Revisiting (with Reza Aslan) | Crooked Media
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November 12, 2021
Unholier Than Thou
Revisiting (with Reza Aslan)

In This Episode

This week, Phill is joined by author Reza Aslan to revisit the early aughts in the American imagination. In the wake of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, how do notions of American exceptionalism hold up? Reza and Phill discuss how Christian imperialism has crept its way into allegedly secular politics, look critically at America’s outmoded hero complex, and question to legitimacy of the liberator theology that we carry with us today.






Reza Aslan: We went into Afghanistan to benefit the United States. We went into Iraq to benefit the United States. We pretended that it was to help Iraqis and to help Afghans, but I mean any objective observer just has to look at the last 20 years to know that that was bullshit.


Phillip Picardi: From Crooked Media, this is Unholier Than Thou. I’m your host, Phillip Picardi. A lot of this season we’ve been exploring things like resurrection, rebirth, the whole kind of idea that we are transforming ourselves or for better or for worse, moving into a new chapter of our lives, especially after coming out of such a difficult time in American history, what with the pandemic, the election, etc.. One thing that really struck me, though, was in the past few months, especially, a certain news cycle has felt oddly cyclical, oddly like a full circle kind of moment that was like the specters of our past coming back to haunt us. At the same time that New York City was honoring the people we lost during the attacks of September 11th and the 20th anniversary of those attacks, we also were in the midst of pulling American troops out of Afghanistan to devastating human rights consequences. We left many people behind who supported the American government and the American cause. And of course, there were endless stories of families who were caught in the fray, of people who died. And since what the Taliban is going to do and look like now that they have control back over Afghanistan. This whole kind of failed experiment of the war on terror there has disastrous consequences in Afghanistan, of course. But maybe one thing that we’ve not explored as much is what kind of consequences it’s had here in America, to our own neighbors, to the people we interact with every day. And how the attitudes of the war on terror, how we came to see them as normal, how we adopted them as just givens without ever really analyzing how the media and the government played a really strong role in informing our own views that were intrinsically Islamophobic, and really demonized people abroad in a spectacular and horrifying way. So for this episode, it’s not so much about resurrection, it’s it’s really about revisiting, because you don’t want to go into a new version of yourself or a new version of ourselves, or a new version of this world, without really owning and taking accountability for what we’ve done in our past, right? So to join me today, I have Reza Aslan, who is an incredible journalist, a scholar of religions, and who has a lot to say about the war in Afghanistan, the war on terror, and what it all means for us and our very divided nation going forward. Here’s Reza:


Phillip Picardi: So this season, we’re exploring all sorts of themes that have to do with kind of renaissance, right? This idea that folks have gone through various transformations for better or for worse, especially in the past year. And one thing I wanted to include in this season was not so much the concept of a renaissance, but really the concept of revisiting something from our past that has taken on a new life and certainly, hopefully a new understanding of events that happened in the past. And the two things that really struck out to me were kind of honoring this 20th anniversary of September 11th and also at the same time, the United States’ decision to pull out all troops and military intervention from Afghanistan. And those two things felt, I guess, prescient—I’m not even sure what the word is—maybe ironic to be happening all at once and for there to be so much attention and fervor around the good, like, you know, the well-being and the goodwill of the Afghanistan people and this kind of fundamental, it seems still and lingering misunderstanding of what the situation is abroad over there and kind of this, these questions of empathy that really have been, I think, surrounding a lot of consciousness around Afghanistan for so long but have never really managed to capture the full American attention the way that they have in the past month and a half. And so as we’re kind of revisiting these things, especially from a new lens, I just, I guess I just wanted to start by offering you a chance to say like, what’s going through your head, now that it’s been a couple of, a few weeks, even a month since the official removal? And I want to say the dust to settle, but of course it hasn’t, right. But what are, what are you feeling right now, and what are you holding right now?


Reza Aslan: I mean, there’s so much to say about the war in Afghanistan, it’s ending, the disastrous way in which we removed American military personnel, but the thing that I keep coming back to, because it’s a subject that’s very close to my heart professionally and emotionally, personally, is the tens of thousands of Afghans that we left behind, particularly the so-called SIVs. These are the Afghan interpreters, personnel who risked their lives, the lives of their families, in order to help the American mission succeed. And who did so because they were explicitly promised that in exchange for their help, they would receive visas allowing them and their families to escape from the inevitable revenge that would be sought for them by the Taliban and their allies, by getting safe passage to the United States. Of those tens of thousands of Afghans who qualified for the SIV program, a very small fraction were able to leave before the American military withdrawal. And those tens of thousands that were left behind after the American military withdrawal, the Biden administration has said in no uncertain terms will not be receiving those SIVs. And this is to me, it’s just a horrific tragedy on two levels. One, obviously the human tragedy. I mean, these individuals have already been hunted down. They and their families have been slaughtered. We receive reports all the time of this happening, and they’re being slaughtered because they believed us. But more sort of globally, what we have done to these Afghan interpreters is, I think, emblematic of how we have treated this entire region for generations, long before the war on terror, long before the war in Afghanistan. This region, in many ways has been a proxy not just for American foreign policy interests—and we do have a host of foreign policy interests in the wider Middle East that are complex and have, you know, far more to do with our own personal interests here in the United States and anything else—but it’s become a proxy for this impression that we have of ourselves as a nation. In so many ways, we have used the Middle East, Muslims, Afghanistan, Iraq, as a kind of negative pole for defining ourselves. You know, it’s been very difficult in this 21st century to truly say what it means to be American. But it’s pretty easy to say what is not American. You just point at someone and say not them. And so when you hear the rhetoric that we have used about the Middle East, about Afghanistan, about Muslims in general, that, oh, there’s no separation of religion and state in those places of the world. Which is absurd. I mean, it’s actually far more rigid separation of religion and state in places like Syria or in Afghanistan or in Lebanon than here in the United States—by far the most religious developed country in the world and the country in which we not only allow for religion to have a foothold in our politics, we literally encourage it. We actually provide platforms whereby the voice of religion can be emphasized, you know, over other voices. Or that you know, they well, they don’t treat their women right in the Middle East. Muslim countries have had more female heads of state than the United States has, because the United States has had zero. You know, we have used that part of the world as a kind of mirror to define ourselves for generations. And the war in Afghanistan, the haphazard way in which we entered it, the betrayal of that country in sort of turning our attention away from it and moving on to the next country, you know, in our global war on terror, and then the absolutely irresponsible way in which we left that war, to me is just the perfect emblem of how we think about Muslims in the Middle East.


Phillip Picardi: Absolutely.


Reza Aslan: Yeah. Just horrifying, horrifying in every way.


Phillip Picardi: Absolutely. Thank you so much for hitting on so many points in one really concise answer. Let’s start with the myth of secularism, because something you’ve written about before is sort of this American imagination that there is secularism here and also that religion is distinct from culture. Right? And you know how you’ve illustrated how religion actually infiltrates American culture and therefore American politics, or American politics and therefore American culture, you know, whichever way. it’s all symbiotic and my eyes. This is a really dangerous perception that a lot of Americans have. A lot of Americans, even liberal Americans, you know, I would say, especially liberal Americans, have this idea that religion doesn’t belong in government and therefore it isn’t in government, and also that only the right wing wants religion in government. These are all lies of the American imagination. And this, the way that we’ve convinced ourselves that secularism is real has allowed us to think that we were entering Afghanistan or invading Afghanistan for some sort of noble reason that had nothing to do with Christian supremacy and the remnants of Christian supremacy, which have always made Christians believe that conquest was their birthright and that anyone who didn’t accept the word of Jesus was worth conquering and subjugating, right? And so this through line of American politics and American imperialism is something that the public, I mean, it’s something that’s really hard to grasp with. A, because it challenges our notions of what our government really is. But also it challenges our notions of who we are in this system. And I think that’s the even harder part. When we talk about this myth of secularism and the way that culture, religion has bled into culture in America. Can you explain a little bit about how you see that creating this justification for the atrocities that we’ve committed abroad?


Reza Aslan: Yeah. Such a great way to to frame this question. Yeah, I mean, look, first of all, just to kind of define terms, you’re right, you know, we use the term secularism when what we really mean is secularization. Secularism is a political ideology, the purpose of which is to remove, by force if necessary, religion from public life. There are a number of secular countries in the world. France is a secular country in which outward forms of religion in public life are illegal and forcibly removed. Turkey used to be a secular country. Same thing. Egypt is a secular country, which is weird because I think a lot of Americans would be like, yeah, but they’re Muslims, so aren’t they don’t they just believe that, like the Koran is law. Egypt is a country in which if you were a politician running for office and you mention the Koran or you mention the religious motivations for you running for office or the fact that you want to instill, quote unquote “Muslim morals or values” into politics, you’re never heard from again. And I don’t mean like you’re silenced. I mean, you literally are disappeared. Those are secular countries. We are at least somewhat in form a secularized country. And the difference between secularism and secularization is that secularization means the separation of religious and political powers so that the religious authorities are not the political authorities, as is the case in, say, Iran, right, where there, where the religious authorities are the political authorities, there’s no division between the two. But even that, I think, is a stretch in the United States. Look. The conviction that the United States is a quote, “Christian Nation” appointed by God, you know, to sort of establish Christian values throughout the rest of the world is baked into the American consciousness, is baked into the American identity, which is why I’m so glad that that you said, you know, oftentimes we think that this is sort of a conservative viewpoint, but that liberals are just as guilty of it. Because for us, Christianization and Americanization have sort of bled into a single ideal, right. I often say it’s the cross and the flag as a single emblem.


Phillip Picardi: Yes.


Reza Aslan: So when you hear people saying that we need to bring American ideals and values to X, Y and Z? Well, there really isn’t a way to distinguish between American values and Christian values in a lot of our political rhetoric on the left or the right. And this, as I say, is very much baked into the very foundation of the United States. I mean, people tend to forget that, you know, the Puritans who settled the U.S. truly believed that they were making an exodus into the new Israel. They used these terms, right, the new Israel, the new Jerusalem, right? Herman Melville had this whole line where he’s like, Americans are the new chosen people, quote, “the Israel of our time.” Right? Jonathan Edwards, this kind of, you know, the guy everybody read in like, you know, in college, write this sort of 18th century fire and brimstone preacher, he would describe America as the New Canaan, right? That a, that America has received the true religion of the old world.


Phillip Picardi: Sure.


Reza Aslan: And concept was obviously revitalized by Reagan in the city on the hill analogy. This idea that America is a sacred nation, right? That it was, it’s distinct from all other nations in how it was born, why it was born. And so as a result of that, it has this added burden, this burden to bring Americanization qua Christianization to the rest of the world. And this isn’t new. You heard this same kind of stuff, you know, during World War Two, where, you know, FDR would say things like there isn’t enough room in the universe for both Hitler and God. And so therefore we, we as the as the chosen nation, have to go and and, you know, rid the world of this particular evil. And it certainly was baked into the war on terror. I mean, let’s not forget the way that George W. Bush—I know it’s been like 20 years—but the way that George W. Bush launched the war on terror was by explicitly referring to it as a crusade.


Phillip Picardi: Right. Clever language.


He said, it’s a crusade against evildoers. Exactly. And you know, crusade is a very specific term. It means holy war. That’s what crusade means. And I know that a lot of people have since then said, you know, well, it’s just rhetoric. And he was talking, you know, the language of religion because the language of religion has the most currency for the masses. It’s true. It’s true. That’s how it works in the United States. Doesn’t matter who you are. You know, we’re a very religious country. One third of this country, that’s more than 120 million of us self-identified as evangelical. So yeah, I get it. You want to talk to America and you have to talk the language of religion. Obama had to figure out how to do that, right. It just, it’s just how we, how we function. But let’s not forget that the rest of the world actually hears us. My favorite, I bring this line out all the time because somebody talked to Bin Laden, you know, right after the war in Afghanistan started and asked him about this notion of the crusade. And he very specifically said, and I have the line here, “our goal is for our Muslim community to unite in the face of this Christian crusade. Bush said it himself, crusade. People make apologies for him. They say he didn’t mean to say that this was a crusader war, even though he himself said it was. The odd thing about this is that he has taken the words right out of our mouths”.


Phillip Picardi: Right.


Reza Aslan: That’s the ideology in which America sees itself in the world, the role that we play. And it’s still that role to this day.


Phillip Picardi: It was also the founding principle of how our country was, quote unquote ‘discovered” right? Columbus was here sent by Spain, a deeply Catholic nation that was closing its borders and exterminating folks who were Jewish or Muslim, right, sent here saw indigenous people and said they were blank slates, right? And then, you know, here comes the forced conversion of indigenous people and the so-called Christian kind of blessing, really, of the transatlantic slave trade. These things are a part of American history, the foundations of this country and the mentality that brought us here, Manifest Destiny being a Christian notion, right? What was said about the rhetoric that Bush used is so interesting because it feeds into the myth of secularism altogether, right? The idea that he said the word crusade but didn’t meet it in a religious way. Well, you know, whether or not you meant it is sort of irrelevant, the fact that it was the appropriate language to use proves that secularism is a myth, right? That in order to feed the American imagination and the American hunger for war, you had to use religious language. So it just goes to show how all of these things are intertwined. But it wasn’t just people in Afghanistan or bin Laden who heard crusade and who basically used it or kind of felt validated by it. It was also white Christians who used it to justify their hatred of Muslim neighbors or confusingly, Sikh neighbors who lived here as well, but who were wearing turbans, and started this whole rise in Islamophobia in the country, which made it unsafe for many Muslim people in many parts of the country to live, especially after September 11th. And that’s something that you’ve also been exploring and talking about and bringing to the fore in your work.


Reza Aslan: Yeah, I mean, I think you’re right. Look, crusade is as clear a dog whistle for us versus them as it gets right? And in this particular case, crusades were Christian wars fought against Muslims. So that’s not, that’s not confusing. I think people really understand that. But it’s also important to understand that a large swath of the American public is primed for this message. Certainly, you know, when we’re talking about the right-wing evangelical community in the United States, I mean, that is a community that has had a very clear martial terminology, you know, baked within its Christianity, right? Ted Haggard, the sort of disgraced megachurch pastor or political influencer would say that the Christian home is to be in a constant state of war right? Jerry Falwell, everybody knows who Jerry Falwell is, often referred to the church as an organized army equipped for battle. Right? That he said the Sunday school is the attacking squad, and the task of the missionary is, to quote, “bombard our territory to move out near the coast and shell the enemy, to set loose on the enemy stronghold.” He’s referring to evangelization, He’s referring to missionary activity. But this sort of marriage of Christianity and militarism, it has become so complete in American identity and in the rhetoric that we use that when the president of the United States uses this kind of language, there is, as I said, you know, a large swath of the public that completely understands what he is saying. They get the message very clearly. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that there’s a whole other swath of this country that maybe isn’t evangelical, maybe isn’t even Christian, but nevertheless has that same conception of American exceptionalism that is grounded in this idea as the chosen nation, the greatest nation in the history of the world. You know, we hear that phrase all the time: we’re the greatest nation. There is literally one category, global category, in which we are first in the world and that’s military, our military—and our economy, I should say. So there you go. The military and the economy is number one in the world, and there isn’t another category, including press freedoms, including religious freedoms, in which we are number one in the world. And so you’re absolutely right that this is deliberately meant to tap in to a particular viewpoint of what America is. And I don’t think it’s a, I don’t think it is coincidence that—and this is not my work, there’s a great scholar of American evangelicalism named George Martinson, who’s done a ton of work on evangelicals in the United States and what he has discovered is that evangelicals are far, far more likely than any other Americans to sanction and support war for any reason. I don’t mean just the war on terror. I mean, any war. Evangelicals are far more likely than any other Americans to support war. And evangelicals were even at the end of the Afghan Afghanistan war, more likely to support staying in that war zone than anyone else.


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Phillip Picardi: This is important because you’re touching on how this war, obviously even beforehand, but this war on terror and also September 11th helped to perpetuate this notion of a cultural kind of norm that Islam was affiliated with terrorism. And also then, you know, it would become also subjugation of women and then, of course, the stoning of LGBTQ people. This became such a normative attitude and belief that when I was working at Teen Vogue and the rise in Islamophobia was so concerning, especially during the election of Donald Trump and afterwards, when we partnered with young Muslim women to share their own stories and to talk more about how they were perceived in American society, people would come up to me and say, it’s so ironic that you’re a gay person who’s giving Muslim people a platform. People who were college educated, who voted Democrat, right, people who we assume would think better, right, Who would know better than to say something so bigoted. But again, this is a cultural norm that led to direct violence on people who are walking down the street, going to work, hate crimes, etc. This sort of thing feeds into what you were talking about America as the greatest nation on Earth. That’s a patriotic statement. Patriotic and patriarchy and paternalism all have the same route, which all comes down to the father. It all comes down to this idea, right, that we are reinforcing this paternalistic attitude towards other nations that’s been again a part of our nation’s history. And you’ve already pointed out how those things are not the entire truth, right, of Muslim nations. But I think one of the things that I was grappling with as we were revisiting this concept of the war in Afghanistan is that those attitudes were still so pervasive, right? There were so many accounts, right, on social media saying, we owe it to these women, these poor women, right? And it’s not to say that we didn’t owe it to those women. It’s also to say where is your own mirror of your own country? At the same time, this is all happening, we have Texas passing a draconian abortion ban that not even Margaret Atwood could have dreamt up. You know what I’m saying?


Reza Aslan: Yeah. No, you’re absolutely right. And I think it goes back to kind of how we started this conversation, right, that it’s, we can talk about unquestionably the problem in a lot of Muslim majority states with women’s rights, the rights of LGBTQ, the rights of racial minorities, those are real issues. The question is, are the people who are supporting these conflicts doing so because they have this kind of heart for gay people in Iran? You know, is that really what’s moving you like? Yes, I really, I so believe in, you know, women’s education that I think we should bomb Afghanistan. Is that really where your mind is? Because if that’s what you believe in, there are many, many things that you can do to promote both of those things, gay rights in Iran or women’s rights in Afghanistan. There are a number of actions that you can take that would be hugely supportive of those two groups. But the truth of the matter is that when you hear, particularly people on the left, use that kind of language, what they are doing, whether they’re conscious of it or not, is adopting the terminology given to them by the right. The right couldn’t give a fuck about gay people in Iran or women in Afghanistan, but they are more than happy to use those things as a way to promote this muscular American evangelical identity in which the United States is this God, divinely-blessed nation, the purpose of which is to spread its ideals around the world. But they know that if they use the human rights argument, then they can create a large enough net to bring in these voices that would, you know, usually not engage with them on any subject.


Phillip Picardi: That’s right.


Reza Aslan: And you’re right. Again, it’s this way that we figure out how to define ourselves, particularly nowadays, you know, particularly as we are becoming, what, a generation removed from becoming the first minority-majority country in the world. That’s a big, big deal. It also scares the shit out of a lot of people. And it is becoming increasingly difficult to say with confidence and any sense of unanimity what it means to be an American. And this is not a new thing. It’s just part of human nature. The easiest way to identify yourself is in opposition to another. So just find another, whatever that other is, and use it to say what it means to be you. Even if, like you rightly point out, the same people who are decrying the status of women in Afghanistan are actively pursuing very similar ideas about the role of women in American society.


Phillip Picardi: So let’s stay with that for a second because this is, I think, where people get really stuck. And I think, I understand why people get stuck here, I get stuck here to be honest with you. I’m really interested to what you have to say here because our culture as it exists and I’m not talking just about American culture, I’m talking about really these kind of western world powers, the way to settle conflict has traditionally, maybe most typically, most normally been through violence, right? War. Sanctions are another form of violence, right? Because they do harm people who are on the ground, right, not just the governments or the GDP of those governments, right? So a lot of our tactics about intervening in so-called helping are accomplished by means of violence. So I think what we’re trying to point to is like, how do you hold it to be true that we, we owe better to the people of Afghanistan, but also we shouldn’t be talking about those folks with such a paternalistic language or mentality. We need to be talking about those folks and their plight with dignity. And also, what, how do you also hold that, like a lot of people believe the United States does have an obligation to our world neighbors, to our other world powers, especially when there are massive human rights atrocities that are taking place. So I think the question is, you know, do you, do we ever think that violence is going to be necessary? Or do we believe that peaceful alternatives are the way? And if so, what is a peaceful alternative that could possibly have worked in this world or really, to be more pointed about it, in this particular situation?


Reza Aslan: Yeah. Look, you’re absolutely right. And this is an issue that needs to be discussed because you’re right, it’s a very complex part of how we identify ourselves and how we function as a nation. Let me say very quickly that I am so glad that you emphasized that sanctions is a form of violence. I think people would be very surprised to learn that more Iraqis died as a result of Bill Clinton’s eight years of sanctions against Iraq than died as a result of George Bush’s eight years of war against Iraq.


Phillip Picardi: Wow. I didn’t know that.


Reza Aslan: Far more, far more. By some estimates, half a million Iraqis died as a result of those eight years of sanctions. So thank you for bringing that up. Listen, I am not a pacifist. I absolutely believe that there is a role for violence and warfare, and I also do believe there is, you know, such a thing as moral certitude, right? That there are things that are right and there are things that are wrong. The denial of human dignity, violence against noncombatants, the, you know, the murder of people because of their color of their skin or the God that they choose to worship or the people that they choose to love—these are wrong and they need to be addressed. And sometimes it does take violence to address them. The issue here is the motivation for that violence. The problem with the war in Afghanistan—that’s a weird thing to say, because there were so many problems. But, what I’m trying—


Phillip Picardi: Right. Yeah, I get it.


Reza Aslan: One of the major problems with the way that we conduct war as a form of foreign policy is that we conduct it as a form of foreign policy.


Phillip Picardi: That’s clever.


Reza Aslan: That, in other words, we went into Afghanistan to benefit the United States. We went into Iraq to benefit the United States. We pretended that it was to help Iraqis and to help Afghans, but I mean any objective observer just has to look at the last 20 years to know that that was bullshit. Right? And certainly, I can think of a dozen examples in which we are facing, you know, ethnic cleansing, genocide, apartheid and violence against noncombatants before our eyes, and not only are we not doing anything about it—Myanmar, you know, the Uighurs—


Phillip Picardi: Yes, the Uighur’s yeah.


Reza Aslan: But we are actively supporting it, as we do in Israel. And so it becomes very difficult to start making these high-minded, moral arguments for the use of violence in order to promote universal morals and human rights when we only do so if it benefits the United States.


Phillip Picardi: Right, our track record is tainted. So how can we be trusted when we do this shit all the time?


Reza Aslan: That’s a perfectly said.


Phillip Picardi: Ok. I’m following.


Reza Aslan: Yeah, how can we be trusted when e\we do this shit all the time? So what, what does a moral foreign policy look like? It looks like a the promotion of a set of principles through a whole host of means, whether those are economic means, both economic rewards and punishments, whether it means, you know, bringing in diplomatic means in order to create certain alliances, add pressure to countries the way that we’ve been trying to do, for instance, with Russia. Or whether it actually means bringing in, you know, military troops in order to impose a peace if, you know, Eritreans are being slaughtered or if you know there is, there’s genocide in Sudan or in Myanmar or what have you. There is a role for those for those things, it’s just that it’s, we pretend that we are using those actions through a moral patina when in reality, what we are doing is just simply choosing our own interests over the interests of these indigenous populations.


Phillip Picardi: Yeah.


Reza Aslan: Do we have a moral obligation to support oppressed people around the world? Absolutely, we do. No question we do. The question is. Is are we supporting them for their sake or for our sake? And I think that’s the issue that we sometimes get entangled on.


Phillip Picardi: Yes, that’s really well put. You know, I think there was a lot there. I’m sure a lot that folks are going to react to. No doubt. But I think, you know, when we’re talking about achieving peace in the world, you know, I understand you’re not a pacifist—it is interesting to think that our first resort is sending in the military right, because it says a lot about a nation that its biggest budget goes towards armed warfare, you know, rather than investing in what kind of matrices of peace in the world could look like. And certainly, you know, even the concept of morality, right, you said we have a moral obligation, you know, our concept of morality is different than indigenous folks all over the world, right? You know, morality is also informed by living and growing up and being raised in a Christian society.


Reza Aslan: No question.


Phillip Picardi: Right. So morality also has its own vantage points, and that complicates things. But if we don’t understand the vantage points of the people that we want to intervene to help, you know, I think that that’s where we get back into the trap of this kind of Christian and really white supremacist paternalism that just creates more havoc and really leaves more chaos than peace that was made in the first place. Our whole process of going about this is wrong. We could talk about foreign policy, this is so above my pay grade and my head. I’m more interested as we close, I’m more interested in what people should be taking away from this and how they are speaking, where they are sending their money, how they are interacting with their own communities, and also how they continue to engage with this issue, right? Because the media cycle and how our consciousness is informed by what the media tells us and puts in front of our faces every day, I think is one of the more pernicious things about this conflict to really be aware of, right? The very confines of the American imagination are really shaped by what our politicians and our media tells us, and that limits who we have sympathy and empathy for. And so to close, if we’re talking about changing the script and moving forward from here, for folks on the ground, folks going about their lives, what do you offer those folks?


Reza Aslan: Well, maybe our listeners don’t need to hear this necessarily, but the one sort of benefit of the Trump years is that it finally shattered the sort of idea of the American evangelical Christians as the so-called ‘value’ voters or ‘moral’ voters. Right? The idea that somehow they, that the right in this country and particularly the Christian right in this country has a monopoly on, you know, on ethics and morality. The overwhelming support of white evangelical Christians for a man who, whatever you think of his politics, was like the incarnation of, you know, the seven deadly sins. You know, the sort of walking, breathing orange version of every woe that Jesus ever pronounced and the sort of bald-faced ability to just simply brush all that aside in exchange for what he explicitly promised, evangelicals, which is political power, has not only broken evangelical Christianity—I think that’s the most fascinating story of this next decade, is where evangelical Christianity goes from here, but also has shattered forever this idea that the right has the monopoly on morals and values. And so we’re in a moment now in which what it means to be a value voter is transforming before our very eyes. And it is the left that is beginning to redefine morals and values in terms of taking care of the poor among us, the weakest among us and the social issues of social justice and the redistribution of power, you know, gender rights—those are the things that I think are suddenly now being discussed, you know, in these in these terms that we didn’t use to, terms that we used to only talk about abortion and gay marriage in, you know, and now we’re talking about whether we should remove lead from water in those terms. Whether you know, the housing moratorium, you know, the eviction moratorium should continue or not in the terms that the right used to talk about abortion. And to me, as you know, a scholar of religions and an observer of American culture, I find that to be very exciting because it means that we’re in this moment now in which we have an opportunity to kind of redefine the way that we talk about what it means to be American, like what actually is American exceptionalism. So that, to me, is super exciting. The other thing that I would say is that I remember the beginning of the war on terror and the war in Afghanistan like it was yesterday, but it was two decades ago, which is weird, right? Like, I’m pretty sure we had email, but we didn’t have Twitter, we didn’t have Facebook, we didn’t have Instagram, we didn’t have social media—all of these things that are now so baked into the way that we communicate with each other simply didn’t exist back then. And so we’re in a place now in which the kind of fracturing of our attention spans and the way in which we get our information in these silos has become so complete that it’s very easy to just live in our own sort of perfect bubbles in a way that that we couldn’t, you know, 20 years ago. At the same time, we now have access to new sources of information, new sources of knowledge that we did not have 20 years ago. 20 years ago, people like me were writing Op-Eds in the New York Times, trying our hardest to say, if we do this, we are going to fuck everything up. But it was very hard to get any attention because the gatekeepers that controlled the media had a very clear agenda. Well, those gatekeepers are gone. It’s just, it’s been shattered, right? Facebook is the primary news source, for better or worse, right now.


Phillip Picardi: For worse, honey.


Reza Aslan: Yeah, way worse.


Phillip Picardi: That’s way worse.


Reza Aslan: But now the obligation sort of falls on us. Right? There were so many people I know, smart, engaged liberal people who supported the war on terror, the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, and then a few years later said, oops, I made a mistake because I didn’t know anything, I didn’t know what I needed to know. That is an OK excuse in 2002. That is an impossible excuse in 2021. If you don’t know, it’s your fucking fault. That’s, it’s your responsibility. So I think all of those things have created this moment right now. We talk a lot about how America is polarized and divided and that that’s a bad thing. Why is that a bad thing? Why is that a bad thing, right? America should be divided and polarized. If what’s at stake are these moral arguments about who is a really a human being, who deserves the same rights as everyone else—if you’re on one side of this, well, then great. You’re not on my side. I have no interest in reaching out to you. A polarized country is not a bad thing if you ask me, especially in this moment where we are, we have an opportunity to redefine what America is, what it stands for in this next century. What we saw in the last few years, what we’re continuing to see right now with the the sort of surge in white Christian nationalism and the sort of MAGA heads and all of that stuff, that, to me, is the inevitable backlash to the unstoppable progress and demographic change that is taking place in this country. You’re always going to have people who, maybe because they feel left behind, are going to react violently and with extremism to fundamental changes in society. So maybe what we should focus on is less the reaction to that progress, then the progress itself.


Phillip Picardi: That’s really interesting. It’s really interesting to process and to think about for sure. You know, one thing we fall guilty of a lot as Americans, especially with, you know, so much of the elite academic institutions we have here and such a robust media that we have here, is that we think we have the answers, right? And we automatically think our answer and our way is the right way. And how that plays out on an international stage has really been devastating to so many people all over the world. And it’s not the kind of, it’s a kind of devastation that is multigenerational and that we are still feeling the ripple effects from, and certainly a kind of devastation that will warrant, you know, in many ways, the seeking of revenge from the people we’ve wronged and it is really hard to grapple with. There’s been not a lot of discussion about how we helped to create the anti-American sentiment abroad and how we helped to create the Taliban. And instead, there’s just been the continuation of the themes of paternalism that I think got us here in the first place. And I think that a lot of this conversation has helped to illuminate, you know, just where we sit and how we believe things maybe we shouldn’t have and how maybe we still are believing things that are fundamentally flawed and are certainly at least worth reexamining. And when we talk about, just in closing, when we talk about Christianity, I want to make clear where I don’t want to make a blanket assumption about every Christian. I am talking about Christianity as a superpower, as a world power.


Reza Aslan: Yeah.


Phillip Picardi: So it’s not about the individuals, it is about the institutions themselves. So I just want to make that clear in closing. But anyways, thank you so much. Is there anything else you want to say in closing? Thank you so much. It’s been lovely.


Reza Aslan: Just to your point, and I think it’s a very smart one. I think again, part of what we are now experiencing is the decline of the American century, right, as it used to be called.


Phillip Picardi: Yeah, that’s right.


Reza Aslan: It is, again, to me, a good thing, right? I celebrate that decline. Like, I celebrate our political polarization. I don’t know why these are things to be sad about. The fact that the rest of the world now sees America unquestionably for what we actually are, instead of what we pretend to be, is a good thing because we are in a moment of profound transition in this country. And the quicker we dispense with this fantasy of who we think we are, and the more we really zero in on who we actually are, and the, you know—and I’m using this term derogatorily on purpose,—the third world problems that we have here, right, from our crumbling infrastructure to our out of control, poverty and hunger rates, to our racial violence, to our profound anti-democratic population, you know, those are things can’t be swept under the rug anymore. And as horrific as these last four years have been, as troubling as these last 20 years have been, the one positive that I keep coming back to is that the curtain has been pulled back and there is no more pretending anymore. And it’s now time, I think, for us to begin the process of figuring out who we want to be in this coming century, because who we thought we were, who we pretended we were, has completely crumbled. Not just here in the US, but around the world. And that’s going to cause violence and conflict. No question about it. We’re seeing it in our streets right now. But out of that, I think, could rise something, well, truly exceptional.


Phillip Picardi: And to bring it full circle to the secularism concept, rather than letting what you’re talking about, sink you into despair, we need to find the wherewithal as individuals to actually drive us to creating and being a part of rebuilding—


Reza Aslan: That’s right!


Phillip Picardi: —the country that we want to live in.


Reza Aslan: Now is the time.


Phillip Picardi: Now is the time. Yeah. So divides or not, I think the whole system makes us feel disempowered and that is exactly how it was designed, right, and so in finding the ways even in which you can just engage in your own community, in your own backyard, in your own local politics are such crucial ways to be imagining a better future for our children, our grandchildren, ourselves, you know, whoever, whoever we’re doing it for. Reza, thank you so, so much. I really appreciate it.


Reza Aslan: It was my pleasure. I really, really enjoyed this Phillip, thank you so much for having me.


Phillip Picardi: Well, thank you so much again to Reza. And thank you so much for listening. I know that there was a lot tackled in this episode, and I hope you found it helpful. Please let me know what you thought. You can reach out to me on social media. You know where to find me on Instagram. And of course, you can find me here again next week for a brand-new episode of Unholier Than Thou. See you next time!


OK, that’s all we have for our show today. I hope you enjoyed it and make sure you tune in next week, same time, same place for more unholy goodness. Unholier Than Thou is a Crooked Media production. Our executive producer is me, Phillip Picardi. Our producer is Lesley Martin, and Brian Semel is our associate producer. Our editors are Karim [unclear], David Greenbaum, and Sara Gibble-Laska. The theme music is by Taka Yasuzawa.