Reza Aslan: ‘Trump is looking for trouble with Iran’

The world was surprised by the travel ban that President Trump proclaimed for inhabitants or citizens of seven mostly Islamic countries. This is, however, only the first step of a much larger strategy, according to Reza Aslan, the famous Iranian-American author and TV-maker. He hopes that by 2018, the current protests will bring about a renewed Democratic party, needed to begin an impeachment procedure.

  • © Reza Aslan © Reza Aslan

In Belgium, Reza Aslan became known for the disastrous interview that Fox News conducted with him on the subject of his book about Jezus: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. He had to repeat over and over again that he hadn’t written that book as a Muslim, but as a doctor of religious studies. Previously, he had written one of the best introductions to the history, development and future of Islam (No god but God). On the 27th of January – before Trump signed his immigration ban – Aslan wrote the opinion piece If Trump can threaten my rights, he can do the same for any of us for CNN.

We spoke with Reza Aslan, who, as an American citizen of Iranian descent, feels he’s particularly involved in the current debate.

Reza Aslan: I’m an American citizen, so I myself am not directly affected by the immigration ban. I do, however, have a lot of family members and friends who don’t have a green card or a travel visa. Originally, they were indeed affected by this, even though their stay had been completely legal. It is unbelievable that these people too could no longer make use of their right to travel. My sister’s husband, who has the Iranian nationality, had thankfully just landed when the ban came into force, but one of my mom’s uncles, who’s very sick but wanted to come and visit my mom once more, was stopped, even though he had a visa and a plane ticket.

The ban is aimed at seven countries, but half of the people with an entry visa that can no longer be used now come from Iran. And what is even more important: the government does say that the immigration or entry ban is temporary, but the logic of the presidential decree ensures that it is likely to be fairly permanent, especially for Iran. Once the ban is lifted, the screening of the residents from these seven countries who want to travel to the USA has to be operated jointly. This is ruled out for Iran, since the USA doesn’t even maintain diplomatic relations with that country.

Do you think that the measure is more aimed at Iran than at Muslims in general?

Reza Aslan: We do see that the Trump government – only a few days after the promulgation of the immigration ban – also imposes sanctions on Iran because a test with a missile has taken place. The test was in no way a breach of the nuclear agreement nor of the resolution of the UN Security Council, even though the American government said it was.

There is also no evidence at all for the allegation of the US government that Iran controls the Yemeni Houthi rebels, who attacked a Saudi ship. Last year, the UN Security Council itself has unreservedly stated that there is no evidence for the Iranian command of the Houthis. To claim that today, in the present moment, is just a plain lie. I have no doubts about it that this measure is part of a policy that seeks confrontation with Iran, and possibly even a military confrontation.

At the same time, one could see the immigration ban as the first step towards the realization of a much broader policy that Trump promised during his election campaign, namely to stop the arrival of Muslims in the US completely. He then also announced that he wanted to keep a register of all Muslims living in the US. And it seems like he really is going to execute what seemed as rather exaggerated rhetoric during the campaign. Rudy Giuliani recently said on television that this temporary immigration ban for seven countries was a way to give the wider Muslim ban a legal character.

At this moment, we are seeing an authoritarian regime that came to power in the US, and, moreover, is going to carry out everything that was promised during the campaign, particularly with regard to the matters raised in connection with immigrants and Muslims -however unimaginable it sounded back then.

’I am convinced that the hardline conservatives in Iran are celebrating’

In April, presidential elections are being held in Iran. Will those be affected by President Trump in the White House?

Reza Aslan: There’s no doubt about that. Rouhani has been able to maintain self control until now because he could demonstrate that prudent dialogue with the West offers new opportunities for Iran. That worked with President Obama. But with an unpredictable president in the White House, who lies and twists the truth to isolate and to impose new sanctions on Iran, a policy of dialogue and engagement is much less evident in Iran.

I am convinced that the hardline conservatives in Iran are celebrating and I therefore expect a campaign in which a hard nationalism will prevail.

Rouhaini was already vulnerable because the economic benefits of his policy continued to be lacking for ordinary Iranians, wasn’t he?

Reza Aslan: That is correct, yes.

Yet it is also strange that also Muslims are being targeted in the USA. Unlike in Europe, most Muslim immigrants are well integrated and economically quite successful.

Reza Aslan: The President is a pathological liar with extreme narcissistic character traits. Scientific research shows that he is lying every four or five minutes when he’s giving a speech. His campaign was based on racism, xenophobia and on cultivating fear. Look at one of his main promises: building a wall between Mexico and the United States to stop the influx of Mexican immigrants.

The reality is that more people are leaving the United States for Mexico than there are new people coming in from Mexico. In other words: the problem doesn’t exist, but that does not prevent Trump to continue repeating it and make it a focal point in his propaganda. The result is that large sections of the white working class have come to believe that unemployment, falling living standards, the loss of status and prestige, that everything was to blame on Mexicans and Muslims.

Europeans should know how this scenario works. One or more groups become the scapegoat and are loaded with everyone’s fears and problems, and then everyone of that “group” is being individually attacked to avenge or to make up for the loss of future and dignity.

What does offer hope is that this approach only appeals to a limited number of Americans. Remember that even Hillary Clinton got 3 million votes more than Donald Trump. His current popularity is at 36 percent, which is the lowest rate ever for a novice president in his first term. The problem is that his political party controls both the House and the Senate, the other centers of political power, too. And today, that party appears to be more interested in power than in allegiance to the country or the constitution.

There’s also never been as much opposition against a novice president as today. Demonstrations, blockades, legal actions: this is unprecedented in the US, isn’t it?

‘Remember that even Hillary Clinton got 3 million votes more than Donald Trump’

Reza Aslan: That’s right. The major challenge now is that the left and the center should unite around some key issues. They have to be willing to put their differences aside, because it is those differences that enabled Trump to become president, amongst others because of the not insignificant number of people who opted not to vote because they did not want to choose between Trump and Clinton.

It has become clear now that that was a mistake, because there’s an immense difference between a liberal president, with whom one can disagree, and a fascist, who wants to dispose of the whole constitution and who might even lead us into a new war.

We ended up in a real emergency situation and in such a situation, fighting the real enemy must take precedence over the clearing of mutual differences. Massive and unanimous opposition and resistance can in fact yield results; this already proved to be true a few days after the announcement of the entry ban, when the government began adjusting the scheme and, for example, allowed people with green cards into the country yet again.

The movement that arose immediately after the swearing-in and after proclaiming the immigration ban is not a movement that is being controlled by the Democratic Party.

Reza Aslan: No and that truly is a sign of hope. The Democratic Party is forced to keep up with them if they want to be allied to the opposition. Also the hardened attitudes towards the appointments that are planned by Trump are proof of that. By boycotting the hearing, the Democratic MPs hope to clarify that this government has a problem with its legitimacy and backing.

The most important thing today is that we should not “normalize” Trump: he was not a normal candidate; he is not a normal president. It is not normal that the President in his first public appearance, at the place where CIA agents who have died for their country are being honored, mostly talks about the size of the audience at his inauguration, is it? Or who at the commemoration of Martin Luther King devotes one sentence to the American hero and the rest of the time to himself. Trump just doesn’t belong in this position.

Even though he, according to the American electoral laws and procedures, was indeed legally elected?

Reza Aslan: If a candidate receives 3 million votes less than the opposing candidate, but still wins the election, then there’s a serious problem with the procedure. That’s obvious. But it is also significant that there are currently three different parliamentary inquiries about him and that five different intelligence services are working on files related to his campaign. And those are not only about possible interventions by Russia via the internet, but also about a possible meeting of people from his campaign with Russian agents. And those parliamentary inquiries are led by Republicans, among whom not everyone is happy with the removal of sanctions against Russia by Trump.

The most important thing today is that we should not “normalize” Trump: he was not a normal candidate; he is not a normal president.

Suppose those investigations turn out negative for the President, and this could therefore provide grounds for impeachment, will he allow them to be finalized and published? His reaction to the Attorney General and her opposition to the immigration ban was clear: resignation.

Reza Aslan: One of the investigations is taking place in the Senate and is led by two Republicans who hate Trump: John McCain and Lindsay Graham. Their sense of patriotism is far greater than their need to get Trump’s support in the elections of 2018. They can summone anyone they want; they can retrieve all the documents they need.

Besides, Trump has other problems, including especially the blending of his international business interests and his political mandate. The constitution prohibits the President to receive any kind of income whatsoever from foreign government. With his business empire, he violates that rule. The Republican Party, however, with its majority in the House and Senate, doesn’t dare to go against the President’s power. I fear that we will have to wait until there are more Democrats elected in 2018 and the majority will change of colors in at least one of the chambers.

Will the Democrats, however, have to offer more than the opposition to Trump? Will they offer a credible alternative to the many voters who voted Trump, out of deep dissatisfaction with the status quo, which excludes them anyway?

Reza Aslan: I think so. This movement will or can change the Democratic Party as much as the Tea Party changed the Republican Party into what it has become today. The party must formulate answers that meet the masses who feel ignored and who were indeed excluded from the benefits of a growing economy.

The advantage is that Trump first promised that he would return the country to “the people” and then brought together the most wealthy government ever, with four billionaires. And they will approve the biggest tax cut for the rich that this country has ever seen. Therefore, I believe that many of the Americans, who were conned by Trumps rhetoric about the forgotten middle class, will now see that they are completely screwed by this government.

Is there a chance that a third party will arise, such as the Progressive or Populist Party at the end of the 19th century, when the robber barons also held both economic and political power?

Reza Aslan: A third party doesn’t stand a chance within the current electoral system. The two-party-system is cast in concrete. But the parties’ identity and their views are a lot more fluid. As the Republics of today hardly resemble those of Reagan or George W. Bush, so too can the Democratic Party have a different face than the face of free trade it had on over the past decades.

Bernie Sanders will be the ideologue who drives this change and most people who are now candidates for the presidency of the National Democratic Convention are coming from his circle or share his ideas.

Translation: Linde Braeckman

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