Reza Aslan Talks ‘Believer,’ ‘The Leftovers’ and Our Extreme Times

Believer Reza Aslan
Courtesy of CNN

Reza Aslan may be best known as the author of notable books about Islam as well as the best-seller “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” and he’s also in demand as a commentator on talk shows and cable news programs.

But Aslan has several other irons in the fire, including the new series “Believer,” which premieres 10 p.m. Sunday on CNN. In it, he immerses himself in several different religions in an attempt to understand the emotional truths at their cores.

That project, which he discusses below and in a recent podcast, is far from his only small-screen endeavor. He’s also working on an ABC comedy that he hopes will do for Muslims in America what “Will & Grace” did for LGBT men and women.

“‘Will & Grace’ did more to advance LGBT rights in this country than any lawmaker, than any politician, than any thought-leader did,” Aslan notes. “That’s the power of TV. You may not have ever met a gay or lesbian person in your life, but you get to see them on television.”

The comedy, which Aslan is working on with former “Friends” writer Andrew Reich, is still in the development stage, but it’s part of a number of efforts to demystify who American Muslims are. It’s certainly an important task in a time in which hate crimes and racial profiling are on the rise.

“There are 3 million Muslims in America,” says Aslan. “That’s less than 1 percent of the entire population, so chances are you don’t know a Muslim. There are 350 million [Americans], and it makes perfect sense to think that you could go your entire life in this country and never come face-to-face with another Muslim. So the only opportunity that you have is television.”

But Aslan is not ignoring the power of the Internet: He’s also involved in a Web series called the Secret Life of Muslims, in which American Muslims — some famous, some not — talk about their lives and faith.

“It’s a series that allows Muslims in the United States to speak for themselves,” Aslan says. “These last couple of decades, and certainly this last election cycle, we’ve heard a lot from people about who Muslims are, and what Muslims think, and what they believe. It’s very rare to actually hear them themselves. [I believe that] minds are changed through relationships, not through information. So getting to know these people, getting to know their stories, is I think a profound way of shifting the perception about this community in the United States.”

Given what a minefield talking about religion can be, it’d be understandable if TV storytellers veered away from the topic. But many have done the opposite, and no program has been more committed to exploring the pain and beauty of faith more than HBO’s “The Leftovers,” which returns April 16. Aslan has served as a consulting producer on the show, and though he was careful to avoid giving any spoilers on the final season, he said he thinks the show’s fans won’t be disappointed.

“For storytellers like [‘Leftovers’ executive producer] Damon Lindelof, who have figured out a creative way to talk about these universal sentiments without necessarily getting too bogged down in specific religious ideas, I think that the reward is going to be astonishing,” Aslan says. “I mean, that’s the reason why ‘Leftovers’ fans are so passionate about it. I have atheist friends who love that show. I have friends who are fundamentalists, evangelical, Bible-believing Christians, and ‘The Leftovers’ is their favorite show. It’s precisely [because it has] created a new set of metaphors, a new way of talking about faith that allows people to be drawn to it, regardless of how they themselves experience faith.”

In the new CNN series “Believer,” Aslan, who was born in Iran, immerses himself in various faiths, not as an observer, but as a participant in each group’s rituals and day-to-day lives. In the six-part series, Aslan lives with members of an ultra-Orthodox sect, with American Scientologists, with Hindu ascetics in India, with Vodou practioners in Haiti, and with a group in Hawaii that believes the apocalypse is nigh.

“I’m not a tour guide who’s going to point to people and say, ‘How interesting! Look at those people over there, and the things that they are doing.’ I rip off my clothes and I jump in with them,” Aslan says. “I’m fortunate in that, I tend to have a little bit of a name that people recognize. They know that I’m going to be somebody who is going to come to them without judgment, without an attempt to make fun of their beliefs. That I’m just there to experience and to understand. What was really surprising to me was how quickly these different religious communities did end up opening to me.”

Viewers should not expect the TV equivalent of a dry, introductory college course about each of these groups. “I sometimes joke that it’s a little bit like Anthony Bourdain’s [‘Parts Unknown’] but with faith instead of food,” says Aslan.

For Aslan, historical facts and explanatory descriptions can of course be useful when discussing matters of religion, but they’re only part of the way that people experience faith. There’s also a deep emotional component when it comes to religion, and that can lead to people reacting in extreme ways when they feel those core elements of themselves and their group are under threat.

“If it’s true that religion is first and foremost a matter of identity,” that might partially explain the roots of ferocious reactions to perceived threats, he notes. “If people feel as though they’re very sense of self is under siege by other people, by majorities in their communities, by a minority in their communities — [that can seem like] an existential threat. And that leads to extremism. Because it’s not my beliefs that are under siege, it’s who I am as a human being.”

And it’s those kinds of visceral beliefs that Aslan tries to explore in “Believer” and his other TV projects. 

“I could just keep writing books,” Aslan said. “But I feel like with TV, I can communicate these things in a way that I just can’t just by writing about them.”

For the entire conversation with Reza Aslan, check out this podcast.