Reza Aslan on His CNN Show Believer, Scientology’s Bad Rap, and Why TV Executives Are Hesitant to Make a Muslim-American Series

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You probably know Reza Aslan for having one of the worst Fox News segments in recent memory. In a 2013 interview, Fox News religion correspondent Lauren Green ostensibly had him on to talk about his book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, but instead repeatedly questioned whether he was qualified to write about Jesus as a Muslim-American. The viral moment was actually a good distillation of what much of the Iranian-American’s career has involved over the past few years: calmly and reasonably responding to skeptics on both conservative and liberal networks. The religious scholar, author, and regular commentator has recently taken a more creative role in television, from coming on as a consulting producer on HBO’s The Leftovers to hosting his own CNN series, Believer, premiering Sunday night. On each episode of the CNN show, Aslan embeds with a different, niche religion, from India’s ascetic Aghori to reform Scientologists in the U.S. and Israel. He also has a number of other shows in the works, most of them still under wraps — one of them, a family sitcom based on his life that he sold to ABC last year, was dropped by the network post-Trump. Aslan sat down with Vulture to discuss the challenges of getting a Muslim-American TV show made, why Scientology gets a bad rap, and his thoughts on why he’s such a polarizing figure.

What is your thesis statement for Believer, and what you hope people will take away from it?
My entire career has been about trying to explain people to each other, trying to use stories to break through the walls that separate us into these different categories, whether it be nationality, ethnicity, religion, race, or gender. This show is another expression of that. I wanted to take people on a journey to show them that religious communities that may seem weird or frightening at first are far more recognizable than we actually think they are once you break through that external shell of it, once you understand what is behind the actions or the beliefs or the metaphors and the symbols.

I feel like that’s a really tricky balance, too. When I was watching the Aghori episode, for example, there’s one scene where I was worried for a moment that it was going to present a negative image of the Hindu sect. But then you go on to contextualize them for the rest of the episode. Did you struggle with finding this balance between showing the good and the bad and everything in between, and not simplifying these religions? Because I imagine that’s a very difficult thing to do when you’re dropping in.
It is difficult. I think the journey that you as an audience member went on is the same journey I went on. The reason that the show is all about participation and experience, the reason the show is not just me going, Oh look at those interesting people over there, doing religious stuff, is because I knew the only way to get an audience to feel what I want them to feel was to watch me go through it. So you had the right experience watching it and thinking to yourself Oh no, I don’t know how to feel about this. Hopefully by the end, there’s that notion of thinking, Well, I actually believe something similar to this.

Why did you decide to focus on smaller religions?
For me, it was very important to talk about religions that are misunderstood or on the fringe in some way. Voodoo is a religion a lot of people immediately have certain impressions about. Scientology is another example — everybody has an opinion on Scientology, even though most people don’t really understand what Scientology actually is. Even most Jews look at the ultra-Orthodox as something that is so out there. So it’s important for me that every one of these religions carried with it this immediate impression that people have of foreignness or exoticness, because if I’m going to force you to break through that, I’m not going to do an episode on Catholics in Minnesota. Now look, eventually if we get to do more than a couple of seasons, we’ll be able to do bigger and more mainstream religious traditions. But for now, it’s important to deal with religions that are on the margins.

With Scientology particularly, you take a much more sympathetic view than we typically see. I had no idea there’s a reform movement going on in Scientology.
I don’t think the church knows that. That’s the one that is probably going to blow people’s minds the most. Not just because they are going to recognize that when you really get down to it, Scientology beliefs aren’t as weird as we think they are. But at the same time to think that, oh, there’s this whole other thing happening where these Scientologists have left the church, but not the religion. And the parallels that it has with the Christian Reformation, or with the reformation of almost any religion, are really stark.

There has already been a good deal of backlash before the episode from the anti-Scientology crowd, who are angry that we would even treat it like a legitimate faith expression. And then there’s been a little bit of concern from the church, having just seen the previews, that we’re going to be yet another one of these shows that are about the controversies and the scandals of the church.

And it’s clear in the episode that you tried to talk to the church.
I tried very hard. Very hard. I get it because it’s a religion that is demonized by the media, by the public perception. A lot of it is their own doing. I don’t think they’re very good at dealing with criticism, and it would behoove them to learn how to be better at that. But as a member of one religious community that is constantly demonized, I can’t help but feel a certain connection with them.

You get audited in the episode, which you note is the first time an auditing session has ever been filmed for mainstream American TV. What was that experience like? It looked a lot like therapy.
I went into it thinking to myself, Oh my God, I have to bare my soul. And it wasn’t that at all. It was basically a mental exercise. I refer to it in the show as aversion therapy, where there’s this thing that is bothering you, so let’s just focus on that thing over and over and over again. We clearly had to fast forward the auditing sessions, but that went on for hours.

That sounds exhausting.
It was exhausting. But I will say there was something about it where when it was over, you couldn’t help but feel lighter, you couldn’t help but feel as though a certain weight had been removed from you. And I get it, I understand why people who would undergo an experience like that think to themselves, this is something I wanna do over and over again.

Are you planning to do an episode on Islam?
I am. We actually had an episode on a Shia practice that we were all set to do, and then we got the insurance cost in order to do it and it was pretty much the entire budget for the show, so we had to put it off. But we have a long list of religions ready to go if we get a season two.

You’ve been speaking publicly about Islam for years, and now there’s suddenly a lot more support for Muslims. What is that like for you? Is it strange to see the conversation change so rapidly?
Not really. And by the way, it’s not just support for Muslims that’s happening. What’s happening is we are in the midst of what can only be described as an identity crisis in this country, and this debate over what it means to be American in the 21st century is one that’s been going on for a good decade. It’s just that the vast majority of Americans haven’t bothered taking part in it. That is what has fundamentally changed over the last month. It’s a moment of clarity in this country like we have never experienced, or certainly not for a long time. So when we see, for instance, the steep drop in anti-Muslim sentiment that has occurred over the last month, it’s not because people suddenly like Muslims more or they understand Islam more — it’s that they have finally joined the argument.

They can now say, This is wrong.
They can now say, This is not what I want this to be. This is not what I want America to be. Whereas over most of the last decade they didn’t bother taking part in the conversation. I think that’s something to be extraordinarily enthusiastic about.

One of the things I like about Believer is that it looks at how religion is inextricably linked to culture. You’ve talked about how seven out of ten Americans identify as Christians, but they are not necessarily people who are going to church every week. My parents are more cultural Muslims — it’s part of how they were raised — but even now, as we’re seeing a lot of support for Muslims, that concept of Muslims isn’t really out there. We haven’t reached the point that Christians and even Jews have where you see it as one part of a person’s culture and identity versus what defines them. How long do you think it takes for a religion to be accepted on this level?
For us here in the United States especially, we form our opinions of people based on how much they have absorbed the American identity. Islam has been in the United States since before there was a thing called the United States — the first Muslims in America were brought here on slave ships, and they have been here from the very beginning. But the majority of Muslims are first- or second-generation, and a great many of them emigrated here from countries in which political participation or even social participation is not a thing you do. If you came to the U.S. from Iran or Pakistan or Iraq or Egypt, the idea that you would spend money supporting a candidate who espouses your values … at most you’d be like, okay, I’ll vote ’cause that’s nice. Taking part in civic organizations or community building, which is so much of the grassroots American experience, is so foreign to our parents. I do think it’s going to take a generation or two for Muslims to start embedding themselves in American culture in a way that actually matters, whether it’s through entertainment or politics.

I mean, out of 540 representatives in government, two of them are Muslims. They’re both African-American Muslims, and it’s still a big deal. It’s still a big deal to think about Keith Ellison — despite everything he’s done, he is constantly introduced as the first Muslim representative.

It’s like the first wave of acceptance is having to be defined by it.
Exactly. But that process is happening because of the next generation, people who feel as American as anybody else and who are willing to negotiate that American identity. It’s a generational thing.

You also talk about religion in terms of identity versus belief. When we talked about Not Without My Daughter, you said how in the ’80s and ’90s Middle Easterners wanted to hide who they were. Now, the pendulum has swung and people are embracing their religious and cultural identities.
That’s right. Doubling down on it.

I’m curious, then, what your thoughts are on identity politics today — do you think it’s productive and necessary to combat bigotry?
I think this aversion to identity politics is something you hear among white male privileged people. They don’t need to express their identity because the culture is their identity. But politics is about inserting your ideals and values into the public space, and those ideals and values are inextricably linked to your identity, to who you are as a human being, whether that’s your religion or your culture and ethnicity, your sexual orientation or your economic status. All of those things are bound up in who you are as a person. And if what you want to do is insert who you are as a person into the political realm, then of course you’re bringing your identity into it.

Right, and instead the phrase is turned into an ugly thing.
Yes! It’s like the way in which we have turned multiculturalism into a bad word. I have no patience for wealthy, white men preaching about how we should subsume our individual identities into a larger common culture that they themselves define. That’s not how it works. That’s not how this country works. People keep saying, “Oh, Hillary Clinton lost because she appealed to marginalized groups who were being attacked by the right, and she shouldn’t have done that.” What? That’s an outrageous statement, and it’s a statement, again, made by people who don’t know what it’s like to be attacked, who have no idea what it’s like to have their identity not just be marginalized, but be defined as ”other.”

You in particular have been somewhat polarizing on both sides of the aisle. What do you think it is about you that makes people so upset?
First of all, when you are in the business of talking about and thinking about religion, you are talking about something that people take very seriously. Either in the way they accept it or in the way they reject it. When you try to bring some level of dispassion to these kinds of arguments, what happens is you tend to get it from both extremes. It’s something I’ve dealt with for my entire career so I’d be lying if I said I’m not used to it, but I’d also be lying if I said that it doesn’t affect me, ya know? I’d love to be able to say, Oh, I just ignore that criticism and let it wash off me. But it doesn’t. Criticism often comes with very real threats to my life, to my family, and it comes with the territory. I don’t like it, but it’s there.

And I don’t mind criticism when it’s based on a critique of my ideas or my way of thinking about culture and religion. Where the criticism starts to bother me is when it becomes devaluing. So in other words, What business do you even have talking about this stuff? After I wrote Zealot, there was this huge wave of people on both sides of the political aisle who, rather than engage with the argument I am making in the book, just kept arguing about whether I have the right to even make an argument. They were questioning my academic credentials, which I spent [laughs] 18 years working on. They were questioning my religious biases. That kind of stuff bugs me.

At the same time, you are very convincing when you speak. Have you had success in changing people’s minds about Islam?
I’d like to think so. I get a lot of emails from people telling me that they do think about Islam in particular and religion in general in a different way, having listened to me or read my works. At the same time, I can’t help but feel those people are not necessarily the audience I should be striving for. That’s the purpose of this show — I wanted to do something for people who would normally not read a book or come to a lecture, but who would watch a show like this because they are into travel or they are into exotic locales or just like to be entertained. What I’d really like to do is get to those people who aren’t ready to be confronted with their preconceived notions, and to try to get them to think differently, even a little bit.

How would you describe Donald Trump’s relationship to religion?
He is probably the single most irreligious human being I have ever met. The grotesqueness of him passing himself off as a Christian when he has essentially spent his entire life representing everything that Jesus spoke against — he is the living embodiment of everything that Jesus fought against. His greed, his racism and bigotry, his demeaning of individuals, his lack of empathy, the fact that he has never done anything in his entire life for anyone but himself and his own benefit. He is almost demonic in the way that he has so perverted any value that one can find from religion. And the most disgusting thing about his election victory is that 81 percent of white Evangelicals fell for it, which explains why people have such a low opinion of religion and religious people.

I wanted to talk a little bit about your work in television. You’ve talked a lot about how we need a Muslim Will & Grace or Modern Family. Are you having any conversations with TV executives about this? Do you sense a feeling that they want more of these types of stories?
Yes. In fact, I’ve got three of them in development. But I will say that it’s very hard to crack the nut because what I hear from TV execs is a great desire to do these kinds of shows, combined with an inability to understand exactly how to do it. This notion of, What kind of story do we use? Is it comedy or is it drama? Is it current events or is it historical? Is it metaphorical or is it literal? We just don’t know. Like, how do we navigate these complicated issues in a way that brings in an audience, which is the whole point, right? TV execs are not in the business of philanthropy. They are there to make money, and they have to be convinced that the show can make money.

Secondly, I think TV execs are very reactive. I was creating a Muslim-American family comedy for ABC, which is a great example, because there was an enormous amount of enthusiasm for the show until Donald Trump won the presidency, and then at the highest level, there was a real decision to start to figure out how to appeal to what they erroneously saw as some new wave of red-state Americans.

Right, I saw that the president of ABC Entertainment, Channing Dungey, said something about wanting to focus their programming more on the “working class.”
Yes, and so we were just simply thrown aside — our show went away.

Oh wow.
And I think, (a) it’s a mistake, (b) it’s not a very smart way to do business.

Especially because that type of show would fit so well into their comedy brand.
Exactly. This idea that instead of investing in your brand, trying to reach an audience that, first of all, doesn’t exist the way you think it does, and by the time you create something for them, you’ve got a new wave of people. In 2018, when you see this Democratic wave, are they gonna say, “Oh never mind about the two years we spent developing shows for red states, let’s now develop them for blue states”? It’s not a smart way of conducting business. It’s fear, it’s an inability to conceive of the kind of story to do, all coupled with a deep desire to do it. There are so many people now, whether it’s me or Nasim Pedrad or Riz Ahmed or Hasan Minhaj or Aasif Mandvi, out there trying. Everyone I mentioned has some project going on.

I saw Nasim Pedrad’s show, Chad: An American Boy, a Middle Eastern family comedy, was also dropped at Fox, and she’s shopping it around.
Yeah, and it’s just a matter of seeing which one of us can break it first.

Are you all in communication with each other much?
Oh sure, yeah, we’re all friends. We’re competing against each other, but I think we are also all really rooting for each other. I want Aasif’s show to succeed at Showtime. I want Nasim’s show to succeed. I think as soon as one of us breaks through and people realize, oh, there’s an audience for this, you’ll see the floodgates open. That’s what TV has always been like. One person realizes it works and then everybody wants to do it.

What was your Muslim-American comedy about, and are you still shopping that around?
Yes. So the one nice thing the network did is, in what is a fairly unusual move, they gave it back to us. They said, “We’re not gonna do this anymore, but we think it should be done so get out there and get someone else to do it.” So we’re in the process of that right now. It was basically the story of my life. It’s a contemporary version of my experience of moving here from Iran and moving to Oklahoma at first and what life was like. We have a great pilot, everybody really loves it. It’s just the question of, how do we do this, how do we get the right audience for it. Even though there are so many outlets on TV now, it’s all about fitting the right piece into the puzzle.

Reza Aslan on Believer and Why Scientology Gets a Bad Rap