Students, faculty and Galesburg community members filled Harbach Theatre Friday, April 8 to listen to the Honnold Lecture entitled “Fear Inc.: Islamophobia in America” by Iranian-American author and scholar Dr. Reza Aslan.
Aslan has earned multiple degrees: a BA in religious studies from Santa Clara University, a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, as well as a Ph.D in sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He came to America from Iran with his family during the Iranian Revolution.
The goal of the Honnold Lecture, which has taken place at Knox College since 1929, is to expose students and faculty to leaders from numerous areas of study.
A team of professors and the Cultural Events Committee organized Aslan’s visit. Along with Assistant Professor of History Danielle Fatkin, the group included Bright Professor of American History and Chair of American Studies Catherine Denial and Assistant Professor of Psychology Andy Hertel.
Leading up to his talk, Fatkin hosted two book discussions that allowed the students to talk about Reza Aslan and ask questions. Aslan, who is currently a professor of creative writing at University of California, Riverside, presented his two books “Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in a Globalized Age” and “Muslims and Jews in America: Commonalities, Contentions and Complexities.”
“He just came for a day and I did feel like we should have this more extended interaction with his material,” Fatkin said. “And the purpose of the Honnold is to in fact do that: To give the members of the Knox community an extended engagement with a person’s thinking, with an important issue of the day.”
Audience members also got to interact with Aslan after his talk, when he took several questions on Friday night and during the following book signing, as the full auditorium poured out into the lobby.
Aslan became renowned in 2013 when he published “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.” His book interview with religion correspondent Lauren Green on Fox News and the ensuing controversy that arose when Green began questioning Aslan as a Muslim looking at Christian history only increased his media presence.
Fatkin looked back on the incident, pondering why the video went viral.
“I think it’s because first of all, it was this very powerful moment where we kind of saw the bias of the media,” she said. “He highlighted for the viewers the hypocrisy of the way Fox News wanted to present him, and I think that really resonated with a lot of people.”
During his talk, Aslan mentioned that the “CEO of crazytown,” Glenn Beck, listed Aslan on the chalkboard that he uses as a visual aid in his show.
Aslan described it as “the greatest moment” of his career.
Aslan also discussed Islamophobia in the Western world through multiple lenses. He drew together the misconceptions that Sean Hannity, Pamela Geller and Donald Trump have vocalized about Islam and terrorism and the injustice of how the law has dealt with white, Christian terrorism versus Islamic terrorism in past. He also focused on how fear generated these public claims and actions.
After the presentation, senior Hadi Ahmadi reflected on the talk, agreeing with Aslan’s argument that relationships can conquer misunderstanding.
“As a Muslim student, I’ve been surrounded by non-Muslim students all my life,” he said. “Throughout my life, I’ve seen that many non-Muslims fear talking to me or to any other Muslim. Somehow, they don’t feel comfortable being around us. … But after having a solid conversation about Islam, then they tend to change their mindset and become more friendly.”
Near the end of Aslan’s presentation in Harbach, photographs of protesters with signs that read “We Are Better Together” and “Queer Muslim and Proud” accompanied Aslan’s parting words.
“Good news: Every single one of us has a role to play,” Aslan told the crowd. “Your voice actually matters.”
“What kind of America do you want to live in? Think about that,” he said.