A self-identified Muslim with deep connections to Christianity, Aslan seeks to challenge the widely held prejudices and conventions about religion that run deep throughout his society, leading him to lock horns with everyone from POTUS 45 to Bill Maher and Sam Harris.
Reza isn’t afraid to deconstruct the issues that court controversy. The author of bestselling books How to Win a Cosmic War, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, and his latest God: A Human History, he has attracted his fair share of both critics and supporters. He has called into question everything from what we really know of Jesus to America’s small-minded strategy of dealing with terrorism, and on the way managed to spark fury in the White House by outing President Trump as a ‘piece of shit’ and a ‘man baby’ for his tactless response to the London Bridge attack.
Reza sees his primary role as that of a linguist, translating the world’s religions for the universal meaning that lies in between the lines. When even the words religion or spirituality sends some people into nervous paralysis, Reza is on a mission to keep that divisive sandbox open, no matter what the cost.
“650,000 Alabamians voted for a child molester who believes that gays should be imprisoned and Muslims should not be allowed to run for political office.” Reza Aslan on Roy Moore
I guess we should start with some current affairs. Roy Moore, the Senate candidate for Alabama, lost and made worldwide headlines. This is a guy who held his convictions up high for the world losing his post in 2014 because he wouldn’t take the bible down in his office. Trump and Bannon had put all their weight behind this candidate, so it seems liberals are rejoicing around the world. Do you perhaps feel like this is indicative of the pendulum swinging now?
I think first of all that the pendulum has been swinging for quite some time already. President Trump is by far the most unpopular president in recent American history, certainly since we’ve been asking the poll question. His support amongst every part of his coalition is down and slipping, even among Republican members of Congress you are starting to see cracks in their support from him. We saw the most obvious examples of this in the elections in Virginia and New Jersey, and then I think this election in Alabama says something; this is a deeply conservative state and it’s almost unheard of for a Democrat to pull out a victory in a Senate race there.
So I think all of that is indicative of the extreme unpopularity of the president, which I believe is only rising. It’s also an example of the extreme unpopularity of the Bannon philosophy; continuing to promote racist, white nationalists who present this kind of neo-fascistic idea of ‘America First’ policy, which includes the demonisation of ethnic and religious minorities. This has a limited appeal when it is divorced from the obvious charisma of Donald Trump himself.
That said, 650,000 Alabamians voted for a child molester who believes that gays should be imprisoned and Muslims should not be allowed to run for political office. 48 per cent of the electorate in Alabama thought that was ok. Something like 80-85 per cent of Republicans thought that the accusations made against Roy Moore by 13 women were lies. So there is a moral rot at the heart of the United States. It is a rotting core that has been there since the very beginning and for the 8 years of the Obama administration, we were allowed to just ignore it and pretend that it wasn’t there because of everything that Barack Obama represented. What we saw in the Trump election was that a large swathe of Americans have deeply seated racist and sexist views and, given the opportunity to express those views, are happy to do so.
This is not by any means some expression of a sea change taking place in the United States. What it is is an indictment of the grotesque leadership of the president.
On the Seth Myers show. Photo by: Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Speaking of pendulum swings you recently talked about this poll that was taken amongst white Evangelicals that showed at one time morality was high on their agenda of priorities in a leader but that’s no longer important and that is because they have been brainwashed. It really feels like the same human mechanics of populism and demagoguery appear over and over again?
Well it’s certainly nothing new but we are in the 21st century and we are in the most diverse country in the world. So while this may be part of human behaviour there is no excuse for it in 2017. What I had said, just to be clear, was that according to the PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute), white Evangelicals, even in the span of a single election cycle, went from the group in America that was most likely to say that a politician’s public morality matters to becoming the least likely to say that today. So this is a group that calls themselves ‘value voters’ and the ‘moral majority’, that claims to want to bring Christian ideas and Christian values into the public realm, and yet a record 81 per cent of them voted for a man who, whatever else you may feel about him, has a worldview that makes a mockery of core Christian values. Indeed to this day, despite the fact that, as I mentioned earlier, Trump’s support among almost every sector of American society has tanked, it has not among white Evangelicals – 75 per cent of them, according to PRRI, continue to support him and amongst those the majority are regular churchgoers.
This is deeply relevant to my new book, which is about how we essentially conceive of God as a divine version of ourselves, and we implant in God our own values, emotions, personalities and even our own bodies, but we also implant in him our own politics.
I want to understand your position professionally. You are a critical thinker, a theologian, you scrutinise and deconstruct religion, but you also have this slight veneer in your work as a defender of Islam, even if you are forced into that position by the unique political times we are living in. So are you the world’s most open critical thinker or somewhat confused?
Let me make a couple of corrections to what you have just said: I’m not a theologian because that is somebody who studies God, whereas I study religion. Those are vastly different things – I’m not interested in theology, the proofs or disproofs of God. I’m interested in religious history, religious phenomenology, the intersection of religion and society, politics and identity. As that person I defend all religions, all religious beliefs and ideologies. I defend any individual’s right to experience transcendence or the divine in any way, shape or form that they want to. That was what the show ‘Believer’ was all about – whether it was voodoo, Scientology, the Aghori or even a Doomsday cult. To me, the ability to experience that idea of transcendence, in whichever form you want to, is an inalienable right.
The truth of the matter is that, because Islam is by far the most reviled and misunderstood religious tradition, certainly in Europe and North America, most often I find myself having to defend Islam. That’s not because I’m a Muslim, it’s because that is the religion that is so thoroughly under attack right now. But again, I’ve been on TV to defend all religious traditions, without any kind of judgment.
Now there is of course a difference between defending a person’s right to believe and express their beliefs how they want to, and being critical of religious ideas. As a scholar of religions, my job is precisely to analyse history and to analyse the text to try and come as close as we possibly can to facts, in order to separate and understand the difference between facts and truths when it comes to religious texts. So to me, there is no sort of disconnect here whatsoever; it’s part and parcel of what it means to be not just a scholar of religions but simply a critical thinker. In fact, when it comes to textual or historical criticism, a great deal of that focus for me has been on Islam. I wrote a book that basically overturned a lot of common misconceptions of Islamic history and the Prophet Muhammad etc., just as I have done with Christianity and with the new book.
So I understand that for some people there may be a disconnect here, and I think part of that is down to the fact that many people think of religion in two ways: 1) That it’s the product of an irrational mind, so any rational person who takes religion seriously is engaged in some kind of paradox, or 2) That religion is fundamentally a tribal identity so for anyone who identifies with a particular religion, they must maintain some kind of tribal loyalty to that religion. But I think that both of those views are obviously incorrect.
“We use religion in order to express what is an inexpressible yet universal phenomenon.”
But what you are fighting for? Are you fighting for people to have the right to experience transcendence or for everyone to experience religion on their own terms?
The transcendental experience that you talk about, let’s just say the idea of faith, is a universal phenomenon; it is an idea that exists in all people, all cultures throughout all time. As I describe in the book, it is an idea that goes beyond our species, Homo sapiens. It is embedded in our cognitive processes – we are literally born with this innate, unlearned impulse and belief that we are more than just our material bodies. That is something that we have to un-learn as we get older. That’s not just an opinion – there are reams and reams of psychological and scientific studies to prove it. The issue is that we use religion in order to express what is an inexpressible yet universal phenomenon. Religion, therefore, is no more than the language through which we express these innate ideas of the nature of reality and our place in it.
So first and foremost, what I try to do is obviously defend the right of anyone to have those feelings, but that’s not something that really needs defending – it’s fundamentally a choice, I don’t really care if you believe or do not believe in a god. If you are a strict materialist who believes that nothing exists beyond that which our empirical senses can experience then good for you – I have no interest in changing anyone’s mind because there is no proof either way. But what I am interested in is making sure that every individual on Earth who wishes to express that fundamental emotion, this idea of transcendence, has the right to do it in any language that they choose.
In large parts of the world it is still a primary method of identification; the majority of the world involves people who will identify themselves first and foremost by their religion before they do so by their ethnicity or nationality. So this matters. It doesn’t matter what you do, who you are or what your particular beliefs are, without a firm understanding of religion or a deep religious literacy you are at a disadvantage, and of course that is a huge part of why so many of the conflicts around the world seem to be couched in these religious terms.
Images courtesy of ‘Believer’ , CNN
You talk a lot about the religious impulse in your work. Can you briefly explain what you mean?
‘Religion’ means an institutional set of symbols and metaphors that is usually hierarchical, usually temple-based in some form, and ‘religion’ is a very new phenomenon. The religious impulse predates Homo sapiens and that’s what I mean, and there is no evolutionary advantage for the religious impulse. If you rely on the material evidence it dates back maybe 14,000-15,000 years. The religious impulse and the belief that we are immaterial, that there is a transcendent experience that we can actually link up to in some way, that impulse predates Homo sapiens. It’s a belief in the soul, to put it in an anachronistic way.
I guess I’m trying to get to this idea of spirituality as opposed to religion, that we can develop our own spirituality and no scientist would be able to quantify that because it is very much metaphysical.
Precisely, so spirituality is another way of putting it. Spirituality is what I mean when I talk about the religious impulse or the desire to express a belief in an immaterial realm. That impulse is part of our evolutionary process, and what I try to argue in the book is that the consensus seems to be that there is no reason for that impulse to exist; that it doesn’t have any advantage when it comes to survival of the fittest.
Which makes me think even harder as to why it is there. I was trying to get to this idea that just because we don’t know perhaps it holds larger significance. Surviving on earth might be very different to surviving somewhere else that we’re not sure exists.
I hear what you are saying, but of course it’s not an advantage – there is no reason to believe that somebody who can access a higher plane of reality has an adaptive advantage over somebody who doesn’t. On the contrary, one could make the argument that it is an extreme disadvantage, that if you are expending any kind of material resource with regard to time and effort trying to connect to an immaterial plane rather than trying to actually survive, then you would actually die out more rapidly than somebody who doesn’t attempt those sort of things.
“Let’s slow down the talk of Westerners losing out to Islam because that is nowhere near in the cards.”
I think language creates such a barrier within these discussions. Ultimately what I’m saying is that there’s this idea that regardless of what religious/spiritual identity you use, there is a transcendental realm that we can enter and all be a part of.
That’s it, you said it perfectly. I hear you because language obviously has its limitations, and in this case the limitations are more extreme because the language, i.e. the religion or the institution, is primarily made up of metaphors. As a species, we almost inherently are compelled to confuse a metaphor for the thing itself; rather than recognise the metaphor as pointing towards something we zero in on the metaphor and focus all our intentions, devotion and belief on the metaphor itself. That makes it all that much more confusing but going back to the analogy that I made earlier, I see my principal role in the world as that of a linguist, who walks around saying, ‘Hey, that’s just another way of saying this.’ The hope is that when people recognise that, they think to themselves, ‘Oh, well I guess we’re not that different.’
You operate in a pretty tough climate. You are openly Muslim and work hard on giving equal air-time to all religions. Why do you think the West has Islam so wrong?
Islam is actually the most diverse religion in the world. It’s a religion of about 1.7 billion people and that is growing quite rapidly, but it’s a religion without any kind of centre. The first largest religion in the world is Christianity, but of course among Christians about 1 billion are Catholics, and the difference between Catholics and Muslims is that Catholics have a centre – there is a single individual who supposedly speaks for all the world’s Catholics. So despite the fact that there is still obviously enormous diversity in Catholicism, the Pope provides that sense of unanimity on certain ideas and theological positions. Although it is not often applied, anyone who disagrees with that centre is simply removed and kicked out. There is no Muslim Pope or Vatican. More importantly, because it is not a creedal religion, it is a religion that anyone can simply adopt and absorb by maintaining fealty to two very simple principles: there is no God other than God and Muhammad is God’s prophet. After that, everything is up for individual debate and ideas, which is why there are so many different schools of law and institutions competing with each other in order to define the meaning and message of Islam.
What that has resulted in is a reality in which you can take a plane from Baghdad to Tehran, from Tehran to Cairo, from Cairo to Jakarta, from Jakarta to London and never see the same Islam twice. And yet outsiders have this warped conception of Islam as being the exact opposite of what I have just described; that somehow it has maintained its unity and monolithic quality.
And by the way, moving into the future, what we are seeing is an even greater and more rapid fracturing of the so-called ‘Ummah’. Of course now, new communication technology like the Internet and social media, abilities for people to travel and migrate great distances, and the slow deterioration of national boundaries, has created a sense in which people who are Muslim can increasingly connect with people who share their specific beliefs across borders. So what you are seeing is not greater unification of the Muslim world. On the contrary you are seeing greater fracturing of the Muslim world, and that is precisely why we are seeing these immense conflicts in large parts of the Muslim world. This is a direct result of this process whereby the institutional authorities who, for much of the last 14 centuries, have maintained an iron grip over the meaning and message of Islam – primarily because they were the only ones who had access to the scripture – have lost control. Now that authority is devolving into the hands of individuals around the world who feel empowered to create their own versions.
Let me posit something quite controversial to you: if 9/11 never happened, do you think that we would view Islam, particularly in the West, differently?
It’s hard to say. I do think it’s important to understand that anti-Muslim sentiment today, 16 years after the events of 9/11, is far higher than it was even in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. So I think there is a mistake in view that somehow anti-Muslim sentiment is directly connected to the attacks of 9/11. But the surveys do not show that to be true. Certainly the events going on in the Muslim world and the radicalisation of individuals, the attacks that have taken place in large parts of Europe and North America, have greatly influenced the way that Westerners think about Islam.
So would you say that the reason behind the systematic devaluing of Islamic culture through the Western narrative might be down to a growing sentiment that we might be becoming the minority in comparison to 1.7 billion and growing Muslims around the world?
I think it’s a bit of an exaggeration. First of all there are still 2 billion Christians in the world and there is no reason to think that Islam is going to overcome Christianity as a global religion any time soon.
It is true that one of the more interesting aspects about Islam and Christianity is not necessarily about numbers but about movement; global Christianity is increasingly moving southward and eastward while global Islam is increasingly moving northward and westward. So 100 years from now, what will be interesting is not how many Muslims and Christians there are, but where they will be primarily located. I think that’s a much more interesting conversation to have.
But let’s not kid ourselves – the Muslim population of Europe is somewhere between 4-7 per cent and in the US it’s 1 per cent. So let’s slow down the talk of Westerners losing out to Islam because that is nowhere near in the cards.
Unfortunately that’s just the essence of the message I get if you were to look at the newspapers.
Yes but what I’m trying to say is that there is something deeper and far more significant and real than the scenario that you just described, and it is simply a crisis of identity.
The fact of the matter is that in large parts of Europe, and now in the United States as well, because of globalisation and the EU, there is a disintegration of national boundaries and the deterioration of national identity. So many Europeans are having a difficult time identifying themselves either as French or German, or as European. I don’t have to tell you about the Brexit debate but the fact that national sovereignty was intricately intertwined with anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment was not a coincidence.
What we are seeing in Europe with people having trouble really figuring out their identity, be it ethnic or national, are increasingly identifying themselves in opposition to an easily accessible other – Islam. That’s why you can say ‘Oh, Islam is about to take over Europe’, despite the fact that I mentioned it only accounts for up to 7 per cent of the population. That’s why in the US you can have incredible politicians going on mainstream media talking about the Islamic takeover of America when only 1 percent of the population is Muslim. What we are seeing here is a fear that is not based in reality but is rather an attempt to come up with some kind of collective identity that is stable and makes sense. As we know from human nature, the easiest way to identify yourself is in opposition to another. It’s not very difficult to say who you are but it’s very difficult to say who you are not. For a large swathe of Europeans and Americans, what it means to be European or American is to not be Muslim.
If we can get past the specifics of religious language and recognise it as a language to express this communal existential experience of being human, then that is the first step towards creating a more peaceful and prosperous world in which these simple divisions of who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’ no longer apply because the ‘us’ is those who share in the human condition.