Pluralism an antidote to rising extremism: Reza Aslan at LLF

  • Noted scholar says Iran, Saudi Arabia foment sectarianism to protect their interests

LAHORE: On the second day of the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) 2018, it was the Iranian-American author and religious studies scholar Reza Aslan who won the hearts of the Lahori audience, with his comprehensive talk on the rising extremism in the world and what lies ahead.

Aslan began by saying that he was absolutely amazed to be in Lahore and had no idea that his books were read and loved this much in the country.

The jam-packed session started with the scholar throwing light on the definition of extremism and how it is extremely important to understand that “conservatism does not mean extremism”. According to Aslan, someone’s interpretation of the religion should not matter as long as that person is not physically hurting anybody due to that interpretation.

“The term extremism should only be used for those who use force to coerce other people to adopt their religious ideology,” Aslan stated. He went on to say that religion is nothing but an ideology and like all ideologies, it also deals in absolutes which inherently makes it extremely susceptible to violence.

Aslan reiterated throughout the talk that the growing extremism in the Muslim world is due to an identity crisis that Muslims are facing, particularly in the West. “For the longest time it was thought that social and economic deprivation caused extremism, but the growing number of educated people now joining extremist organisations is a living proof of the fact that this is more of an identity crisis than anything else,” he said.

He went on to talk about the concept of the Muslim Ummah and the fact that there is “no such thing as an Islamic civilisation.” According to Aslan, a concept of “micro-Ummah” is now emerging based on the various interpretations of the religion, which will eventually give rise to faith as a subjective concept but could become a problem as well, since more fractured groups are going to be formed in this manner.

Talking about the problems that are currently being faced in the Muslim countries, Aslan said that secularism does not define democracy, pluralism does— which means that everyone in the society regardless of their faith has equal access to the law. He said that unless that is achieved, these problems cannot be solved.

Speaking on Pakistan, he said that the country has an enormous responsibility since it was founded not only on Islamic values but also with a modern democratic constitution, purportedly giving equal rights to everyone in the country. Aslan was particularly surprised to read about a current bill, which is being discussed in Pakistan, to punish the false accusers in the same manner as the blasphemers. “That is like saying that I have a problem of fires in my house, so I am just going to burn the house down,” he quipped.

On sectarianism, he said that it has always been in Islam and will always be there but the troubling sectarianism is the one that has been manufactured by two states to manipulate people in order to fight their wars. “What is happening in the Middle East right now is not a war between sects, but a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. They like to think that they are the leaders of the Shia and Sunni world, but in fact are nothing but corrupt nation states engaged in a battle for supremacy in the region.”

The talk concluded on an optimistic note with Aslan telling the audience about how a rapid individualisation among the young Muslims with regards to religion is now taking place in the Muslim world.

“Young Muslims these days want to interpret the scripture in their own manner and come to their own conclusions. They don’t want some authority telling them about Islam and Quran.”

He said that this is exactly what is needed to transform Islam in the 21st century, as with this, the new powerful definitions will emerge and those that are archaic can be swept aside.

“Once you understand that the authority to define religion lies with the individual and not some institution, that’s when reformation happens,” Aslan concluded.