Reza Aslan, Career Opportunism and the Media’s Religious Illiteracy

A couple of weeks ago, Reza Aslan’s Believer premiered on CNN as a six-episode series in which Aslan “immerses himself in the world’s most fascinating belief systems”. 

I watched the first episode which focuses on Hinduism and suffice to say, I was appalled. As numerous critics has noted, Aslan’s coverage of the Aghoris, a fringe, Vamamarga (left-hand path) sect solely concentrated in the outskirts of the North Indian city of Varanasi, was purely sensationalistic. It was evident to me that rather than an informative documentary analyzing and summarizing the subtle intricacies of religion, Believer was nothing more than a cynically-devised ratings-grab. 

But what else could you expect from CNN. Talk about fake news!

Considering that Reza Aslan was the host, I should have lowered my expectations. Over the past few years, Reza Aslan has secured a role as the news media’s “go-to person” on religion. His claim to fame is a best-selling book that’s nothing but a rehashment of discredited 19th century claims about Jesus of Nazareth, along with his hilariously awkward Fox News interview on which he defended the aforementioned book claiming that he was “a Ph.D in the history of religions”(an overstated claim at best) while being grilled by a Fox News anchor who was baffled that a Muslim would/could write a book about Jesus.

He nauseatingly claims to be a “the leading Muslim scholar in the United States”, ignoring the likes of Wael Hallaq and Hamza Yusef, both of whom are professors of Islamic studies, unlike Reza Aslan, a professor of creative writing. 

Now although he may not be a theologian or a religious scholar, Reza Aslan is well-learned on religious topics. In addition, his charisma and eloquence makes him an effective communicator on the subject. Reza Aslan is to religion what Bill Nye is to science. However, unlike Aslan, Bill Nye doesn’t overstep his boundaries of expertise, and he definitely would not sell out to a TV news channel to boost his own public image. 

Believer’s deplorable coverage of Hinduism exemplifies the news media’s poor grasp on religion. Generally, religious stories don’t garnar as much public attention as the latest reports on politics, technology or celebrity gossip. Therefore, for most news organizations, religious correspondents are not in demand. Lacking a staff member with some comprehensive insight on matters of faith, reporters are bound to fudge up the facts on religion stories. 

So we shouldn’t be baffled when CNN reported that Pope Francis approves of homosexuality. Or when the Washington Post stated that Pope Francis welcomes atheists in heaven. Or when USA Today claimed Pope Francis gives the a-okay on married priests. 

The frequent misquotations of Pope Francis’ statements attests to the news media’s sinfully facile reporting! 

Which brings us back to Reza Aslan. Unlike most journalists struggling to write an article on a faith-based story with limited prior knowledge on faith, Reza Aslan is well-acquainted with the world of spirituality. He may not qualify as an Islamic allamah, but Aslan has the ability to articulate the nuances of a subject of which so few people understand. 

Unfortunately, Reza Aslan did not do that. 

In his desperation to promote his own public image, Aslan took the low-road in attempts to attract a mass audience. Instead of reading through the philosophically-dense content of the Vedas and Upanishads, trekking through the mythological world of the asuras and devas, and exploring the regional variations of ritualistic practices, Aslan decided to immerse himself in a lunatic fringe cult led by self-styled gurus who drink their own urine. 

 In other words, Aslan took a eclectic, 5000-year old spiritual tradition and reduced it into a crude caricature akin to Mola Ram from Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom. 

Whatever ounce of respect I had for Reza Aslan went down the toilet! 

Reza Aslan should have known better than to do a religious documentary in the format of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown! You can’t fully immerse yourself in a religion by spending a week with some hospitable hosts and eating up whatever they have to offer! 

Unlike exotic dishes, religion can’t be consumed in one sitting. It takes years, arguably even a lifetime, to immerse yourself in a spiritual path. There are Christian monks who have eschewed wealth, modern technology and even sexual pleasure in favor of leading a ascetic life solely devoted to prayer, meditation and scriptural studies. And despite taking the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, even those monks hesitate to consider themselves fully immersed in the gospel message. 

Considering that, in numerous interviews, Reza Aslan conceptualizes religion as nothing more than “a language”, claiming that his Islamic faith is “no more true” than any other religion, it’s clear that this self-professed religion scholar has a superficial, “touchy-feely” perception of religion that would only appeal to self-enlightened, “cosmopolitan” liberals. No wonder they’re his core fan base.

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