Reza Aslan on Believer, Identity and Cultural Consciousness

03/03/2017 10:35 am ET
Image courtesy of CNN

Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of speaking with Reza Aslan, internationally renowned Iranian- American author, professor, producer, and scholar of religions. I spoke with Aslan about his new spiritual series, Believer, America’s identity crisis, and the importance of awakening cultural consciousness.

With an extremely calm and collected voice, Reza talked about two emotionally-charged topics: religion and politics. There are certain people who always seem completely unflappable no matter what the subject of discussion may be. Best known as a #1 New York Times bestselling author of Zealot and No God But God, Reza is about to take us all on a cool, spiritual journey with Believer.

Congratulations on your new spiritual series, Believer. What can viewers expect to see?

What viewers are going to see is me undergoing a kind of spiritual and emotional journey and inviting the viewer along for it. I think that in many ways the religions that we deal with in this series are religions that are some what on the fringes. They're religions that are misunderstood or misrepresented in the media and so most people are already going to have some kind of opinion on these religions already, whether it's Voodoo or Scientology or what have you. I guess what my job is, by immersing myself into these religions, is to subvert your view of them. To challenge you to recognize the connection that you have with people who may not look like you or talk like you or pray like you. People who have a different way of expressing their faith.

In an interview you gave the LA Times in 2015 you stated, "If religion is nothing more than a language, we want our children to be multilingual. When they are old enough and they want to pick a language to express their personal faith, they can pick whichever language they want to. How they choose to express their faith is completely up to them. My job is to familiarize them with their options, with the multiple ways in which they can, should they choose to, live a deep, spiritually committed life." Is that also your primary objective with Believer?

Yeah, it's my primary objective with everything that I do. Whether it's the books that I write or the media commentaries that I do or the political work or the television and film work that I do. You know, my goal has always been to be the linguist, the translator, the person who helps two people from different cultural or religious backgrounds understand each other; and more importantly, understand that they are in many ways speaking in similar ways, in similar terms. They're speaking different languages but what they are saying is similar. In a way this show is just another expression of the larger mission that I have had throughout my career.    

You grew up in United States in the eighties at a time of intense anti-Islam and anti-Iranian sentiment. Today, issues of identity and the conflict of religions and politics are problems that all people, particularly young people, are dealing with. What is the best way to navigate through these difficult and uncertain times?

Well, I think that for a lot of people, including young people, religion is about their identity and it's important when you're in a situation in which your identity is under siege and being attacked, and in this case, by people in power — people's whose entire purpose is to protect you and your ability to worship as you please — that you fight back, that you double-down on your identity, that you refuse to be cowed, you refuse to accept the dominate narrative about who you are and what your nationality or your race or ethnicity or your religion stands for. It's time to stand up and speak for yourself. And, by the way, that is happening. Everywhere I go, I am amazed at the potency with which young Muslim and young Middle Easterners in the United States speak about their own identity. And, the confidence with which they act. I think that when you're confronted with an administration like this which routinely demonizes people like us, the only response is to shout back with much force and much efficacy.      

After examining the purpose and context of each religion or sect you immersed yourself in while taping Believer, was your faith ever tested?

My faith was never tested. If anything it was expanded. Being able to experience other ways through which faith is expressed did nothing more that just expand my own spirituality. I went to this voodoo worship service, and that was one of the most spiritual experiences of my entire life. Immersing myself in the sacred voodoo waterfall of Saut d'Eau was extraordinary. I don't think I've ever had a faith experience that intense in a church or a mosque or in any kind of institution. So, on the contrary. What it really did was make me more convinced of the universality of the faith experience.        

What is something most people don't know about you?

Well, I am a life-long, die-hard, silver and black bleeding Oakland Raider fan. I live for the Raiders. It tends to surprise people that I even like football, let alone that I am an obsessed Oakland Raider fan. Right now, my personal deity is Derek Carr — our young, amazing quarterback — I kind of worship that guy.

Aslan adds, "In a time of divisiveness, right now, we need to work harder than ever in order to find the things that connect us together across just the categories of our identities and hopefully this show will go someway towards helping people do that."

Believer premieres Sunday, March 5, at 10:00 P.M. on CNN

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