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The Translator: America’s equal opportunity offender on the power of protest

A conversation with author and intellectual Reza Aslan

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Reza Aslan has the comfortable look of a man who knows who he is, after years of personal reflection. 

Reza Aslan is the author of “God: A Human History.”

Reza Aslan is the author of “God: A Human History.”

PETER KONERKO

He is not a prophet. Yet some readers of his works hail him as a hero to true believers in God for his acceptance of faith as a universal part of life. He is not a scientist. Yet some readers offer him as a champion of the atheist, responding to the decidedly temporal parts of his bestselling book on the life of Jesus Christ, “Zealot.” Both “sides” seem to wish he would go further in supporting them. But he’s the person in the middle seeing purpose in the arguments for faith and reason.

“I suppose if I were to describe myself, I would say that I’m a public intellectual. What I want to do and what I’ve always wanted to do is to take what are sometimes complex and messy ideas, be they in politics or religion or what have you, and to try to simplify them to figure out a way to communicate these things in an accessible but also entertaining way, in order to draw as many people as possible into the conversation.”

Eight years ago he did a takedown of liberal comedian and commentator Bill Maher’s condemnation of Islamic violence and oppression, noting its use as a representation of global Islam’s 1.9 billion population is a lazy and inaccurate description. Yet he also lost a CNN show for an offensive tweet, which he apologized for, about President Donald Trump.

Call him an equal opportunity offender, a man that could make your list of the Top 5 People I Want to Invite to Dinner, but be forewarned, dinner conversation here will focus on both politics AND religion, to “take those private conversations, and invite as large an audience as possible into them.”

Deseret Magazine sat down with Aslan, whose newest work, “An American Martyr in Persia,” details the life and death of Howard Baskerville, who went to Persia (modern-day Iran) in 1907 and ended up joining in a democratic revolution. Its echoes are felt today. We discussed Iran and the religious impulse he believes exists in all of us.


Deseret Magazine: You’ve said politics is about storytelling. What is the story in Iran following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini?

Reza Aslan: It’s important to understand that this is a 100-year-old story; that the fight for freedom we are seeing in Iran right now goes back to the very dawn of the 20th century. Iran has had three major revolutions in the course of the 20th century. I am one of a number of people who truly believe that this uprising that’s taking place right now has the potential to become the fourth revolution. And while in some ways, this can be a tragedy of a story — because here we are, you know, a hundred-and-something years into this, and Iranians are still asking for the most basic, fundamental human rights, which can be quite depressing when you think about it. But it’s also, I think, an uplifting story, because what we are seeing now is a new generation of Iranians, kids, really teenagers, who don’t carry with them the same burdens and the same fears of their parents’ generations, and so cannot be bought off with a little bit of freedom, with a little bit of extra space to make themselves heard. 

DM: Are there differences between this and the Arab Spring?

RA: The big difference, I think, between Iran and a lot of the Arab countries surrounding it is that Iran has had a vibrant protest culture. For more than a century, Iran has had a representative government, even if it is under the Islamic Republic. And for the last four decades, there have been opportunities for the people to voice their opinions and their ideas through the electoral process. Are those free and fair elections? No. But they do have a variety of choices in candidates that represent a fairly broad spectrum with different views about what the country should be like. And so over the last four decades, we have seen the Iranian people be very politically active and use the tools of government that are at their disposal, limited as they may be, in order to make their voices heard. So as you rightly point out, the difference between, say, the collapse of the government in Egypt, and the collapse of the government in Iran is that there was really no real history or experience of representative government in Egypt. Whereas the opposite is true in Iran, that it is, I would say, probably the most robust political culture in the Middle East, despite the fact that it exists in this incredibly repressive, autocratic government.

We do a very good job of talking about our values as a nation. But when it comes to putting those values into play, there is an enormous disconnect.

DM: As you note in “An American Martyr in Persia,” Howard Baskerville said that “the only difference between me and these people is my birthplace.” Is there a repeat of this right now in Iran? 

RA: The constitutional revolution that Baskerville fought and died in succeeded, primarily because it got the attention of the world. It succeeded precisely because revolutionaries from Russia and Georgia and Armenia and Turkey all came and joined in this fight for another country’s freedom. It succeeded because there was a multifaith, multiethnic coalition that fought under this single umbrella of freedom from tyranny, represented by the Shah of Iran. And of course among that coalition was this one American. And I really think there is a lesson to be learned from that success when looking at what’s happening right now in Iran. Obviously, nobody is asking for armed fighters to go and infiltrate the borders of Iran and fight alongside these revolutionaries. That’s obviously not in the cards. But I really do believe that this isn’t just rhetoric, that we have a more powerful weapon than guns, that we have the ability to make sure that the atrocities that are being committed by the Iranian government against these innocent protesters are seen, that they are responded to and that the call for freedom of these young people is heard. 

DM: What is America’s responsibility there? 

RA: I think that our responsibility is twofold. On the one hand, we’ve had a very pernicious influence in Iran going back to the CIA coup in 1953. Because it was in our foreign policy and economic interests, we supported the dictatorship of the shah for decades, and so we bear a good measure of responsibility for the shah’s atrocities. Since the ’79 revolution, we have had a fairly consistent policy in the United States of blanket sanctions of containment and isolation, as a means of trying to change the government, or at the very least force them to change their behavior, or even to promote their downfall. That, of course, has not happened. Quite the contrary, I would argue that our policy towards Iran has done nothing more than entrench that government in place even further. So then, if you are saying, in a very literal sense, what is our responsibility? Well, we’ve had a pretty big role in getting Iran to the place that it is today. And so one can say we should also be responsible in helping Iranians get out of the horrific situation in which they find themselves. But let’s talk about it in more global terms, more spiritual terms, if you will. What is the responsibility that we have, as citizens of a free country, to promote those same kinds of freedoms in places around the world where they don’t exist? Is that a responsibility not just of our government, but of our citizens? Do we have a moral responsibility? Is it really true that the suffering of any one person anywhere is the responsibility of all peoples everywhere?

DM: Do you have an answer?

RA: My answer is yes. We do have an individual moral responsibility. What I would say about our culture, though in our nation, is that we talk the talk. We do a very good job of talking about our values as a nation and the things that we hold dear. But every high school student knows that when it comes to actually putting those values into play as we pursue our fuller foreign policy interests, that there is an enormous disconnect. And I think that that has oftentimes come back to bite us in exchange for some short-term policy gain, which has resulted in devastating long-term consequences. 

DM: You went from “Zealot” about the life of Jesus Christ, to “God, A Human History.” What have you learned about faith, and its relationship to religion? 

RA: First of all, I have always been animated by stories of people who put their faith into practice, and often do so at great harm to themselves in an attempt to help other people. Whether that story happens in contemporary times, or whether it’s in ancient times, it’s a really powerful story for me, and it’s always drawn me in. 

As a person of faith, I’ve spent a lot of time studying not just what faith is, but where it comes from and why it exists. Religion is a manmade institution, the purpose of which is to provide a kind of language, a language of symbols and metaphors, to talk about this mysterious, ineffable individual experience that we refer to as faith. It exists in all people, in all cultures, in all parts of the world, and it has existed for all of our recorded history. And, indeed, the archaeological and material evidence indicates that whatever their religious impulse is, it has existed in species that predate ours. And so the only logical conclusion is that a religious impulse is part of our evolution.

DM: What about someone who believes there is a God who created man? Are you in conflict with that concept?

RA: The question of is there a God or not is to me an utterly irrelevant question, because it is absolutely unanswerable. There is no answer to that question. So what can we answer? What we can answer is that whatever this impulse is, towards belief in and let’s just use the word God, even though that word is quite a variable, whatever that is, we can answer with some clarity, that it is part of our evolution, that it is embedded in our cognitive processes, and that we are born with that idea, that belief. 

The question then is why and that’s when it becomes no longer a scientific question. At that moment, it’s a faith question. Science doesn’t have the answer. I should say, science has come up with some pretty compelling answers. Again, just as unprovable as any theological answer, the consensus view of why it is that this is a part of our human evolution is that it was an evolutionary accident, that the reason that the faith impulse is universal is that it is really just a byproduct, an echo, if you will, to have some other cognitive processes that we needed early in our evolution in order to adapt and to survive. And my answer to that is, that is as fine an answer, and as provable an answer as well, because there is a God, and God made us to be like this. What is not in dispute? And this is what I find the most fascinating. What is not a dispute, is that we are made this way. Our brains are meant to yearn for this transcendent experience. That’s how our brains work. One side says, “Yes, but it’s irrelevant, it’s just an accident.” And one side says, “It’s because we were made that way.” But both sides agree that this is a part of who you are, that that faith is who we are as human beings.

We have a more powerful weapon than guns; we have the ability to make sure that the atrocities that are being committed by the Iranian government against these innocent protesters are seen.

DM: I love the concept of a universal religious impulse. Can you explore that? 

RA: What we know from the admittedly very recent surveys and data that has been collected, is that human beings are born with the capacity for what is sometimes referred to as substance dualism, which is the belief that the mind and the body are separate and distinct. And by the way, you can replace the word mind with soul if you want to. You can call it chi if you want to. You can call it, you know, prana. You can call it Buddha nature. Everybody has a different word for it. But fundamentally, what is meant is that whatever it is that we are is more than just the material self, that there is an eternal essence that is distinct from our bodily form. 

What then, what does that lead to? How does that change the way that we see ourselves in relation to the world or in relation to each other? It is interesting when you think about it, if you believe that you are more than just the sum of your material self, then it’s not that hard to believe that what I feel as my internal essence is similar to your internal essence. And so maybe our bodily forms are different, maybe our place of birth is different, but internally we’re the same. And from the perspective of evolutionary biology, the reason we have this impulse is so that when I look at you, I think to myself, you have the same basic shape as I do. So therefore, you must have the same internal essence as I do. So therefore, we must feel the same. Therefore, we must be the same. And that can act as an adaptive advantage, you know, in our evolution.

DM: Is that the lesson of Howard Baskerville?

RA: Absolutely. Here’s a kid who was told that you are distinct because you’re American, you’re distinct because you’re a Christian. That makes you separate from the Persians. It makes you separate from the Muslims. And yet at the end of his life, he came to this realization that there isn’t anything that separates him from these people that he is fighting. The way they express their faith, their nationality, their ethnicity, their language — these are all external and meaningless. The fundamental aspiration of being a human is the same regardless of those things and that is precisely what allowed him to abandon all those other markers of his identity and to join with people who were “not him,” and fight in their cause.

DM: So if that’s the lesson of Howard Baskerville, what’s the lesson of Reza Aslan? 

RA: I’ve spent my life trying to learn the languages of religion of the world, so that I can become kind of a universal translator if you will. If I do define religion as just a language of symbols and metaphors, I do truly believe that if I can become fluent in all of those languages I can help people understand that fundamentally, they’re saying the same thing to each other. And I’ve built a career on that hope. It hasn’t always worked. There have been ups and downs. There’s been successes and failures. But I do believe that if we can as a human species, take the lesson of Baskerville, take the lesson of what I’m saying as the translator and to recognize the similarities that we have with each other beyond the sort of external divisions, borders and boundaries and skin color and any churches or what have you, then that’s the kind of world that I would like to live in. And it’s the kind of world that I’m trying to create for my children.  

Doug Wilks is executive editor of the Deseret News.

This story appears in the January/February issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.