Reza Aslan shares insights on religious extremism

by Erin Dahl ,

Americans are more likely to be killed by faulty furniture or a toddler with a handgun than by an Islamic terrorist.

Reza Aslan, a religious scholar and best-selling author, shared these FBI statistics with nearly 800 people Feb. 9 as part of Willamette’s Atkinson Lecture Series. His speech, “Holy Wars: Religion and Violence at Home and Abroad,” detailed some Americans’ fears about religious extremism and explained why such viewpoints endure.

Describing the 20th century as the most violent in human existence, Aslan pointed to the failure of secular nationalism — the separation of religion from the state and an emphasis on the nation as a source of common identity— in combating prejudice and bloodshed.

“[We] just kill each other,” he said. “We don’t need God in the equation.”

At the same time, he said, increased globalization has spurred religious violence, since people revert to more primal forms of identity when nationalism is no longer a factor.

“Religion is not just about beliefs and practices,” he said. “Religion, above all else, is a matter of identity.”

For Aslan, the solution is to respect people’s faiths and to reject fear-mongering.

“Religious violence is real, but we, the people in this room… can create the counter narrative for this narrative of violence and oppression,” he says. “We all have to do it together.”

Veronica Hoelscher ’16, a religious studies and psychology major, heard Aslan speak both at the lecture and during a class earlier in the day.

Impressed by his knowledge of theological concepts, politics and conflict in the Middle East, she said his views ignite needed conversations. She also appreciates the opportunity to hear a speaker who exposes her to different viewpoints.

The Atkinson Lecture Series is Willamette’s premiere speaker series. Each year, it brings a broad spectrum of distinguished scholars, leaders, artists and critics to campus to speak at a public lecture and interact with the university community.