Watching Reza Aslan being chased on a beach in India by a scantily clad cannibal from the Aghora sect of Hinduism throwing his own pee at Aslan made me wonder if Aslan ever thought while working on his Ph.D. in religion that this is where he would end up? But there was Aslan, religious scholar and author of best-selling books, dodging cannibal pee on a remote beach, which is all part of his riveting new CNN series, Believer, in which he travels the world exploring the world’s religions.
Aslan’s show, which premiers March 5 at 10 p.m. ET, has understandably drawn comparisons to Anthony Bourdain’s wildly popular CNN show Parts Unknown. But there are clearly differences between the two. First off I can’t recall a cannibal looking at Bourdain and saying flesh is “sweet and tasty” the way one Aghora Hindu cannibal did while eyeing Aslan like he was a shawarma platter. (I asked if we could introduce Bill Maher to the cannibals, but Aslan responded that even a cannibal wouldn’t eat Maher.)
And secondly as Aslan explained: “When Bourdain eats a goat testicle and says it tastes good, he can make you believe it. In contrast, if I looked scared or anxious in the TV series that is what I’m really feeling. I’m simply not that good of an actor.”
In fact there’s a scene in the first episode where Aslan is seen on camera asking the director if they could make up an excuse to get away from the cannibal. It turns out that his director thought Aslan was kidding around, but he wasn’t. “For the second season of the show we need a ‘safe word,’” Aslan joked.
The six-episode CNN series takes Aslan on a spiritual journey around the world. From India he heads to Hawaii to visit a messianic figure known as “Jesus with a Z” who heads a doomsday cult. Then it’s off to Haiti, Israel, and more, all in an effort to share with audiences the religious beliefs of the world.
But in today’s hyperpartisan world even a show simply exploring world religion has political undertones and sparks talk of one Donald J. Trump. “There is a direct line between politics and my new show,” Aslan noted. “My goal is to introduce people to ‘the other’ and show the audience that we have a great deal in common, which is urgently needed at time when Trump is appealing to the worst impulses of the American people.”
Aslan is not a guy who holds back on his political views—just check out his Twitter feed. And Aslan—possibly to the chagrin of his publicists—didn’t water down his political views just because he is promoting a new TV series.
Aslan, while on my SiriusXM radio show earlier this week, passionately argued against Trump’s "Muslim ban" calling it “national suicide.” Aslan defiantly explained, “This is a country that cannot survive without immigrants and especially without immigrants from the Middle East.” Adding, “The facts are that Middle Eastern immigrants in America represent the highest level of income of any immigrant community and the absolute highest level of education of any immigrant community. Just go to Silicon Valley and look at he board of advisors for any tech industry and tell me how many Ali's and Mohammed's you see on that list.”
For Aslan, Trump’s “Muslim ban” and attacks on Muslims are “very personal.” Aslan, who is Muslim, was born in Iran, one of the seven Muslim countries Trump targeted in his Muslim ban. Aslan’s family fled there when he was 7 after the Iranian revolution transformed the nation into an oppressive religious government. If Trump had been president then and had imposed the same Muslim ban, Aslan and his family would never have been able to make the life they had in the United States. (This is also something that goes through my mind as the son of Muslim refugee father.)
Add to that Aslan’s uncle, who is “terminally ill,” was traveling to the United States in late January to visit his sister, Aslan’s mother, in California. Given his uncle’s advancing age they viewed is as potentially the last time his mother would see her brother alive. But Trump’s Muslim ban was signed while his uncle was in transit. The result was that his uncle was not allowed to enter the country. And despite the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals staying the ban, his uncle has still not been allowed to visit. Aslan’s family has recently sought the help of California Senator Dianne Feinstein on the issue.
Aslan made it clear that Trump has built the most anti-Muslim administration in our nation’s history. (I couldn’t agree more.) He then quickly ticked off a list: “Attorney General Jeff Sessions received an award from the anti-Muslim group ‘Act for America.’ Steve Bannon gave a platform at Breitbart.com to vile anti-Muslim bigots. Steve Miller worked to put up anti-Muslim ads and stir up hate of Muslims when he was in college. CIA Director Mike Pompeo received an award from anti-Muslim activist Frank Gaffney. And Kellyanne Conway did polling for Gaffney.
“This is not just my opinion,” stated Aslan, “but also the views of the Anti Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center who have called out the anti-Muslim activists tied to the Trump administration.”
Despite this, Aslan is optimistic for not just Muslims but for America in general going forward. “Trump has driven the hate out from the shadows and into the light,” he says, “and I believe that the American people will ultimately reject Trump’s rank bigotry, misogyny, and xenophobia.”
While Aslan has been stunned by Trump’s hateful rhetoric, he was not intellectually surprised by what he experienced as he visited religious communities around the globe. After all he has been studying religion for over 20 years. But emotionally he was caught off guard: “I surprisingly felt an unexpected emotional connection to so many of the faiths I was exposed to.
“My takeaway was that underneath the different beliefs and rituals of these faith groups, we have a lot more in common with each other than we do different,” Aslan remarked. Aslan hopes that audiences will come to that same conclusion. He’s also is hopeful that despite Trump’s efforts to divide us that Americans will see that we, too, have much in common regardless of our faith, ethnicities, race, etc. Here’s hoping Aslan is right.