Reza Aslan and the Pageantry of Belief

by Guy Walker

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by Guy Walker

Nothing has changed: humans are still deathly afraid of other tribes. They’re beasts that should be corralled and caged, every brown-skinned cretin identified with a cone of shame. Of course we are normal; it’s everyone else who has a funny accent, and believes in the wrong god, who should be feared. Before politics, before social structures and traditions, before we choose what we eat, how we fuck, what we wear, the world defines itself by which invisible puppeteer tugs on our strings. Everything else then falls into place.

Reza Aslan’s new show, Believer, seeks to help us better understand the myriad beliefs far unlike our own. At least, that’s what they say their show is about. The six-part CNN program describes itself as a “new spiritual adventure series,” as if it were a hit Indiana Jones and the Temple of Holy Friars television show, starring a cadre of hermetic monks and wild-eyed fire dancers who succeed in wielding our acceptance of other faiths. But Believer views more like an adolescent’s tour of a freak show, the audience gawking at what could be bearded ladies and midgets who swallow swords. It’s the most recent of many failed attempts to normalize fringe religious ideas in an era when other belief systems are widely feared and misunderstood. And the danger is, Aslan only escalates these misunderstandings.

Reza Aslan, the creative writing professor who finds any excuse to mention he has a PhD in religious studies, drew wide criticism for the series premiere in which he met with an Aghori guru, and took part in the Hindu sect’s practice of cannibalism. There was Aslan, cross-legged in the dirt on the banks of the Ganges, the ash of a cremated human smeared all over his face, eating human brain matter, proving to the world that this is what religious tolerance looks like. He later joked on his Facebook page: “Want to know what a dead guy’s brain tastes like? Charcoal . . . It was burnt to a crisp.” So here we are: watching soap commercials in between the episodic performance art of another man-eating cult, everything sensationalized with the cameras and gentle charm of the show’s host; yes, here we are, in the middle of a gruesome reality-show, all decency and reason abandoned like ash in the wind.

The Aghori man—scrawny, mostly naked, with a garland of bloody jawbones around his head—drank his own piss, and threw his feces at Aslan, because the Aghori abhor India’s caste system, and indulge in their perversions to prove how inconsequential the body actually is. This is a fascinating set of beliefs indeed, and they should be documented for those of us who are culturally intrigued to want to learn about them; but it’s not enough to simply document the practices of the Aghori—Aslan and CNN have to show us that he can eat brains too. This clearly isn’t tolerance; nor is it open-mindedness. It’s paparazzi spectacle, meant only to enhance the usually awful ratings of CNN. It creates a buzz, even if it’s a critical article like this one. Our tolerance of other beliefs opposed to (or at least different from) our own shouldn’t be participating in their practices, but rather in gathering a well-versed literacy of those belief systems, and equipping oneself for a most fruitful and lucid argument against archaism and barbarism.

Because barbarism is on the rise. The anti-immigrant reactions intensifying here in the West are as barbaric as they are ignorant. Earlier this month, a Sikh man was shot and hospitalized in Seattle, his shooter telling him to “go back to [his] own country.” Two weeks prior, another apparent hate crime killed a man of Indian decent in Kansas, the shooter also reportedly yelling “get out of my country” before firing in the busy bar. Believer—at least its episode on the Aghori—fuel the already dangerous ignorance spreading in the U.S. about brown people with strange accents. The xenophobic rhetoric most popularized under Trump’s command doesn’t marry well with Aslan’s sensationalistic illiteracy of other religions.

In its totality, Believer offers no deep understanding of cult behavior or the origins of such malfunctioned thinking. In the episode that follows the Aghori, Aslan asks a Hawaiian doomsday cult leader who calls himself JeZus, not why his ideas are so intellectually inept and poisonous, or what led him to want to corrupt the minds of others; rather, he asks him about his levels of stress to keep all his disciples in line. It feels like unqualified exposition because it is. It’s an old tactic used to entertain instead of inform. And in a way it’s understandable to see why: the overwhelming amount of entertainment shoved at us everyday requires the dying, more desperate networks to press antics of garish pageantry.

When seven billion people are simultaneously clamoring for attention, sanity and decency are never going to win. You’re going to have a stampede of fame-crazed zombies begging you to look at the goat cheese salad they had for lunch. Or they’ll croak their torpid witticism at you until you’re forced to take notice. Twitter is often little more than the defeated classes trying to be as outrageous as possible in 140 characters or less; every tweet is inscribed with the assumed precondition of vanity to get as many retweets as possible. There are asses on Instagram with more fanatic followers than all the standing armies in the world, every ass trying to be larger and juicier than the last, until implants go grotesquely awry. We’re in the middle of a global orgy, everyone trying to outperform the person next to them—if there’s a couple having sex normally, then three people are going to do a headstand and fuck in a human triangle, then a group of strangers will twirl upside down from a ceiling fan, naked, jerking off the person next to them. Anything to go viral for a second.

In this sense, mainstream media stations are in a bit of quandary—they have to keep their corporate monoliths relevant, hip, and edgy amid this lawless extravaganza of entertainment when any runny-nosed teenager with a smartphone can capture the attention of the entire world. It’s hard for CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, who has the charisma of a depressed ewok, to compete with figures like Gigi Gorgeous (who rose to fame giving makeup tutorials on Youtube as a teenage boy; and now, identifying as a woman, recently came out as a lesbian). The luster of celebrity far exceeds the procedural banality of talking heads. Something as bizarre and innocuous as the Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen song—a one minute song experiment combining the words “pen” and “apple,” performed by a man in gold snakeskin pajamas and a thin porno mustache—was still watched over 115 million times. So CNN is left there in the studio, cameras rolling, every news anchor screaming “Look at us! We have something important to say too!”

But they’re supposed to talk about politics, and their ratings are consistently some of the lowest amongst the major news stations, so they stick to awfully insipid topics like Trump’s tweet of the day: self-appointed specialists sit around in monkey suits analyzing the inflammatory content of his 3am outbursts. And they’re not aware of their own absurdity. This is clearly a dead end, and it’s why no one likes CNN.

So what do they do?

They hire Anthony Bourdain to travel the world and eat dumplings. Or Mike Rowe to jump out of airplanes. Or John Walsh to hunt criminals. And finally, Reza Aslan to eat brains.

This cannibal-clickbait works, of course, because the Aghori are far away in India. It allows us to distance ourselves from the idea of it, while also allowing many to reinforce their ideological hostilities against dark-skinned foreigners. If the Aghori were instead a group of white American cannibals, Aslan wouldn’t eat the brain matter even if it were legal. We’re tribal beasts, and eating our own would be unkosher.

There is a point where bad belief needs to be contested without any sensational thrill. What if Aslan came across an operative Warren Jeffs, former President of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FDLS), claiming 70 wives, and sexually abusing his own children? What about Jim Jones, leader of the Peoples Temple, and responsible for the massacre of 918 people, 304 of which were minors? What about Marshall Applewhite, who led the mass suicide of 39 members in order to get onboard a UFO? I trust Aslan and CNN wouldn’t show that he can do these things too.

We shouldn’t pretend to worship other people’s illusory demons; we shouldn’t agreeably nod our heads when others describe their favorite connect-the-dots stick figure traced in the stars. An educator’s role is to nudge us closer to truth. Everything else is just theater.


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