Reza Aslan
Reza Aslan is a noted scholar who has provided illuminating insights into religion and history Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/ Gulf News

Dubai is a place of great thinkers and great minds, according to noted writer, professor and public intellectual Reza Aslan.

The Iranian-American scholar, who is participating in the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature 2023 told Gulf News, “Dubai is known all around the world precisely for its wealth and its technology and its rapid growth, but it doesn’t get enough credit for being a place of learning and intellectualism. I’ve been to Dubai many times, and the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, to me, is an opportunity to remind people that there’s a lot more to the country. The culture, intellectualism, and all of these things are a vibrant part of what makes this country so great.”

Aslan, who is considered a leading expert in world religions, is scheduled to participate in several sessions at the LitFest to discuss his work Zealot, and also the global importance of Islam.

A recipient of the prestigious James Joyce Award, Aslan is the author of three internationally best-selling books, including the #1 New York Times Bestseller, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

Excerpts of his exclusive interview with Gulf News:

Talk to us about Zealot.

Zealot is a biography of the historical Jesus, the man from the backwoods of Galilee who would ultimately launch, what we now know as Christianity. But it’s an attempt to get to know the man before he became Christ.

It’s an attempt to take what little we know about the historical figure himself and to place him in the turbulent era in which he lived in-order-to place some of his words and his actions in the context of his time in-order-to better understand what exactly he was trying to do and how we should understand his message before it then became sort of transformed into the religion we know as Christianity.

Zealot by Reza Aslan is the winner of the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction Image Credit: Supplied

You have been quoted saying that you spent your life trying to learn the languages of religion of the world. Did you find a common theme?

Yes! I mean, if you think of religion as a language, a language made up of symbols and metaphors, then you understand that all religions are essentially communicating the same emotion and the same ideas.

And we can term that emotion or idea of faith if you’d like, but it’s essentially a part of the human condition that longs for transcendence, that seeks to go beyond just the physical world and to connect with the spiritual world. And that desire is universal.

It exists in all people, at all times, regardless of culture. But there are different languages, the languages of religion that can be employed in-order-to communicate that feeling. So what all religions have in common is that underneath them all is that very human, universal desire for transcendence.

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One of my sessions at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature is about An American Martyr in Persia: The Epic Life and Tragic Death of Howard Baskerville. It is the story of Baskerville, which is also a reminder to us all that the suffering of any one person anywhere in the world is the responsibility of all people, everywhere.

The ways in which we divide ourselves into different races or nationalities or religions, the tribes that we create, to say who is us and who is them, that none of these things matter. That all people long for freedom and all people long for the most basic human rights, and that this is a universal desire that everyone has a role to play in.

Why is Westwood in LA called Tehrangeles? How influential is the Iranian diaspora in the US?

Well, approximately 700,000 Iranians are living in Southern California. That’s the largest collection of Iranians anywhere in the world outside of Iran.

And of course, there are different factions and different groups. Some people came before the 79 Revolution, some people came immediately after the 79 Revolution. And like a lot of diaspora communities, there’s a lot of politics involved. There is a religious divide.

A large percentage of those Iranians in Southern California are Jewish Iranians, nevertheless, their influence remains very strong. They are, for the most part, very wealthy.

They have a lot of passion and enthusiasm for what’s going on in Iran and they try very hard to influence American foreign policy in Iran, sometimes for the better and sometimes not so much.