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Iranian-born best-selling author speaks at IMU

BY EMILY BUSSE | APRIL 13, 2010 7:30 AM

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At age 15, Reza Aslan read a roughly 1,000-page book on a dare. It was The Brothers Karamazov, and “the gigantic Russian tome” changed his life.

“I just knew, instantly, this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” the internationally acclaimed writer told The Daily Iowan. “I wanted to make people feel the way this book made me feel.”

About 22 years later, the 37-year-old Iranian-born scholar spoke at the University of Iowa about his areas of expertise — religion and politics in the Middle East — both topics of his best-selling books.

Aslan, a long-awaited guest for the University Lecture Committee, spoke in the IMU on Monday night.

“We felt he has very relevant perspectives and is speaking on a very relevant topic right now,” said Lecture Committee member Sarah Raaii, noting that students and community members requested Aslan for his ties to the university and Iowa City.

Aslan left Iran as a child in 1979 during the revolution, and he grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. In 2000, he came to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop to get an M.F.A. — he had a master’s in theological studies — and became the first full-time instructor of Islamic studies in the history of the state.

“I would hang out at the Java House planning how I was going to take over the world from downtown Iowa City,” Aslan joked during an interview on KRUI on Monday.

After 9/11, the “earnestness” of students in the Midwest to understand the Middle East put Aslan in the “perfect place.” Enrollment in his class jumped from 39 to 289, he said. The only instructor of his expertise at the time, Aslan, who credits the UI for his success, had free rein in the program.

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Today, he’s an associate professor at the University of California-Riverside. He has published two books and has three in the works, including his thesis from the UI. His first book, 2005’s No god but God</a>, has been translated into 13 languages.

He regularly contributes to the Daily Beast online and has appeared on such shows as “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” to articulate his ideas about “how to win a cosmic war, the rise of religious extremism around the world, and what to do about it.”

UI junior Angela Swope attended the lecture Monday night already a fan of Aslan’s work and his unique perspective on the Middle East.

“Part of being in the university and in the campus is to broaden and expand your world view,” she said. “It’s uncomfortable sometimes, but lectures such as this are vital.”

Lounging in the KRUI lobby, flipping a coin and wearing a plain gray T-shirt, Aslan laughed about how much he enjoyed being back in Iowa City and seeing his former “sweet pad” on Iowa Avenue.

There was only one thing that he was “sorely disappointed” to discover about Iowa City: His favorite hangout, a “grease pit” called Top Dog, was no longer open.

But despite missing out on a “burger the size of your face,” Aslan said his real goal as a guest lecturer in Iowa City is always the same.

“To recognize that you’re a citizen of the globe. You may be a citizen of the United States, but you’re approaching a world that is fast becoming a single space,” he said. “My goal is to help create a globalized generation.”

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