Straight Talk about Religion: Reza Aslan Peddles False Wares to Influential Dupes

Straight Talk about Religion: Reza Aslan Peddles False Wares to Influential Dupes

Jeffrey Tayler
Jeffrey Tayler
13 min read

“I’m not a Muslim because I think Islam is more right” (than other religions), the media personality and scholar of religions Reza Aslan told Oprah on a recent episode of Super Soul Sunday, her television channel’s weekly spiritual chat show.  “It’s not.  I don’t think Islam is more true.  It’s not.”

Why, then, does he call himself a Muslim?

[F]or me, it’s about recognizing that the language of Islam, the language that it uses, the symbols and metaphors that it uses to define the relationship between human beings and God — that language appeals to me in a way that other languages do not.
Oprah & Aslan

By “languages” Aslan meant religions, he pointed out.  He also fessed up to not praying five times a day. A “profession of faith” such as Aslan’s — that Islam is just one “language” of many, neither necessarily more nor less valid than any other — has nothing in common with the message of the Shahada, the unmistakably clear, concise declaration of monotheism that is the first of five “pillars” (acts incumbent upon believers) of Islam: “I testify that there is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” (Ritualistic prayer five times a day is the second pillar). Yet Aslan went on to redefine the Shahada for Oprah, telling her that it is:

[N]ot a statement of monotheism, although most people think it is.  It’s a statement about the definition of God, it’s that God is in and of Himself one-ness.  That means God cannot be divided.

“So, God is all things,” answered Oprah, waving her arms slowly and expansively.

“God is,” said Aslan.

“God is, period,” intoned Oprah gravely.  “Capital I, capital S.”

The above exchange presents us with a hodgepodge of nebulous fatuities and outright falsehoods that might, to some, seem harmless.  After all, does anyone really tune in to Oprah for penetrating discourse on religion?

Yet such blather, composed almost entirely of gauzy, misleading tropes, does damage to the dialogue about religion, and specifically Islam, we so urgently need to have if we hope to safeguard ourselves from terrorist violence and protect our freedom of speech from theocrats, their apologists, and their (often unwitting) enablers.  If gullible viewers accept what Aslan says as holding for a majority of Muslims, they will come away puzzled as to how anyone could commit violence in Islam’s name.  In fact, they might just be tempted to think (as President Obama has stated) that “extremists” really are practicing a perversion of Islam in, say, ISIS land, and that ISIS, therefore, “is not Islamic.”

The line Aslan is selling us — that Islam consists not of propositions (conveyed through the Quran) regarding the origins and future of the universe and our species, accompanied by instructions to all of us about how to behave, but of ethereal, infinitely malleable abstractions — “symbols” and “metaphors” and such — may pass as credible on a talk show.  Yet among those for whom the faith retains its genuine, primordial characteristics as a divinely inspired blueprint for control and exploitation, backed by a harsh apparatus of enforcement — it would sound blasphemous, and would surely earn its telegenic peddler a caning — or worse.  Aslan is free to espouse whatever sort of Islam he chooses, obviously, but we should not confuse his fanciful version of it with reality.

Aslan, when not teaching creative writing at the University of California at Riverside, authoring books about religion, or producing television shows, has for years served as a media go-to person for Islam.  He can be relied upon to exculpate his faith when called on to opine about the latest Islamist atrocity, deflect attention from its violence-inducing doctrines of jihad and martyrdom, and propound a postmodernist interpretation of the religion according to which all blame attaches to miscreant individuals and what potentially perverse propensities they bring to their “scriptures,” plus various other societal factors, and none to the content of those scriptures.

There is a market for this.  Many, especially in the media, wish to avoid confronting the dilemmas we face in dealing forthrightly with Islam and Islamist terrorism.  A good number have fallen for the semantic trap noun “Islamophobia,” which equates criticism of Islam with bigotry against Muslims as people and which plays off the nonwhite skin color of a majority of its adherents.  Moreover, we all know that danger menaces those who speak out against Islam, leave the faith, or even draw cartoons about it.  For on-air interviews, then, best to avoid inviting guests who might talk too frankly about Islam and suggest that possibly, just possibly, the problem stems from the texts revered by 1.6 billion Muslims the world over.  A general reluctance to criticize religion of all sorts doesn’t aid dialogue either.

Aslan’s media appearances have been many, and he has been convincingly rebutted.  His latest book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, has drawn fire as a work of pop culture, not scholarship — no surprise given that he “does not hold either a doctorate or a teaching position in the academic study of religion.”  (It hardly helps that there’s little reason to think Jesus even existed).

Yet his interview on Oprah’s show cries out for critique, if only because his words on Islam help further the prevalent misconception that it is harmless, and maybe even laudable, to accept the veracity of, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, propositions about reality and definitions of proper human behavior laid out in ancient and medieval texts.  Or, put another way, to profess one of the three Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.

Back to Super Soul Sunday.  When Aslan then informs Oprah that “symbols and metaphors . . . define the relationship between human beings and God” he is begging the question, assuming that we already accept the existence of a supernatural being (as he can expect the famously pious Oprah to do), but which has been a matter at least thought worthy of argument, even among theologians of yore.  Lest we forget, the validity of the entire Abrahamic enterprise rests on God’s factual existence, if for no other reason than He had to exist to issue the “revelations” providing the sole basis for regarding the Tanakh, the Bible, and the Quran as anything more than oversize compendia of lurid, often cruel fairy tales, and not the inerrant, irrevocable Word of God.  Absent divine authorship, these tomes would merit no more respect than The Epic of Gilgamesh (from which the Flood legend surely derives) and certainly less esteem than, say, Homer’s magnificent, far more imaginative oeuvre.

Note: if there can be no relationship between humans and an imaginary celestial despot, there can, however, exist delusion.  One who believes without evidence may well believe anything, even ludicrous absurdities — say, human parthenogenesis, flying horses, blabbering donkeys, and demonic pigs — that, were they not sheltering under the ennobling rubric of religion, would otherwise incite peals of laughter and howls of derision from sane inhabitants of the modern world.

This is a problem.  The right to practice (and speak freely about) the faith of one’s preference is, of course, a fundamental achievement of the Enlightenment. But in the United States, well-funded Evangelicals vote as a bloc and have influenced education and legislation concerning abortion, same-sex marriage, and the right to die with dignity.  The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia found nothing untoward in musing about possessed pigs to New York Magazine, which should have set us wondering about just how clear-headed his legal reasoning was as he adjudicated so many landmark cases.

Europe is affected, too, of course.  In the United Kingdom, for instance, Sharia courts now imperil the rights of Muslim women and children residents.  None of this would be possible were secularists not according religion a deference it manifestly does not deserve.

And what of Islam in particular?  What of those who cite divine sanction for slicing off their daughters’ clitorises? (Even in the United States, more than a half-million women and girls are now at risk of genital mutilation).  For beating their wives?  For stoning or hurling gays from rooftops?  Untoward respect for Islam de facto abets mutilators, abusive misogynists, and the murderers of LGBT people.  Faith is often much more than a mere matter of conscience: it has victims. Aslan and Oprah may practice their religions without harming others, but the same cannot be said for all, as any glance at the headlines these days will attest.

A shrewd operator, Aslan demonstrates that nonbelievers and skeptics have left their mark on him.  He next tells Oprah that:

[W]hat I always say to people is that there is no proof for the existence or the non-existence of God.  Faith is a choice.  But it’s not an irrational choice.  That it’s actually quite rational and reasonable when confronted with reality and the world and life itself.

The rapidly expanding sector of wised-up Americans would beg to differ, as would citizens of nine of the most peaceable, developed countries, where religion is destined to become extinct.  Easy access to information (via the Internet) combined with science’s growing ability to explain away once-unfathomable mysteries are, day by day, shoring up the case for a worldview based on evidence, not superstitious dogma.  Reverence for ancient texts, composed before people knew what germs were or that the Earth revolves around the sun — now that’s irrational.

We have religion in our DNA, Aslan goes on  to tell Oprah, with primates as far back as Neanderthals having intuited that there is something beyond the material to our existence, and it’s up to us to find it:

[T]he how is a personal choice that is really up to each individual . . . .It’s not about needing proof.  There is no proof in the sense of what we would refer to as scientific proof.  It’s just a decision. . . . It’s in our DNA.  We are homo religioso.

Translation: the existence of evidence for the most contentious assertions imaginable about our world and how we are to live does not matter.  Cave men believed in the supernatural, therefore our species deserves a binomial nomenclature in ungrammatical Latin.  (Religiosus would be correct).

“So many wars,” says Oprah, adopting Aslan’s terminology, “have been fought over this very subject, because people believe their language is the only language.  You’re saying, actually, that it’s more about our identity.”

Aslan dispenses with Oprah’s allusion to Islamist violence with a staple from his rhetorical repertoire: “When you say ‘I am Christian, I am a Jew, I am Muslim, I am a Hindu, you’re making an identity statement much more than a statement about beliefs.  That’s true around the world.”

An identity deriving from Christianity, Judaism, or Islam stands either on the respective foundational beliefs involved, or on the culture that has developed under their aegis.  These two possibilities do not cancel each another out.  Most of us in the West, God-besotted or not, are culturally Christian, Jewish, or Muslim (or a blend of the aforementioned). One can enjoy Gregorian chants without believing a word of the lyrics; the haunting recitations of the Quran’s qaris can delight even those who don’t profess Islam. Certainly, the theologically themed masterpieces of world literature, including Dante’s Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost, require no metaphysical delusions to appreciate.

But this is beside the point. Oprah was asking Aslan about religiously motivated wars. An honest reply (concerning Islam, at least) would have focused on jihad and the Islamic tradition of dividing the world into Dar al-Islam (the Abode of Islam, where the True Faith has triumphed) and Dar al-Harb (the Abode of War, where Muslims must fight to spread Islam among infidels).  It would also have noted the exalted position the religion accords martyrdom and paradise — a factor that impels jihadists to murder.

After a chat about his past, Oprah then allows Aslan to introduce the more topical subject of “Where is the voice of moderate Islam?” and prefaces the segment with a snippet from a 2014 CNN interview entitled “Does Islam Promote Violence?” in which Aslan declared that:

Islam doesn’t promote violence or peace. Islam is just a religion, and like every religion in the world, it depends on what you bring to it: If you’re a violent person, your Islam, your Judaism, your Christianity, your Hinduism is going to be violent.

Translation: belief in, and the willingness to act on, the content of religious texts — for argument’s sake, take those ordaining jihad and glorifying martyrdom — have nothing to do with, say, ISIS’ beheading infidels or conducting waves of suicide bombings.  In other words, ignore the motives stated by the perpetrators and concoct others attributing the atrocities to . . . to what, exactly?  Assemble contingent factors at your leisure, taking care to exclude Islam.

Since I’ve done so elsewhere, I won’t dwell more on this CNN interview, except to note three of Aslan’s most flagrantly erroneous assertions:

Aslan: FMG “is not an Islamic problem, it’s an African problem . . . [it’s] a Central-African problem . . . nowhere else in the Muslim, Muslim-majority states is female genital mutilation an issue.”

Wrong: The savage practice antedated Islam, yes, but the Prophet Muhammad sanctioned it, and it occurs, says a UNICEF report, “in 30 countries across three continents” in much of the Muslim world.

Aslan: mistreatment of women is a problem in Iran and Saudi Arabia, but not (inter alia) in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Wrong: both the latter two are, in fact, plagued by a widespread, persistent problem with FGM.

Aslan: “How many women do we [in the United States] have as head of states?”

None, at least as of now.  But the issue Aslan’s interviewer wanted him to address was the mistreatment of women in the Muslim world.  The 2014 World Economic Forum report names Muslim-majority countries as nineteen of the twenty worst on Earth for women.

Oprah opens the segment by proffering a commonplace canard — that Islam means “peace.”  It does not.  It means submission — to the will of God.  Aslan does not correct her.  Doing so would have involved evoking the highly illiberal, totalitarian mission of the faith, which purports to apply to all humanity.  She then asks, “Isn’t it fascinating that . . . people” nowadays, especially in the United States, “think the exact opposite when they hear Islam?”

“It’s heartbreaking to me, but I also think that in many ways, it’s our own fault,” Aslan replies, adding that Islam lacks a central clerical authority to rule on what is truly Islamic — possibly the first intrusion of fact into the duo’s illusory chitchat.  People seeking the condemnation of violence from moderate Muslims assume, he says, that “the voice of violence, the voice of radicalism is the mainstream voice,” but if they would “do a Google search,” they “would see the overwhelming voice of condemnation.”

Indeed, a quick Google search would likely turn up the Pew Research Center poll, conducted just after the ISIS massacre last fall in Paris, that shows widespread negative views of ISIS in much of the Islamic world.  Yet in five countries, support for the terrorist organization runs at 8 to 14 percent — the latter in Nigeria, with a Muslim population of approximately 90 million out of about 182 million.  In Pakistan, 9 percent of 199 million support ISIS.  Together, in just these two countries, this means ISIS has roughly 35 million supporters.  If only, say, one percent of them are inclined to act on their jihadi convictions, we face 350,000 potential terrorists (again, from just Pakistan and Nigeria).  Pew did not even cover the Gulf states and other hotbeds of Islamism.

Those desiring further cause for alarm might also Google a more extensive Pew survey (still omitting the Gulf states) that highlights widespread reactionary beliefs and double-digit support in eleven countries for those who say suicide bombing is “often/sometimes justified.”

Aslan and Oprah then banter about Muslims as “the New Other,” as the latest minority group Americans are inclined to fear and demonize.  His conclusion: “this isn’t about Islam.  I think it’s about, um, fear.”  (Fear of what he does not say).  Oprah concurs, adding that African-American males in the United States are also perceived as violent.  She is thus subtly dealing her viewers the Islamophobia card, and conflating race with religion.  But Islam is not a race.

Aslan (to his credit) won’t allow Oprah to pursue this inept comparison.  “There is a problem,” he says, “in the Islamic world right now, that the violence in the name of Islam is very real.”  Muslims are “devoutly” committing acts of terrorism, and when they claim to be doing so for their faith, they should be believed.  “If a Muslim says he’s a Muslim, he’s a Muslim.  If a Muslim says I’m doing these actions in the name of Islam, let’s take that seriously, and let’s confront it.” Hear, hear!

Yet this is not what Aslan has done, either on the air with Oprah or elsewhere.  In any case, his solution? “The answer to the problems of religion isn’t let’s get rid of religion.  It’s about making sure that the voices of moderation, the voices of compassion are as loud as the voices of violence, as the voices of bigotry.”

Is this all really just a problem of Islamist “bigotry” — that is, fanaticism?  Where do you draw the line between “radical” Islam and “regular,” presumably non-bigoted, Islam?  The Quran remains the same, with all its violent suras, for “radicals” and moderates and nominal believers alike.  (Those willing to take scissors to Islam’s holiest book — regarded in its entirety as God’s literal word, and thus to be handled with utmost respect — and excise offending passages may step forward and announce themselves now).  The problem is not divergent “voices” but the canon itself.  One can slip from “moderate” Islam to a radical interpretation of the faith just by more assiduously acting on the contents of the scripture.

And therein lies the problem: as the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne (and author of Faith Versus Fact) has pointed out, “the density of violent and cruel passages is over 5 times greater in the Qur’an than in the Bible.”

“Getting rid of religion” wouldn’t be a good idea?  Just imagine what would happen to all the conflicts raging in the Middle East and North Africa if atheism suddenly prevailed among their combatants.  At the root of religious wars is, of course, religion.  Declarations of compassion and moderation from believers would be fine, but what will, ultimately, cure the malady of faith is none other than free speech — critical speech — about religion and in favor of reason.  In any case, those willing to murder in Islam’s name are the ones determining our discourse about the faith.  We are discussing Islam now not because of any insidious “bigotry” but because a number of Islam’s votaries prove, over and over, their willingness to kill for their beliefs.

There is more to the interview, but I have addressed the key moments above. Remember, no religion is true.  All creeds are, as the late Christopher Hitchens said, “equal and equivalent glimpses of the untrue.”  If we do not believe, we have a duty to object to religion, denounce it, and even ridicule it, anytime it impinges on politics and our freedoms, as it is ever wont to do.  We need to expose it for what it is: nonsense, or, more charitably, as an artifact from earlier, more brutish times when we simply didn’t know any better.

Critical talk matters especially where Islam is concerned: behind those who decry “Islamophobes” stand assassins, as free-thinking bloggers, women, apostates, sexual minorities, and non-Muslim inhabitants of the Islamic world know only too well. Silence from progressives about their plight equals complicity. Too bad Oprah and her guest never gave the victims a thought. We certainly should.

Art and CultureReligion

Jeffrey Tayler

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyTayler1.