Rising media star Reza Aslan will debut a new CNN series, Believer, in 2016.
Known for his heated confrontations with Bill Maher, he may be best known for the overnight sensation of his interview with a Fox News host about his book Zealot, The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.
The book debuted at No. 2 on the New York Times' bestseller. Since then, Aslan has emerged a formidable media figure, taking on journalists and commentators, challenging populist rhetoric on of Islam and the crisis in the Middle East.
At a time when the popular discourse on Islam and terrorism is fraught with sweeping generalizations and assumptions, Aslan brings substance and nuance into prime-time conversations.
Following his illuminating talk last year, Aslan returns to Vancouver's Indian Summer Festival (ISF) in July. His talk, titled The Wrath of God, will be held at SFU's Goldcorp Centre for the Arts on July 16.
Aslan shared his early preoccupations with religion, last year's attacks at Parliament Hill, and his views on Bill Maher, Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists with Nitant Narang.
Nitant Narang: I think most people conceive of you as a scholar in religious studies but, on the other hand, you happen to teach Creative Writing at the University of California. Did you ever contemplate a future as a novelist before you become well-known for your non-fiction?
Reza Aslan: I think of myself, first and foremost, as a writer. Yes, I do have multiple advanced degrees in religious studies but I also have an advanced degree in creative writing — I have an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Throughout my career, I've taught both religion and writing, and I discovered that I liked teaching writing better.
I teach Creative Writing simply because I enjoy it. At this point in my career, I don't need to teach at all. I do so simply because I find it fun and satisfying.
For me, as a storyteller, I don't make much of a difference between fiction and non-fiction, religion and politics. Those are all just various forms of storytelling. I think it is what has made me successful as both a scholar and a communicator.
"There's no doubt my childhood experience of revolutionary Iran had a deep impact"
NN: You've mentioned in previous interviews that your deep interest in religion dates back to your childhood. You and your family fled the 1979 revolution before coming to America. Do you think your early interest in religion was a consequence of witnessing, as a seven-year-old, this enormous paroxysm of religiosity that preceded the Revolution?
Aslan: There's no doubt that my childhood experiences of revolutionary Iran had a deep impact on me and created a lasting, abiding interest in the power that religion has to transform societies for good and for bad. And I think, also, growing up in United States at a time of intense anti-Islam and anti-Iranian sentiment made me dig very deeply into what religion is, how it is a matter of identity, and how those identities are constantly in flux.
NN: I'm sure you've come by several news reports in the Canadian media about the rising cases of religious extremism among Muslim youth. The shootout in Ottawa last year is perhaps the most egregious example. Were you at all taken by surprise?
Aslan: Well, first of all, let's be absolutely clear: It's an infinitesimal number of Canadian Muslims. Canada does not have an extremism problem. Neither does America. Europe has an extremism problem.That is a part of the world in which young people are adopting Jihadist ideology in very large numbers and doing so, primarily, is a result of an identity crisis.
But, obviously, these ideologies are appealing across the spectrum regardless of where you are in the world because they attract a particular kind of person — one who has certain violent tendencies, one who has radical views about the world and who also sees the world as a borderless place, a place that needs to be redefined fundamentally.
And the appeal of jihad is that it provides a very simple identity, a very simple answer to complex problems — the growing gaps between the haves and the have-nots, problems of social justice around the world, the issues of identity and the conflict of religions and politics are problems that all people, particularly young people, are dealing with and have been dealing with for years.
In previous generations, what would have drawn these kinds of young people are ideologies — Socialism, Communism, leftist ideologies and in this generation that has been replaced by jihadism and I don't think that it's surprising in the least.
What still surprises me is that the media attention to it so vast when you have one or two individuals taking part in violent actions as a result of these ideologies.
NN: You've called out Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, the leading lights of New Atheism, for confounding atheism with anti-theism. Do you think their rejection of faith is based on an overtly simplistic reasoning?
Aslan: Yeah, let's be clear. New Atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are not atheists, they are anti-theists. They don't just not believe in God, they believe that religion is an insidious evil that has to be forcibly removed from society. Their views about religious people and religion in general are extreme and in no way representative of the majority or mainstream views of atheists.
That is precisely my problem with New Atheists: they give atheism a bad name. Their ideas come not from research, not from work, not from scholarship but from the most simplistic, the most unsophisticated and the most knee-jerk reaction to the very real problem of religious violence around the world.
It is nothing less than idiotic to blame religion for religious violence without recognizing the multiple factors that are involved in violence of any sort.
Bill Maher is "just a comedian and nothing more."
NN: You've spoken out against Bill Maher for trivializing not just Islam but also the socio-political complexities of the Middle East. I wanted to use this question as a segue way into weighing in on the merits and demerits of comedic journalism, as it were. Do you think it often slips into facetiousness and does more harm than good?
Aslan: Well, Bill Maher is a comedian; he's not a journalist. He's not a comedic journalist. He's just a comedian and nothing more. And unfortunately, he's not that good a comedian.
But it's important to understand that Bill Maher has a very simple purpose. He is on a subscription cable news channel and any subscription cable news show succeeds or fails not by the numbers of people who watch it because that number is irrelevant in subscription cable but by the noise and the attention that the show gets.
If people are not talking about The Sopranos or Game of Thrones or Bill Maher or John Oliver, then they (the shows) have failed.
NN: But there are a lot of people watching these shows. In fact a lot of people get their news from these particular talk shows.
Aslan: Bill Maher's, yeah.
NN: Do you think that gives them an insubstantial understanding of these very crucial issues that are being debated on Bill Maher's show? Does that do more damage than good?
Aslan: I don't know how to answer that question. Media is so dispersed nowadays; you really have the option of hearing every voice possible on every topic possible.
So, if you're a liberal, you watch Bill Maher, if you're a conservative, you watch Bill O'Reilly and you loathe the other. The real problem is that the media is increasingly becoming an echo chamber where you are just getting the opinion that you already have.
NN: Religion has factored into your personal life as well. You converted to Christianity before you finally found sustenance in Sufism which is something that a lot of Western poets and writers — you think of Whitman and Emerson — have done as well. What is it about Sufism that moors your faith to it?
Aslan: Well, because these monks are interested in religion, they think that religion is a signpost to God. They think that it's a path to the destination and for someone who studies the religions of the world and understands that all religions are merely man-made expressions of transcendental experience, Sufism that uses the metaphors and symbols of Islam, but interprets them in a far more mystical and direct way, is much more conducive that the traditional mainstream or institutionalized religions.
"The civil rights movement in the United States was a religiously-based movement that was radical and transformative, revolutionary and called for activism."
NN: I've tried to be resolutely nuanced so far but I'm going to break form and ask you this question: Is there a God?
Aslan: (Laughs) It depends on what you mean by God. I mean you either believe that there is something beyond the material realm or you do not. There is no proof or disproof for it. It's simply a choice.
If you do believe that there is something beyond the material realm, then the second question you need to ask yourself is are you interested in communing with that thing, knowing it and experiencing that thing.
If the answer to that question is yes, then the next question is how do you want to do so, do you need help in doing so, do you want to rely on symbols and rituals that have existed for centuries to help people do so, or do you want do so on your own terms with your own symbols.
Those are the questions the individual needs to ask him or herself.
NN: What do you say to the charge that religion is the opiate of the masses?
Aslan: Well, I think that it can be the opiate of the masses.
It can also transform an entire world, it can transform an entire society. The civil rights movement in the United States was a religiously-based movement that was radical and transformative, revolutionary and called for activism.
The same is true for the anti-war movement in the United States.
So, these kinds of statements normally come from people hanging out in coffee shops who think that they can say intelligent things to each other because they watched something on TV but they tend to be fairly divorced from the lived experience of religion.