I meet the majestically named Reza Aslan at the Panera Bakery in Santa Monica, a sterile hub of laptops and executive attitudes, maybe not the nicest place to talk about religion, but it’s close to his apartment. Waiting for his arrival, I conjure images of him appearing as that other Aslan, Narnia’s lion-creator. He arrives not quite in sync with my fantasy, but as we begin talking, I see he belongs to another order of heroes. Ever since the release of his book No God but God, the comparative-religion scholar’s cell phone has been ringing off the hook with interview requests from media trainspotters seeking the latest Muslim hipster soundbite. In Time magazine, Craig “craigslist” Newmark called Aslan one of the world’s most influential people.
Dressed in clever 21st-century attire, sporting the silky locks of black hair and fine bone structure characteristic of Persian royalty, and exhibiting the verbal stamina of an auctioneer, the Tehran-born Aslan doesn’t disappoint. He reminds me a little of Tariq Aziz, Saddam Hussein’s now-deposed Christian prime minister, in the way his speech emerges in perfectly edited English phrases, as though lifted from a seamless narrative.
Middle Eastern scholars, especially those with something political to say, have often been characterized as having more flair in the pen than in the mind. Aslan, however, with his 336-page narrative of the world’s fastest-growing religion set against the backdrop of other faiths, delivers dizzying substance along with the linguistic fireworks expected of the Middle Eastern stylist.
“We are now living in the era of Islamic reformation,” Aslan announces, intentionally drawing a parallel between Islam now and Christianity 500 years ago, “and that parallel is one of ‘individualization.’ Who will decide what the faith means? Is it going to be the individual or the mosque?” And further, one wonders with the emergence of Aslan and others, must the voices of real change come only from the Middle East?
“Just because I’m living in the U.S. doesn’t make my Islam any less valid than [that of] someone from Saudi Arabia,” Aslan insists. “The notion that Islam is unaffected by culture, that mores and cultures adapt to Islam and not the other way around, is not just a historical fiction, it’s offensive to the faith.
“It was only when I saw what was happening in the name of my religion that I realized my responsibility as a Muslim, and an Iranian in America,” he continues. “I’ve been given this voice denied to millions of Muslims around the world, and I have to speak for them and shout just as loudly as the others.”
Aslan has spent three years here in Southern California writing and pursuing academic objectives — as a research associate at USC’s Center on Public Diplomacy and as a Ph.D. candidate at UCSB in history of religions. In West L.A.’s Little Tehran, Aslan and his book have made quite a splash. “The Iranians in L.A. are very welcoming, proud and even possessive of any Iranian who does anything good,” he says.
They embrace him in spite of great ideological differences: On the question of how to fix Iran, Aslan favors a policy of engagement and democratizing the country from within, while Los Angeles Iranians — at least the older, revolution-fleeing generation — tend to be more confrontational and neoconservative.
“There are some dogged Iranians who tell me they disagree with everything I said, and then they buy five of my books.”
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In Westwood and Beverly Hills, a generational conflict has broken out, Aslan says, between parents “who teach their kids to loathe the Islamic Republic” and their offspring, “who are much more fascinated with Iran and have gone back to visit.” Second-generation Iranian-Americans have returned to their parents’ traumas with fresh or at least inquisitive eyes, especially in regard to religion and its role in the 1979 revolution. An Islamic scholar with no religious childhood, Aslan is representative of that evolution: “I’m far more religious than my father. He’s about as anti-religious as it gets.”
This realignment, between Iranian-American youth and an Iran sick of isolation, has played out at college campuses with large Iranian populations, like UCLA. The students, Aslan has observed, “are far more pragmatic about changing Iran,” advocating for “incremental steps and negotiations with clerics” over “the old hard-line ideology that’s produced very little in the last 26 years,” and “have more complex ideas about what the revolution meant.”
Crucial to the health and adaptability of Islam (and also key, reformers believe, to its future) is Ijtihad, or “independent reasoning,” a long-established but much-ignored source of Islamic law. The consolidation of power and slow elimination of Ijtihad occurred somewhat under the radar, though it has been less repressed in Shia Islam. The sites of the most freeform Ijtihad happen to be Shia countries currently embroiled in external and internal conflict: “A lot of scholars, myself included, believe the future of Islam, especially Islamic democracy, rests in the Shia world,” Aslan says. “It’s Iran and Iraq where the most exciting experiments are being carried out.”
You’ll often find Aslan deep in concentration at the recently revamped Santa Monica Public Library, one of his favorite places to write. Often, he’ll ride his bike or walk to the library, which he calls his “office.” He’s currently at work on a historical novel set a thousand years ago; it’s about a caravan traveling from the Arabian peninsula to India. Aslan’s own journey, from Iran to America — first to Northern California as a child, with stops in Boston and Iowa on the way to L.A. — has opened his eyes to new ways of seeing the world. When he and his New Yorker fiancée first moved to Los Angeles, their initial apprehensions dissolved into “love at first sight”: “Everything you’re supposed to hate about L.A., I love,” Aslan says, “like the whole car culture and the Hollywood business world.” And now, after a successful honeymoon with the city, he and his fiancée decided they’re staying here for “the long haul.”