If you didn’t manage to get tickets to Reza Aslan’s speech at the Chateau Lacombe Hotel last Wednesday, then you missed what felt like a perfect cross between a university lecture and a stand-up comedy routine.
Edmonton Public Library hosted Aslan as part of their Forward Thinking Speaker Series, which will feature other public intellectuals like Timothy Beatley and Sir Salman Rushdie. There was no lack of enthusiasm at the event, as Chateau Lacombe’s ballroom was packed with people eager to see Aslan in person.
Amongst those who manage to pay attention to the disparaging follies of U.S. cable news channels like Fox or CNN, Aslan is a favourite guest commentator. His fans treasure his ability to be both articulate and funny, encapsulated in moments such as his appearance on Fox News where he defended himself against the interviewer’s Islamophobia in which all her questions were a variation of “why is a Muslim writing a book about Jesus?”
As well his multiple appearances on Bill Maher’s show, where Aslan outmaneuvers Maher’s overly obstinate and borderline bigoted atheism. For his fans, Aslan is one of the leading public intellectuals in the fight against the irrational fear of Islam which seems to have taken off following 9/11.
Aslan’s humour immediately sets him apart from other pundits. Right away, he joked that he was in Edmonton looking for real estate in preparation of Donald Trump’s presidency and he truthfully claimed that he used to live in Vulcan — Alberta, not the planet. He mocked how religion is often the focal point of pundits when discussing the latest terrorist attack, joking that the media portrays terrorism as if it were the side effects of “sudden jihad syndrome” where someone reads the Qur’an and yells “jihad!”
Part of his message was that even though we shouldn’t ignore the role of religion in religious violence, we also shouldn’t make it the dominant point of discussion and obsess over it to the point where we associate terrorism with a particular faith.
Aslan also touched on the media’s hypocrisy: only violent acts committed by Muslims can be labeled “terrorism,” whereas other violent acts committed by non-Muslims are merely deemed shootings. He referenced Dylann Roof, a 22-year-old white supremacist who shot nine African-Americans, and Wade Michael Page, who attacked a Sikh temple and killed seven people, including himself. Because of this, the word terrorism is a largely meaningless phrase that speaks more about whoever uses it.
The way he sees it, the media is a consumer enterprise that perpetuates a correlation of Islam with terrorism, covering terrorism in a way that meets viewers’ demands. In other words, fear sells. I asked the question of whether or not the media could be a force for social change, to which he answered yes but through pop culture and not news media.
In a country that tends to pretend Islamophobia doesn’t exist, this discussion should be encouraged. Aslan’s speech exemplified this, and he insightfully prompted this necessary conversation.