At this point, chances are you’ve heard of Reza Aslan. You may know him as the guy who calmly and articulately took down a befuddled Fox News reporter who just could not wrap her head around why a Muslim religious studies scholar would write a book about Jesus Christ.
Maybe, in the last few weeks, you’ve seen his face plastered along the side of a city bus, or (if you’re in New York City) on a giant screen in Times Square.
That is because, in addition to being a professor, an author, and a political commentator, Aslan is now the host and star of the new CNN series, “Believer,” premiering this Sunday, March 5. The show is a six-episode “spiritual adventure series” akin to Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown,” but instead of focusing on food, it explores faith, religious rituals, and lived spiritual experiences around the world. The goal of the highly-anticipated series, Aslan says, is to demystify often misunderstood and maligned religions and sects, by taking viewers (in its first season) inside the ultra-orthodox Jewish community in Israel, Haiti’s Vodou faith, a doomsday cult in Hawaii, and the ascetic, semi-cannibalistic Aghori sect of Hinduism in India.
Especially at a time when the United States is experiencing such divisiveness and xenophobia, the premise of the series is a noble one – to encourage viewers to recognize their commonalities by forcing them to confront their preconceived notions about cultures and traditions other than their own.
Despite these grand ambitions, the show has not been without its critics, and has been accused of potentially sensationalizing and further “Otherizing” some of the groups it aims to humanize. Indeed, at times, it can be difficult to discern whether some of the religious leaders profiled in the series are sincere, or merely engaging in theatrics for the cameras – like the Aghori guru who covers Aslan’s body in human ashes, or JeZus, the leader of the doomsday cult, who flails around and rants incoherently.
For his part, Aslan attempts to balance out these jarring theatrical displays with moments of genuine, human connection and profound spiritual experience. As Kia Makarechi writes in Vanity Fair, “it’s clear that he is willing to give the various religions he studies – from Scientology in the United States (and Israel) to the Aghori Hindu of Varanasi – the benefit of faith, and, in some episodes, he seems to yearn to believe.”
Muftah spoke with Aslan about the idea behind “Believer,” his thoughts on Donald Trump, and what it’s like to balance academia and faith.
Muftah: What was going through your mind during your encounter with the Aghori guru?
Reza Aslan: Honestly, what was going through my mind was, “Get me the hell out of here!” It’s funny because, in the show, I’m quite often putting myself into these kind of precarious situations, but there is a lesson that’s always learned. It’s not just trying to sensationalize or exoticize different religious traditions. In that particular case, the belief system that Sadhu, the holy man, the guru, was espousing is actually quite a profound and beautiful and perhaps society-shifting belief system. But of course, his way of expressing that and putting it into practice can be somewhat off-putting. Being able to go from him to others who are espousing the exact same belief system but doing it in a completely different way – through social activism and by countering caste discrimination – I think is a great example of what this show is all about. It’s about the different ways in which believers express their belief, in the world in which they live.
As you said in your recent CNN article, we all have different languages for expressing the same core faith or belief. How and when was the idea for “Believer” born, and why did this feel like the right moment for a show like this?
I’ve had the idea for years. I’m a big fan of travel shows, shows like Anthony Bourdain’s. I remember thinking to myself, long before anyone would bother listening to me, that somebody should do a show like this about religion, somebody should do a spiritual adventure series. And then about a few years ago, when I finally had the clout to get meetings, I started pitching this idea. And once I started pitching it, it was amazing how quickly this thing became a reality.
And then, of course, the mission of the show – which was to get people to think differently about others, to look at people who may seem frightening or unfamiliar or somehow exotic and foreign, and to recognize the connections that you actually have with them. That has always been the mission. But of course, it’s a kind of stroke of good luck, to be honest, that the show is premiering at a time in which we have such divisions in this country, in which we have an administration that is operating almost exclusively on a fear-based policy system. So, hopefully, this show will go some way towards alleviating some of the fear and xenophobia that has gripped large swathes of the American public.
What was the most stunning, surprising, unexpected moment you had while filming this series? What was the most powerful?
Oh there’s so much! The episode on Santa Muerte – which is a new Mexican folk religion with many adherents, maybe anywhere between 5 and 8 million adherents, by some estimates – was a real eye-opening experience for me. Going through the mass during the Dia de Los Muertos, and being there with all these people who are outcasts, who are on the margins of society, people who feel as though the church has left them behind. Having them all come together and unite in this new kind of mass, watching a new religion form before my very eyes, was an extraordinary experience for me, both intellectually and spiritually.
I also went to Haiti for an episode on Vodou, which is of course an extremely misunderstood religion, and I had an opportunity to go to the sacred waterfall, it’s called Saut d’Eau. To immerse myself in these sacred waters as a kind of cleansing. That was a profound spiritual experience for me. There were a lot of experiences like that throughout. The emotions that you see me go through in an episode, those are real emotions. I’m not a good enough actor to pretend those feelings.
How did you gain access to some of these typically insular or secretive communities?
It wasn’t easy. Because you’re right, a lot of these communities are insular, a lot of them are secretive, many of them do not trust outsiders, and especially outsiders with a camera crew. But at the same time, I have earned some measure of a reputation as somebody who is honest and fair about values and beliefs, somebody who is not interested in judging or mocking peoples’ belief systems. And I think that it did not take long for me to convince these groups that I was there to experience their faith, that I wasn’t there to criticize or judge. Once they understood that, they really opened up to me.
The thing about people who hold certain beliefs, particularly religious beliefs, is that they are not embarrassed of those beliefs. They want the world to know what they believe, they want to spread those ideas. They just want to make sure that they’re not being made fun of. Once they understood that that wasn’t going to happen, then they were absolutely open to having me join them, join their community, become part of them.
As someone coming from a Muslim background and/or faith tradition, do you plan on delving into Islam in this series?
Regardless of what religion we focus on, we’re never going to be interested in mainstream religion. What we are going to be interested in is religions that are somewhat on the fringes. We’re never going to just cover Catholics in Rome. We would cover a Catholic sect in Iceland, and have a conversation about Catholicism in general.
Same thing with Islam. We would very likely cover some little known sect, but in doing so speak more broadly about Islam and the ideas and misperceptions. The Aghora are a perfect example of that – this is a sect of Hinduism, it’s not Hinduism. So we do get to talk a little bit about Hinduism itself as a religion, but our focus is more about the maligned and misunderstood groups within Hinduism. And I think that’s what makes this show interesting, because it plays with your perceptions. It teaches you something, it’s entertaining, but it also reframes the way that you think about groups you may have, even unconsciously, demonized.
What do you think people most often get wrong about faiths other than their own?
I think what people most often get wrong about other peoples’ faiths is that there is something sort of fundamentally different about their faith than yours, that their experience of their religion is fundamentally different than your experience of your religion. You get this a lot – that you’re more than welcome to understand the varieties of religious experience in your own faith, but give very little credence to the same variety in other peoples’ faiths. No Christian would think that two billion Christians in the world believe the same thing or experience their scripture in the same way, but those same Christians would very likely think something like that about Muslims.
That’s always been my goal – as a thinker, as a writer, as a scholar, as a commentator, and certainly with this show – my goal has always been to help us recognize the connections that we have underneath the sort of external shell of religion that separates us.
On Faith and Academia
At a talk you gave at Harvard a few years ago, you spoke about the decision to get an MFA before your PhD because you wanted to be able to share the complex ideas often found in academia with a general audience. Because what’s the point of having these conversations if we’re not sharing that knowledge with the rest of the world? That’s something I grappled with a lot as a student. As a scholar, having delved into the complexities and intricacies and nuances of faith and tradition and meaning-making, how do you go about making your years of research and scholarship accessible to a lay audience? Do you feel like something is lost or diluted in having to simplify your scholarship?
I think the way to do it, and this is what has always been my methodology, is to focus on storytelling. It’s just a fundamental scientific fact that human beings learn through stories. Stories have the ability to allow us, through the empathy-making device of storytelling, to absorb large amounts of information and retain that information, in a way that rote memorization of facts and figures and dates and events just simply doesn’t.
So in everything that I do – whether it’s my political work or my scholarly work or even my work in TV and film – it’s always about focusing on stories, relating information through storytelling.
And as to is something lost – absolutely. A lot is lost. A lot of the historical complexity of a particular issue is going to be left by the wayside. But the truth of the matter is, the audience that I am focusing on is not interested in those kinds of complexities, is not interested in a hyper-specialized conversation, the likes of which take place among academics in ivory towers. What they want is a sort of fundamental basic understanding of these complex issues, and that requires simplifying them to their constituent elements. And yes, i get an enormous amount of criticism from other scholars precisely for simplifying material for a broader audience. But since that’s my goal anyway, I don’t take that criticism very seriously. That’s exactly what I am doing, and I am doing it proudly and unapologetically.
In fact, I’ve been going around the country doing screenings of the show, and one of those screenings was supposed to be at [prestigious university], they had invited me to come and do a screening of the show… We sent the screener and some academics, I’m not even sure who it was, got a hold of the show and disinvited me, because it wasn’t “serious enough as a work of scholarship.” Of course it’s not a work of scholarship, it’s a work of popular media. Its purpose is to give people who don’t get to take a class there an opportunity to learn about other religious traditions in a fun, entertaining but instructive way.
I think the problem with academia, the reason why it has become so stilted and stratified and so easily mocked by the public, is precisely that when confronted with the opportunity to show a screening and have a discussion with grad students about what it means to translate the study of religion to a popular audience through experience and participation, their response was “no thank you.”
At times, studying religion from an academic perspective often feels objective and detached from emotional, lived experiences of spirituality. As a person of faith, how do you reconcile that feeling – holding onto your faith when you’re constantly having to historicize and deconstruct it?
In an environment that absolutely devalues faith, right? I remember in my grad school programs, both Masters and PhD programs, you could say almost anything you wanted to about religion or religious communities, except that there was some measure of truth involved. The idea that you could talk about “the sacred” until you turn blue in the face, but if you took the sacred seriously then you were kind of mocked. I think people have this impression that religious studies departments are full of religious people. No! On the contrary. It’s usually a room full of atheists studying religion. And so it is unusual to come at it from both a scholarly perspective and from a faith perspective, and I think that was also very much missing. To be able to talk about religion, both with academic integrity and while still valuing the faith involved in it, is a unique and very useful tool for scholars of religion.
On America Today
Lets talk about Donald Trump. What was your reaction to his first couple weeks in office, his executive orders, the “Muslim ban”? Were you surprised by the outpouring of support for the Muslim and immigrant communities during this time?
I think Donald Trump poses an existential threat to American democracy. He should be removed from office as quickly as possible before he destroys the republic. That’s about as clear as I can be about who he is and what he represents.
But at the same time, I do think that his administration has created a real moment of clarity for a lot of Americans. It’s now time for everyone to choose sides and to get off the fence, and to make sure that the voices of those who want a country that is predicated on the values of pluralism and diversity is the kind of America that we take into the 21st century. So in a weird way, his disastrous and nearly apocalyptic presidency, can end up – if we can fight back strongly and swiftly enough – can end up doing some serious good for this country’s future.
When Trump was elected, my cousin who is an activist in Egypt wrote, “I know all of my American friends are feeling like this is an apocalyptic moment, but maybe it’s also a revolutionary one.” Maybe this is the time that provides that sense of urgency and people coming together and solidarity. I’ve never witnessed anything like this before.
I couldn’t agree more. I think that’s exactly what’s happening. We’re seeing an incredible sense of solidarity and also, I think we’re seeing an activation of the center of this country. The poles in this country are already activated. When we talk about how divided we are, we’re usually talking about the divide between the far left and the far right. But the center is not divided. The center is just simply unconcerned, most often.
And so I think, finally getting this group to take part in this national dialogue is precisely why we’re seeing this sudden drop in anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States. Over the last decade, we’ve seen every single year further and further rises in the percentage of people who hold negative views towards Muslims, and in the last month, we’ve seen a sudden precipitous drop in that category. And it’s not because people suddenly love Muslims. It’s because people who didn’t care for so long, suddenly do.
It is an incredible moment. Muftah had an event about the Muslim Ban a few weeks ago, and one of the panelists [Mustafa Bayoumi] was saying, “People are realizing that when they’re fighting for Muslims now, they’re not fighting for Muslims. They’re fighting for the soul of this country, they’re fighting for the values and principles this country was predicated upon.”
Exactly. Perfectly said.
At this time, in this era, as the world seems to be growing increasingly hostile and difficult to understand, what is the role and the utility of faith?
I think faith is useless unless it’s put into practice. I think that, unless you are willing to recognize that the values that you espouse in your church or your mosque or your synagogue can’t exist in a vacuum, that those values need to be imprinted on the society that you live in. That if you’re going to constantly quote Jesus about taking rights away from gay people, you should also probably recognize what he said about wealth and inequality and those who don’t have. I think there’s a burden, a special responsibility, on people that espouse faith, to stand up to any action by any individual, be it someone of their own faith or a political leader, whose stand violates the principles and the values that you hold dear. Whether those are liberal values or conservative values is not the point. It’s that the important thing about any religion, any faith experience, is that it has to be lived in the world. Unless you want to be a monk, unless you are separating yourself from society and living in a cave somewhere, religion has to be lived. Otherwise what’s the point?
So what do we do now? How do we respond to this political moment?
I think we’re doing it. When you have the head of the ADL, Jonathan Greenblatt, say that he will be the first to register as a Muslim if there is a Muslim registry, when you have Linda Sarsour raising $100,000 to fix desecrated Jewish cemeteries – you’re already seeing what I’m talking about. You’re already seeing people put aside their ideological and religious differences and come together based on the shared values that they hold in common. I think this is an exciting time to be alive, and I’m very optimistic and enthusiastic about the possibilities for this country, as a result of the man-child in the White House.
Believer with Reza Aslan premieres on CNN Sunday, March 5 at 10 pm ET/PT.