Reza Aslan was in the midst of packing to shoot Season 2 of his hit show Believer, when suddenly, CNN pulled the plug on the whole thing. The show was over and Aslan was fired. The reason? Aslan had tweeted that President Trump was “a piece of s**t”.
The tweet came after Trump had reiterated his desire for a Muslim travel ban, following the terror attacks in London. Aslan tells Deadline he doesn’t regret stating his opinion on the matter. “I regret the particular words that I used, the profanity, but I don’t regret the sentiment,” he says.
Aslan had originally pitched Believer to CNN as being like Anthony Bourdain, but “with religion instead of food,”—a description that proved accurate, and a premise that made the show a huge hit. In Season 1’s six episodes of Believer, host and EP Aslan—himself a Muslim—travelled the world immersing himself in religions, including Hinduism, Scientology and Judaism, in an attempt to explore without judgment.
As a social commentator and religious pundit with four degrees, including a PhD in the Sociology of Religions from the University of California Santa Barbara, and a New York Times bestseller, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Aslan was perfectly qualified for the job. The irony in his firing is that CNN hired him because of a popularity he’d built from being outspoken and opinionated. As Aslan puts it, “I have never been shy about sharing my opinions on matters of the world. It’s how I arose to the place that I am in today. It’s why they gave me a show.”
Why did you want Believer to be on CNN?
One of the biggest reasons that I wanted to be on CNN was because I knew that we were going to make the show entertaining, but I also wanted it to be informative and educational and I wanted it to touch on current event issues. I was worried if we went elsewhere we would lose some of that ability. Whereas, on a network like CNN, which is after all, primarily a news network—which is now really giving an opportunity for a diverse set of voices, like myself or Kamau Bell to make their vision known, to have their voices heard—this would be a good place to launch the show. It would give us what we needed, the balance between informative and entertaining. Also, that’s one of the joys of being at CNN, that they were going to be new to this, so they gave us an enormous amount of freedom to just shape the show as we saw fit. We went in there with a pretty firm vision for what we wanted to do and, to be perfectly frank, they just more or less moved out of the way and let us do that.
What stage were you at exactly when CNN pulled the plug?
We had already produced three episodes. We were deep, deep into production on the second season, and when I say deep I mean we were packing up our clothes in preparation for getting on a plane and going to the first location to shoot. I think some people thought that they had just decided not to pick up the second season. That’s not what happened. We were fully staffed already, we had already been spending money.
How do you feel about what happened?
I’m bummed, I’m really bummed. I’m truly disappointed that there has been this hiccup, that we did have to let all of our staff go and stop production in the middle of it. But I think that there is something much more important right now, which is the assault on our democracy and I need to make sure that that fight is the fight that I am fighting first and foremost.
In your statement following the cancellation, you said it made sense to part ways with CNN, why was that?
What I was trying to say in my statement was that, if continuing with this relationship with CNN meant that I would have to curtail my criticism of the administration in order to allow CNN to maintain its hard-earned reputation as one of the most unbiased news outlets out there, then I can’t be part of CNN anymore.
How do you feel about CNN now?
I understand where CNN is coming from, they’re in a bind. They are first and foremost a news organization, and they have made this very bold, and in my opinion smart, decision to expand their offerings to include these kinds of original series led by these unique voices. But I will say, that’s part of the reason those shows are a success. Part of the reason why CNN even pursued those voices is that we are, at least in my case, very vocal about our opinion.
It sounds like you don’t regret the tweet?
Look, I don’t allow cussing in my household. I would be very upset if my children used swear words and so, OK, I should not have used swear words. I am a writer and I have access to far more sophisticated ways of expressing myself. Still, there is something about the rough and tumble world of Twitter that does lend itself to that kind of ecstatic utterance, let’s say. I don’t regret the sentiment. I’m not trying to exaggerate here but look, when the house is on fire you can’t just calmly describe the flames. You need to get onto the roof and scream at the top of your lungs, “Fire!” And I think that nothing less is tolerable at this time that we are living in.
What do you think your situation says about what’s happening to free speech?
There is a very clear assault on free speech that is happening in the United States. Some of it is self-policing, some of it is corporate policing and a lot of it is absolutely random. It’s hard to know what is going to get a reaction. I mean, Shakespeare in the Park for god’s sake. We have to make a decision here about what we are willing to tolerate and what we are not when it comes to the most hallowed tradition of this country, the tradition in which this country was founded, which is the freedom to say what you want. I’m about as ideologically far from Sean Hannity as a person could possibly be, but I do appreciate the fact that he came to my defense and said, “You should not have gotten fired for expressing your opinion on Twitter.”
Why did you originally decide to make Believer?
I think we created something that was utterly unique. There really isn’t any show out there like it, and it took us a long time to figure out exactly what it was that we were doing, that we wanted to go into these religious communities with an attitude of openness, to participate in their world and in their experiences. We could give an audience an experience, unlike anything that they would normally have, to confront some of their own misconceptions and their prejudices, and to take them from a place of uncomfortableness to a place of understanding. It was one of the greatest joys of my life to see the overwhelmingly positive response that this show had on people, that it really did just blow people’s minds. My career has been based on trying to break down the walls that separate us into different religions, or ethnicities, or races. In the back of my mind for years was always this germ of an idea to do a show in which I immerse myself in various religious traditions around the world as a way of opening up windows to other ways of thinking, other ways of believing, and to force people to recognize just how much they have in common with people that they think couldn’t be more different than them.
What will you do with the show now?
We’re reaching out to people and we’ve had a couple of different networks reach out to us. We have every intention of taking this show somewhere else. As I say, this show is unique, there’s nothing like it. It touched a real nerve in this country. You know that you’ve done something special when you’ve launched a conversation. We were consistently number one in our demo. We routinely beat our lead-in, Finding Jesus. CNN was kind enough to put us after that show in order to give us a bump, and by the second week we were, on a fairly regular basis, beating them in terms of total viewers. I think this is one of those weird experiences where CNN got rid of a show that was a massive hit, that was one of the biggest premieres for a new show that they’ve ever had. It’s a very easy argument to make to another buyer, that, “Hey this show wasn’t canceled because it wasn’t a hit, it was canceled for political reasons.”