Reza Aslan and His Journey in “Believer”

By Sumeera Jattala, CHASS Dean’s Office Student Writer
March 16th, 2017

“Always say that you have a mission, not a job” Reza Aslan said in an interview in his office, located within the Creative Writing department. Professor Aslan is a religious scholar, and a UC Riverside professor for Creative Writing. However his capabilities and momentum to give to an audience of learners is endless. He is known for a range of achievements, such as: writing, activism, producing, hosting, and teaching. Now that attention is directed to his new CNN series, “Believer”.

'Believer' is a brand new CNN series starring Aslan. The series aims to explore religious groups across the globe and creating connections and relations through the experience. The show premiered on Sunday, March 5th. Aslan says, “This is a way of becoming familiarized with communities that may seem foreign and exotic and scary, but through tracking my experience, tracking my journey will hopefully lead the viewers to think that perhaps they’re not so different.” Ultimately, the series aims to create that connection.

It is not often to see a UC Riverside professor on CNN, opening the doors to various worldviews. This also creates an avenue for those who want to showcase religious rather than to exoticize it into something trendy. “Believer” aims to be different. Aslan argues, “We don’t have to be sensationalists on CNN. We can be entertaining but also informational and educational.” CNN itself is a strong resource to showcase a project such as, “Believer.” Aslan continued his thought on the network’s role in the production of the series saying, “It was the only place I wanted to do this show, it really was, and I am happy I got to do it there.”

Prior to the premiere of the series, a set of various trailers and clips were released for the viewership to preview and have a taste of what’s to come. One of the trailers was a dialogue of Aslan debunking the stigma behind the word “cult.” That was an extremely important, and powerful move for Aslan to set the tone of the series before it’s release; as a form to open the mind of the audience and educate them. Aslan emphasized that, “There is a very important reason why experts on religion don’t use the word cult, because cult is not a description, it is a value judgement.” Religion in itself is taboo because of reasons such as this, which is why a show such as “Believer” is much needed in today’s time. One upcoming episode is focused on scientology and Aslan received a lot of “push back, people were resenting the show for acknowledging scientology as a religion. Aslan argues, “but it’s a religion.” This serves as one of the many examples as to how heavy the dialogue of religion may become. With understanding the current climate for religion, the overall hope is to teach the audience about different communities and break down stereotypes and how we think.

Another preview for the show centers around the first episode’s profile of the Aghori sect of Hinduism, known as cannibalists, and Aslan’s experience in that setting. The scene shows Aslan’s discomofort as he tells crew members that they should just ditch the scene. Aslan calls this episode “simultaneously the most difficult and rewarding.” He explains that the sect rejects the concepts of purity and pollution, opposing the commonly noted caste system in India. Aslan admits that even though he intellectually agreed with that belief, proving that was what came to be the difficult task at hand. When reflecting on that episode, Aslan said, “I did not want to do the things they told me to do, but in doing that, there was clearly a sense of liberation that I experienced and that was extraordinary”

The process of curating the show was a long road. Aslan says that the first season is a “proof of concept”. Essentially he had various ideas, but they had to match the interests of CNN, time, and most importantly, insurance. “It turns out a lot of these religious traditions that we were interested in covering are in places that are not exactly safe to cover. So you had to have enormous amounts of insurance which made some of the episodes to do”. With that in mind, the six episodes are six that they were able to bring to life within these circumstances. In regards to future episodes, Aslan hopes if there is success from the show there can be leeway to embark on the episodes they initially could not cover the first time around. After a heavy period in pre-production, filming took around eight weeks. The filming for each episode took in between seven to ten days consistently, with a Thanksgiving break in between the back-to-back filming.

There is a certain narrative from Aslan that resonates with the series. Reza Aslan is an Irani-American, and that identity itself sets himself up as the “other”. “I’m used to being in a situation in which my very identity is not just perceived as foreign and exotic, but also frightening and terrible.” With that experience, Aslan believes he’s able to approach these communities from a sympathetic place and understanding. He is actively shedding light on the importance for the narratives of these other world views to be heard without any judgement.

“Believer” is not like any other reality based television series. The show is a travelogue and is ideal for audiences interested in views and the world around them. Reza Aslan noted that even those who come from a non religious standpoint should watch the series. Regardless, the show is a product of the same values as UC Riverside and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, such as diversity and the never ending journey of education.

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