Reza Aslan was born in Iran on May 3, 1972. His family fled to the United States in 1979, to escape Ayatollah Khomeini‘s Iranian Revolution, and settled in the San Francisco Bay Area. Raised as a Muslim, Aslan converted to evangelical Christianity at the age of 15. After earning B.A. in Religious Studies from Santa Clara University in 1995, he …
Reza Aslan was born in Iran on May 3, 1972. His family fled to the United States in 1979, to escape Ayatollah Khomeini‘s Iranian Revolution, and settled in the San Francisco Bay Area. Raised as a Muslim, Aslan converted to evangelical Christianity at the age of 15. After earning B.A. in Religious Studies from Santa Clara University in 1995, he decided to convert back to Islam. Aslan subsequently obtained a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard University in 1999, a Master of Fine Arts in Fiction from the University of Iowa in 2002, and a Ph.D. in Sociology from UC-Santa Barbara in 2009. Today Aslan is a tenured Professor of Creative Writing at UC-Riverside. He was previously a Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion at the University of Iowa (2000-2003), and a Professor of Religion at Drew University (2012-13).
In addition to his academic duties, Aslan serves on the advisory board of the National Iranian American Council, a lobbying group for the theocratic, anti-Semitic government in Tehran. Over the years, he has openly supported a number of extremist Muslim figures and organizations. For instance, Aslan has described Iran’s former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who explicitly called for the destruction of Israel, as a liberal reformerwith whom the U.S. government ought to conduct diplomacy; he has similarly exhorted the United States to negotiate with the jihad terror group Hamas; he has praised the Hezbollah as “the most dynamic political and social organization in Lebanon”; and in 2011 he called it “a good thing” that the Muslim Brotherhood “will have a significant role to play in post-Mubarak Egypt.”
First Book: No god But God
In 2005 Aslan published his first book,No god but God, an international bestseller that was updated and re-released in 2011 and was translated into at least seventeen languages. Seeking to defend his Islamic faith from forces of “ignorance and hate,” Aslan’s book denounces the “rising anti-Muslim vehemence that has become so much a part of the [Western] mainstream media’s discourse about the Middle East.” Purporting to demonstrate that Islam and its predecessor monotheisms, Christianity and Judaism, are entirely compatible and need not clash with one another, Aslan argues that the message of Islam, as intended by its founder, the Prophet Mohammed, is a “revolutionary message of moral accountability and social egalitarianism.” As Middle East Forum Fellow Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi wrote in 2013, Aslan’s book constitutes “not scholarship, but apologetics replete with misinformation.” For example, Al-Tamimi writes:
- “To focus on a single crucial issue, he [Aslan] asserts that ‘the most important innovation in the doctrine of jihad was its outright prohibition of all but strictly defensive wars,’ while Qur’anic verses such as 9:29, with the injunction to fight non-Muslims until they pay a poll-tax in a state of subjugation, are explained away as ‘directed specifically at the Quraysh (the pagan tribe in Mecca opposed to Muhammad) and their clandestine partisans in Yathrib (Medina, with the Jews opposed to Muhammad).’”
- “[Aslan] portrays what he terms the ‘classical doctrine of jihad’ as something formulated during the ‘height of the Crusades’ and ‘partly in response to them.’ In fact, the doctrine of jihad demands that the ‘House of Islam’ (Dar al-Islam) must subdue the “House of War” (Dar al-Harb, the non-Islamic world), although Aslan uses the softened (and misleading) phrase ‘in pursuit’ of the ‘House of Islam.’ In sum, Aslan presents offensive jihad as a response to Western aggression. This is blatantly unhistorical: offensive jihad as a doctrine—beginning with elaboration from the first biographers of Mohammed such as Ibn Ishaq in the ninth century—was developed precisely to unify and justify the rapidly growing Arab empire from Islam’s early years.”
- “Given his portrayal of jihad as merely defensive, Aslan refuses to consider whether al-Qaeda’s worldview might have any ideological appeal with roots in Islamic theology. Rather, [he says,] the only way to diminish al-Qaeda’s influence is to address the ‘very grievances that the movement uses to rally young Muslims to its cause: the suffering of the Palestinians, American support for Arab dictators . . . the fact that we in the west tend to treat that entire region [the Middle East] as a giant gas station.’ In fact, this is typical of the propaganda that al-Qaeda employs in messages to Westerners.”
- “Islamism, according to Aslan, is nothing more than ‘religious nationalism of the Islamic variety,’ to be distinguished from jihadism, which is defined as a transnational project.”
Also in No god but God, Aslan wrongly states that: (a) the death penalty for apostasy is “un-Quranic,” and nowhere in the Quran “is any earthly punishment prescribed for apostasy”; (b) “Islam has never had a single … centralized religious authority that claims the right to speak for the entire Muslim community” (when in fact that authority is Muhammad); and (c) “Muhammad aligned his community with the Jews in Medina because he considered them, as well as the Christians, to be part of his Ummah [community].”
More Errors by Aslan
In a 2013 interview with NPR, Aslan mistakenly asserted that the Gospel of Mark contains no statement where Jesus claims a messianic identity, when in fact it contains a passage where Jesus responds affirmatively when asked if he is the son of God.Islam scholar and Jihad Watch founder Robert Spencer points out numerous additional errors that Aslan has made in his writings over the years:
“He has made the ridiculous claim that the idea of resurrection ‘simply doesn’t exist in Judaism,’ despite numerous passages to the contrary in the Hebrew Scriptures. He has also referred to ‘the reincarnation, which Christianity talks about’ — although he later claimed that one was a ‘typo.‘ In yet another howler he later insisted was a ‘typo,’ he claimedthat the Biblical story of Noah was barely four verses long — which he then corrected to forty, but that was wrong again, as it is 89 verses long. Aslan claimed that the ‘founding philosophy of the Jesuits’ was ‘the preferential option for the poor,’ when in reality, that phrase wasn’t even coined until 1968. He called Turkey the second most populous Muslim country, when it is actually the eighth most populous Muslim country. He thinks Pope Pius XI, who issued the anti-fascist encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge, was a fascist. He thinksMarx and Freud ‘gave birth to the Enlightenment,’ when it ended in the late 18th century, before either of them were born. He claims that ‘the very first thing that Muhammad did was outlaw slavery,’ when in fact Muhammad bought slaves, took female captives as sex slaves, and owned slaves until his death. He thinks Ethiopia and Eritrea are in Central Africa.”
2006 and After
In 2009 Aslan founded Aslan Media Initiatives, whose mission is “to inform, educate, and engage the public on political, social, religious, and cultural issues related to the Greater Middle East and its Diaspora Communities worldwide.”
In 2010 Aslan published his second book, Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in a Globalized Age (originally titled How to Win a Cosmic War)
In a 2012 interview, Aslan identified Eboo Patel, Faisal Abdul Rauf and Daisy Khan as individuals whom he considers to be moderate Muslims.In 2012 Aslan openly encouraged people to vandalize posters bearing a series of “racist ads” created and sponsored by Pamela Geller’s American Freedom Defense Initiative. Those ads read: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat jihad.” In a May 2014 question-and-answer thread on Reddit, Aslan was asked: “You and Pamela Geller are stuck on an island, what happens?” Aslan answered: “Are we stuck forever? If so, then I guess it’s time to make some hate babies.”
In July 2014 Aslan denied that the Islamic terror group ISIS had any appeal whatsoever to devout Muslims, marveling over “how little religion plays a role in this group, how little the idea of reading the Koran or praying or those kinds of things play a significant role on the ground among these militants.” Alluding, however, to the “grievances … that a lot of Muslims around the world have,” he warned that ISIS would continue to win recruits “unless those grievances can be addressed.”
In November 2014, Aslan claimedthat Muslim-dominated nations around the world have established track-records on women’s rights that are comparable to those of Western democracies. He also claimed that the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation is not a Muslim phenomenon, but rather, a “central African” matter. (For a refutation of Aslan’s claim, click here.)
In 2014 as well, Aslan published his third book, the #1 New York Times bestseller Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.
Just hours after a jihadist gunman named Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez had slaughtered four U.S. Marines and one sailor in Chattanooga, Tennesseeon July 16, 2015, Aslan denied that Abdulazeez’s actions should be classified as terrorism. “Terrorism,” he said, is “an absolute bulls#@t and meaningless term.” Aslan also conflated international jihad with far-right, white-supremacist militias in the United States.In August 2015, Aslan was one of 73 International Relations and Middle East scholars who signed a statement of support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, an international agreement regarding the Iranian nuclear program. Other notable signatories included John Esposito, Rashid Khalidi, Hamid Dabashi, John Mearshimer, Peter Beinart, Stephen Walt, Noam Chomsky, and Juan Cole.
In September 2015, Aslan told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that “the modern GOP [Republican Party] today” is rife with “xenophobia” and “anti-Muslim bashing.”In 2015 as well, Aslan began production for Believer, a documentary series about various religious traditions worldwide, with a special focus on sects often considered fringe and disreputable. The program premiered on CNN in March 2017.
Also in 2015, Aslan joined the popular HBO series_The Leftovers_as a consulting producer.
In March 2016, the cable television network Ovation premieredRough Draft with Reza Aslan, a talk show featuring Aslan in conversation with well-known writers about their work in film, TV, and journalism.
In 2016 Aslan lamented that Americans as a people “have been Islamophobic” ever since “we were attacked by [a mere] 18 Muslims” on 9/11.1 These negative feelings toward Muslims, he said, are “the result of a very well-organized, extremely well-funded, concerted effort by a handful of organizations … to convince Americans that the 1% of the population of this country that is Muslim is on the verge of a complete takeover.” “We are at a far greater threat from white supremacist terrorism,” Aslan continued. “Since 9/11, right-wing terrorists have killed far more Americans than Islamic terrorists have.”
In an April 2016 Los Angeles Times interview, Aslan asserted that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s strong showing in recent polls was evidence that “a large swath” of the American population is “xenophobic, racist and Islamophobic.” “[N]ow it’s out in the open and can’t be ignored any longer,” he added.
Appearing as a guest on CNN Newsroom in March 2017, Aslan suggested that a recent spate of bomb threats against Jewish community centers were the result of President Trump’s “divisive, polarizing rhetoric about Mexicans and Muslims and people who don’t look like everyone else.” Aslan never mentioned that almost all of the threats had been perpetrated by a disturbed Israeli-American Jewish teenager in Israel, and that at least some were known to have been perpetrated by an anti-Trump liberal attempting to frame his ex-girlfriend.When President Trump – in the immediate aftermath of a deadly Islamic terrorist attack in London on June 3, 2017 – tweeted about the need to reinstate his “travel ban” barring immigration to the U.S. from hotbeds of terrorism in the Middle East, Aslan tweeted: “This piece of sh** is not just an embarrassment to America and a stain on the presidency. He’s an embarrassment to humankind.” This was not the first time Aslan had characterized Trump in vulgar terms. On September 19, 2016, he had likewise referred to Trump as “a piece of sh**.” And on May 9, 2017, he had described Trump as a “lying conniving scumbag narcissistic sociopath piece of sh** fake president.”
Shortly after Aslan’s tweet of June 3, CNN canceled his Believer series.
For additional information on Reza Aslan, click here.
1 Actually, there were 19 hijackers.