Reza Aslan with a group of Madisonians


Jihad alone on the page evokes a tempest of emotions and backlash in the American public.

Jihad on a page in this article triggers watchdog lists with agents monitoring them making sure I don’t truly mean it.

Just hearing that word makes you want to go to the window and look for the waves of invading Muslims taking over the nation.

In fact, do that. Go to the window and see for yourself. They are…they are…Well, where exactly are they?

Reza Aslan knows where they are. They’re nowhere. Only one percent of the population of the United States is Muslim. Aslan says the American perception of the Islamic threat is far more real than the threat itself.

Aslan said as much while speaking to a group of University of Wisconsin students and spectators Wednesday night at the Union Theater. The recently-renovated theater was filled to the brim, with the upper deck fully utilized as Aslan continued his national tour to talk about Islamophobia in its many forms.

Aslan moved lightheartedly through topics many in the audience have heard only fearful mention of. The imminent threat to the American government and establishment is not something many have taken time to laugh about. But Aslan deftly provided comedic examples of just how far some people’s fear of Muslims — and Others in general — can reach.

His most profound (and funny) example was that of Daniel Pipes, a historian and founder of the Middle East Forum, a think-tank. Pipes famously coined the phrase Sudden Jihad Syndome.

Sudden Jihad Syndrome, according to Pipes, is the notion that any normal-seeming Muslim can suddenly and spontaneously snap and declare a Jihad and go on a murderous rampage for no apparent reason.

“So as a Muslim, I could be at the grocery store,” Aslan said as waves of laughter spread through the theater, “and suddenly decide to declare a Jihad and start killing people.”

The trouble with the audience’s laughter, according to Aslan, is it represents precisely what many Americans think about Muslims.

In fact, during the 2016 presidential election, the Trump campaign aired an ad in which approximately three truckloads of ISIS fighters, and a handful of fighters running alongside them, represented the threat to topple the United States.

Because, you know, three truckloads of armed ISIS fighters could be in a neighborhood near you someday if we don’t adopt stricter policies against Muslims.

Since the election, however, President Trump has attempted to enact bans on immigrants from some predominantly Muslim nation, and step up vetting of people from those same nations. President Trump has pledged to make America great again and make America safe again. Aslan, however, believes those words are just code to fuel phobias of Muslims and other minorities.

“I think that fear has always been the greatest motivator in American politics,” Aslan said in an exclusive interview with Madison365 prior to his lecture. “And this is an administration that, during the campaign, used fear. Fear of Muslims, fear of Mexicans, fear of gay people, fear of black people in order to rally a particular class to their cause. When they say make America great again everybody knows what they mean by that. Everybody knows what they mean by that. That’s not even a dog whistle, that’s just a regular whistle.”

Both during the interview and during his lecture, Aslan pointed out that since such a small portion of the American population is Muslim, it is difficult for the average citizen to separate out reality from myth. He said that the only time most Americans even see a Muslim person on television or in pop culture is in the context of them being terrorists, or at least sympathetic to terrorism.

The solution, he believes, is to bring normal everyday Muslim life into the homes of the average American. Aslan said the power of the television set is not to be underestimated.

Aslan believes America needs a Muslim version of the hit tv series “Blackish” or “Will and Grace” in order to learn how to separate the reality of everyday normal Muslim life from the threatening, danger-filled perception the news media gives of Muslims.

“Chances are the only Muslims that most Americans will ever see or know is on television,” Aslan said. “In the news media, which is built to essentially report on issues of danger and threat and terror.”

Aslan said the Muslim Cosby show is the way to go.

“The only time people are going to see a real, normal Muslim is in pop culture,” he said. “So I really do believe that is the way to change people’s minds. It’s how perceptions against African-Americans were changed in this country, it’s how perceptions against Latinos and gay people were changed in this country.”

But for most Americans, it truly is only Islamic terrorists that have perpetrated violence against the United States. Just this week, the FBI released previously unseen images of the Pentagon during the 9/11 attack. In San Bernardino and Orlando, the killers were Islamic fundamentalists.

So isn’t the American perception that Muslims are the ones doing the killing kind of accurate? Since, like, all of the attacks have been from Muslims?

Aslan was ready for that push back. He told the nearly sold-out audience that, yes, those were terror attacks and, yes, the people who did them were Muslim. But, he implored the audience to remember that it was terrorism, period. Not Muslim terrorism.

Aslan used the example of Dylan Roof, who murdered people as they prayed in a Charleston church. Did the FBI deem it an act of terrorism? No. He was deemed a troubled, young white kid who snapped.

The same went for Wade Michael Page, who shot six people in a Sikh temple in Oak Creek. He shot them because he thought they were Muslim. But his act of violence was not deemed to be terrorism either.

Why not? Because they weren’t Muslim, Aslan will say. Which brings him full circle back to the problem of the absence of Muslim representation in pop culture or even the news media.

Aslan told the audience that ISIS is the face of Islam in the eyes of many people. Roof or Page aren’t thought of as representing Christianity. Neither, Aslan said, should the fighters in ISIS represent Islam to the American public.

“The ISIS terrorists are Muslim. The people fighting against them are Muslims. The people dying in the conflict are Muslims. So which group represents what it means to be Muslim?” Aslan asks.

Aslan’s opponents have accused him of trivializing religious matters or misrepresenting the issues.

But Reza Aslan thinks the proof is in the pudding. If he is being trivial or misrepresenting, then go look out your window. Can you see the trucks of armed Jihadists speeding down your street? Chances are, probably not.

Yet turn on your television and there they are. Take a close look. It’s probably the only representation of Muslims you’ll ever get to see.

This piece was produced by a student reporter in the Madison365 Academy. To learn more and support our educational programs, visit

Written by Nicholas Garton

Nicholas Garton

Nicholas Garton is a Madison365 graduate and a reporter for Madison365.