America is the only country in the world where a citizen hyphenates his or her nationality, and Reza Aslan finds that extremely fascinating.
Aslan, a writer and scholar of religions, was the last speaker this season for the Town Hall South lecture series Tuesday at Upper St. Clair High School, filling in for previously scheduled speaker James Fallows, who was on assignment in China.
As for the hyphenation, Aslan said Americans may never have been to Italy and may not like pasta, but, when asked, will say they are Italian-Americans if generations ago their ancestors immigrated from Italy. The same goes for African-Americans and numerous other nationalities.
For Aslan, born in Iran, immigration to the United States in 1979 was not exactly the best timing as the Iranian hostage situation was ongoing. For a few years, he said he was Mexican to avoid any backlash.
A Muslim, Aslan said his faith was the same as his ethnicity and he “didn’t think about it.”
“My faith is more a matter of my identity than anything else,” he said.
And while the expected trend of anti-Muslim feelings did not manifest itself after the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, 2001, in the past several years there has been an uptick in anti-Muslim sentiment, bombings at mosques and national figures spewing misinformation, Aslan said.
He traces the current feeling to 2008 or 2009, when plans were announced to build an interfaith building a few blocks from Ground Zero in New York City. Word spread that a mosque was planned for the sacred ground. Neither was true, he said, yet the American public was fed lies. Eight mosques around the country were targeted in 11 days, and millions of dollars poured in from special interest groups to fund those who preached biogtry, Aslan said, adding there has been a 300 percent growth in white supremacist groups. He called the events “Islamophobia in America.”
He attributed the attitude to at least two events – the economy and the fact Americans were “war weary.”
Aslan said the anti-Muslim movement is well-coordinated and funded by a handful of organizations and foundations that contributed about $43 million. The money, he said, is funneled to a group of “misinformation experts” in politics and the media.
“What’s happening today is no different than the events of a century or so ago when there were anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish sentiments,” Aslan said.
Muslims make up only one percent of the population in the United States, Aslan said, yet those pushing the anti-Muslim opinions believe Muslims will take over the country.
For most Muslims who immigrate to the United States, 70 percent become citizens, compared to 47 percent of other immigrants, Aslan said.
Soon, America will be a country where the majority of residents are minorities.
“It’s who we are, but that scares a lot of people,” he said.
Aslan’s wife, Jessica Jackley, is Christian and is a native of Pittsburgh. Her brother is an evangelical preacher, and her mother is a teacher in Peters Township. Their marriage is one of diversity, and their 1-year-old twin sons will be raised in both cultures.
“But they are going to be Americans,” Aslan said.