The internationally renowned scholar of religions and writer spoke to The Iranist about his new show on CNN, sectarianism, and what it’s like being Iranian-American under a Trump presidency.
THE IRANIST: Donald Trump’s executive order, that limits certain foreign nationals from entering the United States, has been framed as a “Muslim ban”. Do you agree with that characterization?
REZA ASLAN: Yes. It is a Muslim ban. It is a ban on predominately Muslim countries that have almost nothing in common with each other. Some of the countries are very close allies of the United States. We have American troops fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with Iraqi troops [against ISIS] right now—and we banned Iraqis from the U.S. The only thing that these countries have in common with each other is that no national from any of them has killed an American on U.S. soil.
Most importantly, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani admitted it is a Muslim ban. He went on live television and said the president asked him to figure out a way to make the Muslim ban legal. And if that weren’t enough, the president himself went on television with the Christian Broadcasting Network and said that the only people allowed into the country from these seven banned nations would be religious minorities. So, in other words, a Christian facing persecution in Yemen would be allowed into America, but a Shiite facing slaughter and starvation would not. That’s a Muslim ban, which is why it’s been stopped.
THE IRANIST: What does it feel like being an Iranian-American under a Trump presidency?
REZA ASLAN: This is an unprecedented moment. It is a state of emergency that we are experiencing right now. Yes, it’s certainly more difficult being an immigrant, being Muslim, being Iranian; but we have a president who was clearly illegitimately elected, who has undermined almost every aspect of the Constitution in the first two weeks of office, who isn’t just a pathological liar, but a narcissist and a sociopath. I think this is a state of emergency. We are in the amidst of an existential crisis in the United States. I don’t want to make it seem like it is somehow different if you’re an immigrant or if you’re Muslim, or if you’re Iranian—as I’ve said, we are facing something unlike anything we’ve seen before and every American is being threatened by it.
THE IRANIST: What would you like to see Americans do?
REZA ASLAN: I would like to see what exactly is happening—that Americans are having a sense of clarity about what it means to be American and are starting to fight back. I think the most important thing to understand about Donald Trump is how profoundly unpopular he is. He has historic unpopularity levels. No president in history has ever been at 36 percent, let alone in the first two weeks in office. It’s important to understand that those people who are resisting and fighting back are the overwhelming majority.
THE IRANIST: What do you hope to achieve with Believer?
REZA ASLAN: My goal as a writer, scholar, and public intellectual has always been to try to figure out ways to break down the walls that separate people into different identities, different religions, different ethnicities and races. I do that through storytelling. I do that through trying to build relationships. But I also see this show as a culmination of a lot of that work because this is an opportunity for you to immerse yourself through my experience in another culture, in another belief system, in another worldview. I think if we can have that experience in our day-to-day lives and stop looking at each other—at other people who don’t share the same worldview as we do—as human beings, we can have a greater understanding of each other and hopefully have more peace and prosperity in the world. That’s always been my goal in everything that I do.
THE IRANIST: Did you have any of your own beliefs challenged while doing the show?
REZA ASLAN: Yes. First of all, I had a lot of my taboos challenged. I tend to be a fastidious person. I’m a little bit of a germophobe and I had to experience certain rituals that really challenged that internal fear that I had. Especially in the first episode, in India. I had to do things, to consume things that were very challenging for me. But insofar as my beliefs, it’s not that I had my beliefs challenged, it’s that I did feel as though my overarching sense of how different languages, different symbols, different metaphors, different rituals—that the beliefs themselves—are not that different. These six religions that I explored in the first season, really immersing myself in that—becoming part of those groups, believing what they believe, doing what they do—made me sort of recognize the truth of that statement.
THE IRANIST: What were the six religions you chose?
REZA ASLAN: The religions that we chose were those that were somewhat on the fringes. In other words, religions that were somewhat familiar to people, but also chained with a lot of unknown. Religions that people thought they knew about, but they really didn’t. We did a sect of Hinduism called the Aghori. We did Haitian voodoo and its battle with evangelical Christianity on the island of Haiti. We did scientology in the United States. We did Santa Muerte in Mexico. We did a kind of a doomsday cult in Hawaii and then we did the ultra-orthodox in Israel.
THE IRANIST: Do you see yourself doing an episode on Shiite Islam and perhaps going to Iran to do it?
REZA ASLAN: I would not be safe going to Iran. I’m allowed to enter Iran; I’m just not allowed to exit Iran! We do have a lot of ideas for season two. One of them does have to do with Shiite Islam and particularly with the Muharram ceremony [which mourns the Shiite saint Hussein]. It wouldn’t be in Iran though.
THE IRANIST: Speaking of Shiite Islam, a lot of people say there’s a Sunni-Shiite conflict. What is your take on this?
REZA ASLAN: I think it’s a conflict that exists on the individual and state level, but nowhere else. It exists on the individual level in the sense that people are tribal by their very nature. Catholics and Protestants sometimes don’t get along. Jews and Christians sometimes don’t get along. In fact, conservative Jews and reformist Jews sometimes don’t get along. I just did an episode on ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel and for the most part, the ultra-orthodox have no problems with Palestinians and Muslims at all. In fact, many prefer the company of Palestinians and Muslims over fellow Jews. Their problem is with Jews that aren’t sufficiently Jewish enough; they don’t follow Jewish law correctly.
Some Sunnis and Shiites don’t have problems with each other and some do. The real problem is when that kind of conflict and prejudice reaches the nation-state level and groups like Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria foment sectarian violence for their own political gain. You have the Iranian government, again, fomenting sectarian conflict throughout the region, for its own gain. You have Bahrain, this Sunni minority country, that is fomenting a non-existent, fake sectarian war in order to deny its Shiite majority the most basic human rights. It’s when you hit the state level that it is truly pernicious and dangerous. Conflicts over land, money, prosperity, or material gain—those conflicts can be resolved. But conflicts over religion, identity, or sectarianism are very hard to control. These nation states that have used such conflict to promote their own interests in the region are playing with fire. And I think that we are seeing the result of this right now in these larger, sectarian battles that have erupted throughout the Middle East.
THE IRANIST: What do you think the United States should do to prevent these sectarian battles from escalating?
REZA ASLAN: The United States uses it to its advantage as well. The U.S., for instance, didn’t want to engage in the civil rights movement that took place in Bahrain because of our military interests in that country. Despite Bahrain’s own internal government investigation proving there was absolutely no Iranian influence in the uprising that took place in 2011 in Pearl Square, the U.S. simply mimicked Bahrain’s talking points—that this wasn’t a democratic uprising, this was an Iranian-backed, Shiite coup against a Sunni government. First and foremost, we need to stop peddling false lies. More importantly, we need to do whatever we can to clamp down the sectarian conflicts rather than use them to our advantage, which we have been doing in Syria and Bahrain, or even Yemen.
THE IRANIST: Do you have a new book on the way?
REZA ASLAN: My new book will be released in the fall. It’s a brief history of the idea of God. It’s about how the idea of God arose deep in human evolution and how it evolved and developed throughout human history to the point where it is today, the way in which we think about God. Not just as believers, but also non-believers. The title is god with a lowercase “G”.
Spiritually Curious Believer with Reza Aslan premieres Sunday, March 5 at 10 pm ET/PT on CNN.