Born in 1972 in Iran, Reza Aslan was brought by his parents to the U.S. seven years later when they fled the Khomeini revolution. He grew up in the Bay Area, where as a teenager he converted from Islam to Christianity and then converted back. He earned degrees in theology, writing, and sociology, and over the past decade or so has become a leading voice on religion, a subject he has discussed frequently on CNN, Fox News, and other TV networks and on which he tries to sound very modern.
No religion, he argues, is objectively true; on the contrary, each is a set of “symbols and metaphors” that represent one’s sense of connection to the divine and eternal and ineffable. He admits to identifying as a Muslim, but is at pains to insist that this is more a matter of cultural or aesthetic affinity than of thinking that Islam is “truer” than Christianity, Hinduism, or any other faith. Indeed he has said, in effect, that all religions are ultimately the same and that “we are all God.”
He presents himself as a man of high moral character with a deep interest in the divine; as a clear-eyed observer of and expert in religions; and as someone who respects all belief systems and is eager to focus on their similarities and not emphasize their differences. In practice, however, he consistently puts his finger on the scale for Islam. In his 2005 book No God But God, he depicts Islam as inherently benign, blaming pretty much everything that’s negative about it on Western imperialism. In another book published four years later, he strives to distance Islamic terrorism from Islam itself, to draw at least something of a moral equivalence between jihadist murder and the American “war on terrorism,” and to distinguish sharply between jihadism and Islamism. Indeed he actually defends the latter, making the ridiculous claim that the answer to “extremist Islamism” is “moderate Islamism.” Nearly two decades after 9/11, the absurdity of all this should be obvious to any halfway intelligent individual in the Western world. But instead Aslan’s fanciful, friendly picture of Islam has won plaudits across the U.S.A. and elsewhere.
Aslan hasn’t been satisfied with merely whitewashing Islam. In his 2013 book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, he sought to alter established views of Christianity; two years later, he produced and hosted a CNN series, Believer, in which he purportedly sought to take viewers on tours of Christian, Jewish, and Hindu doctrine and practice, at both their ugliest and most beautiful. As Alexander Waugh noted in the Spectator,
Each episode featured the sensational and disgusting practices of fringe groups connected to Hinduism, Christianity and Judaism, which, unsurprisingly, offended mainstream Hindus, Christians and Jews who did not care to be associated in the public mind with their pee-drinking, brain-eating, death-worshipping sub-sects. No discreditable customs of any Muslim sub-sect were shown. Since Aslan has elsewhere gone out of his way to dismiss Islamic terrorism as less of a problem than ‘faulty furniture’; has described jihadism as a mere ‘pop culture’; and has denied any link between the Islamic religion and female genital mutilation, he soon found (no doubt to his delight) that he had sharply divided America’s liberal progressive movement.
Waugh went on:
Aslan explained that the purpose of his Believer series was to reveal to the world how everyone is ‘the same’. His detractors interpreted this to mean that Christians, Jews and Hindus should stop complaining about the unappealing practices of Muslims because there are people doing equally appalling things in the name of their religions too.
Indeed, many of Aslan’s erstwhile fans began to feel that he was at once a shameless apologist for Islam and an eager denigrator of other religions. Even as he slickly denied the established connections between Islam itself and certain abominable practices that are considered matters of faith by its adherents, he exaggerated out of all proportion the prevalence of certain unpleasant aspects of other faiths.
What’s more, professional historians of religion began to look more closely at his academic record and noticed that his claims to be a credentialed historian, a professor of religion, and a Ph.D. in the history of religion were all bogus.
For all his efforts to represent himself as a man of faith, moreover, Aslan has certainly said things about various public figures that are, shall we say, rather deficient in what we in the West used to quaintly call Christian charity. After the 2017 terrorist attack on London Bridge, Aslan wrote a tweet in which he condemned not the terrorists but President Trump, whom he called “a piece of shit” for having refused to mince words about the danger of Islamic terror. (That tweet lost him his CNN series.)
That’s not all. Aslan has maintained, risibly, that women enjoy equal rights in Muslim countries where that is quite plainly not the case. Aslan has not only misrepresented the extent of female genital mutilation but also savaged the comedian Bill Maher when he condemned that practice and dared to acknowledge its connection to Islam. After he appeared on Good Morning America, his interviewer posted online a breathless summary of what she had “learned” from him about Islam:
Did you know Muslims believe Jesus was a prophet and a messiah? I didn’t. Did you know Muslims actually rank Jesus higher than the Prophet Muhammad? Again, I didn’t.
If we’ve decided to give a bit of critical attention to Aslan now, it’s because of his latest headline-making act. Last month, when that group of students from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky were harassed outside the Lincoln Memorial by a group of fanatically racist “black Israelites” and by a drum-banging Native American “elder,” the boys were demonized throughout the mainstream media, even though, as it turned out, they were the victims in that encounter, not the bad guys. Aslan was one of those celebrities who piled on, and he did so in a particularly nasty way, retweeting a picture of the most prominent of the Kentucky boys, Nick Sandmann, and writing: “Have you ever seen a more punchable face than this kid’s?”
It was one of those comments that give the whole game away. After years of promoting himself as a sober, sincere, and thoughtful student of religion, and as a builder of bridges between different faiths and cultures, and as someone who is, therefore, by definition, a decent human being and a man of peace, Aslan, with this one tweet, shattered that image forever. Sandmann is sixteen years old, a boy from Kentucky who did nothing wrong and who, in a TV interview after the Lincoln Memorial episode, acquitted himself with quiet dignity and intelligence – qualities missing entirely from Aslan’s tweet. Reza Aslan wanted to punch a teenage boy, someone’s child, presumably because Aslan didn’t like what he thought he saw in the look on the boy’s face. And this is supposed to be one of America’s leading teachers of religion? No, thank you.