Reza Aslan believes in everything – just a little bit

Reza Aslan and Bill Maher are two faces of the same coin.

Reza Aslan's documentary series Believer premiered on CNN in March [Reuters/Alex Gallardo]
Reza Aslan's documentary series Believer premiered on CNN in March [Reuters/Alex Gallardo]

My late teacher Philip Rieff, may he rest in peace, had a doctrine he called “the Monroe Doctrine”. Whenever he shared this doctrine with a new group of colleagues or students he would immediately preface it by saying, “not the famous President Monroe Doctrine, but the Marilyn Monroe Doctrine.”  

The famous “Monroe Doctrine” spelled out by the US President James Monroe had declared the American continent as the domain of US influence in which no European interference would be tolerated.  But Rieff’s Monroe Doctrine had to do with something Marilyn Monroe had allegedly said – something to the effect of “I believe in everything – just a little bit.” 

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Watching a couple of episodes of Reza Aslan’s feature show Believer, you would be best reminded of Rieff’s “Monroe Doctrine”, for just like Marilyn Monroe, Reza Aslan believes in everything, “just a little bit”.   

In the age of fake news, alternative facts, and post-truth, we now have a fake believer too, a believer who just like Marilyn Monroe believes in everything, just a little bit.  

The “Believer” is an obscene spectacle of a man going around the globe posing as a fake believer in everything making a mockery of people’s most sacrosanct beliefs for the nightly entertainment of CNN viewers. 

In their prophetic essay on The culture Industry (1944), Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer diagnosed a potent social ailment they pointedly termed “enlightenment as mass deception”. The phenomenon of Reza Aslan as a fake believer is emblematic of a much more acute case of the phenomenon, an advanced stage from which Trump propagandist officers such as Kellyanne Conway are other manifestations. 

Fake Believer versus New Atheist

Reza Aslan’s “Believer” is the antipode to the Bill Maher and Co brand of New Atheists.  While HBO promotes Bill Maher, CNN endorses Reza Aslan: two faces of the same coin of systemic denigration of people’s faith into nightly spectacles of entertainment. 

In Reza Aslan’s show we now have a Fake Believer tackling the New Atheists.  The yellow dog is the brother of jackal, as we say in Persian. Let me explain.  

Reza Aslan’s “Believer”, a six-part television series on CNN is the counter-commercial to the spectacle of New Atheism – they corroborate and confirm each other’s identically absurd and abusive caricaturing of people’s sacrosanct moral imagination.  

Those who have praised or criticised Aslan’s series have done so from the perspective of the current American condition under Donald Trump’s presidency. But something far more serious is being violated here. Both the Fake Believer and the New Atheist are identically trespassing on the intuition of the sacred and the moral imagination of communities constituted by that very imagination.

The Fake Believer is just like the New Atheist. They are made of the same cloth. They know very little and could not care any less about people’s sacrosanct certainties – with the gap between their inner certitude and their private or public rituals covered by an intuition of the sacred never shared with strangers.  

Everything for the Fake Believer and the New Atheist is a show, a spectacle, a cheaply decipherable riddle, a moment of celebrity, an oversized photo of themselves they see on Times Square and put on their Facebook – Bill Maher’s on this side and Reza Aslan’s right in front of it.    

Reza Aslan ups the ante in hypocrisy and showmanship. He is born a Muslim and has made a lucrative career for himself by tackling Islamophobia in the United States in terms domestic to that Islamophobia. So if he is asked point blank if he is Jewish he of course has to say no, just before he turns to camera and says, “I feel Jewish today.” 

But the calamity of the Fake Believer is much more psychotic. Reza Aslan was recently asked, “What does your religious practice look like now?” To that he responded: 

I have a Christian wife; I have twin sons, one of whom is convinced he’s Jewish, and one of whom, after he read the Ramayana, was like, “That’s it, I’m Hindu.” I have a two-year-old boy that we just assume is a reincarnation of the Buddha in some way. So every Sunday, we get together and share one particular religious story, whether it’s of the Buddha or Ganesha or from the Gospel, and then we pick some value to learn from it, and then we, as a family, put that value into practice in our home and in our lives. 

Thus he lays a simultaneous, unabashed, claim on four other world religions – Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, while being a convenient Muslim. For a career opportunist making a living out of other people’s sacred certitude, Reza Aslan will believe in anything and everything, “just a little bit”. 

Six millions Jews were slaughtered during the Nazi Holocaust because they were real Jews. Tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims were killed or forced out of their homes in the 1990s because they were real Muslims, as indeed today Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar are being subjected to systemic ethnic cleansing for the same reason. As indeed Christians and their churches are being targeted in Egypt because they are real Christians. But for the commercial calamity of the culture industry to which CNN caters, Reza Aslan is now a yuppie celebrity because he is a Fake Believer in all of these religions at one and the same very convenient time.  

The showmanship of Donald Trump as the very epitome of an unreality becoming dangerously real did not emerge out of nowhere, nor do purveyors of “alternative facts”, “fake news” and “post-truth” grew like mushrooms randomly. There is a method to this madness, the method of staged charlatanism, of the suspension of the true and the beautiful, of the spectacle of vulgarity against the grain of what people in the privacy of their inner assurances hold sacred. Reza Aslan is only the latest case of cashing in on this neurotic exhibitionism. 

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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