An Interview with Reza Aslan

ARTS, Books, Features, Interviews
img_rezaaslanThe acclaimed writer and scholar of religions on comedy, Iranian cinema, and the problem with fundamentalists.

I absolutely love this book; you’ve gotta get it,” John Oliver raved about Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth on The Daily Show, “The fantastic Reza Aslan.” Ahead of appearances at the Auckland and Sydney Writers Festival this month, I Skyped the feisty Iranian-American intellectual about his Jesus of Nazareth biography, his famous Fox interview, Richard Dawkins (“shocking”), and America’s best comedians.

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ALEXANDER BISLEY: Rick Hertzberg wrote a great tribute to Stephen Colbert. He’s grief-struck that Colbert’s the new Letterman. “The Character hasn’t had to worry about being likable… He’s been free to go places that an actual person can’t.”

REZA ASLAN: I think it is important to understand that Stephen Colbert is not really a comedian anymore. He’s a performance artist. What he has done with this persona that he has on his show is really bore into the very heart of the American psyche. He’s actually created significant and profound change in the United States through his comedy, through the routine that he has put together. In a way we haven’t really seen anyone like this, a true satirist, since the golden age of satire in the 1700s. So, for me, seeing him as himself instead of this persona­­, which I’ve seen quite frequently, is going to be a treat. Absolutely, it’s not going to be like the performance piece he has put together over the last decade as “Stephen Colbert.”

AB: You’ve known him a bit as the person rather than The Character?

RA: Yes, and he’s the exact opposite of the person that he plays on TV. His mannerisms, the tenor of his voice, his body language, the way that he carries himself—all changes as one cuts to commercial. And I think that’s the guy that people are going to fall in love with.

AB: I enjoy your regular appearances on Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert, and Jon Stewart. You had a sharp swipe against Anthony Weiner on Maher’s show; some Democrats don’t have sophisticated positions on Palestine/Israel.

RA: It’s not just Democrats. It’s on both sides of the aisle. Obviously there is an enormous deal of ignorance about this conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but I think that the situation is changing, and changing rapidly. Anyone who pays attention to the trends in the United States about perceptions over the Israeli/Palestinian conflict has noted this rapid transformation in the way that Americans—even in the mainstream—are thinking about Israel and the occupation of the Palestinian territory, the settlements, even in some of the unmistakable apartheid practices in Israel, that are difficult to ignore after a certain point. What we’re seeing across the political spectrum, particularly for younger voters in America, is a realignment of their views towards Israel and the Palestinians. I think that having a more balanced approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict is the first step in figuring out a way to solve that conflict.

AB: Agreed. I also rate your Zealot interview with John Oliver on The Daily Show. He said: “The time and place in which he [Jesus] lived, it was total, total chaos—possibly the most chaotic time in that region. And that region is the Middle East. That’s a high crazy bar.” Bringing to mind Al Franken’s hilarious ‘The Gospel of Supply Side Jesus’, you said: “You can be a follower of Jesus and not be Christian, just as you can be a Christian and not a follower of Jesus.”

RA: It’s definitely something that I talk a lot about; the way in which Jesus, particularly on the political right, has been used to justify and argue for values and opinions that are about as far from the things that Jesus preached, as you can imagine. I mean, we have politicians in the United States that regularly use Jesus to argue against food stamps, to argue against welfare, and to these people I wonder if any of them have actually read what Jesus had to say on these topics, because I think they would be quite astonished by how far those positions are from those that Jesus himself espoused.

AB: Speaking of far from Jesus: Fox, that famous Fox interview. Did you feel like you were in an episode of Curb your Enthusiasm?

RA: [laughs] Well, look, it was surreal, it was embarrassing, but at the same time I get it. I understand there are people of certain faith, particularly those who have the very intense faith that Fox’s broadcaster has, and when confronted with something frightening, or something that feels like that, then the response is fear…[1]

AB: The problem though was she had this Palin-like insistence to keep repeating the same point, whatever you said, “But you’re a Muslim writing about Jesus.”

RA: Yeah, that’s probably why people have gravitated towards the video, because there is something humorous and surreal about it, there’s no question there [laughs].

AB: Your conclusion to Zealot is muscular: “Two thousand years later the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history… the radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost has almost been completely lost to history. That is a shame. Because the one thing any comprehensive study of the historical Jesus should hopefully reveal is the Jesus of Nazareth—Jesus the man—is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praise-worthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in.”

RA: Yes, and I truly do believe that. I do think that over and above any theological claims that you can make about Jesus as Christ is the bare-bones fact of his life as someone worth knowing. This is a man who started a movement on behalf of the poor and the dispossessed, the weak and the marginalised. A movement that ultimately led to his death at the hands of the political powers of his time, and I think that that model of behaviour that he established 2000 years ago is as relevant as it was 2000 years ago. So in a sense, for me, I truly do feel that there is something profound about who Jesus—the man—was, that makes him worth knowing.

AB: What do you think the “radical, Jewish nationalist” would make of the Palestine-Israel situation?

RA: Well, I think that someone who has shown through his ministry and through his teachings, an absolute intolerance for any kind of corrupting power, any kind of dispossession, would be horrified by the actions of the Jewish State in the occupied territory. There’s really no other way to talk about the fact that you’re talking about a military occupation over a landless people, and I think for Jesus, who lived under the Roman military occupation, this would be a situation that would seem all too familiar.

AB: “I think film has an unstoppable power to convince, if it’s properly made,” occupation critic Robert Fisk once told me.

RA: Oh, I think that film—just pop culture media, in general—is the most powerful tool in reframing perceptions, and in teaching people about others. I mean, this has always been the case. It’s film that helped break down racial barriers. It’s film that helped break down barriers among gender identities, particularly here in the United States. It’s been quite a pendulum swing from even a decade ago when it comes to views about gay marriage and gay rights, and I think a huge part of that has to with the entertainment industry. Seeing homosexual characters on film and TV has radically affected the way people think about homosexuality, and I think the same is true when it comes to their views of other races, other religions, other cultures. That’s why I do such work in film and popular media; because I truly believe that a single film or a single television show can do more to change the way people think than any number of books.

AB: What are some favourite Middle Eastern films?

RA: Well, there are a couple of films that I think have done a pretty good job in showing the enormous complexity of issues when it comes to the Middle East. Syriana, I think, is a very good one. A recent film by Julian Schnabel, Miral, that showed the Palestinian side of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, is a very good one. Omar, which was just nominated for a best foreign film Oscar. In the documentary category this year, another nominated film called The Square, about the Egyptian revolution.

What is really remarkable about these films is by putting you in the shoes of their protagonist; it allows you to understand at a deep, visceral level what it is like to be on the other side, a side that too often we don’t have any access to. I think that’s true of all the arts. They have a way of breaking down the boundaries that separated us into different cultures, different religions, different nationalities, different ethnicities, and to remind us that ultimately we’re all dealing with the same human condition; that we’re all struggling to deal with the same issues, the same challenges; we have the same aspirations, the same desires.

AB: I recommend The Square, too. You concur with the view that the revolution hasn’t finished yet?

RA: Yes, I think that is the truth of the matter, that we are talking about a revolution that is ongoing and any kind of pronouncement of its death is unjustified, at this point.

AB: It would be fair to say, as Bill Maher argues, Egypt (with the Muslim Brotherhood) and Tunisia have gone backwards in terms of women’s rights since the Arab Spring?

RA: That’s idiotic! It’s not just not right to say, it’s stupid to say. First of all, Tunisia has probably now the most progressive constitution in the entire Middle East that gives 100% rights to women; something they didn’t even have under the secular dictatorship of Ben Ali. Secondly, not only did nothing change in regards to women’s rights under the constitution that the Muslim Brotherhood pushed through, but the constitution is now torn up, and constitution that has been put in its stead is by a brutal, secular dictator that has returned Egypt to the very worst of its autocratic past, and this does so with the unmistakable support of Europe and the United States. So that kind of unsophisticated analysis of the geopolitics of the Middle East—which is what Bill Maher is famous for—really has no place in a mature discussion about what’s going on in that region.

AB: (I love Bill Maher. He’s an absolutely hilarious comic, and a vital commentator.) What are your thoughts on cinematic representations of Jesus, especially The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of the Christ?

RA: Well, thus far these cinematic interpretations of Jesus have been polarising. In other words, they are either straight-up representations of the Gospels, which is not the true historical Jesus. The Passion of the Christ is just the Gospel of John, in screenplay form, that’s all it is. Or, they have been fictional fantasies, like, for instance, The Last Temptation of Christ, and I’m not really a fan of either of those approaches. I’m very excited about the fact that Lionsgate Studios in the United States and David Hayman, a British producer, have taken on the task of transforming my biography of Jesus into a film. I think it’s going to be the first time you see the actual historical Jesus on film, rather than the Gospel Jesus or the fantasy Jesus.

AB: You aren’t desperate for Mel Gibson to be involved?

RA: [laughs] I don’t think that he will have any role to play in this film.

AB: Wadjda director Haifaa al-Mansour, speaking about directors like Panahi, Kiarostami, and the Makhmalbaf clan, told me recently: “Iranians are very clever in putting forward [challenging] ideas while still being accepted back home. They have deal with lots of pressures and constraints every day. It’s a very important, amazing school to learn from. The Iranians manage to bring forward powerful art; art that says a lot about their world and where they come from. They use the limitations of their situation to their benefit rather than resorting to not making art at all.”

RA: It’s why Iran has such a robust film industry. Partly because it has to do deal with limitations that are placed on it by the censors in the country, it’s forced them to be innovative and creative to figure out ways to create visual poetry. It truly is, I think, the best developing world cinema, bar none.

AB: Any favourite directors?

RA: Well, Jafar Panahi, of course, and Kiarostami, the master. Majidi is an amazing director, and his daughter now is doing some really interesting work, certainly. You know, there are so many talents and the barrier to entry for film in Iran is now so low that it’s allowed for an incredible flowering of the cinematic arts.

AB: “A lot of artists complain about the limited space they have, rather than trying to find ways to say what they want within that space,” Mansour added.

RA: When you live in a free society and you can do whatever you want to do, it tends to, bizarrely, tends to stifle creativity and leads to imitation and in a place like Iran where you don’t have the kind of access to Hollywood movies, they’re not part of the film education of the auteur in Iran, it allows for a greater creativity. Just look at the difference between the films coming out of India and the films coming out of Iran. India, which is so heavily influenced by Hollywood that it calls its film industry ‘Bollywood’, is churning out really terrible, terrible films [laughs]. Whereas Iran, dealing with enormous strains and limitations, and not as culturally influenced by Hollywood, is churning out what is widely, almost unanimously, deemed as the best films coming out of the developing world.

AB: You’re also a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. One thing you’ve done with Zealot is you’ve synthesized not uncommon knowledge and made it accessible to a non-scholarly audience. Why don’t more academics do this?

RA: Well, I think there’s no encouragement in academia for that kind of behaviour. On the contrary, writing for a popular audience—indeed, popular success in itself—is somewhat discouraged in academia. Certainly, it becomes very difficult to achieve tenure in the United States when you have popular success. I think it’s just a byproduct of this kind of “old boy’s network” that academia has become. Part of it has to do, of course, with envy and jealousy amongst those who do achieve popular success, but there is an idea that writing to a popular audience makes you no longer serious, makes you a kind of dilettante, and that’s something that I’ve always rejected in my career.

AB: Do you think we are going to see academics taking more of an interest in a wider readership?

RA: Yes, I think it’s already happening, as a matter of fact, and I think it’s primarily a generational thing, that younger academics are much less wary about writing for popular audience, and I think it has to do with the media as well. When you see scholars of Russian history laughing it up with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, you think to yourself, “well, heck, I can do that” [laughs]. And I think it’s created precisely this renewed interest among younger scholars to write for a more general audience, to achieve greater popular success and I think that’s a good thing for academia in general.

AB: You dedicate Zealot to your wife Jessica Jackley—co-founder of Kiva, also coming down to Australasia to talk to us—and her conservative Christian clan, “whose love and acceptance have taught me more about Jesus than all my years of research and study.” You note they are way better advocates for Christianity than some of the prominent charlatans at such venues as Fox News?

RA: That’s definitely the case. My wife’s family are great fans of the book, and I’m pleased to say that the book has allowed me to have an even better relationship with them than I’ve had in the past.

AB: In No god but God, your book about Muhammad, you argue, “There is scant support in authentic Islamic tradition for the veiling of women,” and “The notion that historical context should play no role in the interpretation of the Quran, that what applied to Mohammad’s community applies to all Muslim communities for all time, is simply an untenable position in every sense.”  I imagine that you got criticism from some in the Muslim community?

RA: Oh, sure. I mean, listen, when you write about religion you have to be ready for criticism [laughs]. Otherwise, you should be doing something else. I think the important thing is that even when I’m writing about Judaism, or Islam, or Christianity, even when I might be, for instance, questioning some basic tenants of faith, I think what comes out of my writings—what I hope comes out of my writings—is that I take faith very seriously.

AB: Ross Douthat’s criticism, do you think that’s because he holds the current Republican view of Jesus and he doesn’t like your view of Jesus in terms of what it represents politically?

RA: I think it has a lot to do with that, but I think it also has to do with the fact that Ross Douthat is not a scholar, he has no expertise in the scriptures except from what comes from his faith. So I think for him, although he wrote a so-called ‘defense’ of me in which he said that having read the book he realised there isn’t anything all that radical or crazy about the book, he then questioned my scholarship, which is a funny thing for a non-scholar to do. But that’s what happens when you are dealing with believers of a religion, is that rather than argue with the points of the book, you instead argue about the qualifications of the writer to have made those points.

AB: What would you ask Jesus?

RA: “Who do you think you are?” That’s really the ultimate question that scholars of the historical Jesus tackle.

AB: Just on evangelical atheists, I think some do overdo it. I think it’s highly unlikely there’s a deity, but as a fan of black soul music I respect the inspiration and belief powering that tradition. What would you say to Richard Dawkins if you met him?

RA: Probably nothing, in the same way that I don’t really say anything to any kind of fundamentalist. The problem with fundamentalists like Dawkins, whether you’re a Christian fundamentalist or an Atheist fundamentalist, is that you aren’t interested in the argument of the other, that your view of the other is not just as them being wrong, but them being stupid. Dawkins’s lack of sophistication when it comes to religion is shocking—shocking for a man who claims to be a scientist—and so I find it’s always best not to waste one’s breath with extremists of any kind. They’re better just ignored, to be frank.

AB: What would surprise people about you?

RA: Well, people think that I’m a bit of an extrovert because they see me on TV a lot, and I’m certainly comfortable giving talks in crowds, but my favourite thing to do is just be home with my kids and my wife. I love being alone. If I’m not with my kids and my wife, my second favourite thing to do is to just be by myself. In many ways, the requirement for a writer is being comfortable being alone.

Reza Aslan and Jessica Jackley are speaking at the Auckland Writers Festival and the Sydney Writers Festival. This conversation has been edited. Thanks to Emma Adams for transcription assistance on this article.
Alexander Bisley is attending the Sydney Writers Festival courtesy of Destination New South Wales and QANTAS.

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[1] I’m not going to criticise her for it. I get where she’s coming from. I think what’s important is that we scholars somewhat bear the blame for these kinds of reactions. I think in her case it wasn’t just that she espoused some anti-Muslim sentiment, it was also the fact that she couldn’t conceive of how someone could write about religion from an academic perspective, from a scholarly perspective; that the very notion boggled her mind. I thought, it’s not so much her fault as it is our fault. Academics, as I noted earlier, spend so much time talking amongst ourselves and not to the rest of the world, that we have created a situation whereby people do treat us with suspicion, and so I don’t blame her at all for that. I understand where that sentiment comes from.