Imagine a series of An Idiot Abroad in which effortlessly amusing man-child Karl Pilkington is replaced by an effeminate Topman mannequin in a silver-flecked wig. Congratulations, you’ve just imagined Believer with Reza Aslan.
Yesterday I finally got round to watching the first episode of CNN’s six-part travelogue, in which Aslan cosies up with members of various eccentric belief systems in the hope of convincing us that religions are nothing more than “different languages” used to express the same inherent faith. Or something.
This is not the kind of condescending, new age guff that I like to hear about real-world ideologies that are responsible for the death and abject misery of countless billions of real human beings, and so I was very much looking forward to hating this show. To that extent I was disappointed.
It was reasonably watchable and Aslan was not as gratingly smug as I’d expected him to be. But whereas Pilkington’s entertainment value lay in him being an irritable and reluctant host, foisted into situations he found preposterous and pointless, Aslan eagerly laps this nonsense up and is inevitably far less entertaining for it.
The show opens with a montage of sound-bites reeling off Aslan’s credentials as a religious scholar and bestselling author who’s been studying the world’s religions for 20 years etcetera etcetera. This is fitting given that I’d imagine Aslan would probably struggle to defrost a veggie burger without shoe-horning a comprehensive recital of his qualifications into the proceedings.
This first episode focuses on Hinduism, and more specifically a sect of Hindus known as the Aghori, who are instrumental in attempting to overturn the obscenely discriminatory caste system embedded in mainstream Hinduism.
Aslan travels to Varanasi, India to meet these people and to undertake a whole host of ridiculous forfeits at their behest. Aghori celebrity, Lali Baba shows Aslan around his rave cave and then demands that he swim in the Ganges (a noxious, frothing cesspit of a river whose banks double up as makeshift crematoriums) before drinking some of it. Later an excitable Aghori tribesman smears Aslan in human ash and makes him quaff alcohol from a human skull before offering him a dessert course of charcoaled human brain. That’s one for the CV. I couldn’t help wondering if Aslan will, from now on, go around proclaiming his superior intellect on the basis that he’s literally wolfed down another person’s mind.
Understandably, the tribesman subsequently becomes irritated by Aslan and threatens to cut his head off if he doesn’t stop talking. He then demonstrates his irritation with Reza and his film crew by crapping into his own hand and eating it. You know the feeling.
This section is undoubtedly the highlight of the show, and an in-over-his-head Aslan is reduced to gingerly begging the boom operator to distract the increasingly unhinged and aggressive tribesman so that he can make his escape. “I’m pretty sure that’s not the Aghori that I was looking for” he moans, and heads off to find an interpretation of this religion that makes him feel more comfortable.
He finds it in the Aghori volunteers of an orphanage. “I feel like I’ve found the Hinduism that I was looking for” he exclaims, illustrating a clear bias towards viewing mild-mannered charity work as true Hinduism and doing his best to ignore the bits of brain tissue stuck between his teeth. “You want to know what putting your faith into practice looks like? This is what it looks like” asserts Aslan standing outside a Hindu-run leprosy clinic. Tellingly, he neglected to make the same observation moments earlier whilst being chased along the seafront by a naked Aghori cannibal threatening to behead him and pelting him with handfuls of human shit.
The program climaxes in hilariously overblown fashion with footage of Aslan making a series of devotional gestures while a motivational voiceover, in which he claims to have discovered what it means to be human no less, plays on the soundtrack accompanied by a histrionic orchestral string section.
Being that this show is broadcast on an American news network, a ticker tape of the day’s news stories runs along the bottom of the screen for its duration. Watching Aslan attempting to beautify the concept of religious belief whilst its real-world effects are broadcast simultaneously is darkly comic: “Twin blasts kill at least 40 and wound 120 more in Damascus” “German police shut shopping mall in Essen following terror threat.”
But then Aslan’s whole shtick is that religion is nothing more that some kind of wish fulfilment. “People don’t derive their values from their religion – they bring their values to their religion.” All religions are simply metaphors and similes and images and symbols and blah blah blah.
Aslan has repeatedly claimed, for example, that “Islam doesn’t promote violence or peace. Islam is just a religion, and like every religion in the world it depends on what you bring to it” – an interesting thesis which presumably posits that the phenomenon of Islamic suicide bombing can be explained by that perfectly natural human desire among rational people to vaporise themselves in crowded locations. Although quite why Islam in particular manages to produce a seemingly endless supply of these suicidal psychopaths is unfortunately left unaddressed by Aslan’s theory. Likewise, his hypothesis neglects to explain how a supposed desire among the Hindu underclass to condemn themselves to a life of tedious, back-breaking labour and persecution due to the bad karma they have amassed in previous one, in any way serves to benefit them. But then he’s a scholar with a garage full of PhD’s and you’re not, so shut up and stop asking awkward questions damn it.
Certainly on my side of the pond, Aslan is probably most well-known among laymen for a couple of news interviews that I tend to see circulated every so often by my more disappointing Facebook friends. One of these is a ludicrous Fox News show trial in which Aslan is interrogated by host Lauren Green as to why a treacherous Muslim like him would feel the need to author a book about the right honourable Sir Jesus of Christ. The other is a CNN discussion on Islamic violence in which two “Islamophobic” hosts get “owned looooool” by a visibly confident Aslan with a series of self-satisfied mic-drops.
However, I’m familiar with both of these appearances for different reasons. Namely that, Aslan’s flagrant dishonesty in these interviews constitutes a shameful whitewashing of Islam’s role in Female Genital Mutilation and in the notoriously poor treatment of women in the Muslim world. And that they also cement his credentials as a liar by showing him repeatedly lying about his credentials. Incidentally David Pakman has produced a devastating point by point rebuttal of Aslan’s shady remarks in these videos which is well worth a gander.
Aslan is also well known to me, and many others, due to his proclivity for throwing around accusations of Islamophobia when a critical eye is cast upon his personal favourite religion. This is why I found much of the reaction to Believer to be poetic justice. No sooner had the program aired than the accusations of bigotry, xenophobia and Hinduphobia, came rolling in along with demands for apologies.
To his credit though, Aslan is from a different breed than your average Islamic apologist. He might still argue, for instance, that jihadists are cynically using Islam as an excuse for violence – but he’ll also acknowledge that this claim can only be made with a straight face because Islam actually provides such an excuse. But he apparently sees no issue with this, and instead lays the blame for religious extremism (or literalism) squarely at the feet of the believers, who he claims are predisposed to act this way. He asserts that religion is essentially a blank canvass and that the way that religion manifests in the real world is shaped solely by each individual painter.
“Scripture is meaningless without interpretation. Scripture requires a person to confront and interpret it in order for it to have any meaning. And the very act of interpreting a scripture necessarily involves bringing to it one’s own perspectives and prejudices…If you are a violent misogynist, you will find plenty in your scriptures to justify your beliefs.”
Yet Aslan seems to think that this Russian roulette relationship between scripture and interpretation is something to be celebrated, rather than criticized, condemned and abandoned.
Religion is not a blank canvass, it’s a paint-by-numbers one. The problem with religions in general is that they demand that ethics be derived from revelation rather than from reason. They set out an ostensibly moral framework which ranges from the sensible to the obscene, and do so using language that then has to be translated, interpreted, historicized and contextualized by imperfect human beings. They then offer unthinkable punishment and unimaginable reward on the basis of whether one adheres to these teachings correctly or not.
This is a problem inherent in religion itself and cannot be blamed merely on interpretation. The system is fundamentally flawed to begin with.
Basing morality on the dictates of ambiguous and contradictory religious texts written centuries ago is a bad idea, and it’s one that lies at the heart of religion. It doesn’t take an omnipotent deity to predict the potential problematic outcomes of such an idea.
The religious texts matter, and the ideas expressed in them are a motivating factor in the behaviour of human beings who believe them. These believers may interpret certain teachings differently, they may view certain aspects as parables, similes and metaphors or they may view them as literal, direct injunctions. Either way, the problem of violence as a result of possible misunderstanding or misinterpretation are an inevitable side effect of asking fallible humans to interpret high-stakes scriptural demands upon behaviour. It’s not overly dissimilar to handing a toddler a combat knife with the demand that they use it, and then blaming the kid when it results in a severed arm rather than a peanut butter sandwich.
And yet Aslan wants us to convince us that a system of belief which allows for such wildly different interpretations, to the extent that they can be used to justify just about anything, is a blessing rather than a curse.
Even Karl Pilkington would never suggest anything this daft. Believe.