David Wood several years ago pointed out a feature of Reza Aslan’s work that, as time goes by, increasingly appears to be the central feature of all his work: he downplays or denies the violent aspects of Islamic teaching, while exaggerating or inventing violent elements in other religions. In No god but God, Aslan portrayed Muhammad as peaceful, explaining away or ignoring the violent actions that Islamic tradition attributes to him. In Zealot, Aslan portrayed Jesus as violent, resuscitating a long-discredited theory that Jesus was a member of the Zealot sect that rebelled against Roman oppression.
And now in this critique of Aslan’s controversial Believer episode in which he eats human brain tissue, Vamsee Juluri (the same person I took to task here, but who writes with great perceptiveness and acuity in this new piece) notes how Aslan is doing the same thing with Hinduism: trying to demonize it and depict it as violent. He focuses in his cannibalistic Believer episode on a small, odd, violent sect — one member even threatens to behead Aslan. Juluri charges that the episode was “contrived to actually de-humanize Hindus.” The overall effect is the same as the one Wood noticed regarding Aslan and Christianity: Aslan seems intent upon portraying non-Muslim religions as violent and filled with irrationality, but then when discussing Islam, is intent upon showing it to be benign and rational. His overall purpose seems to be Islamic apologetics, subtle dawah for the post-religious secular Leftists who would watch a show such as Believer, designed to foster complacency about the jihad threat and opposition to any effective steps to counter that threat.
This agenda makes clear why Aslan, despite his increasingly obvious Islamic heterodoxy, remains so popular with Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups in the U.S.: he has also spoken at events sponsored by the Muslim Students Association, a Brotherhood group, as well as at an at an event co-sponsored by the Los Angeles chapter of the Hamas-linked Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Perhaps they recognize that he shares their overall agenda.
“‘As if Touring a Zoo’: Reza Aslan Goes From Propaganda to Denial Over Believer Controversy,” by Vamsee Juluri, Huffington Post, March 9, 2017:
The sheer ignorance of CNN’s Believer seems to have achieved that most elusive of things in American democracy: bipartisanship, even if in censure and condemnation. Democratic senator Tulsi Gabbard expressed the pain in all our hearts and pointed out how appalling it was for CNN to sensationally depict human beings “as if touring a zoo.” From the Republican side, the founder of the Republican Hindu Coalition Shalabh Kumar called the program “disgusting.”
Few people who watched the show seem to have found much of value in it. Parth Parihar of the Hindu Students Council wrote a strong, moving piece in HuffPost, while even non-Hindu viewers and reviewers found the shallow discourse and sensationalism morbidly uninspiring. Asra Nomani and others found in it an apt moment to remind Reza Aslan that his seemingly objective and open-minded approach to different religions is not quite so at all. He had after all, famously mocked CNN in a tweet soon after the Boston bombing for calling it a terror attack, and expended quite some energy these last few years not simply in presenting a pleasant face for Islam after 9/11 which is understandable, but in sanitizing the truth a bit more than that too.
That tendency to sanitize, to put it politely, is the problem with Reza Aslan.
Some readers, particularly those who are familiar with South Asian discourses and issues might wonder what could be considered “sanitization” in a program that dealt with outcastes, cannibals, and indeed the “Hindu caste system” as a whole (interestingly, the program and all the concerns about its possible impact on the safety of Sikhs, Muslims, Arabs and other South Asians who look like Hindus did not seem to warrant any expression of concern from some leading progressive South Asian activist groups).
So what exactly does Aslan’s foray into the “city of death” with its excreta-hurling gurus sanitize? Very simply, it is meant to disguise the total reality of why he, and CNN, and their particular lens for looking over it, are all there in that place and at this time in history, and what they are doing. This is not a speculation on intent. I will accept Aslan’s stated premise of the show at face value. It is not even necessarily about Hinduism but about fascinating fringe religious groups, and the Aghoris certainly fit that bill. Granted.
But the question remains: if the premise of this episode was to humanize the Aghoris (and no one can object to that), why was so much of it contrived to actually de-humanize Hindus?
If we look carefully at the text, and its silences, and the forces surrounding it, the truth is quite clear. The Aghoris are not the real story. They are like a magician’s practiced gesture of distraction, calculated to get you looking the wrong way. And what they are diverting us from is the basic, overwhelming reality here.
How on earth is it possible that in the 21st century, in America, a professor gets away without showing a drop of concern about cultural appropriation, savior complexes, or even reputation? How does he ignore two days of incredible outrage and urgency stemming from the only two things confronting us on television, the shootings of Hindus and Sikhs on the one hand, and the frightening CNN promos about cannibals and death on the other?
How does someone witness all of this, and then, in an interview on the morning of the broadcast, proceed to declare, presumably with a smile, that controversy is “awesome”?
And then, after the program airs, and it shows not much of an improvement over its sensationalist and inaccurate promos either (except for that fig leaf appeal to the conscience that somehow it is fighting the evil of a vaguely and metaphysically evoked “caste system”), how does someone ignore the questions raised by responsible people, leaders, scholars, activists, genuine liberals, and then declare in a post-show message that he understands that they are offended—not by anything else—but by the show’s treatment of “caste discrimination”?
How does someone ignore all of it to say just that? How does someone know that his charmed world of prestige will not change one bit tomorrow even if he tramples on the Hindus, ignores them totally? What sort of privilege lets you do that?…
What Aslan put his name and face to was fundamentally propaganda. You don’t even need too much knowledge of India’s complex sociology to fight it, but just attention. Just watch the program again, and examine the visuals and question their connection to the narrative. Aslan drones on about rebirth and untouchables, and what do you see; an everyday scene in India, nothing more, people napping contentedly under a tree, or on their doorsteps. Without the narrative you see life as it is. But with the voice-over, what you believe is that the same man napping outside his door is there because he is “untouchable,” sleeping outside rather than inside, and he is waiting to die, be cremated, have his ashes “dumped” in the Ganga, so he can be reborn, first as a Shudra, then as a Vaishya, then as a Kshatriya, then as a Brahmin, and then finally moksha.
Phew. What a tiresome journey. Good thing that in between this show CNN was also showing us trailers about Finding Jesus.
Then, there is what the program does not show us, a million things that might damage its narrative, a billion people whose realities contradict it, not the names of the thousands of communities that make up India, not the fact that the present Prime Minister comes not from the tip but the base of the so-called caste pyramid, not the scholarship that shows increasingly how much of a colonial construction the whole simplistic “pyramid” and the discourse around it is.
And the most obvious flaw, pointed out by many viewers on twitter even as the show was airing, was the set-up of the Aghoris as somehow the only people offering mixed-caste schools and services in India. Amma, the hugging saint, does it. Sri Sathya Sai Baba, my own guru, did it. Many, many, spiritual figures, traditional and innovative, run schools in which all castes mix and play. And yet, the conceit of this show was such that it could anchor a whole episode and the reputation of its host on making it seem that only the Aghori philosophy had the possibility for human redemption in the benighted mess that is Hinduism.
Why this deliberate and convoluted premise? Perhaps the producers or some of the sponsors expect some well-meaning viewers in America to think, let’s see, if the only way Hinduism “permits” freedom from caste is by eating corpses or s**t, then… why don’t they all just choose a religion that lets you be free without eating corpses or s**t? Perhaps?…