It's a bit untraditional to find a scholar of religions with the same international klout as Reza Aslan. But in the heart of Manhattan, Aslan sits cross-legged in the middle of Times Square on a bright LED screen next to ads featuring models and celebrities.
In the last several years, Aslan has risen to fame for debunking hackneyed old claims about Islam, engaged in Twitter feuds with atheists like Sam Harris and writing several New York Times bestselling books.
Aslan's new show on CNN, Believer, is set to premiere on Sunday. The show is a lot like Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown, but instead of food, Aslan talks religion, immerses himself in death cults and practices mysticism. Aslan is dedicated to understanding the language of faith in which people around the world speak. He's committed to proving the power of belief.
Mic spoke with Aslan to discuss the power of faith, what's at stake for Muslims living under President Donald Trump's America, what he hopes people will learn by watching Believer.
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Mic: Your show Believer is coming up. Can you talk about your experience filming the series, the people you've met, the different religions you've learned about and cultures you've experienced?
RA: I'm interested in the lived experience of religion. What I like to do is talk about the way that religion is actually experienced in people's lives, so this show gives me the opportunity to go around the world and really immerse myself in these various religious groups, these communities, many of whom are on the fringes of society, many of whom are very marginalized. A lot of them have an enormous amount of misconceptions and misrepresentations about them – we're talking about voodoo, which people immediately think, "Oh, that's like zombies?" Santa Muerte, which is often seen as a death cult, but which is not at all. Scientology, which you know, everybody in the world has an opinion on Scientology but almost nobody knows what Scientology actually is. And by immersing myself into these communities, hopefully, what I'm trying to do is get people to kind of look beyond their initial impressions – to look beyond something that may look fearful and exotic, and through my journey come to recognize that it's not as weird as they thought. And I guess it might be too much to ask but maybe if you're able to do that in a 44-minute television show maybe you're able to do that in your everyday life. That's what I'm hoping anyway.
Based on what you've found from filming Believer, in what ways can you compare and contrast the United States' religious climate to the other countries you've visited?
RA: We are the most devout country – certainly in the developed world. We are a country that not only encourages religion in the public space, we reward it. We actually give taxpayer funded money to religious organizations to do things the government doesn't want to do, to provide services the government cannot. We allow churches and religious groups to be tax-exempt, we don't tax pastors and imams.
So I think sometimes we as Americans look at the rest of the world, and particularly the Islamic world, and we make these ridiculous assumptions about the role of religion in public life in these places and what you really need to succeed in these nations is to remove religion in society without recognizing that we are a deeply religious society.
So, I think we need to be able to look – to quote Jesus – at the giant staff of wood in our own eyes, the plank in our own eyes before we start talking about the splinter in our neighbor's eyes.
It's so interesting to see a show about religion. Islamophobia wasn't really a big part of the national conversation until Trump was running for president. How do you make someone care about the topic of faith or religion?
RA: What this show does, what Believer does, is allow you to insert yourself into the story of another community and in following my experience, my journey into those other communities, to empathize with someone who you thought you had no connection to – to recognize what actually binds you together and to actually understand how similar your beliefs and your values are to someone on the other side of the planet who have a different name for God, who have scriptures in different languages, who dress and act and eat and pray differently than you.
I think there is no other way. There is no more powerful medium than storytelling. I think in our case, the storytelling that has the widest reach happens to be television and film and so I'm going to use those media in order to try to tell the story that engages people, that activates their minds but also their emotions and makes them more likely to break down the walls, that separate us into these distinct categories of nationality or religion or race or gender or sexual orientation.
I really want to get your thoughts on President Donald Trump's remarks to Congress on Tuesday. Trump has said that the majority of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil come from foreign nationals and has announced his plans to sign a new executive order for the Muslim travel ban. What is your reaction to all of this?
RA: Well, I congratulate the president for successfully reading from a teleprompter without spouting off nonsense about the First Amendment and the destruction of the constitution and the values therein. He managed to talk the entire time without lying about his election victory or lying about voter fraud, but I'm baffled — baffled by the media response to it. The bar has been set so low for this guy that the fact that he didn't soil himself was enough to say, "Wow! He's so presidential now," which is just utter nonsense.
Whether you are spouting out lies or reading them from a teleprompter, it's still lies. And this was a speech full of bold-faced lies — lies about immigration in this country, lies about crime waves by immigrants in this country. Talking about "lawless chaos" — that's a lie. Talking about how terror attacks are mostly from foreign-born individuals — that's a lie. This is a pathological liar who cannot seem to speak for more than a couple of minutes without lying and, at a certain point, I think we've got to stop responding to him like he's a normal human being — because he's not.
Fake news has been a phenomenon in media circles, but for members in the Muslim community, it's been a part of their life in this country. Now seeing people who have taken part in it — Steve Bannon and White House adviser Stephen Miller — in the White House, what can be done now to combat it?
RA: I think that it's important for us be able to delineate between what is real and what is not. I think that responsibility rests far less on the shoulders of individuals than it does on the shoulders of these companies – it's Facebook's responsibility to be able to filter out what is real and what is not. And hopefully they'll get around to doing something about that.
But I think it is a colossal waste of time to continue to try and battle every fake news story that's out there – just like it's a colossal waste of time to continue to fact-check the president. Every other word out of his mouth is a lie and so to still be saying, "Okay we're going to fact check everything he said," I think, again, is a normalization of what is not just an abnormal situation but one that is nothing less than an existential crisis for this country.
I'm not going to mince my words when it comes to what is happening to the United States as a result of the white nationalists, the anti-Semites, the Islamophobic xenophobes who have taken over the executive branch of this country. To continue to talk in these absurd platitudes, you know, about a change in tone that he did in his speech is to be fiddling while the Titanic is going down. So let's get serious about this. I mean, we are facing an existential crisis, okay? So I don't really care about the tone of the president. I don't really care about dealing with the fake news phenomenon. I care about one thing and one thing only, which is saving this country from the president.
I care about one thing and one thing only, which is saving this country from the president.
Donald Trump isn't the first to espouse anti-Muslim rhetoric. Others like Bill Maher and Sam Harris have made claims like "Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas." Wouldn't you say that type of rhetoric also incites anti-Muslim hate violence?
RA: Bill Maher can't kill me and my family, and Donald Trump can. I think that they definitely feed fear and bigotry, and I think they do so for personal reasons. I mean, I think there is always a political and economic benefit in creating a sense of fear and by focusing that fear on a very easily identifiable "other." And the "other" changes depending on what generation we're talking about – it could be Catholics, it could be Jews, it could be blacks, it could be immigrants, it could be Japanese, now it's Muslims. But the sentiment remains the same.
But again, I just want to emphasize something here: This is not a normal situation. Yes, there have always been these Islamophobic hate groups – people like Robert Spencer and Pamela Gellar and Brigitte Gabriel and Frank Gaffney and Daniel Pipes. These are people who our own government has labeled as hate-group leaders – ACT for America is an organization that has been labeled as a hate group by the Anti-Defamation League and by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Steve Bannon published Frank Gaffney, Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller regularly at Breitbart. Stephen Miller, the other White House adviser, actually worked with Robert Spencer, hate-group leader, and published anti-Muslim ads in college newspapers. Kellyanne Conway used to work for Frank Gaffney as a pollster. Mike Pompeo, the CIA director, received an award of commendation from ACT for America. Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, received an award of commendation from Frank Gaffney's group. What we are saying is that the lowest form of these despicable actors, who are open bigots, who are labeled by the U.S. government itself as hate groups, are now in the White House.
So, let's stop pretending. This is not Sam Harris. This is not Bill Maher. This is a threat to every single American because if they can come for one of us, they can come for all of us.
You're the father of three children. Was it difficult to talk to your children about Trump's presidential win or the anti-Muslim rhetoric prevalent today?
RA: Actually, not really. I have to be honest with you, the election of Trump has provided not just the nation with a sense of clarity about exactly what's going on, what's at stake, and who the enemy is, but I think it's allowed a lot of parents like myself to be able to have conversations that I want to have with my children that have a sense of urgency and immediacy to them, you know? My kids were at the Women's March, they were at the sort of pro-immigration marches in Los Angeles, and it's something that they themselves, even at that young of an age, now take very seriously.
They take an enormous amount of time in creating their own signs. At the Women's March, my son's sign said basically "I do not like what Donald Trump stands for." And I thought, if I can raise my children to be the exact opposite of the president of the United States, if I can use this man's grotesque values, his narcissism, his nearly sociopathic greed, his utter lack of empathy for any human being except for himself — if I can essentially use that as the model for everything our family is going to fight against, then I'm going to. And it actually has been remarkable for us. We get together every Sunday, in our living room and we have what we call "Home Church" and we talk about a particular lesson where we read a little bit and then we talk about a value that we want to instill from that lesson and my kids understand it perfectly.
Again, they're young, but they get what is going on and what I'm trying to do is raise children who are socially active and who, far from running from their identity the way that I did or the way that you did, embrace their identity and that they find strength in their identity so that they can themselves define the future of this country instead of continuing to allow others to define it in opposition to that.
Islam is indigenous to the fabric of this country, but somehow Muslims are seen as foreigners and Islam is seen as a "hateful foreign ideology." How can people promote the true narrative of Muslims being a part of America since its founding?
RA: The advice that I always give particularly to young Muslims when I'm speaking at an MSA or an Islamic student group, is the key to integrating fully into America is to begin to focus your attention on other marginalized communities.
I get it that Muslims are under siege in the United States and it's absolutely true and I understand why so many Muslims, young Muslims, wealthy Muslims, spend so much of their time focusing on improving their own community, on bettering their situation.
You know who else is under siege? Mexicans, undocumented workers, Jews, gays, transgender people, poor people – these people are under siege as well and I think that until we figure out a way to just stop focusing on ourselves for a minute and focus on everybody else, stand up for every other marginalized group – then you're going to see those groups stand up for us.
We're all in this together and that's the thing that we can never forget. This is an all-for-one-one-for-all country and I think that's why, as I was saying earlier, this fight – and it is a fight – with an administration that represents the worst impulses of American society is an existential one that we have to recognize. It's not about Muslims. It's not about undocumented immigrants. It's about all of us.