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A Globetrotting, Soul-Searching ‘Believer’

Reza Aslan takes on a worldwide spiritual journey for CNN series 3/06/2017 8:00 AM Eastern

Television and film producer Reza Aslan moved in front of the camera starting this past Sunday (March 5) as the star of CNN’s new documentary series Believer, which explores various religions around the world. Aslan, also an author and religious studies scholar, spoke with Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about the series and its relevance in a country divided over accepting immigrants from predominately Muslim countries. Aslan, who is a consulting producer for HBO’s The Leftovers, also talked about that drama series’s third and final season, which is set to debut Sunday, April 16. Here’s an edited excerpt of the conversation.

MCN: What are you looking to accomplish with your new series Believer?
Reza Aslan: Think of it as a spiritual adventure series. I go around the world and immerse myself in various religious communities — usually religions that are on the fringes or on the margins. I look at religions that are misunderstood or often misrepresented by most people, and take part in their activities by becoming one of them. Essentially what I’m hoping to do is make the unfamiliar a little bit more familiar and to use their rituals and belief systems as a lens through which to understand other cultures, other worldviews.

MCN: Given the current discussion about immigration from majority Muslim countries, do you see any correlation between the series and our political discord?
RA: Well, there’s no question that we’re living in an extremely polarized and divided society. There’s also no question that we have political leaders who are deliberately using fear of others as a way to gain political power. That’s not a new story; it’s an old story. But I think that the most powerful way of counteracting bigotry and xenophobia is through the slow and steady building of relationships. I mean I think most people’s impression of, say, Muslims or Jews or Mexicans or immigrants or trans people comes from what they see on television. So it’s important to then use television to try to counteract some of those misconceptions and negative views that I think Americans have on these small marginalized communities. Maybe you can learn to understand and connect with the people in your community and the people in your neighborhood, so the next time a politician tells you that you should be afraid of Mexicans or you should be afraid of Muslims, you’ll know that that’s not true.

MCN: Believer is one of several projects you are working on, including HBO’s The Leftovers. What should viewers expect from the show’s final season?
RA: I’m saying this not just because I’m one of the producers of the show, but I think it’s the best show on television. I think it’s a show that takes the human condition very seriously in a way that other shows do not without getting into melodrama. Yes, it’s a kind of science fiction and, yes, it deals in metaphor, but this idea of what we call the departure where a random 10% of the population of the world suddenly disappears without explanation, as well as the people that are left behind to deal with their inexplicable experience in their day to day lives, is fascinating. I think what is remarkable about it is that it revels in the mystery. It’s a show that recognizes that the question is more interesting than the answer, and we’re delighted that HBO gave us another season.

I think people are going to be really happy with it, and it really does close the story in a way that [creator] Damon Lindelof certainly had intended all along. I also think that it’s a show that’s going to live on — it’s one of those shows that I think people will go back to over and over again. It’s one of the proudest things in my career to be involved in.

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