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Sally Quinn & Reza Aslan Discuss his new CNN show "Believer"

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Reza Aslan, at age 44, is probably the most well-known and prolific Muslim writer and scholar in the country. He moved here with his parents from Iran in 1979, converted to evangelical Christianity as a teenager, then went back to being a Muslim some years later. His most recent book, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” was number one on the New York Times bestseller list. Now he has finished a six-part series for CNN entitled “Believer with Reza Aslan.” In it he explores the customs and rituals of a number of religions such as Ultra-Orthodox Judaism in Israel, Scientology in the U.S., Hindu Ascetism in India, Vodou in Haiti, Santa Muerte in Mexico and an apocalyptic doomsday cult in Hawaii. The idea, according to Aslan, was to figure out ways to make “other religions seem less exotic.” He wanted to be the Anthony Bourdain of “faith instead of food.” The religions he has chosen for his first six episodes are not exactly mainstream but those that fascinated him. Santa Muerte is a Mexican folk religion popular in California where he lives, a marriage of Catholicism and Aztec spirituality. Most Americans, he says, have a view of Scientology “based on stories of corruption and abuse.” Aslan was interested in why people became members. “I was interested in the faith, not the scandals.” Vodou got his attention because the traditional vodou culture in Haiti “has been under assault by the encroaching evangelicals.” That, he says, is an episode “about the conflict of two religions over the soul of a nation.” A lot of Haitians go to church on Sunday and then go to vodou temples another day of the week. Christians see vodou (and voodoo) as “devil worship.” Particularly Christian missionaries see the problem of social and economic instability as a byproduct of vodou. Aslan‘s intention with the series was to show how similar most faiths really are. “I have always known that when you strip away the specific doctrines, rituals, symbols and metaphors that make each religion unique,” that the faiths will be similar if not identical. “They have so much more in common than their differences.” That he suggests, was the goal of the series, to bring these similarities to light. Aslan became fully immersed in each religion and ended up having a deep connection with all of them, including vodou, Scientology and the Hindu sect, the Aghor. Unexpectedly he had a deeper spiritual connection with them than with the others he observed. “I’m not a tourist; I’m trying to join them, be them.” Even with the doomsday group in Hawaii, he felt a real connection. “They created something special.” “As a scholar of religion, I find value and meaning in it all.” He quotes Buddha as saying that if you want to strike water you don’t dig six one-foot wells, you dig one six-foot well. The water that he’s drawing, Aslan suggests, is Islam, but it’s the same water everyone is drawing. “I’m a Muslim, I believe in God,” as well as believing in the symbols and metaphors of Islam he uses to shape his own spirituality, what he calls “my own sense of the divine.” Ultimately, “it’s not the sentiments that are unique, but the symbols.” Aslan relates that as a scholar and a person of faith he tends to intellectualize the spiritual. “I approach religion in a rational way.” Yet after a 10-hour vodou ceremony, “swaying with the smell of blood,” the intellectual goes out the window. “It’s really cool. I immersed myself in what was happening.” As for why Islam is his “water,” his favorite ritual is the daily prayer, the salat. “You are doing the same things and saying the same things as everybody else.” He sees that as a beautiful expression of community. The fasting during the month of Ramadan “is not to deny yourself but to remember those who always go without food or drink.” As to why Islam has been so criticized recently he proposes that “it’s a small religion in America. It’s 1% of the population. Most Americans, with no friend or neighbor who is Muslim, don’t have any idea of normalized mainstream Islam.” He points to Robert Dear, a Christian who “slaughtered” a number of people at a Planned Parenthood in the name of Christ, and states unequivocally that that was a terrorist attack. Yet, we dismissed it, he says, because “that’s not real Christianity.” If a Muslim had done it, it would have been an act of violence, he says. Since this campaign and election, Aslan has received more hate mail than ever before. “I have an entire file folder of death threats. It’s not an unusual experience.” It’s worse now, he says, because of the “troller-in-chief” in the White House. "The facts speak for themselves." He believes that the unprecedented violence against Muslims and Jews is directly linked to the man in the White House. And he says that “this man has given cover to the most despised racist, xenophobic instincts of our country. He’s brought the ugliest parts of our nation into the seat of power.” As for the new President’s – he never uses or says aloud the President’s actual name – faith, Aslan can barely contain himself. “His only faith is ‘myself.’ Never in his life has he expressed any empathy for any other human being.” He is appalled by the fact that he has “the gall to call himself a Christian.” Aslan feels that Trump’s “pathological mind should make every Christian blush. It’s inexcusable.” Clearly Aslan has no intention of immersing himself in President Trump’s “faith.”