Ep. 6 | Giving Voice to Silenced Islams | Prof. Ali Asani

Ali AsaniProfessor Ali Asani tells the Alwaleed Program team about his scholarly trajectory, beginning with his experiences coming to Harvard College as an international student from Kenya and entering Islamic studies as an Ismaili student in the early 1970s. He also discusses the importance of expanding perspectives in Islamic studies to include different interpretations of Islam, his interest in studying Islam as a living tradition in the lives of ordinary believers, especially through the arts, and his commitment to education beyond the walls of the university. Given Professor Asani's interest in the experience of Islam through the sound arts, this episode contains selections from Qur'anic recitation, qawwali, and the ginans, the devotional hymns of South Asia’s Nizari Ismaili communities.

Ali Asani is Murray A. Albertson Professor of Middle Eastern Studies Professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures. He is also former director of the Alwaleed Islamic Studies Program at Harvard University. 


Episode 5
Hosts: Meryum Kazmi and Harry Bastermajian 
Audio elements (in order of appearance, all used with permission from the reciter/artist): Qur'anic recitation by Zaheed Damani, Qawwali "Dam Dam Mast Qalandar" by Ali Sethi (1:48:40), Ginan "Saahebji" by Anar Kanji, Ghoom Charakhra by Ali Sethi (55:45)
Photo: Palestinian calligrapher shaping Arabic letters to look like Chinese and Latin characters in Hebron via Alamy 
Transcription: Otter


[Surat al-Fatiha beginning recited by Zaheed Damani]


Ali Asani  00:31

How do Muslims experience and practice? What is the lived practice of Islam and how is it understood in different contexts? You know, that shift into the study of religion has been very important for me because this is where I started recognizing the importance of the literary, the visual, and the sound arts in lived experiences of Muslims how they connect with their faith through the arts.


[Qawwali “Dam Dam Mast Qalandar” by Ali Sethi]


Meryum Kazmi  01:33

Hello, and welcome to the Harvard Islamica Podcast. I'm Meryum Kazmi,


Harry Bastermajian  01:36

and I'm Harry Bastermajian.


Meryum Kazmi  01:40

In this final episode of our series of interviews with former Alwaleed Program directors, we hear from Ali Asani, Murray A. Albertson Professor of Middle Eastern Studies and Professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures.


Harry Bastermajian  01:53

Professor Ali Asani was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya and came to the United States to attend Harvard College, where he pursued a concentration in the comparative study of religion and graduated summa cum laude in 1977. He continued his graduate work at Harvard under the supervision of Annemarie Schimmel in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, receiving his Ph.D. in 1984. Professor Asani holds a joint appointment between the Committee on the Study of Religion and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and serves on the faculty of the Department of South Asian Studies and African and African American Studies. He has taught at Harvard since 1983, offering instruction in a variety of South Asian and African languages and literatures as well as courses on various aspects of the Islamic tradition.


Meryum Kazmi  02:51

Professor Asani told us what it was like to come to Harvard as an undergraduate from Kenya and to enter Islamic studies as a student from an Isma'ili Shi'i background.


Ali Asani  03:04

When I came to Harvard, Harvard was not a very diverse place. The number of international students wasn't very high. And diversity at Harvard meant what part of America you came from. They were starting to recruit people from different backgrounds, but it was just the beginning. People would look at me and say, "Oh, where are you from?" And I'd say, "I'm from Kenya," and "No, you can't be Kenyan, you don't look African." And then I'd say, "Well in in Kenya there are people from different parts of the world. My family has been there for 200 years, and in Kenya people like me are called Asian Africans." "No, you can't be Asian, because Asian means somebody who's coming from East Asia." So I couldn't be called African and I couldn't be called Asian. A pivotal moment in my undergraduate career was in an Arabic class that was being taught by a professor from American University of Beirut. In the middle of the class the professor asked me, "What kind of Muslim are you?" out of the blue. And so I told him, I was Isma'ili. His face turned all red and he said, "La hawla wa la quwwata illa billah," and he was absolutely horrified because I was the heretic. And this was my freshman year. And that's when I realized that the Islam I knew and understood didn't have a voice at Harvard. There was another class that I went to where the professor would be constantly making jokes about assassins and people being on secret missions and all the lurid Sunni stereotypes would come out, and it would be directed to me, implicitly or explicitly. And this went on even during graduate school, where I would find that were always or almost always Sunni perspectives on everything that you studied. There was no mention on any Shi'i sources and so on. So I decided that, “No, I'm going to work on these Isma'ili materials and I need to be able to represent my own tradition.” And fortunately, the Study of Religion program at that point recognized this and were very supportive. My junior tutorial was on Isma'ili history and thought, taught by Peter Awn. So on the one hand, I had this traumatic experience, but on the other hand, I found people who were sensitive to the situation, and were trying to correct that. After I got tenure I could actually teach courses on Isma'ili history and thought, include Isma'ili materials in my courses, which previously at Harvard would have been unthinkable. But these attitudes still exist. We need to do more at Harvard to try to create a more inclusive environment in terms of expressions of Islam, and create genuine curiosity amongst students to learn about different perspectives, and not be so judgmental and stereotypical. Islamic studies programs here have to play a very important role in creating inclusivist discourses about Islam. Not just in a geographic sense so we're not just focused on the Middle East but also in terms of interpretations of Islam. We need to be more welcoming of this diversity of Muslim experiences. I did have a conference, when I was the Alwaleed director, on intra-Muslim relations were we brought together different people from different groups and [it was] really powerful and many of these people who came said this was the first time they participated in an event where they could talk about their interpretations and viewpoints without being judged. So that's also another very important role for the university to play, this safe space where different people can come and talk in an environment that will allow their voices to be heard.


Meryum Kazmi  7:24

I was wondering, when you were an undergrad, did you encounter many other Muslim students who had those kinds of reactions?


Ali Asani  7:30

I did, but, interestingly, the Harvard Islamic Society was not that active at that point. I do think the Harvard Islamic Society today has been very open. It was not always the case. I do think that there have been-- you know, this attempt to try to create intra-Muslim understanding, recognition of different interpretations of Islam.


Meryum Kazmi  7:56

I wanted to also ask about the state of Islamic studies at Harvard in the ‘70s. I know there was Wilfred Smith, Annemarie Schimmel,


Ali Asani  8:04

Muhsin Mahdi, Oleg Grabar, Abdelhamid Sabra in History of Science. We had a great expertise, I think we had such luminary figures and there have been certain fields that just have not been replaced, like history of Islamic science. When Abdelhamid Sabra retired, the chair just disappeared. And he trained several generations of students. I was a teaching fellow for a course, on Islamic civilization, this was part of the core curriculum at the time for undergraduates. It was a collaboration where every week a different professor would come in and talk about their specialty. So Oleg Grabar would come and talk about art and Sabra would come and talk about history of science. So on the one hand, it was a very interesting experience to see all these people collaborate on a courseBut on the . other hand there was a disjuncture, because everyone had a different lecture style. Now I think we've developed more emphasis on contemporary Islam and less and less on pre-modern Islam. There's a shift that's taken place.


[Ginan “Saahebji” by Anar Kanji]


Meryum Kazmi  9:50

Professor Asani told us how he came under the mentorship of Annemarie Schimmel, and how she shaped his interest in studying Islam through literature and the arts.


Ali Asani  10:00

I came here as an undergraduate from Kenya and, at that point, I wasn't sure-- I wanted to do something Islam related, but I wasn't sure exactly what because when I got here, this was the days before the internet and stuff like that, so I had no idea what the curriculum here was, the syllabus, or even what the place even looked like. So it was first adjusting to being in a totally new environment coming to the United States and then trying to figure out how Harvard worked as an institution, which was very intimidating. Towards the end of my freshman year, when I was thinking about what I was going to be majoring in, they announced the comparative study of religion as a major for undergraduates. So I applied, the only restriction they had was that there were only 10 students who were-- they were allowed to admit only 10 students. So we went through an interview process, where I think I had several faculty interview me, and that's how I got into the comparative study of religion. I was the only non-Christian student in that in the sense that nine of the students are all focusing on some aspect of Christianity. And I was the only one who was doing a non-Christian tradition, and that was Islam. It was a little bit intimidating for me as a sophomore from Kenya to read, you know, Rudolf Otto, and people who wrote about Christian thought, and I had no idea what they were talking about because I had no framework. I do remember going to Bill one time and saying, "This is totally alien to me, I just don't understand this language" and he was very reassuring that things will fall in place. It was during my sophomore year that I actually ended up meeting Annemarie Schimmel. I was looking for a course to take and there was a course called "Introduction to Islamic Literatures" and so I decided to go to shop the course to see what it was like. The room, actually, that was assigned to it was actually her office, because she wasn't expecting a lot of students to take this course, and as it turned out, I was the only student. So I remember the first class, you know, I went in, and I said, 'Is this for the courses being taught?" She said "Yes" and then I sat down, and then exactly like 10 minutes past the hour, because that's when the classes officially started, she just closed her eyes, and she started. And, you know, she was behind her desk, and I was there trying to figure out, you know, what am I supposed to do? I started taking notes. She would have names and places that I had no idea where they were, I would just write the names out the best I could, and then exactly on the hour at 12 o'clock, she stopped and she opened her eyes and then she said, "Any questions?" And I was flabbergasted, so I asked her, I think there were some spellings that I wanted, she had put some names, so she gave me the proper spelling. And then she said, "Great, I'll see you next week." I left the office and then I realized I didn't know anything about the requirements, the syllabus or anything. So I went back to her and I said, "What about these?", She said, "Oh, I don't worry about those things. I'll just gave you some books to read. You can read them, and then you write a paper at the end." And that's how I encountered Annemarie Schimmel. At that point, I had no idea who she was. I was just fascinated with the way she just closed her eyes and she just talked and read out all these names. I said, "Wow, this person is so learned." It's only later that I found out you know, what a wonderful scholar she was in, not only in Arabic, in Persian, in Turkish, in Urdu, and all these kinds of literatures, but also her interest in mysticism. So I continued taking courses with her while, at the same time, continuing my Arabic and work in religion. But I think she really introduced me to the notion of how one can study a religion and the culture of a people through their literature, and what insights literature can provide, especially poetry can provide, into things. She was very much into this idea that, you know, you can learn more about the culture of a people through their literature than their political histories, she always used to [say], "their miserable political history. So if you really wanted to get an essence of what people were like, or a cultural was like, you do it through their literature, and then, it turned out, also through the arts, because she was into calligraphy and things like that. She actually, for my B.A. thesis, encouraged me to work on the ginan literature of the Isma'ili community, which I was very familiar with. And so that was my thesis and it turned out to be a very interesting work for me because it laid the foundation for all the other work I started doing as a graduate student, and then even later on as a faculty in this field of the studies of ginans, which was at that point, a totally unexplored field. When I went on to do Ph.D. work under her in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, she encouraged that interest in the Ginans, which are all written in different Indian languages, and she encouraged me to do Urdu, and she encouraged me to do Sindhi, and so on. So I really took a very South Asian bent. So my first couple of years were a lot of Arabic and Persian but then my graduate work went very much into the direction of South Asian languages and literatures. And then I actually ended up writing my Ph.D. dissertation on a medieval Hindi poem, it was part of the Ginan literature, but again, under her supervision. And that turned out to be quite an adventure, because it involved me in manuscript work and editing work with traditions that were partly oral, but also partly written, and working with manuscripts where the words were totally distorted, and trying to figure out what the word could mean because people would project meanings onto the text. And so trying to recreate a text, what it meant, and she was enormously helpful. We would spend hours trying to decipher some of these puzzles, you know, and she would say "Well maybe it's from this Arabic word, or maybe it's this Persian word distorted." And then fortunately for me is that, when I finished my doctorate work, I actually ended up teaching right at Harvard and she continued as a mentor. So I was really, very very fortunate that I had somebody who I encountered in my sophomore year in college, and took me all the way through to even being a junior faculty at Harvard, and sort of shaping my career and my interests. So I would say, I didn't meander into medicine or anything like that. I was just very focused because I had a mentor who was very focused and knew exactly what I should be doing, but at the same time was also, because of her love of languages, also encouraged that within me, too.


[Ginan “Saahebji” by Anar Kanji]


Meryum Kazmi  18:05

Professor Asani talked about the limits of area studies and a focus on texts, and the importance of studying Islam as a global and lived tradition.


Ali Asani  18:13

If you tie up Islamic studies with area studies, you're creating really these artificial boundaries, and you're helping perpetuate those. So I've always felt that we really need to think about Islam in global terms and in transnational terms because, in reality, there are all these influences going back and forth. And that's why my appointment and the way I teach my courses, you know, showing the global engagements. And my appointment, though its in Religion and NELC, it's also an African American Studies, African and African American Studies, and in South Asian Studies. So it's to show the global reach of Islam. It's a very unusual kind of an appointment to have it in four departments, but it's also to me, you know, an implicit recognition that you cannot confine the study of Islam to just one geographical area, if you're really trying to understand its richness and its depth. And so that's been interesting, because people ask me, "Why are you in four departments?" And that's because what I study and what I teach is done in a global way. So typically, my courses, the introductory Islam courses, or courses on Sufism, or a literature course on Muslim literatures, always has-- approximately one third will be African materials, one third will be South Asian materials, and then the rest will be Middle Eastern, or something like that. But I just try to make sure that I always have this global outlook in my courses. And increasingly now with the presence of Muslims in North American and European contexts I try to make space for that as well. So, I would say that, generally speaking, while we're talking about moving away from area studies, to global studies, you know, transnational, but [we should] also think [of] Islam as a religion, not just through the philological, you know, lenses of texts, as a religion, with people of lived experiences. So, that's also been very interesting for me to be as somebody who's gone back and forth between the Study of Religion and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations with sort of the traditional. Orientalist, you know, Islamic text, and analyzing texts and doing that, so I've done that work. And then going back to thinking about, well, from a Study of Religion [perspective], how do Muslims experience and practice? What is the lived practice of Islam and how is it understood in different contexts? You know, that shift, you know, into the Study of Religion has been very important for me, because this is where I started recognizing the importance of the literary, the visual, and the sound arts, in lived experiences of Muslims, how they connect with their faith through the arts. So that's not the kind of thing you could do in NELC, you know, [it's] interesting, because it's always emphasis on the written word. And here when you start looking at religion, because religion is interdisciplinary, it's not necessarily just all philological, right? So that's been the big shift for me. And so the work that I did with Annemarie Schimmel really introduced me to this way of thinking because that's how she thought. Her work in poetry, you know, Urdu poetry, Turkish poetry, Arabic poetry, Sindhi poetry, you know, provided people lenses into how people understood their faith through this poetic language and that you got a very different perspective on people's experiences, how they constructed meaning, by analyzing the symbols, the metaphors, and so on. So it's literary study but then when you say that this poetry was then performed, and you're getting into the performative art with how the people, you know, access this poetry, so the performative traditions become very important. So that's where you go into the music, and the aesthetics of the music, and then this connection with, well, how is knowledge being constructed? It's what I like to call heart-mind knowledge, that, on the one hand, it's discursive, but on the other hand, it also has a very strong aesthetic component to it. So there's a fusion of aesthetics and the philosophical and the moral and the legal and so on, it's all fused together. So that people experience it both intellectually but also emotionally.


Harry Bastermajian  23:19

It sounds familiar to-- similar to, I should say, what I understand of artists and the lives of calligraphers. Even in the early modern period of Ottoman and Safavid and Mughal dynasties, you have these huge, sort of, bureaucratic classes, but I mean, I think about people who worked on, like Cornell Fleischer's Bureaucrat and Intellectual, where he looks at Mustafa Ali, who is really sort of observing the empire after its apex, if you believe in that decline paradigm, but there's a lot of attention paid to the intersection of philosophy and the arts, right? And so I guess my question is, through your teaching, in looking at how Islam is expressed today, in devotional practice today, through the arts, are you able to see parallels with what you know about Islamic civilization in the past as well? I mean, having studied that sort of tradition?


Ali Asani  24:26

You raise an interesting question, because you talk about these great empires, right, the Ottomans, the Safavids, the Mughals, which we then always connect with these great works of art and architecture, and so on and so forth. The problem with that is that we are conflating the experience of Islam with imperialism and imperial monuments. Because these are also monuments, these are works of power and they're privileging the voices of the elites. And this is what Mohammed Arkoun would call the 'loud Islam,' the discourses that grab attention in academic spaces and political spaces and social spaces. And he calls the Islam of ordinary people, who are just practicing their faith, don't have any political agendas, it's just between them and God, he calls-- that's been silenced. So the preoccupation with expressions of Islam with power that you find, is very much strong in in Islamic studies, because the story of Islam is told through empire building, and you think, why is it being told through empire building? Why is the story of Islam confused with empires? And I think that's that old Orientalist model, where Islam is seen as an ideology of power. And so the focus has been through that, whereas what I'm arguing for is what Arkoun called the 'silent' or I would even say, the 'silenced Islam,' the Islam of ordinary people, who practice their faith on a daily basis and whose voices are considered not-- have been rendered totally marginal or absent in academic discourse. So, the implications of this in how we think about Islam today-- I'll just give you an example. Michael Flynn, you know, with the Trump administration-- he was the first national security adviser, [is] absolutely convinced that Islam is a political ideology and very dangerous to the United States. And there is this viewpoint today that you find in the academy and so on, treating Islam as if it is a political ideology, and that's the only voice that you hear. And the perception, and this has great implications for policy, you know, both foreign policy but also domestic policy. So if you think about Islam as a political ideology that's opposed to the United States, it means all Muslims come under suspicion, that they're all political agents. And so this is something that I try to have students realize, that there are many different expressions of Islam, and whose Islam are we paying attention to, and why are we paying attention to it? And whose Islam are we ignoring? Whose Islam are we rendering marginal and peripheral?


Harry Bastermajian  27:45

That's interesting. So would you say, I mean, there seems to be almost strata of Islams here from how we view it, right? The 'loud Islam,' as you put it, and the 'silenced Islam.' It's interesting, because 'loud Islam' is in the active and 'silenced Islam' is in the passive. Would you say that there's also this maybe a subaltern in Islam?


Ali Asani  28:10

I tend to think about religion, including Islam, as being a phenomenon that is deeply embedded in a variety of contexts, the political, the historical, the social, the economic, the literary, the artistic, and, of course, all these contexts are also connected to each other. So they're not discrete. But because religion is embedded in all these dimensions of the human experience, as those dimensions and contexts change, interpretations of religion change. So the implication that we have from that is that Islam is, there's no such thing, of course, as a monolithic Islam, because Islam is practiced in so many different contexts. So there are so many different interpretations of Islam. So one, it's diverse, and number two, it's constantly changing, because those contexts are changing. So religion is something that's incredibly complex, given the diversity and given its dynamism. So in any one time, it's always in a situation of flux. And so when I teach about these, my approach to Islam, is to talk about-- if we then start thinking about Islam, we need to start asking key questions as to-- well, first remember that Islam doesn't say or do anything, because it's just an imagined concept. You know, people have a concept of what Islam is, but more importantly, you have to say, which Islam? Whose Islam? And, which contexts? So how has context influenced the emergence of this particular form of Islam? So when I when I talk about this 'loud' and 'silenced Islam' or something like that, and then whose voices we are listening to or whose voices we are seeing, you know, depending on the different art form that you're looking at, it's really trying to bring around-- first to have people interrogate, you know, get into the notion of interpretation, perspective, and you get into power dynamics as well, because if there's so many different perspectives on Islam, which ones are getting privileged and why are they being privileged, and by whom, right? So that's where I feel that sometimes the academy can become complicit with the state.


Harry Bastermajian  30:44

It has often. Yeah, I mean, you could even name some people who've directly advised the state on this, you know, Bernard Lewis is one, right? Also, often people talk about, you know, the various Islams that exist, in the sense that, as you pointed out, that it's a highly personal nature of faith and religious expression. In your experience, do you see anything emerging in North America that is distinct from the Islams of South Asia, the Middle East, of Africa?


Ali Asani  31:28

Yeah. So I think there is something different that's going on in the United States, in particular, because I don't think there's any other country in the world today that has so many diverse interpretations of Islam [that] come under the label of one country, right? So you have people-- Muslims from Somalia, you have people from Bosnia, Albania, Bangladesh, I mean, Thailand, I mean, Indonesians, Malaysians, it's just incredible, the diversity, right?


Harry Bastermajian  32:05

And not to mention converts, right? People who converted.


Ali Asani  32:07

Oh yeah, absolutely. And then African American traditions and so on. And the growing number of people of a Latin background, Latinos. So it's just really a crucible of pluralism, of diverse, you know, not just culturally speaking, but also theologically, you know. So you have all kinds of groups, the Ahmedis, the Shia, you know, different Sunni groups then very progressive, liberal Sunni groups, and very conservative groups. So everybody's here. So it's been interesting to see how, you know, coalitions will build up or not build up, between things. And it's also interesting to see this kind of 'loud Islam' type of thing being also replicated here, notwithstanding the diversity, you're finding this. Certain groups are getting privileged over other groups. So I think that that's also the politics of representation here in the United States, whose voices get heard and whose voices don't get heard in the media spaces becomes also important. But you know, also social media being what it is, it's also given platforms for groups that feel marginalized and peripheral to create their own sites and express themselves. That's why I call the United States an interesting crucible where these experimentations are taking place about representation, competing representations, whose Islam are we talking about, and then how they interact with the political sphere.


Meryum Kazmi  34:00

I was wondering if you can talk about your outreach work. I know that in the past, in your capacity as the Alwaleed Program director, but also just as a professor, I think you've engaged a lot with the public outside of academia. And so I was wondering if you can tell us about why you've been involved with that.


Ali Asani  34:20

Well, I think there are two reasons. One is that I think I take my faith seriously. And I do feel that when it's being misrepresented, that it is my obligation to speak out about it, especially if I have the platform, because condoning hate speech, not speaking out against it is just, I think, just wrong. You've got to speak out against it. So I think that's very important. I think the other reason is, and that ties in more with the role as an educator, is that there is a lot of ignorance about Islam. And I feel that education about Islam, especially at a university, has to go beyond the walls of the university. You can talk to intellectuals, you can talk to university, college students and so on and so forth till you're blue in the face, but if it's not hitting the general public, that information needs to go out. And you need to engage with the general public because we are dealing with a major gap in knowledge, which is affecting the experiences of Muslims in the United States, of Muslims in the world, but it's also affecting all kinds of issues of civil rights, civil liberties, things like that. So particularly, I tried, during my time, to do a lot more reaching beyond the walls of academia to make sure that there was a presence. I would reach out to groups like-- I had, you know, interesting conferences. I had one conference on African American Muslims and the arts and it was a two-day thing. But we had all kinds of representatives from different African American groups come to campus including the Nation of Islam and the Nubian Islamic Hebrews, and groups that some people have never even heard of. We had a wonderful event where they were talking about their own experiences about being Muslim. There are other times I had things on Islam and animals and we were talking about animal rights and animal issues, about animals from different perspectives, how animals figure in literatures, in the arts, and in law. Princess Alia of Jordan, came to give a keynote speech. I've always felt that it's very important for universities to reach beyond the walls of the ivory tower. And I know not all academics share that viewpoint because they think this kind of public education is not their responsibility, but I think it is. Because, what is the use of all this knowledge if it's not changing the society around you, if you're not seeking to change? So I see this as part of social engagement and public engagement that is a responsibility that comes with privilege of being educated. What are you going to do with that education? How are you going to create change in society? And if you're just going to limit it to scholarship, but if the scholarship doesn't have impact on the larger public, what's the point? So for me, it's very important as a scholar to be engaged in this kind of work.


Meryum Kazmi  37:41

I was wondering if you can talk a bit more about Islamophobia and your efforts around that. What are your concerns regarding Islamophobia today and what do you think the role of academics should be in this area?


Ali Asani  37:55

I think today, Islamophobia has become a worldwide phenomenon, especially when you find forms of nationalisms are always looking for the 'other.' And Muslim groups have become the other in many parts of the world today. And using this Islamophobic rhetoric, whether it's here in the United States, or in France, or in India, or in Myanmar, or in China, you see this as a worldwide phenomenon. It has different constellations in different parts of the world. And I think this is reflective, on the one hand, of the growth of right-wing nationalisms, and that's constantly inventing the 'other' and this time, it happens with Muslims, but then they'll find another 'other,' you know, so they're constantly 'othering' people. But Muslims happen to be a favorite target. And then it gives rise to this perception, "Oh, look at the Muslims around the world. There's a problem with Muslims." And it keeps on perpetuating that, and I think at the heart of it is going back to what I think is one of the biggest problems in our time, is global illiteracy about religion. That our world is marked by religious difference. But people very often do not have the tools to understand religion, the nature of religion and the constructions of religion. So my approach to teaching about Islam, for instance, is based on this method, the cultural studies method that the Religious Literacy Project here at Harvard is also promoting, that to think about interpretations of Islam being influenced by political, economic, social forces. All religions are like that, Islam is not exceptional. But people recognize, for example, the role of history and politics and so on, in shaping understandings of Christianity, at least if they have received a decent education, but they don't recognize that same process taking place in Islam. Islam is seen as this exception, and part of that stereotype is that anything a Muslim does is just attributed automatically to his or her religion. There's no investigation [of] what could be the political, economic, social factors that are leading to this particular interpretation of religion. So I think this this issue of combating religious illiteracy is part of this larger project of combating Islamophobia. And this religious illiteracy has had devastating consequences for our world. It's affected, on the one hand, international relations, and it also has affected perceptions of how people, how nations perceive each other. It's affected democracies because when you have a democracy where you have a multi-religious, multi-ethnic citizenry, and then some people are being singled out because they're seen as being dangerous, that affects the democratic and the social fabric of society. It affects civil rights. It can lead to dehumanization, it can lead to pogroms, it can lead to-- this single-dimensional categorization of human beings can lead to violence. So these, I think, are very, very important issues in our time and I think universities have to be engaged in this battle. You cannot just say that, "No, our responsibility just ends at the walls of the university and that's it." You have to take, I think, a very active role. And so it's very interesting for me now to see how people are talking about the Black Lives Matter movement and people who have been marginalized. And I thought, yeah, it's true that these marginalized-- but for Muslims, people don't recognize that it's the same form of racism, the same form of marginalization, that takes place and we should be even talking about, yes, black lives matter, and Muslim lives matter as well. When I was running the Program, I felt that I did need to do programming that spoke out against this. And I do remember that during the time when Trump was running for election the first time, and the Islamophobic rhetoric, I spent a lot of effort in getting people who were talking about the impact on the Muslim community, you know, NYPD and spying on Muslim students on campus and in college. I organized many events around those issues, big events, and I made sure that people from the Office of the President and the Dean's office and so on came to this so they could hear about this. And I'd like to think that some of that programming, and some of the things they learned led eventually to the appointment of a Muslim chaplain. So it was some of that advocacy work that actually then [led to] change at the university.


Harry Bastermajian  43:19

You know, while you were speaking, I was thinking that phobia is not the right word here, right? It's not that people are necessarily afraid. Illiteracy is the better way to describe it.


Ali Asani  43:30

Yeah, but the fear is based on illiteracy. It's based on ignorance. You're always afraid about things that you don't know. So going back to your larger question that I've thought it very important, as somebody who studies and teaches about Islam, to reach out to the public, and I've done these events, outreach events, at Harvard, but then I've also done work with different teacher, educator groups around the country. I've done workshops for journalists, and I want to try to do some of this work internationally, in Pakistan, in India, in East Africa, and so on, working with teachers who work in secular school systems to talk about religion more broadly. And I also think that my work with the arts is then also connected with that. Because I think sometimes, you know, artists are able to say things and do things that people can connect to in a more immediate way than any kind of intellectual discourse.


Meryum Kazmi  44:37

I guess I'm wondering if it really is always about illiteracy or fear of the unknown, because in India, for example, Islam is known in India. It's been there for a long time.


Ali Asani  44:49

Yes, but the discourses on how it's understood in the context of Indian nationalism, the Indian [correction: Muslim] is always the foreigner. Muslims are foreign intruders. They're invaders. They came into this country, they don't belong to India. The right-wing Hindu groups, that's what they talk about. So if you look at that discourse that I came across in the New York Times on Anand Patwardhan. He's the most prominent documentary filmmaker in India today, whose life is being threatened now. But he has done documentaries that uncover the rise of the right-wing Hindu movement and especially its targeting of Muslims. And he's done this wonderful documentary, In the Name of God, which is talking about the right-wing group and the whole Babri Masjid and its destruction. And he really ties it in to not all Hindus, it's upper-class and middle-class Hindus who feel that affirmative action programs for so-called backward groups or minority groups that the government has in place, that they're getting privileged, and they are being left out of jobs. So it's economically driven. And also Muslims in India, you know, many of them are working in the Middle East, and they're sending lots of money, so they're getting richer, and they're building wonderful houses, and so on, so forth. There's a bit of envy, and you could have been living there for 10 centuries and you're still a foreigner. That's the discourse. And then there's another very poignant piece that's written by an Indian journalist, a Muslim journalist, that in this new India, a Hindu rose, smells different from a Muslim rose, and shows that you find this discrimination against Muslims at the very highest levels of society. So I tend to think about Islamophobia, or illiteracy about religion that's existing here, it's very different. So in this documentary-- in In the Name of God, there's a part where he interviews people in a village, Hindus and Muslims who live together. They don't have a problem with each other, whatsoever. They participate in each other's festivals and so on. And when he asked him about this Babri Masjid, they said, "Well, this is all the work of politicians. We don't have a problem with this." So it also shows, you know, how there's a class divide and also rural-urban [divide].


Harry Bastermajian  47:24

You know, that's interesting, because there's some parallels there with small communities in eastern Anatolia, with Armenians and Kurds and Turks sort of living together for centuries and sharing in each other's festivals and celebrations. And, you know, come World War I, and nationalism rears its ugly head and it changes everything.


Ali Asani  47:49

I would actually say that today, the problem is not religion, its nationalism. And its religiously-constructed nationalisms that are the bigger problem today. And then these religiously-constructed nationalisms are thriving on illiteracy.


["Ghoom Charakra" by Ali Sethi]


Meryum Kazmi  48:15

That was selections from our conversations with Ali Asani, Murray A. Albertson Professor of Middle Eastern Studies and Professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures, in the final episode of our series of interviews with former Alwaleed Program directors. We hope you'll join us for future episodes of Harvard Islamica. I'm Meryum Kazmi, thanks for listening.