"As if Touring a Zoo": Reza Aslan Goes From Propaganda to Denial Over Believer Controversy

03/09/2017 02:55 am ET Updated Mar 09, 2017

The sheer ignorance of CNN’s Believer seems to have achieved that most elusive of things in American democracy: bipartisanship, even if in censure and condemnation. Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard expressed the pain in all our hearts and pointed out how appalling it was for CNN to sensationally depict human beings “as if touring a zoo.” From the Republican side, the founder of the Republican Hindu Coalition Shalabh Kumar called the program “disgusting.”

Few people who watched the show seem to have found much of value in it. Parth Parihar of the Hindu Students Council wrote a strong, moving piece in HuffPost, while even non-Hindu viewers and reviewers found the shallow discourse and sensationalism morbidly uninspiring. Asra Nomani and others found in it an apt moment to remind Reza Aslan that his seemingly objective and open-minded approach to different religions is not quite so at all. He had after all, famously mocked CNN in a tweet soon after the Boston bombing for calling it a terror attack, and expended quite some energy these last few years not simply in presenting a pleasant face for Islam after 9/11 which is understandable, but in sanitizing the truth a bit more than that too.

That tendency to sanitize, to put it politely, is the problem with Reza Aslan.

Some readers, particularly those who are familiar with South Asian discourses and issues might wonder what could be considered “sanitization” in a program that dealt with outcastes, cannibals, and indeed the “Hindu caste system” as a whole (interestingly, the program and all the concerns about its possible impact on the safety of Sikhs, Muslims, Arabs and other South Asians who look like Hindus did not seem to warrant any expression of concern from some leading progressive South Asian activist groups).

So what exactly does Aslan’s foray into the “city of death” with its excreta-hurling gurus sanitize? Very simply, it is meant to disguise the total reality of why he, and CNN, and their particular lens for looking over it, are all there in that place and at this time in history, and what they are doing. This is not a speculation on intent. I will accept Aslan’s stated premise of the show at face value. It is not even necessarily about Hinduism but about fascinating fringe religious groups, and the Aghoris certainly fit that bill. Granted.

But the question remains: if the premise of this episode was to humanize the Aghoris (and no one can object to that), why was so much of it contrived to actually de-humanize Hindus?

If we look carefully at the text, and its silences, and the forces surrounding it, the truth is quite clear. The Aghoris are not the real story. They are like a magician’s practiced gesture of distraction, calculated to get you looking the wrong way. And what they are diverting us from is the basic, overwhelming reality here.

How on earth is it possible that in the 21st century, in America, a professor gets away without showing a drop of concern about cultural appropriation, savior complexes, or even reputation? How does he ignore two days of incredible outrage and urgency stemming from the only two things confronting us on television, the shootings of Hindus and Sikhs on the one hand, and the frightening CNN promos about cannibals and death on the other?

How does someone witness all of this, and then, in an interview on the morning of the broadcast, proceed to declare, presumably with a smile, that controversy is “awesome”?

And then, after the program airs, and it shows not much of an improvement over its sensationalist and inaccurate promos either (except for that fig leaf appeal to the conscience that somehow it is fighting the evil of a vaguely and metaphysically evoked “caste system”), how does someone ignore the questions raised by responsible people, leaders, scholars, activists, genuine liberals, and then declare in a post-show message that he understands that they are offended—not by anything else—but by the show’s treatment of “caste discrimination”?

How does someone ignore all of it to say just that? How does someone know that his charmed world of prestige will not change one bit tomorrow even if he tramples on the Hindus, ignores them totally? What sort of privilege lets you do that?

How does a supposedly non-Fake News channel like CNN get away without issuing corrections for even the basic factual errors pointed out in the promos about the meaning, nature, and number of ghats in Varanasi?

And how does someone supposed to be a scholar of religion get away with no more insight than a three-word causal explanation (“purity/pollution/rebirth”) and a five-word “caste pyramid” to explain all of India’s thousands of traditions, philosophies, communities, and identities?

Sixth grade Hindu American children in California know a lot more than those eight words for sure.

I was kinder to Aslan in my previous post on this subject. At that point, my focus was on what the promos seemed to be suggesting, and on the urgency of real world safety concerns. But the dismal emptiness of the program itself, its bizarre premise that somehow the Aghoris are the only way out of the “caste system,” the total unresponsiveness of the people behind the show to what is going on, all suggest that this is not even an exercise in commercial infotainment, but something even more desperate.

What Aslan put his name and face to was fundamentally propaganda. You don’t even need too much knowledge of India’s complex sociology to fight it, but just attention. Just watch the program again, and examine the visuals and question their connection to the narrative. Aslan drones on about rebirth and untouchables, and what do you see; an everyday scene in India, nothing more, people napping contentedly under a tree, or on their doorsteps. Without the narrative you see life as it is. But with the voice-over, what you believe is that the same man napping outside his door is there because he is “untouchable,” sleeping outside rather than inside, and he is waiting to die, be cremated, have his ashes “dumped” in the Ganga, so he can be reborn, first as a Shudra, then as a Vaishya, then as a Kshatriya, then as a Brahmin, and then finally moksha.

Phew. What a tiresome journey. Good thing that in between this show CNN was also showing us trailers about Finding Jesus.

Then, there is what the program does not show us, a million things that might damage its narrative, a billion people whose realities contradict it, not the names of the thousands of communities that make up India, not the fact that the present Prime Minister comes not from the tip but the base of the so-called caste pyramid, not the scholarship that shows increasingly how much of a colonial construction the whole simplistic “pyramid” and the discourse around it is.

And the most obvious flaw, pointed out by many viewers on twitter even as the show was airing, was the set-up of the Aghoris as somehow the only people offering mixed-caste schools and services in India. Amma, the hugging saint, does it. Sri Sathya Sai Baba, my own guru, did it. Many, many, spiritual figures, traditional and innovative, run schools in which all castes mix and play. And yet, the conceit of this show was such that it could anchor a whole episode and the reputation of its host on making it seem that only the Aghori philosophy had the possibility for human redemption in the benighted mess that is Hinduism.

Why this deliberate and convoluted premise? Perhaps the producers or some of the sponsors expect some well-meaning viewers in America to think, let’s see, if the only way Hinduism “permits” freedom from caste is by eating corpses or shit, then… why don’t they all just choose a religion that lets you be free without eating corpses or shit? Perhaps?

Reza Aslan is truly a great sanitizer. Not only has he survived a dip in that oh so dirty Ganges they “dump” their ashes in, he has actually got everyone focused on cannibals when the really scary stuff was happening right around them.

In our time, it has taken the form of this whole circus of self-righteous privilege armed with cameras and clichés. In the past, it took the form of marauding fundamentalist armies destroying a nation and its people. Aslan did not have time to look at the giant medieval mosque looming over the Vishwanath temple, nor perhaps did he bother to even look at the cover of Diana Eck’s City of Light before he traveled (or perhaps he did but mistook the word “Light” for “Death”). Of course, he would never have probably dared to read the great S.L. Bhyrappa’s heart-wrenching novel Aavarana (translated into English by my friend, the brilliant Sandeep Balakrishna).

The really scary stuff hurls itself again and again, for some strange reason. It leaves its ugly remnants, like ruined temples, plundered economies, and inexplicably persistent imperial symbols of conquest; mutilated sculptures then, and dirty propaganda shows now. But somehow, we remain, and we remain who we are.

Aslan may have fancied himself to be a new, different and humble sort of global seeker as he posed on the boat in his saffron seeker’s costume. Maybe if he was honest he could have been one. But he wasn’t. To the Ganga and its children, he will become a sorry memory. We see his figure now only like those of others who came before and had to leave defeated in the end. We see, despite whatever delusions money can buy for those who need them, not a savior but just a boy standing on a burning deck.

Corrected: an earlier version of this post misstated Congresswoman Gabbard’s title

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