Amid concern about Islamophobia and other forms of intolerance, CNN's Reza Aslan reminded the crowd at his speaking event that America was founded on principles of religious and cultural pluralism.
On Thursday afternoon, students and community members alike gathered in Penn Museum to listen to Aslan, a writer and scholar of religion, discuss ways to combat Islamophobia in “Fear Inc.: Confronting Islamophobia in America.”
A packed auditorium listened as Aslan broke down the concept of Islamophobia, discussed the anti-Muslim hate groups that have developed since 9/11 and emphasized the United States' 21st century "identity crisis."
He said that surveys have found that more Americans hold an unfavorable view of Islam now than after 9/11, and described how anti-Muslim hate groups like ACT for America have become more influential in recent years.
Describing America as "more like a sponge" than a melting pot, Aslan emphasized that the country will continue to absorb different identities even in the face of prejudice.
Speaking to the impact of President Donald Trump's executive order restricting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, Aslan said that he is concerned that the ideas of hate groups have gained traction in the White House.
"In Trump's world, the only extremism that matters is Islamic extremism," he said.
Aslan emphasized that “it’s not about Islam, it’s about our identity crisis,” referring to the growing portion of Americans who are members of minority groups. He encouraged the audience to consider how shared values rather than a common ethnic background have united Americans.
Aslan also said that “bigotry is not the result of ignorance, it is the result of fear.” Noting that he knew many people who were educated yet still prejudiced, he emphasized that fear is "impervious to information."
Perelman School of Medicine student Gabriela Witek said the conversation hit close to home because her best friend is Muslim. She stressed that Islam should never be equated with terrorism. “I wonder, what does it take for the prejudice to stop?” she asked, referring to Aslan’s comparison of discrimination against Muslims to prejudice against Jewish and Catholic Americans earlier in U.S. history.
College and Engineering senior Riad Hamade said he has been waiting for Aslan to come to campus since his freshman year. He added that though the talk mostly covered knowledge he already knew, he found it refreshing to hear Aslan’s perspective as a Muslim American. “In these talks, he often speaks as a scholar,” he said. “This time, however, he spoke to us as a Muslim.”