Since I was a little girl, I was told not to discuss religion. Reza Aslan fascinates me. He is an Iranian American that not only discusses religion in public – he has made it his life's work to learn about the world's religions and then share his findings with all of us. He has had incredible success as an author, producer and commentator.
Reza was born in Tehran. His family moved to the U.S. when he was just 7 years old. Like the majority of Iranians, his family was born Muslim. He was raised in a household that was not very religious. His father was actually an atheist. Like many of us just trying to be a kid in the US while the hostage crisis was going on, he did not share where he was from. He actually said he was from Mexico. In high school, Reza went to a Christian summer camp and decided to become an evangelical Christian. Not only that, he converted his mom to Christianity. In college, he did some soul searching and study and decided to become a Muslim again. A Jesuit actually gave him the suggestion of trying to get to know his original religion.
Reza clearly had an interest in learning about religion in general. At Santa Clara University, he received his B.A. in Religious Studies and majored in the New Testament. He went on to receive a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard University with a major in the History of Religions. He then received his PhD in Sociology of Religions from the University of Santa Barbara. He said he always knew that he wanted to be a writer, so he also received a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa. His full bio.
His accomplishments and awards are enough to make any Iranian mom and dad proud. I was a fan of Reza's CNN documentary series, Believer. I was so sad to see the series end. He has also served as Executive Producer to Rough Draft with Reza Aslan, ABC drama, Of Kings and Prophets and the Emmy-nominated series The Secret Life of Muslims and the Consulting Producer for The Leftovers. He is also the co-founder of BoomGen Studios.
His books have been translated into dozens of languages. His latest book is called God: A Human History. The book looks back through the history of religion to point out how we have tried to humanize the divine. It was an eye-opening book from a perspective I had never thought about before. Reza is a master storyteller. If you are into audiobooks like I am, he narrated this one himself.
His book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth is a #1 New York Times Bestseller. Other books include: No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in a Globalized Age, Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscape from the Middle East, Muslims and Jews in America: Commonalities, Contentions and Complexities.
In addition to everything else he is doing, Reza is a tenured Professor of Creative Writing at University of California, Riverside. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife Jessica Jackley and their three children. The interview below:
Irandokht: I know some families where the parents are conservative, and the kids go the opposite direction and vice versa. Do you think that your dad being an atheist had anything to do with you become a religious scholar?
Reza: Probably, I mean I had always been very interested in religion. I would imagine it had a lot to do with my experience with revolutionary Iran. I saw the power religion has to transform a society for good and bad and I think it created this deep lifelong interest in religion. As you say, I never had an opportunity to express that in any meaningful way because my dad who was never a fan of religion in Iran when we came to the United States thought "good, I don't have to pretend anymore" so we kind of scrubbed our lives from religion though my mom still prayed every once in a while. My dad was always flabbergasted in my intense interest in religion and spirituality and I think perhaps some of it did come from the fact that it was from something that he had no interest in.
Irandokht: When you changed to Christianity, what was the response from your Iranian American friends?
Reza: I had no Iranian friends. I literally grew up knowing no other Iranians except my family and cousins. I'm pretty sure I was the only Iranian in my high school and for sure the only one in my year.
Irandokht: Wow...this is the Bay area?
Reza: Yes, San Jose. This was of course before it became known as Silicon Valley and before the tech boom and before the place was flooded with Middle Eastern software engineers. Today, the bay area is completely a different place.
Irandokht: As a Muslim, do you participate in any of the practices like the prayers, not drinking alcohol or eating pork, etc.?
Reza: I mean for me religion is not about dos and don'ts and participation and practices. It is a language of symbols and metaphors that allows me to express my faith. And when you study the religions of the world it becomes very difficult to take any of those religion all that seriously any longer. Certainly, it becomes impossible to take any religions truth claims seriously. Because what you discover quickly is that all these religions are just different ways of saying the same thing. I'm not interested in what Sufis refer to as the external shell of any religion. The reason that I am a Muslim is because it provides me a way of thinking about my faith that makes the most sense to me. But to say that I am in any way shape or form beholden to dogma of any kind whether it's to Islam or any other religion or any politics is to not really know me or my work.
Irandokht: You say you are Muslim. I want to make sure I understand correctly. When you say you can't take any of the religions very seriously, do you mean you take religion seriously but not the practices or separations?
Reza: I think the problem is that people don't really understand what religion is. People think religion is about beliefs and practices and it is not. Beliefs and practices are important, but religion is a matter of identity. The vast majority of people that call themselves Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist are not making faith statements, they are making identity statements. And so that fundamental fact confuses people that are religious and not religious. It forces you to get into verbal gymnastics...well I'm a Catholics but I believe abortion is ok, but Catholicism doesn't so can you really be a Catholic and say that? Well I don't know so maybe I'm not Catholic, but I experience my spirituality through Catholic ideas and metaphors. I guess as an expert on religion, what I'm trying to say is that the reason many are confused is because they are thinking incorrectly about what religion actually is. It is not about the things you believe, very rarely is it about the things you believe and very rarely about the things that you do. Religion is about who you are.
Irandokht: It's definitely a different way of looking at what religion is. I noticed throughout the book God: A Human History you refer to Ancient Iran instead of saying Persia. Why did you choose to do it in this way?
Reza: It's just historical accuracy. What we call Persia doesn't exist on a map anymore...it's Iran. And Iran was of course the original designation for the land and today we call part of that Iran. The correct term for pre-modern Iran is Iran.
Irandokht: I was not aware of that. I thought you were trying to refer to the country using its current name for a purpose instead of using Persia.
Reza: No, it's historical accuracy. Just to be clear – the very term Persia is the Greek rendering of Pars. Pars is just one tribal area within the larger area of Iran. The easiest way to put it is this – Persia is what outsiders called Iran and Persian is an ethnicity and not nationality. If you say Persian empire, you are talking about an empire that was dominated by a particular culture. Today, when you say I am Persian, it means my ethnicity is Persian, but my nationality is Iranian because there is no such thing is Persia. So, things are Persian, cultures and ethnicities are Persian but people when referring to their nationality are Iranian. Another way of putting it: You can be Persian and not Iranian, and you can be Iranian and not Persian.
Irandokht: I've never heard that explanation. From my experience, when people say Persian and not Iranian, they don't want a quick connection to the being from Iran. If I understood correctly, you respect all religions and believe God is within each of us. If being a certain religion is about us and them, why choose to say you are Muslim?
Reza: Religions are man-made institutions the purpose of which is to help people and communities to interpret the faith experience. It's not that I respect all religions...it's that I recognize all religions are different languages expressing similar sentiments. It would be like saying I respect all languages. What I am interested in is the sentiment and the ideas. In my 20 years of research and experience, I've come to understand that there is very little that separates people. Religions as man-made institutions are going to be destructive and corrupt and define themselves in opposition to each other. That's just part of the human condition. In general, what we are talking about is the relationship religions have to each other, I think the metaphor to language is the best way to think about it. I happen to be fluent in many religions and what I do for a living is a kind of interpreter of religions and how it binds us all together.
Irandokht: Have you found that people are able to grasp your concept of religion being a language?
Reza: Yes, I think it's had a big effect. All of my work is based on this one principle ...my books, my lectures, everything I do is based on the foundation that religion is nothing more than a language to express faith and faith is something we have in common and religion is the different ways we express that faith.
Irandokht: I heard you say that even though there are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, only 1% of the US population is Muslim. Do you think this is why there is so much misunderstanding with the religion?
Reza: Absolutely, it's perfectly common for an American to be born, live a full life and to die in this country without once setting eyes upon a Muslim. There are 350 million Americans and only a little over 3 million Muslims. In a case like that, what you think is a Muslim will be fashioned by what you see on television.
Irandokht: I like the Secret Life of Muslims. I'm remembering one episode where one person completely changed their perception of Muslims. I believe it's the episode with Richard. Do you want to comment on the story?
Reza: This was a dramatic story that we came across in season 2. I have no interest in proselytizing...
Irandokht: I didn't really see it that way. It was more the idea that people have the ability to completely change their views and open their hearts.
Reza: Well, I will say this – it goes to something that I never tire of saying which is bigotry is not the result of ignorance, bigotry is the result of fear and fear is impervious to data. There is no amount of information and education that is going to take away fear. The only thing that takes away fear is relationships and I think that story is illustrative of that fact. It wasn't because he learned about Islam that he put away his bigotry. It's that he met Muslims and formed relationships with Muslims. That has always been and will always be the most effective way of combatting bigotry and racism.
Irandokht: Why do you think Muslims and Iranian Americans don't speak up when inaccuracies are put out there that promote bigotry?
Reza: I don't accept either part of your assumption. This is simply not true. First of all, the vast majority of Muslims have no idea what Islam preaches or believes and they know nothing about Islamic history or the prophet. That's true of Jews and Christians. They may be upset that what they think about their religion is not being accurately represented in the media, but they are not about to do anything about it. Name a Christian who is standing up and saying that what Reverend Falwell is saying is not Christianity.
Irandokht: I understand what you are saying but it definitely feels like some religions and communities speak out more than others. Look at when the Muslim ban happened. I think a handful of Iranian Americans spoke out, but many did not.
Reza: I think you are operating from a place where you feel something happened but there is no evidence of it happening. Did those same people that you are thinking of say anything about the nuclear deal? Did they say anything about the anti-Iran speech in Congress? No, because people don't do that. I think often times people assume, especially young people assume that your job is to raise your voice against things that you disagree with but that's not the norm by any means. I just think the way that you are thinking about it is problematic. People who raise their voices about stuff also raised their voice about the Muslim ban. It's not an Iranian or Muslim thing – it's the kind of person that you are. You are going to hear me speak about the Muslim ban, but you are also going to hear me talk about the closing of the southern border.
Irandokht: I understand what you are saying but we may have to agree to disagree. There are Iranian Americans that are more comfortable speaking up on some topics and not others that have to do with being Iranian or Muslim. From my understanding, there are people from other countries that were once hesitant to speak up but slowly started to join the conversation.
Irandokht: Have you ever regretted being vocal with your thoughts?
Reza: I've never regretted making myself heard. There have been consequences that have touched other people and that is regrettable. It sucks that my wife starts getting death threats for things that I've said. It sucks that I get my show cancelled and 18 people are now jobless. So those kinds of things are really, really regrettable.
Irandokht: Fair enough. In one of your interviews I remember you saying that Muslims in this country have a high level of education and income with an annual combined income $100 Billion Dollars. What do you think drives this success and why do more people not know about the positives and the contributions this community is making?
Reza: I think it's two-fold. First, many first-generation Muslims came from countries with very strict quotas with who could or could not immigrate to the US. People with the highest education or the ability to impact the American economy were given the ability to immigrate. Also, many were funneled into the sciences – engineers, doctors and computer scientist. These fields require high levels of education and pay very well. The median income for a Muslim household is much higher than a non-Muslim household. Muslims are the wealthiest immigrant community and don't just have the highest education. Another part of it is that the tech boom gave a lot of engineers an opportunity to make a tremendous amount of money. Just have to look at the C list of these companies like Google, Yahoo and Apple and you can just see the Mohamads, Alis and Hassans. It's created a situation you have a tiny Muslim community with gigantic wealth. The only issue is figuring out how to use that wealth appropriately and to further goals of community and that will take another generation or so. In this country money is power, money is voice. I always say Muslims in American have done a very good job making money and not that good a job in spending it yet.
Irandokht: Do you think it's a good idea to humanize God?
Reza: No, it's terrible to do so. My entire book is about why we should not be humanizing God because when we humanize god we insert our own values, our own likes and dislikes, our own attributes onto God. This explains why religion has been a source of both good and evil because it is nothing more than a reflection of who we are.
Irandokht: When asked about their religion, I've heard a lot of Iranian Americans say things like: "I'm Muslim but I don't practice, or I was born Muslim but am more spiritual than religious." What's your opinion about this?
Reza: This is the largest growing religious identity in America – the non-affiliated or the spiritual and not religious. The latest data shows it accounts for nearly a quarter of Americans and for millennials it's nearly two-thirds. It's becoming the most common way of expressing spirituality in the US.
Irandokht: So, you are saying it's not just Muslims or Iranian Americans, it's all Americans?
Reza: Yes, in America. I think there is a lot of different factors. I think one factor is that people are rejecting the identity label. People recognize that a lot of these religions come with a lot of baggage that they are not interested in. I think some people still want to have a spiritual experience, but they don't want it tied to any religious identity.
Irandokht: If someone asked you what your religion is, what do you say?
Reza: Muslim. The tradition in Islam I follow is Sufism. For someone who studies religion for a living, what I call religion or even what I call Islam is different from what other people would.
Irandokht: I have a friend that feels that we are imposing self-censorship on ourselves in the US. Depending on our beliefs, we watch a particular news station and don't participate in interviews in other stations. It appears like you do the opposite. I've seen you on almost every news station and program. What are your thoughts on this?
Reza: I think what you are talking about is often referred to as siloing ...the idea that the more media outlets there are, the more people are become siloed into specific outlets that reflect back to them ideas and points of views that they already have, and it is creating a kind of fracturing of the media space and so we are not hearing from other sides anymore. That's is absolutely true, and we have recognized that since the creation of the internet. I'm not sure there is anything we can do about it. That said, I believe Fox news is not a news network. It is a propaganda network. It is a destructive force in America and around the world. It's incorrect to say that Fox news presents the other side. No, it's fake news and the closest thing to state-run media. It should be boycotted by anyone that is not a white supremacist. I will talk to the other side, but Fox news doesn't count.
Irandokht: Wow...that is definitely not how I thought you would answer that question. I thought I saw you be interviewed on Fox?
Reza: Let's be clear – I did interviews on Fox in 2013. In 2013, you could complain about Fox but was not the racist platform it is today. Today, I would not go on Fox.
Irandokht: Iranian Americans sometimes shy away from getting involved in politics. You have been very vocal on where you stand on issues. What would you say to the Iranian American community on the importance of getting more involved?
Reza: I think it's a generational thing. The generational divide indicates that the generation that grew up in Iran for which the idea of political participation is a totally foreign concept still feels that way in the US. The younger generation particularly those who came here as children or were born here for them the American experience is all about political participation and making your voice heard.
Irandokht: I understand you and your family celebrate all the different religious ceremonies. Some would say this is confusing for kids. What made you decide to parent by being a Muslim that puts up a Christmas tree and also lights up the Menorah. If someone asked your children what religion they are, what would they say? What are some of your family practices?
Reza: One son calls himself Jewish and another one of my sons would call himself Hindu. Anyone who says children get confused doesn't know jack squat about children's development. On the contrary, children find no confusion whatsoever when it comes to different religions, religious practices and the integration of different religions. It's adults that have that problem. Kids don't know the difference. They could care less. My kids are interested in different religions and don't have a problem recognizing the similarities of these different religions. Celebrating Christmas, Hanukah and Diwali makes no difference to them at all. It's only adults who get confused by stuff like that. We pray a lot...we also do a weekly thing we call home church. We do a brief lesson and talk about values and find ways to participate in the lesson and draw from all religions and cultures. We travelled around the world this summer and immersed ourselves in different religious communities and it's very second nature to them.
Irandokht: Very interesting. Reza, thank you for taking time from your busy schedule for this interview. I wish you continued success.
It was an interesting conversation with Reza Aslan. At a time when people are focusing on differences, I think Reza is working to help people find their way back to each other. I can't wait to see what he will do next. His book God: A Human History is out in paperback today. To keep up with Reza's projects, you can follow him on Twitter (@rezaaslan) and Facebook (@rezaaslanofficial)