither peaceful nor violent, neither pluralistic nor misogynistic — people are peaceful, violent, pluralistic, or misogynistic, and you bring to your religion what you yourself already believe.

You first got in touch with me after I wrote about a less-than-inspiring CNN segment with the question, “Does Islam Promote Violence?” beneath you as you spoke. What’s the trajectory in terms of this sort of silly, superficial coverage? If I put on my rose-colored Kumbaya glasses, I would say, in much the same way today no respectable figure would posit a link between homosexuality and pedophilia, because almost everyone knows someone who is gay, 40 years from now, a lot more people will know Muslims in day-to-day life, and CNN will no longer run those sorts of segments. Do you think that’s true, or am I overly optimistic?
I think you’re absolutely right. Look, in a much larger sense, Islam has become the new Other in the United States. It’s become a byword for whatever is foreign, exotic, fearful, unfamiliar. This is an old story. In fact, everything that is being said about Muslims in the United States — that they’re not really American, that they can’t be trusted, that their loyalties are in doubt, that their religion isn’t really a religion but actually a political ideology, that they are here to overturn American ideals and values — every single one of those statements was made about Jews in the inter-war period, and about Catholics at the end of the 19th century.

And of course, as people began to understand that Catholics and Jews have a lived religious experience that is not unfamiliar, that is not exotic, that is actually quite familiar to the fabric of American religiosity, those communities stopped being Other-ized and they became very much “American.” The same thing is going to happen with Muslims in this country. I think it’s important to recognize that less than 40 percent of Americans claim to have ever even met a Muslim. And so that is a far more significant number when it comes to explaining Americans’ attitudes towards Muslims than anything else, because any social psychologist will tell you that it’s not data that changes people’s minds, it’s relationships that change people’s minds.

If you simply know one single person from an outgroup, it becomes impossible to label that group as Other, because you recognize that this individual — who may be from a different religion or a different race or a different ethnicity — shares the same struggles and hopes and aspirations and dreams, views the world in the same way that you do. And so for me, I’m very, very optimistic about the future because I am familiar with the past of this country.

Let’s talk about ISIS. It has been, in a short time, a very successful movement, one able to recruit a lot of members and seize a great deal of territory. What is it that people are misunderstanding about the group?
ISIS is a jihadist organization, not an Islamist organization, which is why the attempts of people like Netanyahu or others to argue that ISIS and Hamas is the same thing is not just ludicrous — it’s extremely dangerous. Hamas, as an Islamist organization, is a nationalist group. They have nationalist concerns and they are willing to use both terror as a tactic and the political process to achieve their nationalist ambitions. ISIS, like Al Qaeda, is a jihadist organization. It is a trans-nationalist organization. Not only does it have no nationalist ambitions, it is anti-nationalistic. Their ultimate goal is to get rid of all nation-states to reconstitute the globe as a single world order under their control — hence, the very notion of the caliphate.

And so these two organizations, which have Islam and terrorism in common, have nothing else in common with each other. And to treat them similarly, to assume that they require the same response, is to put our very national security in this country at risk. So, with that understanding, how do you confront an organization like ISIS, whose ambitions and goals are purely imaginary? Who have no sort of earthly ideology? They have no political goals. They do not want land; they want the world. They are not fighting a real war between individuals and armies. They are fighting a war of their own imagination, between the forces of good and evil.

How do you counter the group?
The way you confront an organization like that is twofold. No. 1, you kill their militants. There is no room for discussion or negotiation when it comes to an ISIS or an Al Qaeda militant. They don’t want anything concrete. And if you want nothing that’s measurable or concrete, there is nothing to talk about. You must be destroyed. But that’s not the end of the argument because, as you rightly say, this is an organization that has managed to draw Muslims from around the world to their cause by setting themselves up as a group that is addressing their grievances, whatever those grievances may be.

Now, the grievances themselves, be they political or economic or even just the most basic grievances of someone in the midst of an identity crisis, the grievances themselves are legitimate and need to be addressed. But it’s very important to understand that for ISIS, the grievances are not just random; they’re immaterial. They are nothing more than an attempt to throw as wide a net as possible, over as many people as possible, in order to create some sense of collective identity — “You are one of us,” not because you believe the things that we believe, not because you share the same ideology that we share, but because we share the same grievances.

So on the one hand, ISIS obviously doesn’t have earthly goals, and the only solution to the group itself is basically a military solution. But you’re saying we need to separate that from the recruitment side: Right now, there’s a young, frustrated Muslim kid in London or Paris or Chechnya, and there are specific earthly things we could do to prevent that kid from packing up his bags and heading to Syria.
Yes. That’s exactly right — that you have to kill ISIS soldiers and militants. There is no other response to ISIS militants and soldiers. But that’s not the end of it. You have to take away their appeal, and the way that you take away their appeal is to address the grievances that they use to draw people to their cause.

Based on other conversations I’ve had with folks who study this, it sounds like it isn’t really the case that the most religious people join ISIS. It has more to do, as you mentioned, with frustration or the sense of alienation. Could you explain this a bit?
Well, as a matter of fact, what’s really fascinating about the initial studies that are being done by sociologists, by scholars of religion, about those who join ISIS, is the lack of religiosity. We have had numerous interviews with former ISIS militants — and again, this is a very new organization, so we’re just now starting to acquire the research and the data to talk about them — is how little religion plays a role in this group, how little the idea of reading the Koran or praying or those kinds of things play a significant role on the ground among these militants.

Now, maybe this self-described “caliph” himself [ISIS head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi] is quite religious, and he seems to have some pedigree in Islamic law. But it doesn’t seem to be filtering down. It looks as though, from the data that we have so far, that the sort of profile of someone who joins ISIS is someone who maybe is an outcast, has these sort of romantic ideas about what’s taking place in Syria and Iraq, is looking for adventure, is looking for a means to satisfy this kind of violent impulse that they may have. It’s an opportunity to take part in a social experiment, really, in which your most base instincts can be satisfied. So it’s not the case that religion plays no role at all — I mean, religion is the sort of underlying, unifying aspect of it. But the idea that ISIS is drawing excessively religious people to it is factually incorrect.

And how do members of ISIS differ from those of the other groups ISIS often gets lumped in with?
Think about it this way: The difference between a Hamas terrorist and an Al Qaeda or ISIS terrorist is that the Hamas terrorist, because he is reacting from a place of dispossession — in fact, in many cases, profound dispossession — tends to be poor, tends to be less educated, tends to have a very narrow conception of what his ultimate goals are: feeding my children, carving out a Palestinian state. So, often these terror movements come from a place of deprivation.

An ISIS or Al Qaeda terrorist tends to be wealthier, far more educated, not dispossessed in the slightest, not coming from a place of deprivation at all. And so people wonder why that is. The answer is very obvious: If you are an organization whose entire ideology is predicated on the removal of all borders and boundaries, the rejection of all ethnic and nationalistic and racial ideologies, the reconstitution of the world as a wholly new global order — these are quite sophisticated concepts. You don’t join ISIS to feed your family. You join ISIS because you believe in this conception, this idea of a new world order that can be built with your violence and your blood. That’s, again, why it’s very important to avoid these absurdly simplistic generalities, because not only are they just simply wrong, but they actually are quite dangerous.

(This interview has been edited and condensed.)

Reza Aslan on What the New Atheists Get Wrong