The Left eats its own again: Reza Aslan becomes Witch of the Week for his new television series

March 7, 2017 • 9:00 am

Talk about Schadenfreude! As I’ve written recently, Reza Aslan is the host of a new six-part CNN show, “Believer,” billed as a “spiritual adventure journey.” It premiered Sunday, and though I didn’t see it (and won’t), it has been touted as showing that at bottom all faiths are the same. (Of course that’s nonsense.) Given Aslan’s history as the Religious Osculator in Chief, I’m pretty sure that no religion will receive the least amount of criticism. But that didn’t stop critics for calling him out for racism, colonialism, “Hinduphobia”, and other macroaggressions.

Aslan is a whitewasher of religion in general and Islam in particular, so you would think that he’d be beloved of the Regressive Left. But then you’d underestimate their capacity for outrage and purity tests. Aslan, apparently, just failed a purity test in the very first episode of “Believer”, at least judging by Vamsee Juluri, writing at that Arbiter of Moral Purity, HuffPo.  Juluri calls his piece “CNN’s ‘Believer’ is reckless, racist, and dangerously anti-immigrant“. Those are strong words, guaranteed to draw a vigorous exculpatory response from the thin-skinned Aslan. After all, it makes Aslan seem like Trump!

Further, Juluri’s judgment is based solely on the promo for the show, which you can see by clicking on the screenshot below:

What is Juluri’s beef with the show? The promo, he says, pushes a narrative of brown people obsessed with death and cremation at a time when all brown people, or at least Indians, should be portrayed positively. After all, there have been recent shootings of Hindus and Sikhs in America, and though Aslan couldn’t anticipate that, Juluri says that this episode shouldn’t be aired at “this fraught and sensitive time.” He also accuses CNN of perpetrating a racist view of Indians, and even accuses Aslan of portraying Indians as a “world menace.” Here are some direct quotes from the HuffPo piece:

  •  It is unbelievably callous and reckless of CNN to be pushing sensational and grotesque images of bearded brown men and their morbid and deathly religion at a time when the United States is living through a period of unprecedented concern and fear.
  • And, I am saddened to say, the host of the show, Reza Aslan too, who is about to do a complete U-turn from the important role he played to defuse Islamophobia in America in the painful years after 9/11 and in the heat of the Iraq war.

    For the last few days, CNN has been promoting an episode of Believer with the title “City of the Dead,” and showing footage of corpses being burnt on the banks of the River Ganga. The ghoulish promos appear on social media frequently, and what is ghoulish about them is not just the brazen voyeurism towards the deceased and their families, but the total destruction of the culture of piety and respect that surrounds funeral rites.

    The text in these promos spew total errors and lies as “facts,” misstating the meaning of the word “Ghats” (“a flight of stairs leading down to the river”) as “pyres,” depicting the whole city as a “giant crematorium,” and callously describing the poignant ceremony of loved ones immersing the ashes of those who have passed on into the sacred river as “dumping.” What sort of journalism is CNN doing? Or Reza, a renowned public commentator on religion and nice guy? And to whom on earth is the most sacred city of Hindus known as “city of the dead”? A c0mplete hoax. [JAC: I’ve visited Varanasi, and aside from the misused words, and the implication that ashes are “dumped” (bodies are dumped, since those are people too poor to afford cremation), it’s not too extreme to call this “a city of the dead.” After all, that’s the holy place where pious Indians go to die, and the city is indeed permeated with a culture of death, the roads lined with the old and sick awaiting their demise.]

  •  What promises to be even worse than the callous misrepresentation and dehumanization of a widely practiced tradition marking love to those who have gone is the episode’s planned focus on a fringe cult of extreme ascetics known as the aghoras. If the promos and reviews are any indication, American viewers from all over the land will be treated to a spectacle about bizarre, painted, ash-smeared, bearded men eating half-burnt corpses as a part of their spiritual practice.

    It is one saddening reality that despite having had immigrants in America for so many decades now, a major news channel like CNN still cannot do better than the old Indian [sic] Jones and the Temple of Doom sort of story when it comes to India. But what is even more callous is the fact that CNN and Reza Aslan seem oblivious to the kind of discomfort and even danger that images like this could create for South Asians, Sikhs, Muslims and other brown people in America.

  • Maybe there is some noble higher purpose that the show’s creators think they have in trying to highlight marginal religious groups and stoke liberal sensibilities and all that. But unfortunately, that is only a theoretical conceit. In truth, what CNN is perpetuating is a very racist, colonial era discourse of dehumanization and even demonization.

Aslan is hoist with his own petard! But seriously, although I hate to defend his unctuous behavior, this accusation is over the top. I seriously doubt that this PROMO will lead to the demonization of “brown people in America.” But it still amuses me that, try as he might, Aslan can’t satisfy some of his leftist critics.

I was also interested to see that, contrary to my expectations, the show has not been favorably reviewed by mainstream media. The L.A.Times, for instance, called its review “CNN’s ‘Believer with Reza Aslan’ could use a little more enlightenment itself.” Noting that the show is aimed at dispelling misconceptions about minority religious sects (e.g., the Aghori of India, Haiti’s Voodo “faith,” a Hawaiian doomsday cult), the Times finds the presentation far too sensationalistic:

But “Believer” doesn’t offer as much enlightenment as its title and premise might suggest. The main problem here is that some of the chosen believers in the first few episodes are ultimately unbelievable.

Many of the groups and leaders featured here are so fringe that their bizarre philosophies and theatrics distract from Aslan’s main mission — to demystify lesser understood faiths and find a commonality that makes us all believers in something.

. . . As a host, Aslan is charismatic. But in order to make “Believer” more believable, the show needs to stop trying to shock and, like [Anthony] Bourdain does with his series, find the extraordinary in the most ordinary of people and moments.

Well, it’s too late for that, for all the episodes are already in the can. And it’s even grosser than the Times noted, for the Washington Post reports that Aslan ate human brain tissue in Varanasi, and then had poo flung at him! That caused him to be excoriated for “Hinduphobia”. The Post‘s excerpt is amusing, implying that Aslan is more after shock value more than religious osculation:

Religion scholar Reza Aslan ate cooked human brain tissue with a group of cannibals in India during Sunday’s premiere of the new CNN show “Believer,” a documentary series about spirituality around the globe.

The outcry was immediate. Aslan, a Muslim who teaches creative writing at the University of California at Riverside, was accused of “Hinduphobia” and of mischaracterizing Hindus.

“With multiple reports of hate-fueled attacks against people of Indian origin from across the U.S., the show characterizes Hinduism as cannibalistic, which is a bizarre way of looking at the third largest religion in the world,” lobbyist group U.S. India Political Action Committees said in a statement, according to the Times of India.

In the episode, Aslan meets up with a sect of Indian religious nomads outside the city of Varanasi in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. The Aghori, as they are known, reject the Hindu caste system and the notion of untouchables, and espouse that the distinction between purity and pollution is essentially meaningless. In the Aghori view, nothing can taint the human body, Aslan said.

“Kind of a profound thought. Also: A little bit gross,” said Aslan, whose bestselling books on religion include “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.”

The Aghori persuade Aslan to bathe in the Ganges, a river that Hindus considers sacred. An Aghori guru smears the ashes of cremated humans on his face. And, at the Aghori’s invitation, Aslan drinks alcohol from a human skull and eats what was purported to be a bit of human brain.

“Want to know what a dead guy’s brain tastes like? Charcoal,” Aslan wrote on Facebook. “It was burnt to a crisp!”

It’s a good thing this wasn’t in New Guinea, where Aslan could risk getting kuru from eating human brains. The Post continues:

At one point, the interview soured and one cannibal threatened Aslan: “I will cut off your head if you keep talking so much.” Aslan, in turn, said to his director, “I feel like this may have been a mistake.”

And when the guru began to eat his own waste and hurl it at Aslan and his camera crew, the CNN host scurried away.

“Pretty sure that was not the Aghori I was looking for,” he said.

The fact is that not all religious sects are lovable, and I guess Aslan found a few that don’t appeal to the liberal believers of America.

Photo from the LA Times

h/t: Grania

55 thoughts on “The Left eats its own again: Reza Aslan becomes Witch of the Week for his new television series

    1. This is an irresponsible program. He portrays scientology as a misunderstood religion when in fact it is an abusive cult. This criminal organization is getting the publicity it deserves and people are being warned about its many abusive practice including covering up rape allegations, breaking child labor laws and human trafficking . Portraying it as just another wacky religion is wrong and potenially harmful as well as dishonest. I have lost my respect for CNN

      1. This is truly insane given how widely discredited the beliefs of Scientology are now and how well known the abusive behavior of church members with any power is.

      2. You do realize you could say virtually the same thing about at least two of the world’s mayor religions: Christianity (Catholicism) and Islam.

    2. This is an irresponsible program. He portrays scientology as a misunderstood religion when in fact it is an abusive cult. This criminal organization is getting the publicity it deserves and people are being warned about its many abusive practice including covering up rape allegations, breaking child labor laws and human trafficking . Portraying it as just another wacky religion is wrong and potenially harmful as well as dishonest. I have lost my respect for CNN

  1. Pleasant. Charred human brain. I almost hurled my Skittles this morning.

    Sounds like a delightful investigation into the arbitrary nature in which people will transform their lives by whatever justifications they inherited from dogma + their own sense of commitment to be the best believer in the world.

    I predict it will not make any religion look good.

    1. Which is actually wonderful, isn’t it? Might convince some fence-sitters that it’s all (sometimes ghastly) bunk that divides people vastly more than unites them.

    2. I had a similar thought that a good look at some of the more fringy religions will throw some shade on the equally silly mainstream religions. Eating some human brain is not that different from symbolically eating some of the body of your holy savior and drinking some of his blood.

      1. If you truly believe what your Father is telling you, that it actually, for reals becomes the flesh and blood, then it is exactly the same. Maybe worse because its raw. Properly prepared sushi? I’m in. Raw human flesh and blood? I’ll pass!

        Of course the really real difference here is that Aslan ate actual human brains while Catholics eat shitty crackers and cheap watered down wine. I doubt very many Catholics really, really believe the cracker and the wine is turned into actual Jesus parts.

        But damn, eating your god’s flesh and drinking his blood? That is the creepiest thing about Christianity and may be the creepiest thing about religion in general. Aztecs cutting out hearts by the dozen? That’s like a cheap dime store magazine horror story by an author too embarrassed to use his real name compared to H.P. Lovecraft.

      2. I disagree. The symbolic eating will not give you prions. Your comment made me think that much of civilization is about replacing real things with symbolic ones.

    3. “Charred human brain.”

      Sure this was Reza Aslan? And not, like, Andrew Zimmern?


      1. Picture this show as done by Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain: Zimmern enjoying a bit of charred brain while Bourdain sips alcohol from a skull.

  2. Well, who knows, perhaps viewing the total irrationality of religions other than one’s own, just might make one realise that one’s own religious beliefs are pretty damn absurd….

    But I doubt it.

  3. I hate to admit it, but Aslan actually sounds pretty level-headed in the promo. One thing I’ve become aware of, especially since the election, is that “FACTS” are anathema to the “alt-left”, as WELL as the “alr-right”.

    1. , is that “FACTS” are anathema to the “alt-left”, as WELL as the “alr-right”.

      from Quillette, by Sumantra Maitra, who is rapidly becoming one of my favourite writers:

      It behooves us to remember that throughout 20th century, we saw authoritarianism target academia first. Free exchange of ideas is the greatest enemy of totalitarian and unscientific ideological claims, and free exchange is therefore opposed by ultra-left as well as ultra-right.

  4. “it has been touted as showing that at bottom all faiths are the same. (Of course that’s nonsense.)”

    I’d say the religions – equally called “faiths” – are, as PCC(E) suggests, all different. Like Sam Harris said, it’s like the word “sports”, or I’d say more accurately “music”, because there’s some notion that religion is like music – we can all “listen” and find some we enjoy, leaving the rest alone.

    But, unless I’m mistaken, PCC(E) has made the case that the thing called faith IS identical across all religions.

    1. Referring to religion as “faiths” is really IMO a projection from Western European Protestantism. Because in classical Protestantism, faith is THE pivotal virtue upon which one’s whole religious practice and identity hinges. This is less true in other religions.
      Certainly, other religions advocate faith, but they don’t make it the foundational principle of their entire existence.

      1. I didn’t know that about Protestants.

        But faith is the common denominator. Remove it, and what is left?

  5. One might almost think that Reza Aslan is showing minority religions in their worse possible light (i.e. just right) in order to dismiss them all as crazy.

    The Jinn of Islam, he perhaps hopes, will seem positively enlightened.

    Aslan has slipped up here. Here’s a show that he’d ace at snearing at in endless CNN interviews had it been produced by a New Atheist … but sadly it’s his own show, on CNN.

    1. Or, “[o]ne might almost think that Reza Aslan is showing minority religions in their worse possible light (i.e. just right) in order to” garner the highest ratings possible.

    2. I suspect Aslan is showing extreme minority versions of religion in order to make the opposite point” aren’t they all wonderful? Not that different. Loved it all!

      That episode comes later.

    1. And when the guru began to eat his own waste and hurl it at Aslan and his camera crew, the CNN host scurried away.

      Ok, now I HAVE to watch it.

      1. Regrettably, the camera crew were probably scurrying as well, and even if they got it on video, that bit will probably get cut…


        1. Oops, I see from Heather’s post below that I was quite wrong in that supposition.


  6. I watched this show. It wasn’t like they’re portraying it imo. Despite my personal antipathy towards Aslan himself, I found the show interesting and thought he did a good job. I even sort of liked him, which is hard to admit.

    In the second or third sentence he spoke in the introduction he said something about how badly Islam treats women, which was a completely accurate characterization and also shocked me given whose mouth the words were coming out of.

    The first part of the show is accurately described. And when the guru started pissing into his hand and drinking it and throwing it at Aslan, I would have thought running away was a perfectly normal response. And Aslan wanted to leave earlier and the producer made him stay – he was the one looking for sensationalism.

    However, Aslan then found other Aghori who were doing wonderful work. Most of the second half of the show was about Aghori who reject the caste system but don’t do all the weird stuff. There were Brahmin running a school for Dalit, giving them opportunities they would never otherwise have. Girls and boys were also taught side by side as equals.

    In the first part of the show there was a profile of one of the men who tended the funeral pyres. He was illiterate and never had the opportunity to do anything but follow his father into the same job, which he’ll do 18 hours a day until his body gives up. And because he spends his life handling dead bodies, he’ll never make it up to a higher caste in their belief system.

    Anyway, the show ended on a positive note showing Indians working to get rid of the caste system, which though illegal still operates.

    Why we should have to white wash the facts just because some of the perpetrators are brown is beyond me,

    1. I agree with you assessment, it is hard to admit that it wasn’t horrible.

      I still think that the premiss of the show is as incorrect as incorrect can be.

    2. Interesting assessment!

      Morarji Desai, PM of India in the late 1970s used to drink his own urine. So at least India is one up on the US for idiotic behavior of a leader.

      1. Quite a lot of people have done, over the years, apparently.

        But I’d put it down to a personal quirk and not of great significance to anyone but himself, unlike, sadly, the current Dear (Orange) Leader’s spasms.


  7. You know what Reza? Sell the kettle; get cooked in it.

    You’ve been outright lying and engagin in apologetics for Islam for as long as I remember. These are the allies you chose.

  8. Watching CNN is done best in small bits. Fareed Zakarie GPS is probably their best product but the straight hours of news coverage is there also. Why they get into this type of original programing – Believer or Finding Jesus is very strange. They should spend their time and money on Journalism and stop the entertainment crap. Their reputation goes out the window when they attempt to compete with the likes of Fox.

  9. The Ganges is horribly polluted at Varanasi. And people do just get dumped in the river there, as well as being cremated at one (?) of the ghats.

    The river is used to wash, to clean one’s teeth and as a toilet.

    Interesting town, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

  10. You mean the media did a sensationalist treatment of offbeat cults, seemingly designed more to attract viewers than to educate? Who’d a thunk it?

    Next you’ll be telling me those alien autopsy shows on Discovery channel aren’t actual discoveries.

    I certainly agree with JAC and others that the far left seems to be obsessed with grievance and finding a reason to be affronted where none legitimately exsists. OTOH, it sounds like Mr. (Dr.?) Aslan was a bit of a sellout here. The more standard, mundane sort of media sellout who puts show ratings ahead of show quality, but a sellout nonetheless.

  11. Aslan gets hoisted on his own petard. I wasn’t planning on watching the show but now I think I must. Nothing says ratings like feces eating.

  12. Juluri at Huff Po:

    “If the promos and reviews are any indication, American viewers from all over the land will be treated to a spectacle about bizarre, painted, ash-smeared, bearded men eating half-burnt corpses as a part of their spiritual practice.”

    Oh, my my, Memsahib. Are these particular brown natives here just too, too disgusting and uncivilized for you and the Colonel? Are their customs too backwards? Are they making an incomprehensible and outlandish spectacle of themselves? Positively sensational — and not to be borne.

    I mean, really. Marginalized groups are marginalized for a reason, my dear. Good thing there are cultured upperclass white writers on the Huffington Post willing to drop a few strategic hints on propriety to poor Mr. Aslan. It’s a difficult job, to be sure, but noblesse oblige.

  13. Could it not be that Aslan is going through a kind of ‘coming of age’ stage? Would not even be surprised if he ends up atheist.

    1. I wouldn’t be surprised if he has been an atheist for years. Though he probably is not. But it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if his accommodationist career track was calculated for fame and fortune rather than truly representative of his beliefs. After all he is an expert in creative writing. (just to clarify, that last is an attempt at a joke)

  14. “Pretty sure that was not the Aghori I was looking for,” he said.

    But of course. Aslan can always rely on his No True Religion™ cop out – he did not indulge in Hinduphobia. Silly Ethnicity/Regressive Leftist!

  15. Very few liberals object to negative portrayals of Scientology. (I knew a few Unitarians who did but that was 20 years ago.)

    I hope that’s due to its noxious qualities being too plainly obvious and its lack of any redeeming features whatsoever, rather than due to it being invented by a white male low-quality science-fiction writer.

  16. Good post, good comments, and now I see a pun with the post title: Aslan eats brain parts of an unidentified person, and is then eaten, brain and all, by the Ctrl-Left.

  17. I like the new term “Hinduphobia”. When we keep the pace, we’ll enjoy “Christophobia” in a few years. Aren’t they already persecuted in the US, and practically fed to lions — this poor minority. After all, they are microaggressed all the time with such vile greetings as “happy holidays”. In ten years, there’ll be New New Atheism dealing with accusations of strident “religiophobia”, that assumes all the other phobias. Luckily, these terms are losing their edge quickly. The more of them, the merrier.

  18. While I support Aslan’s right to freedom of speech, I must add that the trailer just reeks of professional incompetence.

    Exhibit one is CNN’s claim that Varanasi “is known as City of the Dead”. This is a claim about the state of the world, and it is just patently false. I have lived in India all my life and have never heard of Varanasi being referred to as “City of the Dead”: this is an epithet that CNN or its advertising team just invented out of thin air. Though I salute the fertile imagination that is required to view one of India’s most densely populated cities at a “City of The Dead” (one Indian journalist said that he was eagerly waiting for Aslan’s show on that famous “City of the Living”, Pompeii).

    As the post above says, one might conceivably call Varanasi that given the importance people give to scattering the ashes of loved ones there. But it remains a fact that Varanasi is not popularly known as such, and hence CNN’s claims is just false sensationalism.

    Exhibit two is even more egregious, since it appears as an “explanation” in the trailer: this is the issue of “घाट (ghaat)” being translated as “pyre”. This is a category error as absurd as translating “garden” as “grave”, on the theory that one finds flowering shrubs in graveyards. A team trying to make a film on Varanasi while displaying such a poor grasp of Hindi would be about as credible as a team trying to make a film on New York while believing that sky-scrapers are brooms for cleaning the sky.

  19. How does a committed Muslim, the first article of whose faith is abhorrence of polytheism, get to make a documentary on it? The very intellectuall average Reza Aslan can say what he likes, but should preface it by warning viewers of his sectarian beliefs. As for the grievance culture, one might allow a committed Hindu to make a film on the Prophet’s profound views on women. And their fate since his inviolable thoughts were allegedly dictated to him by the Archangel Gabriel, including the imperative of sleeping with his daughter-in-law. The supposedly sane scholar Reza subscribes to all this arrant nonsense as a believer, right?! Much more interesting than mere cannobalism since that is passe?!

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