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Q&A: Reza Aslan on religion and U.S. politics

Religious scholar Reza Aslan on why evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, the Democrats’ faith problem, Iran, and much more
Reza Alsan on his show Believer, which airs on CNN. (James Adolphus/CNN)
Reza Aslan at a UTA Rally, Los Angeles, USA - 24 Feb 2017. (Stewart Cook/REX/Shutterstock/CP)
Reza Aslan at a UTA Rally, Los Angeles, USA – 24 Feb 2017. (Stewart Cook/REX/Shutterstock/CP)

Reza Aslan knows a thing or two about religion. One of North America’s most prominent Muslim voices, the Iranian-American religious scholar and public intellectual has been smartly challenging simplistic media representations of the Muslim world for over a decade.

His 2013 book Zealot, a biography offering a new perspective on the life of Jesus of Nazareth, challenges dominant Republican notions about Christianity. “The radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost has almost been completely lost to history,” Zealot concluded. “This is a man who started a movement on behalf of the poor and the dispossessed, the weak and the marginalized.” And in his new CNN series Believer, Aslan explores faith in six far-flung parts of the world, from a Hawaiian doomsday cult to voodoo practitioners in Haiti.

Reached over Skype at his L.A. office, Aslan spoke to Maclean’s about what it means to resist President Donald Trump, the end of Islamic State, why the Republicans have a Jesus problem, the Democrats’ faith crisis, and why he thinks Rex Tillerson might be able to help stop a war with Iran. This interview has been condensed and edited.

Q: Have you ever met Donald Trump?

A: No, I have not ever met Donald Trump, and I plan to go my entire life without ever actually having to breathe the same air that he breathes. It’s not just that he’s irreligious. It’s not just that he represents basically every grotesquery of the human experience, but the nerve that he tries to pass himself off as some kind of Christian when every word that comes out of his mouth, every action that he takes part in, is basically a spit in the face of Christianity. That he is the walking, breathing, example of everything Jesus spoke against and acted against—everything that he died for—and yet 81 per cent of white evangelicals in this country thought that he should be the President of the United States. It’s baffling to me. I wish I had a way of explaining that, but I simply don’t.

Q: Could you take a stab at it?

A: Part of it has to do with the fact that a lot of those white evangelicals are single-issue voters, and Donald Trump—in a way that no other Republican presidential candidate before have had done—essentially promised that a vote for him is a vote to end abortion. He made it as clear as possible. For some reason, a great majority of these white evangelicals were willing to ignore everything that Jesus ever said about morality and ethics and how to live one’s life, and focus on something that Jesus never had any opinion about: abortion. For those who simply voted because he was the Republican and you should vote for the Republican: it’s baffling to me, how you can call yourself a Christian and support a man who embodies everything that Christ fought against.

Q: Your wife, Jessica Jackley, comes from a conservative Christian family. Have you discussed Trump with them?

A: Yes, unfortunately, and it’s an awkward conversation. Some of them did vote for Trump, some did not. I think, in general, the important thing is that we recognize that we all have the same basic desires, the same basic aspirations for this country. I think that in many ways, some of those who did vote for Trump are sorry that they did so. But the hope, at least, is that we have a chance to make up for those kinds of mistakes. There’s another election coming in less than two years, and that election has the ability to finally change the nature of this government. Again, this isn’t all Trump’s fault. Trump is a narcissistic sociopath; he’s doing exactly what he said he would do. The real fault lies with Mitch McConnell, and with Paul Ryan, these individuals who are supposed to be grown adults, who are supposed to be sober-minded intellectuals, but who are allowing this President to essentially run roughshod over the Constitution in exchange for a gigantic tax cut to the rich. I think those are the people that we should be targeting.

MORE: Scott Gilmore on the Divided States of America

Q: One of Obama’s most notable achievements is his nuclear deal with Iran.

A: Unquestionably! This was a mammoth deal that unquestionably curbed Iran’s nuclear ambitions and made it much much harder for them to weaponize their nuclear program. And, by the way, this was a deal that involved six other nations, not just the United States. This was a tremendous project, which is why it is going to be next to impossible for Trump, despite all of his screaming and yelling about it in the campaign, to do anything to undermine it. This deal is set in stone. It’s not going anywhere.

Q: The Iranian government and Boeing have signed a massive deal, which is absolutely tremendous for working-class American jobs.

A: That’s one of the reasons why it’s going to be so tough. Listen: the secretary of state is the former CEO of ExxonMobil. You think he wants to get rid of the Iran deal? Hell no! Iran sits on the world’s second-largest supply of oil and natural gas. This is a massive untapped market that Exxon would love to get its dirty little hands on. Look: there is a reason that you have not heard word one about Iran or the Iran deal from this administration. Both Republicans and Democrats on the hill know that it’s working, that Iran is actually sticking to the parameters of this deal. You may hear some huffing and puffing about it, but this is one of those things: don’t expect anything to change.

Q: People like Steve Bannon and John Bolton want a war with Iran. You think people like Tillerson will work against that?

A: I am hoping that the adults in the administration—and say what you will about Tillerson, he is actually an adult, so is [national security advisor H.R.] McMaster, so is [James] Mattis, the secretary of defence. These are not children, they understand the gravity of their jobs in a way that the President, who is essentially a man-child, does not. And yes, you’re right. There are ideologues like Bannon, like Stephen Miller, like John Bolton, who do have a profoundly anti-Iranian bent. And they’re going to weigh against the President, there’s no question about that. But I do think that sober minds will prevail.

That is not to say that we are free from the threat of a war with Iran. Let’s be honest about something: this is an administration that is profoundly unpopular. The most unpopular administration in modern history. We have never seen unpopularity, unfavourable ratings like we have seen with this administration. And it’s barely the second month of it. If they come up to a re-election, and they continue to have these numbers, this unfavourability rating, then you might see a real drum-up to a possible war with Iran, as an argument about not changing horses in mid-stream. It worked for the Bush administration in 2004, also a very unpopular administration which was re-elected basically on the argument that we’re in the middle of a war and we can’t change presidents in the middle of a war. If you don’t think that a man who, in a month and a half of being President, has had approximately eight hours of intel briefings, wouldn’t love to have a war as an excuse to continue being President, then you haven’t been paying attention.

Q: There’s a narrative that Democrats have a faith problem, but African-Americans are perhaps the most religious demographic—and they went 88-to-8 for Hillary Clinton.

A: I get that. I get that, somehow, there’s this notion that Republicans are the party of Jesus and the Democrats are the Godless party. Let’s be clear for a minute. One party wants to give health insurance to the poor and the weak and the dispossessed, and one party wants to take away that health insurance and give tax breaks to rich people. You tell me: which side would Jesus fall on that argument? I think the real problem is that Democrats are afraid to just come right out and say, “This is not Christian behaviour.” That you can’t just talk about being a Christian. Look at Paul Ryan. He never gets tired of talking about how devoted he is to his Catholic faith, and yet he’s ruling to shut the door to starving orphans and widows fleeing genocide in Syria. And don’t take it from me; take it from the Pope. The Pope said it better than I can: you cannot call yourself a Christian, the Pope said, and turn away orphans and widows. The end. That’s the man who speaks for Jesus.

It’s time for the Democrats to make that argument. I don’t know why those on the left are so afraid of speaking the language of religion. I think you have to understand that the language of religion holds the most currency for the masses. One of the reasons that Barack Obama was so successful is because he was able to utilize the language of religion in his arguments. It didn’t always work. It sometimes felt strained, there’s no question about it, but at least he tried. Among the last presidential candidates, do you know which one of them was the devoted Christian? Hillary Clinton! Hillary Clinton, who was a life-long Methodist, who actually put Jesus’s words into practice in her life and in the work that she did, versus the greedy, lecherous scumbag that she was running against. And yet, she wasn’t able to make the argument to Christians, and she didn’t even try? It was appalling to me. This is a lesson that the Democrats need to learn: this group is up for grabs, and you cannot simply give them over to the Republicans, because the GOP right now—and not in their rhetoric, but in their actions—is the anti-Christian party. Not the Democrats.

Q: Fox News commentators like Sean Hannity enthuse about Trump’s embrace of Putin, arguing that it will lead to a great outcome in Syria—even though Russia and Assad are the chief cause of this unconscionable suffering that’s going on in Syria.

A: Again, the vacuousness of political thought on the right is astonishing. If it weren’t such an existential threat to every single one of us, it’d be funny. But it’s not funny anymore. It isn’t. We dance around this a lot, and in these six weeks that we’ve had to deal with this administration we’ve had nothing but manufactured crisis after manufactured crisis. Imagine if we were in a real crisis! Imagine if things were actually serious, if we weren’t having a conversation about something as stupid as crowd size in an inauguration. Imagine if we had a terror attack in the United States on the scale of 9/11. We are in an existential threat by the man who is in occupation of the White House right now. He is a threat to all of our lives. And we need to do whatever we can, legally and within our power, to remove him from office as fast as possible before something serious happens in this country.

19.8 per cent of Americans voted for Hillary Clinton. 19.5 per cent of Americans voted for Donald Trump.  29.9 per cent of Americans didn’t bother to vote. Right now, in these 45 days of the Trump presidency, that 29.9 per cent is suddenly activated in a way that they had not been. The United States is experiencing a moment of clarity unlike we have had in generations, maybe going all the way back to the Second World War. We are in the midst of an existential argument over what this country means, over what the definition of America is in the 21st century. For a long time, the vast majority of Americans were not interested in that conversation. They just stuck their head in the sand and pretended that the argument wasn’t happening. Now I feel like there is no more room for that neutral position. There is no more room for sitting on the fence any longer.

MORE: Every tyrant has now learned the Syrian lesson—and the West has failed

Protesters gather at City Hall and march to Minute Maid Park to protest President Donald Trump on February 4, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Tim Warner/Getty Images)
Protesters gather at City Hall and march to Minute Maid Park to protest President Donald Trump on February 4, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Tim Warner/Getty Images)

Q: Is there any further advice that you’d give to the opposition?

A: Don’t give up. We’re winning. It’s as simple as that. Look, the reason that Trump won is because of apathy, and there is no more room for apathy. If we haven’t figured that out yet, we’ll never figure it out. The protests are working. The pressure is working. Partly we have Trump himself to thank for it, because he is a man who has diarrhoea of the mouth and so we can rely on his own idiocy in order to support our cause against him. But we can’t just let this happen. We cannot normalize this president. We can’t pretend that because he occasionally manages to read words in a row from a teleprompter without soiling himself that he is now presidential. He is not presidential: this is not normal, it cannot be treated as normal. We have to fight with our last breath to make sure that the vision for the country that this racist white nationalist Bannon has cannot be achieved in this country. We are a country that, whether he likes it or not, is about to become the first nation in the world that is majority minorities. And if that scares Steve Bannon and Donald Trump, good. It should.

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Q: FBI stats show that a significant portion of the terrorism that happens in the USA comes from white supremacists like Dylann Roof and anti-government militiamen like Timothy McVeigh.

A: And yet this is an administration that now has decided that the government’s CVE—the Countering Violent Extremism program, which was always a flawed programme to begin with—is no longer going to target anyone except Islamic extremists. So if you’re a white terrorist in this country, the government is fine. They’re not going to go after you any more, says Trump.

This is nonsense. This is not about protecting Americans. This is about a fundamental realignment—a fundamental redefinition—of what it means to be American. And it cannot stand. It will not stand. This is not going to be successful; he has history, he has demographics going against him. And I think that if he thought he was just going to be able to walk into the White House and utterly transform the Constitution, he was sorely mistaken.

Reza Alsan on his show Believer, which airs on CNN. (James Adolphus/CNN)
Reza Alsan on his show Believer, which airs on CNN. (James Adolphus/CNN)

Q: In 2013, you delivered a prescient takedown of Anthony Weiner on Real Time with Bill Maher. Anyone else on the Democratic side that you think they’d be good to move on from?

A: I’m not a big fan of Tulsi Gabbard. I think that there are a lot of Democrats that are failing in their attempt to rally around this common cause that I was talking about earlier. If the resistance is going to bring Trump down, it will require Democrats to follow the people, not the other way around. It’s not going to be Schumer and Pelosi who bring Trump down, it’s going to be the people who bring him down. My hope is that the Democrats will realize where their power lies, and will start taking their cues from the people on the ground and not the other way. If they do, I think we will see the end of this presidency by 2018.

Q: Are Canadians are providing some leadership for what the Democrats should do?

A: Thank God for Canada, is all I have to say.

Q: If you had a chance to speak to ISIS, what would you say?

A: If I ever find myself in a room with ISIS, I’m already in big trouble.

Q: Over Skype then?

A: I guess what I would tell them is, “You’re about to meet the dust-bin of history”. This is a movement that has its demise baked within it. It’s an ideology that cannot sustain itself. It’s a militant organization that is under siege on all sides. I can’t possibly imagine that five, six, seven years from now we’re still gonna be talking about ISIS. We’ll still be talking about Islamic radicalism, but I don’t think we’ll still be talking about ISIS.

Q: And, to close, something that might surprise people about your new TV series, Believer?

A: I think that Believer is probably going to surprise a lot of people. I always say that there’s something in every episode to piss somebody off, somewhere. I think the thing that’s the most surprising about Believer is that you’re going to be confronted with religious communities that are on the fringes, are on the margins, that you may feel are weird or foreign or scary in some way. But hopefully through my journey immersing myself in these religious traditions you’ll realize that they aren’t so weird after all, that you have a lot more in common with these people than you don’t. If you can maybe come up with that epiphany in a 44-minute television show, then maybe you can bring that to your life. Maybe when the President tells you that you should be afraid of Mexicans or Muslims or Jews or black people or gay people or trans people, you’ll realize that those are just labels, that underneath it all we’re all the same people, we all have the same aspirations, the same hopes, the same desires, that we all share the same values.

Alexander Bisley’s previous conversations for Maclean’s include author Irvine Welsh and MSNBC anchor Christopher Hayes.