| by V.R. Kahn |
With the premiere of his CNN series Believer, Reza Aslan has seemingly cemented his position as the go to expert on all things religion for mainstream American news organizations. For many on the Left he is a calm and reasoned defender of religion and a charming and articulate spokesperson for Islam. Critics of Aslan argue that he responds to any criticism of Islamic ideology with obscurantism and apologetics. After the first episode of his series, it seems he has also made clear his shameless careerism.
For those unfamiliar with Aslan’s latest venture, the pitch for Believer is reminiscent of the BBC’s Going Tribal, but with the sole focus on religion. According to the CNN synopsis, the aim of the show is for Aslan to immerse “himself in the world’s most fascinating faith-based groups to experience life as a true believer.” In an interview with the Huffington Post early this month, Aslan commented, “I guess what my job is, by immersing myself into these religions, is to subvert your view of them. To challenge you to recognize the connection that you have with people who may not look like you or talk like you or pray like you.” With such aims and a six episode series, it’s a sensible assumption that Believer would focus on the world’s major religious traditions. Instead Aslan mostly focuses on obscure religious sects, among them: a doomsday cult in Hawaii, “reform” Scientology and Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel. The more one finds out about the series the more it seems counterproductive to the stated aims and increasingly sensationalist.
If that is an unfair criticism of a series yet to be aired, it is already well earned after the first episode. The premiere saw Aslan attempt to immerse himself with the Aghori, a religious Hindu sect that attempts to defy social norms of purity. The Aghori are an odd choice to broaden an audience’s knowledge of religion. They are both a fringe sect and very small in number. A series on Hinduism may well benefit from their inclusion sensibly discussed by a scholar of Hinduism but their presence as the sole representation of Hinduism comes off as exoticism. Sadly, that appears to be the precise reason for their inclusion. As a basic knowledge of Hinduism is needed just to explain the beliefs of the Aghori surrounding ritual purity, Aslan opens with a quick Hinduism 101 in Varanasi. This only serves to prove his lack of expertise in Hinduism. He offers false claims about ghats (of 87 ghats in Varanasi, only two are used for cremation), misleading statements about karma and reincarnation, and a facile and simplistic critique of the caste system.
He then moves onto his immersion with the Aghori. For the first half of the show, the audience is treated to a caricature of Hinduism from Indiana Jones. Aslan seeks knowledge about Aghori practices from self-styled gurus with appropriately long beards: one accordingly drinks honey from a human skull, the other his own urine. Despite acknowledging that only a very small number of Aghori take part in such extreme practices, this is the point at which Aslan chooses to immerse himself. The ensuing antics make clear why they chose to do this and it has nothing to do with enlightening the audience. We see Aslan psych himself up to bathe in the Ganges, get smeared with human ash, eat human brain matter and have urine flung at him as he runs away from his “baba”. It sounds more like an Adam Sandler film than a serious documentary or even popular anthropology. That Aslan’s “baba” seems to be dubious is no accident. Aslan and the producers clearly wanted the most salacious and comedic encounter they could muster.
The second half of the show sees Aslan seek a more moderate version of Aghori practice. He finds this among a network of practitioners in Varanasi who care for orphans and those with leprosy attempting to overturn societal discrimination against marginalized groups. Finally Aslan has found the Hinduism he was looking for! Nevermind that it happens to be the predominant sect among the Aghori and while we are at it let us ignore too that many mainstream Hindus also work to overturn discrimination.
Encapsulated in this episode is the central conceit of Believer: it appears to be nothing more than a sensationalist vehicle for Aslan’s careerism. The fringe groups used in the series come across as Aslan’s version of a circus sideshow with platitudes added in for when he is accused of misrepresenting other religious groups — a criticism he has often used himself against anyone even trying to critically discuss Islam. But of course he has been roundly criticized by Hindu groups for, what they argue, is a misrepresentation of their faith. American Hindus were encouraged to live tweet the Hindu American Foundation of their concerns while watching the episode and if their retweets are any indication, their final assessment of the show was far from positive.
But creating controversy seems to be all part of the plan too; during the premiere of Believer Aslan tweeted a link to an interview on the Huffington Post entitled “Every Episode of Reza Aslan’s ‘Believer’ Will Piss Somebody Off (And It’s Awesome).” It is essentially click-bait for TV. It’s what makes his opportunistic cornering of the market on religious scholarship so blatant. When Islam has been criticized using examples from Saudi Arabia or Iran, he has argued that contextualization is key and it is misleading to characterize Islam based on two countries. Regardless of Aslan’s obvious obfuscation, it is a fair criticism of Believer to say that it sensationalizes a view of Hinduism that if done to Islam, would have Aslan on the next CNN panel stating it was nothing more than bigotry. His positions with regard to religion appear to change with how much screen time he can garner from them.
For anyone looking for any genuine scholarship on or meaningful critique of religion, this is a waste of time. Despite his self-styling as THE scholar of religions, there are many more erudite and intelligent academics and scholars who are specialists in religions such as Hinduism, they simply do not have a TV deal from CNN but they have written books. And I can only assume one would have to be unfamiliar with Aslan’s previous facile defenses of religion to think he could ever offer an interesting critique of religious beliefs and practices. The only reason to watch Believer is if you want to watch Aslan pontificate about a religion in which he is no expert and desperately try to find opportunities to make banal comments such as “You want to know what putting your faith into practice looks like? This is what it looks like” while looking meaningfully into the camera.
I would hope that after seeing an entire series of Aslan strut around offering vacuous observations, those on the Left that have been his stalwart champions will be so bored of him that they will let him gently recede back into a quiet life in academia. Sadly, I think by the end of the series, he will have probably secured a second.
V. R. Kahn is currently finishing her PhD in religious studies and politics. She has expertise in and writes on anthropology of religion, myth and Islam. You can follow her on Twitter @VRKahn