Reza Aslan is an author, a scholar, and the host of CNN’s new show, Believer — in which he embeds with the world’s most “fascinating faith-based groups” to give the audience a real idea about what it’s like to be a devout member of some of religion’s strangest sects. But while the show exists to educate and explain, it’s already receiving a huge amount of backlash after its premiere episode.The fury comes from the fact that Aslan ate brains, human brains, on national television.
Let’s back up for a second, because just saying “this dude ate brains and said they tasted like charcoal” won’t give anyone a clear picture of what actually happened. The reality is that Aslan ate the brains as part of a ceremony performed by the Aghori, a small Hindu group that’s known for its bizarre and extreme rituals.
Why the backlash then? Two reasons: First, Aslan’s choice to film the Aghori — a group of outcasts — has been seen as an insult to followers of Hinduism, who are both non-violent and vegetarian; Second, Aslan’s demeanor on the show (his performance has a certain hamming-it-up feel) as well as his remarks about the clips he’s posted — he refers to one, in which he and the Aghori chief argue about a chicken, as hilarious — have been criticized as mocking and insensitive.
In fact, Hindu groups have even begun protests against both Aslan and CNN in a bid to get the network to pull the show, which they feel will incite both racial and religious intolerance.
Here’s a clip from the show, in which Aslan wears a headband made of human remains and does his best to remain calm as the situation around him gets frightening and violent. It’s a clear bid for ratings and you’ve got to agree that it absolutely works as “riveting television you’ll be discussing with your co-workers at the water cooler on Monday morning.” But was this interview necessary, might it cause more harm than good? On the flip side, shouldn’t there always be a place for these sorts of untold stories?
People on Twitter were outraged with how Aslan portrayed Hindus, angrily asking why he chose to represent one billion people by highlighting the one sect that eats human flesh.
The show has also earned the ire of congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who went hard on Aslan and CNN for promoting false stereotypes and treating Hindus as a zoo exhibit:
The show’s portrayal of Hindus comes at a particularly dangerous time, as hate crimes against South Asians have begun to spike in The United States. The Washington Post reports that three South Asian men have been violently killed due to their race in the past month, continuing a terrible streak that started right after 9/11:
According to a 2015 Department of Justice report, federal agencies have investigated more than 800 incidents since 9/11 involving physical violence, threat and vandalism against Arab Americans, Muslims, Sikhs, South Asian Americans and those perceived to be of Middle Eastern origin.
This has continued now for 15 years. Whenever there’s a major terrorist incident or when an election cycle includes inflammatory rhetoric against Muslims and immigrants, these communities suffer hate violence.
In the past few months, South Asians have seen an unprecedented spike in the rate of hate violence and speech, much as has happened to other U.S. minority groups. South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), an advocacy group, documented 207 incidents of hate violence and xenophobic political rhetoric targeting South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Middle Eastern and Arab communities in the year leading up to the 2016 elections. That’s a 34 percent increase over the previous report’s three-year period (2011-14), when the group documented only 157 incidents.
Aslan has responded to the backlash with a simple message. Responding to a tweet in which one viewer asked why Aslan didn’t show the diversity of Hinduism, choosing instead to focus on a cannibal cult, Aslan explained that the show wasn’t about Hinduism; it was about one particular group:
Later, he responded in full on Facebook, writing:
As someone who writes and speaks about religion for a living, I know better than most the sensitivities of the topic, and I have spent much of my career trying my best to address those sensitivities. In the case of the episode on the Aghor – which, as I repeatedly state on camera and in voice-over, are not representative of Hinduism but are instead an extreme Hindu sect who reject the fundamental Hindu distinction between purity and pollution – I tried to ease the concerns of those who may have missed this fundamental distinction by providing multiple articles and videos on CNN.com that address the beliefs of Hinduism and debunk its myths (http://www.cnn.com/shows/believer). I also commissioned my good friend Varun Soni, America’s first Hindu-American chaplain, to write an essay on the site addressing the complexities of the caste system, and why the Aghor fight so hard to remove it from Indian society. In almost every interview I did about the show I talked at length about the issue underlying the episode, including the fluidity of the caste system, the problems inherent amongst the untouchable class, and how devout Hindus of all stripes are working tirelessly to overcome both.
What’s more, I had numerous meetings by phone and in person with representatives of the Hindu-American Foundation who, unlike a great many of those who were upset about the episode, actually watched it and, as a result, ended up writing a fair and measured response to the criticism on its web site, noting that while “the initial promotional materials and trailers on CNN include the titillating, with a banner headline “CANNIBALS” to a revolting scene of a Sadhu flinging urine… there is also a trailer that describes the spiritual significance of Aghori practice, core beliefs, and scenes of a tranquil school where children of all castes and creeds were being educated by practicing Hindus living the Hindu Aghori faith of loving, serving, and caring without discrimination” (https://www.hafsite.org/haf-presents-community-concerns-abo…). The foundation urged its members to watch the show themselves before passing judgment. And indeed, I received emails from Indian and Hindu-American critics who changed their minds once they had actually watched the show.
Despite all this, I know that there are still those who are offended by the episode, especially when it comes to its treatment of such issues as caste discrimination, which remains a touchy subject for many Hindus in America. I have great sympathy for that position. But caste discrimination is a very real thing, and the attempts by the Aghor to overcome it using the principles of Hindu spirituality is important to highlight.
While Aslan’s comments were clearly made in good faith, he’s got to know that he has a lot of sway and influence as a media personality (and that people are more reactive than ever). That means that even though people should take Believer with a grain of salt — or at least watch the whole episode — the fear is that many will simple react to the splashy trailers.
It also opens Aslan up to the question of where he will draw the line. Yes, his show is about introducing the world to religions the general public may not have heard of, but as angry viewers have pointed out, Aslan’s not embedding himself with ISIS, likely due to his understanding that it would spark more Islamophobia rather than helping viewers get an inside look into what makes terrorists tick. And if that’s the case, people wonder, then why didn’t Aslan give Hindus the same kind of respect and consideration?