'The Islamophobia industry in the US is at an all time high'
Reza Aslan, an Iranian-American writer who published a controversial book on Jesus Christ last year, talks to Shuma Raha about faith, religion and anti-Muslim sentiment in the US on the sidelines of the Jaipur Literature Festival
Reza Aslan makes you want to go back to school. That is, if he were the guy doing the teaching. Indeed, Aslan, an Iranian-American religious scholar and a professor of creative writing at the University of California, is such a witty and impassioned speaker that you feel a twinge of envy towards those who attend his lectures. "I always tell my students that if you want to write a bestseller, write about vampires and love," he jokes during a session at the Jaipur Literature Festival last week.
It's a good line and the audience loves it. But Aslan may as well have said, "If you want to write a bestseller, write a book about the history and future of Islam. Or about Jesus."
That's what he did — and those books became runaway hits. His 2005 book, No God but God: The Origins, Evolution and the Future of Islam, has been translated into 13 languages. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, published last year, made it not just to the bestseller list, but also to that happy place called controversy — which pushes sales even more.
In an unbelievable piece of offensive journalism, a Fox News interviewer questioned Aslan's credentials as a scholar of Christianity simply because he was a Muslim. That video went viral online and the book sailed to the top of The New York Times bestseller list.
Zealot is an exploration of Jesus as a historical figure and argues that he was really a politically conscious revolutionary, a Jew who preached to other Jews, and raised his voice against imperial Rome. The Christian Right was always going to take note — and hate the book. Fox News just made it much more mainstream.
I meet Aslan on a cold and windy morning at Jaipur's Diggi Palace, where the literature festival is playing out in all its modish, pop-intellectual colours. "Ah, here's the sun," says the 41-year-old writer, pulling up a chair into a patch of watery sunshine.
Aslan is seriously handsome, with close-cropped, greying locks and a dazzling smile. It's a bit tough to reconcile his rockstar good looks (he lives in Hollywood, by the way) — and his oodles of charm and sense of humour — with his persona as a scholar of religions. But Aslan is good at rewriting stereotypes, not least the stereotype of a religious scholar as a withered old man consumed by the weight of his grave pursuit.
As a young Iranian boy growing up in America — his family fled Iran after the revolution in 1979 — Aslan admits to have done all he could to fit in, even to the extent of denying his Muslim identity. ("I spent most of my childhood pretending to be a Mexican," he jokes.) His family wasn't religious anyway. "I don't remember going to the mosque as a child, except on special occasions," he says. "In fact, my father was quite a militant atheist."
Despite that, he always felt drawn towards religion and spirituality. "I think my childhood images of revolutionary Iran and the power that religion has to transform a society — for good and for bad — never left me," he says.
His first serious encounter with organised religion came when he was 15. He had gone to a summer camp with some friends where he heard the gospel message. "It was the first time anyone ever told me that there was a way to express your spirituality. Of course, the gospels are such a powerful message. And for a young man trying to figure out who he is and where he belongs, it's a very powerful message."
He came away from the camp and converted to Christianity. His atheist father was disgusted by his act. "Just the idea that I was taking any religion seriously was bothersome to him," says Aslan.
For a time he became a Bible thumper, an ardent teenage evangelist. The fervour wouldn't last, though. When he went to university and started studying religions and the New Testament as an academic enterprise, he realised that there was a huge chasm between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. He realised too that he was really interested in the Jesus of history and that he knew almost nothing about him.
He put away Christianity for years after that, but his quest for spiritual expression did not go away. "My professors recognised this urge inside me and they encouraged me to look into the religion and culture of my forefathers," says Aslan, who has several degrees in religious studies, including one from Harvard Divinity School.
He went back to Islam — he knew next to nothing about it — and as he began to study it, he found that he was learning things that he already believed in. "I just didn't know that there was a language for it. That there were words for it."
He converted back to Islam. And he's stayed a Muslim since then.
"I often say that I had an emotional conversion to Christianity, but a rational conversion to Islam," says Aslan, whose religious yo-yoing seemed to have only cemented his conviction that while religion could be interchangeable, faith was absolute.
So is he a practising Muslim?
Aslan's reply is studiedly nuanced. "To me Islam is more a language through which I express my spirituality than a belief in its dogmas and rituals. Look, if you've studied the religions of the world, it's pretty hard to take any of them all that seriously. And it's hard to be bound by just one of them. That said, I think it's important to express yourself through religious language. The Buddha once said, if you want to draw water you don't dig six one-foot wells, you dig one six-foot well. Islam is my six-foot well. But I also know that the water I am drawing from is the same as everybody else is drawing from.
"When people say 'I believe in Islam or Christianity' I don't understand that. These are just the paths. The only thing to believe in is God!"
The sun is hotter now and Aslan takes off his windcheater and warms to his theme. He elaborates on the distinction between faith and religion — the former inexpressible, indefinable, and the latter, that which provides a language to comprehend and express it. "The trouble arises when you confuse the two," he says. "When you think religion is the destination rather than the path, the end rather than the means."
Aslan's books have had their share of criticism and controversy, but he has learnt to take them in his stride. "A lot of Muslims have disagreed with No God but God, which argues for a liberal interpretation of Islam," he says. "As for Zealot, well, when you are a brown man writing about Christianity you have to be very calm indeed," he chuckles. "You've got to be prepared that a lot of people will buy your book just so that they can hate it."
However, since he is a man of faith, he says he never denigrates a religion even as he questions its basic tenets. "And I think by and large my readers recognise that."
I ask him about the West's response to Islam right now. More than a decade after 9/11 and after the decapitation of al Qaida, are Muslims less demonised than they used to be?
"On the contrary," he replies. "The Islamophobia industry in the US is at an all time high. And it is the result of a deliberate campaign by a large group of anti-Muslim activists, politicians, preachers and so on. For a lot of Americans, Islam has become a byword for that which is fearful and foreign, that which is the Other."
Look at the statistics of those who believe that President Barack Obama is a Muslim, Aslan says. "It shows that the more you disagree with his policies and agenda, the more you believe he is a Muslim."
But then he points out that everything that's being said about Muslims now was said about the Jews in the 1930s and 1940s and about the Catholics in the 19th century. So in a generation Islam is likely to become as much a part of the US's cultural landscape as Judaism is now, he argues. "And by then, we will of course have found somebody else to demonise," he laughs.
Aslan would like to go back to Iran — the land of his birth — some day soon. He and his American wife are raising their two-year-old twin sons in a multi-faith, multi-cultural way. "I would really like to take them to visit Iran," he says.
The last time he was there was in 2005. But after he published several pieces criticising the government during the agitation against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009, his name was apparently put on a blacklist. He is hopeful, however, that things may change soon and that he may be able to go back. He is also positive about the US's recent interim deal with Iran — "provided the US Congress doesn't derail it deliberately".
Aslan often gets sniped at because he teaches creative writing even though he writes on religion. But he brushes aside the snide comments with his usual smoothness. Criticism or not, his work carries on. And right now that happens to be a book about the development of the idea of God. "It's about the history of God, if you will," he says.
But after that, says Aslan, flashing me a brilliant smile once again, "I have made an absolute and unbreakable commitment to myself that I shall write a novel."
He tells me that he is planning a historical novel set about 1,000 years ago. The narrative will follow a caravan from Arabia to India at the dawn of the Arab conquest of the sub-continent, and given Aslan's preoccupation with religion, will naturally probe the cultural and spiritual conflicts between Islam and indigenous religions.
That sounds interesting. But then Aslan has a way of finding the sweet spot when it comes to generating interest. His conquest of the crowds at the Jaipur Literature Festival was palpable, as evidenced by the clamour to get copies of his books signed by him. One thing's for sure: you'll see more of Reza Aslan here in India in the coming years.