Reza Aslan and Ayad Akhtar recently sat down with CultureStrike to discuss issues of migration, identity, and literature. Aslan is renowned as a writer and scholar of religions and founder of AslanMedia.com. Akhtar is a filmmaker and first-generation Pakistani American, and author of the acclaimed novel American Dervish, an exploration of a Muslim American boy’s upbringing in the midwest. They discussed the politics of multiculturalism in the European and American contexts, and the challenge of writing nuance into public perceptions of Muslim identity.
Akhtar began the conversation by describing his upbringing in Milwaukee, followed by college in New England, and a few years spent working in Europe.
Ayad Akhtar: I lived a year in Tuscany, in Italy in the countryside. I lived for eight months in Germany and two years in France.
Reza Aslan: I’m curious if people saw you differently in Europe, particularly in France.
Akhtar: The situation in Europe is disastrous, and has been, for Muslims. It was bad when I was there in the mid-90s. And I go there twice a year now still. I go to Vienna, Austria, to teach acting, and it’s even worse. I mean, this past trip that I took last August. I was traveling through Germany as well to visit friends and to see some sites, and, you know, the level of aggression was astonishing. When the train crossed the border from Austria to Germany, the train was stopped and the police came aboard the train, and systematically went to every single person who looked like they could be Turkish, Iranian, Pakistani, Arab—only those people on the train—and asked for their papers in a way that left no doubt about what their intention was. It’s something you’d see in a movie.
Aslan: Papers, please.
Akhtar: But I don’t think it’s going to go in that direction. I don’t think it’s going to end up becoming a situation like it did for Jews in pre-World War II. Though still there’s the level of aggression and antipathy for Muslims. You know, in Austria, there was this advertisement for these Internet games—there was a game in which there were two minarets, and there was an imam coming out of a minaret walking towards the viewer, and you had to shoot the imam.
Aslan: Yeah, well in light of the trial taking place right now in Oslo with Anders Behring Breivik, the Christian fundamentalist [on trial for a mass killing spree motivated by anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment]—that kind of stuff chills you to the bone. Part of it, obviously, is that there are sociological and economic reasons for what’s going on there. It’s important to understand that the immigration experience for Muslims in Europe is vastly different from the immigration experience for Muslims in the United States. Muslims basically came to Europe at the end of World War II to do the work that nobody else wanted to do—to clean up after the devastation of that conflict. They were never given an opportunity or path to citizenship, nor did they really want one. They saw themselves as guest workers; they sent their money back home. They were more or less isolated into ethnically segregated neighborhoods and not given an opportunity, as I said, either for citizenship or for any kind of assimilation and integration into society—which was fine for those people in that generation. But the problem is, as you know, they started having kids, and those kids felt as German, as French, as British as anybody else. But they were quite clearly not made to feel that way.
In fact, I think about Germany, especially [since] I’ve spent a lot of time in Germany talking about these issues—until very, very recently in Germany, if you were born in Germany, if your father was born in Germany, if your grandfather was born in Germany, but you’re of Turkish decent, you were not automatically a citizen of Germany. You actually had to apply for that citizenship just like someone who suddenly showed up in the country for the first time.
Akhtar: And if I’m not mistaken, even if you did apply, up until the late-nineties, you couldn’t get citizenship because of consanguinity. And that wasn’t changed until the late-nineties.
Aslan: That’s right. If you think about it: If you are a Turkish kid growing up in that society—could there be a clearer statement by your country that you are not us, that you do not belong here?
What I have found to be true is that the less certain that a nation itself is about its own national identity, the more anti-Muslim it is. I remember at the time, when I came home, going around the United States giving these talks about how the problem with Europe is that it has this identity crisis, and how that would never happen in America because—you can say what you want about America, but we have a very strong civic identity. We know what it means to be American. It’s sort of slammed into our brains from the moment we’re kids. We stand up and we put our hands on our chest, and we say the pledge of allegiance. So the kind of Islamophobia, the kind of anti-Muslim sentiment that has gripped parts of Europe, I thought that would never happen here [and] I was absolutely wrong! You know, anti-Muslim sentiment in this country is out of control—
Akhtar: —But it’s still not anywhere near as bad as it is in Europe.
Aslan: No, it’s not as bad as it is in Europe, but let’s be clear, the polls here show that two-thirds of Americans—two-thirds of this country—believe that Muslims should not have the same civil rights as other religious communities in the United States. A third—that’s a 100 million Americans—think that Muslims should be forced to carry a special ID that designates them as Muslims to authorities, to the police. And yes, it’s true that we do have this long background of immigration and acculturation. [There’s also] the fact that the Muslims in the United States are filthy, stinking rich. The median income for a Muslim household is larger than for a non-Muslim household.
Akhtar: When you mean immigration experience, what exactly are you referring to?
Aslan: That we’re a country that’s made up of immigrants.
Akhtar: I’m not sure that’s why I think it’s not as bad. I think it’s not as bad because the American historical consciousness has no real awareness. I think Americans are only coming into an awareness of Muslim identity on some level. I think that Europeans have had many centuries of identifying themselves in opposition to Muslims. It goes back to the Crusades. There’s the whole stopping the Muslims at the gates of Vienna. And of course, the long history of colonialism—
Aslan: By that logic though, what you seem to suggest is that it’s going to get worse, that what Europe has on America is simply that Islamophobia [in Europe has just lasted for] longer.
Akhtar: It could. I’m definitely not an optimist when it comes to that. The only reason I point out that it’s a lot worse in Europe is it’s profoundly, profoundly apparent when you’re a Muslim in Europe. Your life is impeded, to a degree. [But here,] I’ve spent a lot of time out in rural Pennsylvania and my folks still live back in Wisconsin, so I get a pretty good taste of what it’s like in the heartland, and it isn’t great to be sure. It isn’t great, and it’s clear that I feel it. You feel the struggle that a lot people often will put themselves through, which is that there’s an innate reaction, and you sense that people are trying to work through that reaction and trying to stay open. But sometimes they don’t, sometimes there’s nastiness that comes out. It can be the full spectrum.
Aslan: It’s shocking to me, and interesting from a sociological perspective, that this sudden surge of Islamophobia in the U.S. can, I think, also be attributed to this identity crisis that I actually never thought America would be facing. I think the fact of the matter is—and I think the Tea Party is a perfect example of this—America is not the country that a lot of Americans [once] thought it was. We are no longer the sole superpower. We are no longer the cultural and economic powerhouse that we used to be. We’re still obviously a military powerhouse, but we’ve recognized in the last decade the limits that our military power has. When you hear people from the Tea Party saying, “I want my country back,” there’s something in that message. That too, has created this weird identity crisis in the United States.
Akhtar: In the case of the United States, this movement that’s happening with the Tea Party—the shift to the right of the Supreme Court—I feel like it’s racial. It’s racial identity. I feel like the past that a lot of Americans are looking back at isn’t necessarily a better past—
Aslan: A whiter past.
Akhtar: Yes, it’s a whiter past. It’s a past in which white was the dominant race of power. I think part of what was happening there is related essentially to race. [With anti-Muslim sentiment,] it’s so complicated, because it’s a different faith. It’s not only racial with Islam, but also becomes religious.
Aslan: I think that’s probably why I sometimes bristle at the term “racial” and focus on identity. Because it’s about how you see yourself in this kind of indeterminate world, in a society that’s rapidly in transformation. You know, it becomes sometimes a little bit easy to brush off, say, the Tea Party, by simply talking about race as the dividing line, when in reality, it’s more than that: it’s sexuality, it’s gender, it’s religion, it’s ethnicity, it’s culture. All those things are powerful identity markers, and like any identity marker, the easiest way to identify yourself is in opposition to something. Well, what does it mean to be American? For a lot of Americans right now, what it means to be American is not to be Muslim.
Akhtar: I agree with you that it’s an opportunity to explore a lot of contradictions of the American experience. At least from my perspective as a writer, having been informed by feeling like an outsider, [and especially] after 9/11, feeling much more implicated in the cultural malice—I think it is a rare opportunity to peel back larger issues of American life that don’t have to do with Islam and America, per se. For me, that’s a more interesting perspective to have as an artist anyway. To some degree, the whole notion of an artist as an apologist for a whole community—an artist who’s trying to give a voice to a community in order to demonstrate a worthiness to a larger cultural context—is at best a milquetoast project. And at worst it’s propaganda. I mean, any artist worth their salt at the end of the day has to confront the human experience. And the human experience has to manifest itself in particular beliefs, rituals, and themes. But fundamentally, as an artist, my interest is exploring the human comedy, for lack of a better word. And it just so happens to be embodied by a particular set of characters, a particular kind of aesthetic universe, because I grew up in a particular community.
Michelle Chen (editor): When you were talking about xenophobia in Europe—the economic anxiety, this issue of borders—do you see a parallel experience between the Muslim experience in Europe, and the experience of Latin American immigrants here?
Aslan: There is no comparison between the American Muslim immigrant experience and the European-Muslim immigrant experience. When I go through Europe and I give these talks, everyone wants to compare the two, when there’s no comparison at all. If there is a comparison to be made, it’s between Europe’s Muslims and America’s Mexicans and Latinos. You can’t compare the American Muslim experience with the Mexican American experience, because, economically speaking, Mexican Americans are at an extreme disadvantage.
Now, I will say, the kind of overreach—the extreme xenophobia—we see in laws in Arizona certainly indicates that same “otherness,” the tendency to just kind of use a particular group of people as a wastebasket for all your fears and anxieties. The notion that Mexican immigrants in Arizona explains why Arizonians don’t have jobs, is—and I’m going to use a technical term here—stupid. It’s absolutely stupid to think that Mexican immigrants are stealing hard-working Arizonian jobs. I think what happened in Alabama—
Akhtar: It’s actually the contrary.
Aslan: It’s absolutely the contrary. What happened in Alabama is the perfect example of this. In Alabama the anti-immigration laws forced most of the immigrants out of the country, and the entire economy collapsed because of it. They found that they couldn’t find anyone to harvest the agriculture that kept the state running. There were hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of goods simply rotting on the vine because no American would be willing to be paid any amount of money to actually pick it. You know, it’s self-destructive, and it comes from the same sense of “otherization.” But truly, you can’t compare the American Muslim experience with the Mexican American experience.
Akhtar: If there’s a couple of threads that run through the very fabric of American life, from the inception, race is one of them. In the case of what’s happening with the immigration stuff, I think what we’re looking at is something about race. That’s how I see it.
Chen: It’s interesting how the two paradigms that you’re both referring to—one is wealth and the other is race—those inequalities both fly in the face of what, theoretically, what America aspires to be.
Akhtar: We’re always working against our lower natures as human beings. I think that the fact that the United States as a project, as a historical and political project has defined itself in opposition to those very things is ironic. But it’s also in a way not ironic, in that those are the things we have to deal with. There’s some awareness that that’s the ground we have to cover. That’s what’s special about our country. Our historical, spiritual mandate is to overcome those things.
Learn more about these authors at their websites: