Reza Aslan is quickly becoming the most patient guest on television, whether he’s arguing with clueless CNN reporters or writing op-eds about Bill Maher’s toxic Islamophobia.
The University of California professor has dealt with his views being dissected across social media and television. Aslan also defers when I call him extremely popular, laughing that he’s still, “deeply unpopular though!” While we beg to differ, we’ll be seeing a lot more of Aslan when his show Believer for CNN debuts, a show that takes him to various religious festivals. He’s also turned producer with Of Kings and Prophets, a dark late-night drama that takes the corniness out of faith-based shows that have populated our TV landscape.
In advance of his Vancouver talk “Wrath of God” at Indian Summer Festival on July 16, we called up Aslan to chat about his new shows, religion, and what he most enjoys about the debates.
You’ve talked before about religion being an identity position. How does it get so politicized and garbled when Western media approaches Islam?
Well if religion is a matter of identity, far more so than it is a matter of belief and practices, then as a matter of identity, it’s wrapped up in all the other multiple factors of one’s identity including one’s politics, ethnicity, nationality, gender, or sexuality. I think the best way to think about it is to think of all of these various identities as strands that make the chord that is who you are. I don’t think they can privilege one over the other. I think if someone says their nationality matters more than anything else, or their religion, then that to me is an unhealthy attitude. You cannot separate politics from religion, and you can’t separate ethnicities from religion, or your sexual orientation from religion. Your religion encapsulates all these different things, which is precisely why religion is so individually expressed and experienced throughout the world.
You’ve definitely become our go-to academic for the TV circuit, how have you dealth with popularity?
Well maybe from your point of view I’m popular, but I’m also deeply unpopular, so I think the more people like you the more people hate you. You know, I’m just happy that I’m able to move the dialogue in this country about religion, politics, and identity forward in a meaningful, particularly because these issues are so polarized and spoken on with such ignorance and unsophistication by media personalities, and self-styled experts. I’m glad I get a voice in the debate. I’m glad that people listen, but along with that comes an incredible headache in that I’m inundated and besieged by radicals on both sides.
You’ve dealt with your CNN interview going viral. Do you go into interviews now knowing how to defend your viewpoint in a quick manner or do you enjoy the challenge it brings?
I don’t enjoy it, no. In fact, I say no to 98% of the media asks that I get, because of two reasons. One, because I know as the guest I’m there for no other reason than for the benefit of the network and for the anchor. I’m not there for my own benefit I get nothing from it whatsoever. Two, you don’t get the chance for deep lasting impact or make interesting or sophisticated or complex points. I’ve been lucky in that at least on two occasions I’ve done media that has allowed me to make a certain point. I’m grateful for that, but at the same time the key to the situation is often out of their way and letting these media personalities dig their own hole. From just a general debate strategy standpoint it’s often the best strategy to just remain quiet and let your opponent make a fool of themselves. When you are expressing the overly simplistic and bigoted ignorant views, they rarely need arguing against to just let people express them and I think the audience is smart enough to recognize the truth for what it is.
Where does that patience and humour come from when you’re dealing with Bill Maher or CNN?
You know, I understand that the world is absurd and I treat it as absurd. I think that humour can be a powerful way of expressing knowledge and information that has far more stickiness to it than a serious sober discussion. Also I truly believe that the individuals on the fringes, whether it be religious rights or Islamic extremists or the Islamophobes, these people are clowns. The proper response to clowns is laughter.
What do you think people can do to dismantle these pre-conceived notions and Orientalist tropes that we see in the media? Does it need a complete overhaul?
Well I always say that racism or bigotry are not a result of ignorance, they are a result of fear. That fear is impervious to data. That fear is impervious to information. The only way to transform a person and take away their fear is through relationships. But, of course, relationships are a slow steady building of one-on-one encounters of getting to know people of other faiths or nationalities, ethnicities, colours, races, and to understand them as individuals and human beings beyond any kind of symbols they may represent. But that takes time and that takes effort. It’s what we see today, a radical shift in American perceptions about same-sex marriage going from overwhelmingly negative views to positive views even among Republicans, even among Christians. That kind of pendulum shift occurred primarily because gay stories, LGBT identity was easily absorbed into mainstream culture. People got to know gay people and as they did they stopped seeing them as foreign, exotic, and ‘Other’ and started seeing them as humans. That’s what it’s going to take whether we’re talking about the way one deals with bigotry against other races or religion.
What do you think about the discussion around reformation from authors like Ayaan Hirsi Ali? Is it a rosy ideal?
I don’t pay any attention to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She doesn’t really require paying attention to. This is a person whose comments about Islam have been so over-the-top grotesque. A woman who has said we are at war with the entire religion of Islam, not Islamic radicals. Anybody who speaks like that about any religion, any race, or any people is no longer allowed to be part of the conversation. The fact that she is is an indication of how mainstream this rabid Islamophobic bigotry has become. The issue of reformation, however, is a very real thing, but people don’t understand what reformation means. They think reformation means people holding hands and singing, “Kumbaya” and everything is going to be great. They talk about the Christian reformation, forgetting that the Christian reformation led to the death of millions of people, the Thirty Years War, and the slaughter of half of the population of Germany alone. What we are seeing in the Muslim world today: the violence, the conflict, the sectarianism is the reformation. So all these people calling for an Islamic reformation should probably be careful what they’re calling for, because what they mean is precisely the catastrophic violence that is in parts of the Muslim world today.
You’re working with CNN on a show about religious rituals, how did that evolve?
That’s a show that I’ve been pitching for a long time. The idea of doing a kind of Anthony Bourdain show but with faith instead of food and using religion as a window into other cultures, worlds, and worldviews. It was one that there was frankly an overwhelming desire among people to produce and to see. I feel good about it so fingers crossed and I hope that it turns out to be as good as I think it could be.
It seems like you’re trying to step away from the monolithic notions and draw out the commonalities?
Yeah, precisely. This is the problem with armchair theorizing of religion that it comes from a fundamentally flawed place, like thinking of religion as static and monolithic, as institutional, as a top-down experience, or an authoritative or having to do with scripture. Lived religion is not like at all. Lived religion comes in infinite varieties and it’s all about a bottom-up experience not a top-down one. Hopefully, this will be a real eye-opener for people who don’t really a lot about how religion functions in the world.
You’re also working on Of Kings and Prophets, a TV series around King David. Most faith-based shows like The Bible can be really corny, what sets yours apart from the rest of the pack?
Well the difference between Of Kings and Prophets and The Bible is that Mark Burnett’s The Bible sucked! That was a show that was geared wholly to a faith-based audience and only a faith-based audience watched it, nobody else watched it. It was unwatchable and unbearable! Ours is late-night network drama and it’s based on the greatest story in the bible about the one of the most fascinating and suave characters in the Bible: King David. A man who nearly half the population reveres but who was an incredibly complex and morally ambiguous person, who killed his friends and betrayed his wives, and he had many wives. I think that’s the kind of story people can rally around, both people of faith and people without faith. That’s why I think this will be a far more successful enterprise than some of the other entries into biblical storytelling that we’ve seen in the recent past.