Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Participate in the revolution

Not your typical choirboy, religious scholar Reza Aslan Twitters, too

Express Staff Writer

Reza Aslan brings insight on the Middle East. Photo by Hilary Jones

He looks like a Wall Street version of that Argentinean polo player in the Ralph Lauren ads. He's a favorite on the Stephen Colbert Report, where he's not above throwing popular slang around and has no trouble keeping pace with the banter. And he's a frequent contributor to The Daily Beast.

His topic—Islam and the Middle East—is often unwieldy and onerous, confusing and conflicting, and yet he makes it palpable and even entertaining.

Reza Aslan has got a serious calling, serving as the bridge between the West and the Middle East. With his Harvard education as a scholar of religions, a book deemed one of the top 100 most important of the decade and his equally heady fine arts training, the Iranian American is serving it up with a verbal fist in the air and a smile on his face.

"We with a foot in both worlds, we who have come from the Islamic world and have made the American identity our own, we are the bridges," he said in a phone interview from California. "I want to be a bridge to unite disparate cultures, disparate religions, disparate nationalities. I truly do believe in a world without borders."

Aslan said he looks forward to a hearty dialogue when he speaks on "Youth in Revolt, The Future of the Middle East" as a guest of the Sun Valley Center for the Arts this week.

"I want to talk to people who don't necessarily think the way I do—I'm not interested in preaching to the choir. What I get really animated about is speaking in an engaged, well-informed community that is willing to be challenged—frankly, a community whose politics and values are more conservative than mine but who are interested in hearing something in a way they haven't heard before. I've got a thousand better things to do than to debate someone who isn't interested in changing their minds."

He's not exaggerating. The globalist has a hand in every form of popular media and scholarly tome. He heads Aslan Media, a nonprofit, education-driven, online multimedia chronicle of all things pertinent to today's Middle East told with journalistic integrity and cultural context. He has written several books including "No God but God, the Future of Islam," "How To Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization and the End of the War on Terror" and "Tablet and Pen," about which Colbert advises that if one is to own "one anthology of literature on the Middle East, make it this one."

With such charisma and enthusiasm, globalization is the only space large enough to occupy all that Aslan has to emote. Just past the anniversary of the Arab Spring, which saw a youth uprising in Egypt facilitated by Facebook, Aslan believes we're on the cusp of unprecedented change.

< "If we've learned anything over the past few years, it's that what happens in a distant part of the world actually has an impact on America. We [in the U.S.] are experiencing the global revolution with repercussions that we're literally seeing on our streets with the Occupy movement. I don't mean just some tangential connection, a literal connection. The world is changing before our eyes and we need to step back for a minute and look at how this all started and where it's going."

Thinking globally isn't giving a college kid a ticket to Europe and language lessons for graduation. Today's students have built intimate relationships with people half a world away based on shared interests, shared values and an interest in an expanded world view thanks to the Internet and new media.

"As a thinker, I'm trained to be conscious not just of their existence, but also their significance," Aslan said.

While technology is still largely mastered by those who are better educated and of higher incomes, Aslan said he believes the gap is narrowing.

From 2006 to 2008, for example, Internet use in Egypt went from 2 million to 12 million. Of the country's population of 80 million, 30 million have mobile phones and 70 million have access to Al-Jazeera.

"Wealth is still a relative barrier in truly exploiting the promise of social media, but that barrier is disintegrating every single day," Aslan said. "These phenomenal transformative changes going through the Middle East are going to affect our national security, economic concerns and our position and influence on the world. It will affect us in so many ways domestically. It's essential that we actually know and understand what's going on and why."

All politics aside, Aslan explained why he stresses the arts and culture of the Middle East as staunchly as he does its government.

"To be perfectly honest, despite all the many hats that I wear, I think of myself primarily as a storyteller," he said. "My job is to elucidate the meaning of those stories. I know that politics is just the story you tell about yourself and your place in the world. Stories are how we define who we are. It's how we define our worldview. Whether it's through literature or movies, the message is the same, a cross-cultural understanding."

Aslan said entertainment is the single most influential tool in changing perceptions about people.

"A movie can change perceptions about a culture in the way that 100 books cannot," he said. "Look at the LGBT community—do you think a majority of Republicans are supporting their rights because they read books? It's happened because of "Will and Grace," a show about gay Americans dealing with normal issues, and it became increasingly difficult to keep thinking of the LGBT community as 'the other.' It happened with the Jews and with the blacks, you name it. When you want to change the perception of Muslims and Middle Easterners, you have to tell their stories across multi-media channels.

"These are just the tools that I use in order to communicate the larger mission I've been called to," he said of his zeal. "It came from the realization that things are not going to connect us, only people are. That, and a recognition of that responsibility."

What: A lecture by Reza Aslan, internationally recognized religious scholar, author, filmmaker, blogger, Twitterer, Facebooker

When: Thursday, Feb. 23,

at 6:30 p.m.

Where: Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood, Ketchum

Tickets: Sun Valley Center for the Arts, $25 for members, $35 nonmembers and $15 for students,

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