Fear of Islam has spread among a growing number of people in the United States, even though that fear isn't grounded in reality, writer and religion scholar Reza Aslan said while visiting Knox College.
Aslan was on campus to deliver the 2016 Honnold Lecture, which brings leaders in various fields to the College for public talks, informal discussions with students and faculty, and classes relating to their areas of expertise.
Aslan's April 8 presentation, "Rethinking Religious Conflict: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam at Home and Abroad," drew from his recent books, Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in a Globalized Age, and Muslims and Jews in America: Commonalities, Contentions, and Complexities.
Knox students said afterward that they enjoyed his lecture and learned from it.
"Before this talk, I imagined Islamophobia as just an Islamic problem, a Muslim problem," said Dy'Anna Augustus ‘16. "But he brought up the great point that it's an American problem. It's something we need to address as a nation."
Hajah Turpin ‘17 said she found the topic of his lecture "very relevant."
"It just put into perspective for me that Islam is not a problem. Islamophobia is unfounded," she said. "It's honestly just a modern rework of xenophobia. That's all it is."
During the lecture, Aslan said the "wave of violence and extremism" that has taken hold in part of the Muslim world has, understandably, created a reaction of fear and led to "Islamophobia."
More than half of Americans now hold an unfavorable view of Islam, he added. Yet according to government statistics, a person is more likely to get shot by a toddler in the United States than by a terrorist, Aslan said. Further, he said, right-wing extremists have killed more Americans than Islamic extremists have.
Still, bigotry against Muslims persists.
"Bigotry is not the result of ignorance," he said. "Bigotry is the result of fear."
Facts, figures, and other information cannot change the minds of bigots, Aslan said. But relationships can.
"If you know one Muslim, it cuts in half your negativity rating of Islam," he said, citing poll findings.
The reason is that knowing someone who is Muslim means seeing him or her as a human being, not as a symbol or as an "other," he added.
Aslan noted that anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism previously were widespread in the United States, but those views changed over time as people from different religious faiths got to know each other.
A generation from now, he predicted, Muslims will become part of the fabric of U.S. society, just as other groups of people previously have done.
What makes the United States so unique is the "unity that we find in our diversity," he said. That unity is the result of each individual's actions and decisions. "So really, it's up to you now," he told the audience.
"If it's about relationships, if that's the only way to change minds, and therefore the only way to change the country, then every single one of you is a representative of the kind of America that you want to live in," Aslan said. "So let's figure that out. What kind of America do you want to live in?"