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Q&A: Reza Aslan’s ‘Believer’ Goes Inside Ultra-Orthodox World

In the last episode of his new CNN series, “Believer,” Reza Aslan goes dancing with the Na Nachs, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish group known for its impromptu techno street parties.

Aslan, a scholar of religion and an Iranian-born American Muslim, finds a lot to admire in this marginal Jewish sect that seem to accept him as their own — at least for an afternoon. The Na Nach’s message of happiness as a spiritual mandate is a takeaway that seduces even some skeptics of Orthodox religion.

Reza Aslan at the Western Wall. Image by CNN

“Believer,” a six-episode series that debuted on March 5, is reality TV meets religion class. The viewer follows Aslan through five countries as he tries to find the universal in some of the most misunderstood religious practices. Aslan visits the Aghoris of India; a Hindu sect that subverts the caste system through extreme rituals; a doomsday cult in Hawaii; American Scientologists; adherents of the Santa Muerte folk religion in Mexico, and the ultra-Orthodox in Israel. In Jerusalem, Aslan sees parallels to his native Iran as the ultra-Orthodox in government seek to transform the secular state into a religious one.

In many ways, “Believer” speaks to the current political moment as Aslan hopes to demystify these religions, showing American viewers that they have more in common with their adherents than they would think. Yet Aslan has already received blowback for the first episode, which depicts an Aghori eating human flesh and flinging urine. University of San Francisco professor Vamsee Juluri wrote in The Huffington Post that CNN was “reckless” in its choice to depict Indians as “sensational and grotesque” at a time when Hindus in America are facing violence.

In an email to the Forward, Aslan defended the show, saying he made it clear that the Ahgori are “not representative of Hinduism but are instead an extreme Hindu sect who reject the fundamental Hindu distinction between purity and pollution.” He also met with a representative of the Hindu American Foundation who both criticized and admired the episode in a subsequent article.

The Forward’s Naomi Zeveloff spoke with Aslan by phone about his inspiration for “Believer,” what he learned from embedding himself with the ultra-Orthodox in Israel, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in Trump’s America — and his Hebrew tattoo.

Naomi Zeveloff: Some of the groups that you profile in “Believer” are extreme. Why focus on these groups instead of more mainstream religions?

Reza Aslan: I would not describe these groups as extreme or radical, but I would describe them as faith communities that are on the fringe of society. Whether you are talking about the ultra-Orthodox in Israel or Scientologists in the United States or Santa Muerte adherents in Mexico, these are people who face an enormous amount of misunderstanding and even fear, and in some cases even violence. I did that on purpose. Most people who watch the show are going to feel, at least at first, that they have nothing in common with the religious groups that are profiled. But my hope, my goal, is that as you watch me immerse myself in these communities to become part of them, you start to recognize that they aren’t as weird or as scary as you thought they were.

That seems like a message for our time.

Definitely. I mean look at what is happening right now, not just in the U.S. but in Israel. Israel has had a far longer experience in this than the U.S., people who are essentially using fear of the other to gain political power and political control. If there is any time that a show like this could be valuable it is now, because the entire point of the show is to train you to start thinking differently about people you see as other, to start recognizing the common humanity that we have.

In the series, you take on the religious practices of the groups you profile. As a Muslim, did you worry about compromising your beliefs in order to gain access?

When you spend your life studying the religions of the world, it becomes impossible to take the exclusive claims to truth that any one of those religions puts forth all that seriously. So for me, my faith experience, my spirituality, while rooted in the values and the mores and myths and metaphors of Islam, is not defined by Islam. I believe that there is a difference between religion and faith. Religion is nothing more than the language we use to express faith. I think of myself in many ways as a language interpreter. My job is to tell people of different religions what each of them actually means when they speak in religious terms, and to hopefully explain to them how underneath the different languages, underneath the different symbols and metaphors, the emotion that is being expressed is quite similar. And so there was never any hesitation even for a moment. Even in those moments that I was most uncomfortable and out of my element… I never told myself that I was violating my core beliefs.

How did you make inroads into the highly insular ultra-Orthodox world in Israel?

I always joke about how this is a community that doesn’t even like other Jews and here I am as a Muslim from Iran saying, “Hey can I join you?” It was not easy. It took awhile for them to realize that I was there to understand, that I wasn’t there to judge or make any sort of value statements. I was going to be honest with what I experienced, and if I experienced things that were uncomfortable for me or difficult for me to wrap my mind around then I was going to be very honest about those, but I wasn’t there to mock or to judge.

What insights did you glean from your time with the ultra-Orthodox?

I have to be honest with you, it was a very personal experience for me. I was born in a country that really struggled with this same conflict among its citizens between whether we should be a secular state or a religious state. And in my case that argument turned out disastrously wrong. In my case the religious groups won the argument and they transformed Iran into this kind of authoritarian theocratic state which has been disastrous for the country, for the people and for the world. I have to be perfectly honest that listening to some of these politicians, some of these business leaders or community leaders speak about how they envisioned the State of Israel as a religious state, how their loyalty was not so much to the secular State of Israel as it was to the biblical Land of Israel, I mean I was having flashbacks. I’m not saying that Israel is about to become Iran, please don’t misunderstand me. What I am saying is these kinds of conversations need to be taken seriously by outsiders.

What was the universal message you found in spending time with ultra-Orthodox Jews, a group that rejects universality?

What I find true and universal and beautiful about this community is the way in which they want to put their faith into practice in their families, in their communities and in the world around them. We may disagree with their politics, we may disagree with their social views, but I think it’s worth recognizing the way in which their belief system is not just about internal things. They want to improve the world; they want to express those views in the world. It is a sentiment that most people of faith, regardless of what that faith, is would share in common.

Reza Aslan walks through Jerusalem with Shalom, an ultra-Orthodox Jew. Image by CNN

Let’s talk about American Jewry. Trump counts right-wing Zionists in his inner circle, but we’ve also seen an uptick in anti-Semitism since Trump took office. How do you explain this?

Because these are the people who are in power right now. What we have is a White House full of anti-Semites, of open, confident, explicit anti-Semites, and that includes the president. You can’t just keep saying, “I can’t be an anti-Semite because my daughter is a Jew.” That’s not how it works. Let me be clear about this: This isn’t just random anti-Semitism. This is anti-Semitism emboldened by and in the name of the president of the United States, and his milquetoast response is as good as condoning these acts.

This is a White House that believes that it is engaged in some kind of grand existential cosmic battle with Islam. So what this has done is create this incredible unified response between Muslims and Jews in the United States. These two groups have faced almost identical levels of marginalization, of hatred and violence in this country… and yet over the last few decades they have not managed to figure out a way to come together to unify in common cause precisely because of issues of foreign policy and Israel and all of that stuff. What has happened now is that those ideological policy disputes seem no longer to matter when faced with an existential crisis of this magnitude.

When you have my good friend Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, saying that if there is a Muslim registry he will be the first to sign up for it, when you have American Muslims raising more than $100,000 to fix damage and desecration to a Jewish cemetery, what you are seeing is precisely what I am most excited about in Trump’s America, and that is the way in which his bigotry, his xenophobia and his misogyny has activated citizens, has forced them to put aside their petty differences and unite in a common cause to define the very meaning of this country in the 21st century.

How do you square the anti-Semitism in America with Trump’s full-throated support of Israel?

What you call “full-throated support of Israel” for the president is nothing more than his own cynical ploy. This is a man who doesn’t know anything about what is happening in Israel. This is a man who throws out words like “two states, one state, whatever,” like an absolute ignoramus not realizing that he is playing fast and loose with what has been a violent, bloody even existential conflict over the meaning of Israel and the identity of Palestinians. He talks about it like he is ordering dinner. “Ah, salad, soup whatever.” This is a man who has no formed opinions of his own and who is easily manipulated by the last person who talks to him.

Unfortunately I think that [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] is going to win the day because Bibi offers Trump something that the sober-minded and moderate voices do not, and that is an easy defense against the charges of anti-Semitism. “How could I be anti-Semitic when Bibi loves me?” Bibi is going to force Trump into giving him everything he wants to the detriment of Israel and America and in return he is going to give him cover for these charges against anti-Semitism. It is a disastrous combination.

What about American Muslims? What is the way forward for this community under the Trump administration?

I think what is very important right now for the American Muslim community is to be American. I understand the sentiment of any marginalized community to look inward to start fighting for their own rights, their own freedoms and privileges when they are under attack. But it is not just Muslims who are under attack right now, it is Jews, it is immigrants, it is transgender children and black people and poor people and LGBT people and Mexicans. What has always defined America is the ability of marginalized groups to stand up for other marginalized groups.

There is something Muslims can learn from the Jewish immigrant experience. Although Jews have faced profound anti-Semitism in the United States and although they have done a very good job of creating institutions to push back against that hatred and bigotry, they have also been at the forefront of standing up for other peoples’ rights, whether it is the civil rights movement or the women’s movement or the anti-war movement or the LGBT movement. In this new generation of Muslims, this second generation of Muslims, you are seeing individuals say that, yeah, Muslim rights are important but so is homelessness and immigrants’ rights and poverty alleviation and all the other things we have in common. The more that Muslims in the U.S. take on other peoples’ fights, the more other people will take on our fight.

You have a Hebrew tattoo of the word “hillel.” What’s the story behind that?

I got it when I was 22, or 23. The word “hillel,” of course, in modern Hebrew means “praise.” But in its original biblical meaning it didn’t mean “praise,” it meant “awe.” I’m going to get a little academic here. The idea is when Israelites came into the Land of Canaan rather than tear down the high altars that the Canaanites used in order to express their spirituality, the idea being that God or the gods were literally up in the sky and if you wanted to reach them you, too, had to get as high as you possible, [they left the altars in place]. The reason that [the Israelites] did it is not that they thought that God was physically high, but because the experience was aweful, it created a sense of awe. And the word for that is “hillel.” I am someone who has always really rejoiced in the experience of awe. My spirituality comes from my family but secondarily it comes from my encounter with the world and with nature. I am easily in awe of the world and of its glories and its mysteries and so I wanted to reflect that. So I got the tattoo.

I’m routinely strip-searched when I leave Ben Gurion Airport [in Israel]. There is always that really funny movement when I take off my shirt and the officer looks at my arm and is like: “Wait, what? Why do you have Hebrew on your arm? Are you a Jew?” [I say,] “No I’m not a Jew. Continue with the strip-search.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Contact Naomi Zeveloff at [email protected] or on Twitter, @NaomiZeveloff

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