For some, his take on religion is a ‘counter-narrative’. For others, it is too esoteric for their taste. He unapologetically calls himself a person of faith, and separates faith from rationale, calling faith “experiential phenomenon, not a rational one”. Best-selling author, commentator, professor, television producer — Dr Reza Aslan is all of this, but his first introduction still remains as a scholar of religious studies. In an era where conversations centred on religion and politics are avoided for the fear of being judged or the possibility of an escalated argument ensuing, Aslan picks up these very subjects both as a writer and as a speaker, and draws links between the two. Sometimes seen as provocative on purpose, he has to his credit bringing into public discourse issues that people shy away from.
Dr Reza Aslan’s journey has been long and winding. From a young Shia Muslim migrant from Iran to USA, to a converted Christian at the age of 15, to again a Muslim a few years later, Aslan’s journey is the quintessential journey of discovering one’s self and one’s religion. Perhaps this is why he resonates with his audiences and readers. Faith, however, has remained a constant with him. Answering a question from the audience at a packed auditorium at Habib University Karachi where he delivered a Yohsin Lecture on the topic ‘Why Do We Believe’ on June 13, Aslan distinguished between faith and religion with the help of a metaphor. According to him, when we dig wells, the wells may be different but the water under the earth’s surface is all the same. Similarly, the water is faith and the wells are religions — they are all the different paths to faith, he says.
In this exclusive interview for The News on Sunday, Aslan begins by talking about how he gets away with presenting opposing and often offbeat points of view. “When you are talking about issues of religion and politics, you are talking about things that are very deeply embedded into people’s identities, and sometimes will react if they feel their identity is under attack. My relative success has been predicated on having respect for people who disagree with me, and taking faith and religion seriously even when I disagree with it. Recognising that my arguments are always going to be founded upon reason and history and fact has, for the most part, inoculated me a little bit, but I still get into trouble all the time, both personally and professionally.”
As a person of faith, and one with a keen and critical eye on world history and politics, Aslan’s take on the role of religion in public life is unique. “I always make a clear distinction between Secularism and Secularisation,” he says, further explaining the two concepts. “Secularism is a political ideology that says religion should have no place in public life. I understand where that argument comes from but it doesn’t make any sense in a modern constitutional democracy if the entire point of a democratic system is to allow people to find representatives who share their values, their ideas, and their worldview. Religion becomes a very easy shorthand for those complicated notions. So it’s ridiculous to say that religion should have no role in politics and in the public realm. Of course it should.”
He goes on to add that Secularisation is about making sure that religion doesn’t have political authority, and that religious institutions are distinct from the governing bodies and the political authorities — that authority itself over the state should rest not in the hands of religious leaders but in the hands of political leaders. “Secularisation is very important when it comes to modern constitutional state because, particularly in countries where vast majorities share a single religious tradition, religion can very easily become authoritarian where those who disagree with the religion, those who have no religion and those who have a different religion become second class citizens. That is not a democracy.
“That’s what I think is important. Secularism is not the key to a functioning democratic state. Secularisation is the key to that, because Secularisation is about pluralism, about rights of all citizens regardless of their religion,” he says. In Aslan’s opinion, Secularism is based on the forceful removal of religion from the public realm which is anti-democratic. “It’s anti-democratic when France does it. It’s anti-democratic when Turkey used to do it. It’s anti-democratic when Egypt does it.”
Commenting on Pakistan’s historical journey and the role of religion in it, Aslan says that it is important to recognise that Pakistan has an extraordinarily unique history. “This country defined itself from the very beginning in terms that are impossible to actually live out. When you call yourself an Islamic state, you need to figure out what that exactly means. Does that mean it’s a state for a majority Muslim population or does it mean that it’s a state founded upon Islamic ideology or does it mean that it’s a state that is run according to Islam? I think the problem is that it was never explicitly defined; it becomes difficult to have these kinds of ideological conversations about the nature of the state when you have no choice but to build the state. That of course had to do with the fact that it was created in the midst of the single largest mass migration in human history to this day.”
According to him, that more than anything explains the tumultuous history of Pakistan going from a secular democracy to a military dictatorship to being a religious-inspired state, then back to being a secular democracy and then a military dictatorship and then a religious-inspired state. “What the experience of Pakistan shows — and that is precisely why it is so unique — is the difficulty of trying to define a nation state in religious terms,” he says, mentioning Israel as a cautionary tale, “a country that is disintegrating from within”.
Fiercely and openly critical of Modi, Netanyahu, and Trump, Aslan says that it has been a very long time that Pakistan has had a Modi or a Trump. “We cannot say that there can never be the rise of a demagogue in Pakistan. But for the most part, I think the (political) trends are moving in a positive direction,” he says. Commenting further on the kind of political leadership he is wary of, he says that a global-wide identity crisis has created the vacuum for authoritarian demagogues to step in and provide an easy way for citizens of these states to define themselves according to religion or race or ethnicity etc.
“There’s nothing about India or about Hinduism that explains Modi, for example. What is happening in India and Israel and USA is a global phenomenon; it is not just about these individual countries.”
To Aslan, while religion is a potential tool for social stability, and collective identity, he feels that like any tool, it can be wielded in positive and negative ways. “It’s all about the person wielding it. I cannot say religion is a force for good or force for evil, or that it causes peace or causes violence. Religion doesn’t do any of those things. People do those things. Religion is a means for them to achieve those ends.”
When asked what he enjoys most — teaching, public speaking or writing books, his answer is simple. “It’s all storytelling. Stories are how we define ourselves and communicate our ideas to the world. The platform doesn’t matter. If you ask me who I am, I will say I am a storyteller.”