CNN's Reza Aslan slams Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher on roots of fundamentalist terrorism

Reza Aslan, star of upcoming CNN series on religious rituals, takes on Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher on Islamic fundamentalist terrorism.

Reza Aslan at Indian Summer Festival 2014. Photo by Tom Delamere
Reza Aslan at Indian Summer Festival 2014. Photo by Tom Delamere

Rising media star Reza Aslan will debut a new CNN series, Believer, in 2016.

Known for his heated confrontations with Bill Maher, he may be best known for the overnight sensation of his interview with a Fox News host about his book ZealotThe Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

The book debuted at No. 2 on the New York Times’ bestseller. Since then, Aslan has emerged a formidable media figure, taking on journalists and commentators, challenging populist rhetoric on of Islam and the crisis in the Middle East.

At a time when the popular discourse on Islam and terrorism is fraught with sweeping generalizations and assumptions, Aslan brings substance and nuance into prime-time conversations.  

Following his illuminating talk last year, Aslan returns to Vancouver’s Indian Summer Festival (ISF) in July. His talk, titled The Wrath of God, will be held at SFU's Goldcorp Centre for the Arts on July 16.

Aslan shared his early preoccupations with religion, last year’s attacks at Parliament Hill, and his views on Bill Maher, Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists with Nitant Narang.

 Nitant Narang: I think most people conceive of you as a scholar in religious studies but, on the other hand, you happen to teach Creative Writing at the University of California. Did you ever contemplate a future as a novelist before you become well-known for your non-fiction? 

Reza Aslan: I think of myself, first and foremost, as a writer. Yes, I do have multiple advanced degrees in religious studies but I also have an advanced degree in creative writing — I have an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Throughout my career, I’ve taught both religion and writing, and I discovered that I liked teaching writing better.

I teach Creative Writing simply because I enjoy it. At this point in my career, I don’t need to teach at all. I do so simply because I find it fun and satisfying.

For me, as a storyteller, I don’t make much of a difference between fiction and non-fiction, religion and politics. Those are all just various forms of storytelling. I think it is what has made me successful as both a scholar and a communicator. 

"There's no doubt my childhood experience of revolutionary Iran had a deep impact" 

NN: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that your deep interest in religion dates back to your childhood. You and your family fled the 1979 revolution before coming to America. Do you think your early interest in religion was a consequence of witnessing, as a seven-year-old, this enormous paroxysm of religiosity that preceded the Revolution?

Aslan: There’s no doubt that my childhood experiences of revolutionary Iran had a deep impact on me and created a lasting, abiding interest in the power that religion has to transform societies for good and for bad. And I think, also, growing up in United States at a time of intense anti-Islam and anti-Iranian sentiment made me dig very deeply into what religion is, how it is a matter of identity, and how those identities are constantly in flux.

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