Shattering Religious Stereotypes Behind the Camera | Sojourners

Shattering Religious Stereotypes Behind the Camera

In Conversation with 'Secret Life of Muslims' Producer Reza Aslan
Reza Aslan

Reza Aslan burst into the national spotlight on live television when Lauren Green interviewed the former Christian and then-Muslim scholar of religion on his book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. In the 2013 Fox News interview, which went viral, Aslan methodically responds to Green’s awkward line of questioning that revolves around why someone like him would want to, or even could, write on Jesus. This moment confirmed an Islamophobic double-standard applied to Aslan — he was attacked in a way that Christians writing on Islam would never be. It also catapulted him into a television career. Since then, Aslan has attempted to translate scholarly erudition to the screen, serving as the host to a cable talk show (Rough Draft with Reza Aslan) and to an Anthony Bourdain-meets-religion CNN television series (Believer).

In the meantime, Aslan has continued to write books. His latest, God: A Human History, provides a fascinating account of how religion(s) may have developed in relationship to the evolution and hard-wiring of our species. It also explains how this former evangelical and former Muslim has arrived at the place of calling himself a pantheist. So far, Aslan’s cable shows — including his Muslim-American family sitcom that was dropped by ABC — have not panned out. But his ambitions to reach a broader audience remain as large as ever. And unlike the braggadocios and didactic style of commentary that he’s become known for in front of television cameras, he’s eager to change minds while occupying a different place: behind the camera.

Secret Life of Muslims, which is co-produced by Aslan, is now in season 2. This Emmy-nominated and Peabody-finalist digital series (currently distributed by Gizmodo Media Group and AJ+) breaks popular stereotypes about Muslims and has profiled individuals such as comedian Ahmed Ahmed, activist Linda Sarsour, U.S. Olympian Ibtihaj Muhammad, and WWE wrestler Mustafa Ali. The latest season considers topics such Sharia, Haj, and jihad. Although Secret Life of Muslims very much captures the ordinariness of Muslims in their own words, it’s also a project with some interfaith roots. The other co-producer Joshua Seftel (director of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy) is Jewish and spoke at season 2’s New York City screening in February about how his upbringing and his family’s values led him to work on this series. Undeterred from his setbacks, Aslan has continued to work with top Hollywood and television talent to provide nuanced portrayals of topics that involve religion. Lionsgate is turning his book about Jesus, Zealot, into a movie. Aslan confirmed with me that he's written the screenplay with Oscar-winning screenwriter James Schamus, and David Heyman (producer for the Harry Potter movies and Gravity) will be producing the film. 

I recently spoke to Reza Aslan by phone about Secret Life of Muslims, the transition from academia to television, and contemporary issues concerning religion and politics in public life. The conversation that follows has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Daniel José Camacho, Sojourners: You initially established yourself as a scholar of religion and an author. In the past few years, you've crossed into more television work and producing. What have you learned in making this particular transition?

Reza Aslan: I'm still a scholar of religion and a writer. It's just that what I want to do is reach a much broader audience. That's always been my angle. I never wanted to be the kind of scholar who sits in a dusty library all day and writes about things that nobody cares about. I find religion to be extraordinarily interesting and I always assumed that if I could figure out a way to communicate it to other people in an interesting way that they would also find it to be interesting.

For me it's fundamentally about storytelling. It's about using stories to communicate and to break down the walls that separate us into all of these distinct categories and identities. Pop culture has always been the most effective way of communicating these kinds of ideas and for reframing the perception that people have about the "other." So, my transition into film and television is, in many ways, just kind of a natural evolution. I'm saying the same thing. I'm doing the same thing. I'm just using a different platform to get that message across to people who would normally not read one of my books or be inclined to listen to me. If I can use film and television to change the way that they think, then I'm going to. You're right in saying that this has been a kind of focus for me in the recent past, and it's going to be a focus for me moving forward now.

Camacho: So, your interests haven't changed dramatically. But is there anything you’ve had to adjust in going from the scholarly world to this other medium that reaches another kind of audience?

Aslan: I've always been a good communicator. So, it's a very simple transition for me. I understand there's a gigantic difference between academia and scriptwriting. But I have always thought of myself, first and foremost, as a storyteller. Religion is just storytelling. Politics and the political commentary that I do, that's just storytelling. For me, whether I'm writing it in the form of a book or an article or a screenplay or whether I'm doing an unscripted show like Believer, it's all just communicating the same message but on different platforms and for a different audience. And I would say, if I could take a swipe at academia real quick, this is what we should all be doing. There’s such a resistance to reaching a broad audience in academia. I have basically been ostracized by much of academia for daring to speak to a popular audience. Especially at a time in which the public's trust in academia is at the lowest point it's ever been — we're literally talking about whether there is truly any need anymore for a liberal education — it's incumbent on scholars and experts to figure out a way to communicate their ideas in the public marketplace. Otherwise, we're just going to become irrelevant.

Camacho: You’ve co-produced both season 1 and 2 of the Secret Life of Muslims series. What kind of feedback have you received?

Aslan: I think people have been very excited about the fact that, in season 1, we mostly profiled individual Muslims. In season 2, while we are still profiling very interesting individual Muslims, people who have done amazing things, like Debbie Almontaser or Mohamed Bzeek, at the same time we're doing a lot more of what I like to call subject profiles. Like, what's Sharia? What's jihad? It's one thing to hear from an individual about how their faith shapes their actions. But I do think that because there's so much misunderstanding of these basic ideas in Islam, it's fun to see seven, eight, nine, 10 individuals each giving their ideas about what Sharia is or what jihad is.

Camacho: What are some things that you hope people, especially non-Muslims, will take away from this series?

Aslan: For me, it's about the normalcy of the whole thing. One of the questions that I get asked more than any other question is, "What do you think is the biggest misconception about Islam?" Usually when people ask me that question what they want me to say is that it supports violence or that it's backwards. But the biggest misconception about Islam, particularly in the United States, is that Islam is somehow different, somehow unique, that it's not like other religions, that Muslims and the relationship that Muslims have with their faith is different than the relationships that, say, Jews or Christians have with their faith. It's that notion that there is something different, unique, separate about Islam that I think is the biggest misconception.

Islam is like every other religion in the world. It comes in a thousand different varieties. There are people who take it more seriously than others, people who are more conservative, people who are more progressive. It's gone through the same shifts and changes and evolution that every religion has. It's been influenced by culture, by time, by place, like every religion has. There's nothing different, nothing special or unique about Islam that makes it unlike other religions. What I would like to see is this becoming normal and routine, non-Muslims encountering Islam and kind of shrugging, being familiar enough with it where it doesn't feel like it's some strange other religion. Obviously, that's going to be a slow process. Only one percent of the population of the country is Muslim so it's going to take a while for people to have a view on Islam as routine and normal.

Camacho: This series is arriving during a particular political moment — after the rise of Trump, after the so-called Muslim travel ban. And now, we have two Muslim Congresswomen, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who have received intense scrutiny over their language, their positions on Israel, and alleged anti-Semitism. What do you think about the criticisms that these Muslim congresswomen have received?

Aslan: On the one hand, Ilhan and Rashida are not private citizens anymore. They are something that they have never been before. There is an enormous amount of scrutiny on them because of their ethnicity and religion. They should course-correct when they say something that is worthy of criticism, and for the most part that's precisely what they have done. Now, with that said, I pay no mind whatsoever to these bad faith attacks and arguments coming from the unabashedly racist president of the United States. If you think that Nazis are fine people, then you never get to say anything ever again about anyone's charges of anti-Semitism. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the Republican House leader, has expressed the most despicable anti-Semitics about George Soros and Janet Yellen, these "Jews who are controlling our finances," in order to get people to vote for Republicans. If you do that, you don't get to say shit about anti-Semitism ever again. So, to me, I think there needs to be a very clear division about reckless language used by political neophytes that unquestionably has a legacy of anti-Semitism and should never ever be used, and the despicable bad faith attacks against that kind of language coming from a president who has demonstrably been proven to be a racist, sexist, lecherous, pathologically lying, narcissist.

Camacho: You are someone who has thoroughly studied Christianity and you’ve written about how you were once an evangelical. What are your thoughts on the kind of support that white evangelicals have given Trump and what that means for the future of Christianity and religion in the United States?

Aslan: According to data compiled by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), white evangelicals in this country, in the span of a single election cycle, meaning from the re-election of Barack Obama to the election of Donald Trump, have gone from being the group that was most likely to say that a politician's [personal] morality matters to now being the group that is literally the least likely to say that a politician's [personal] morality matters. Today, in 2019, more Satanists and atheists believe that [personal] morality in a politician matters than white evangelicals do. There is no explanation for that fact. There is a cancer at the very heart of white evangelical Christianity right now. It is a cancer that is, unfortunately, being ignored I think by progressive and liberal white evangelicals who clearly recognize that there is something deeply wrong within their midst. But in my view, they are not doing enough to tackle this problem, which could really ring the death knell for American evangelical Christianity.

We're talking about a group right now that represents the largest support for building a wall between America and Mexico. We're talking about a group that represents the largest support for banning all refugees, all refugees, no matter what their situation is, from coming into the United States. This is a betrayal of everything that Jesus preached about, everything that he talked about, everything that he died for. As an outsider now, looking at this community that I used to belong to, I feel genuinely sad about how it has become transformed into a cult of personality around a man who is the incarnation of everything Jesus preached against. To me, it defies explanation and I think it is in many ways a do or die moment for the American evangelical Christianity.

There is a dramatic split between evangelicals of color and white evangelicals. Remember, 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump and 67 percent of evangelicals of color voted for Hillary Clinton. These are people who have the same doctrine, who hold the same beliefs, who have the same view of salvation and Scripture but who just have a different skin tone. So, it is absolutely fundamentally clear that this dividing line, the thing that has formed this cancer within evangelical Christianity, is primarily race. It's racism. That's what it is. There is a racism problem eating at the heart of American evangelical Christianity right now and it has to be addressed.