As Reza Aslan

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This week, we hear a conversation between Sinéad and scholar, writer, and podcaster Reza Aslan. The two talk about Aslan’s relationship to identity, Islamophobia, his self-doubt, and raising his kids to be global citizens.


[00:09] Sinéad Burke: Hello and welcome to As Me with Sinéad. As you might have guessed, I’m still at home. I’m currently looking at my dog, who’s opposite me, so throughout this episode you may hear feet pattering on tiles. Or should there be a delivery, or a cat, or really any sort of person, you’ll hear her. Her name is Cookie, and like her owner, she is small. But her bark, enormous. In terms of keeping busy, because we are still in the midst of this pandemic. Many of us listening will probably just be at the beginning. I know we here in Ireland are at the very cusp of it. I’m keeping busy by gardening. You would be so impressed with the development of my sunflower seeds. They are looking like actual plants. As somebody who is really terrible, and has no skills in this domain, I am impressed with myself. My tomatoes have yet to make an appearance. I’m not taking it personally. I think they just need time to cultivate and hibernate and cocoon like us all. I’ve also started to learn how to cook. 


[01:16] Sinéad Burke: Now, I spent some time in Paris last year. I know, she says that really casually. But I did, learning French. And it was the first time I had to learn how to cook for myself. And I’ve tried to develop those skills. I’ve been making pasta. I haven’t really tried much else. I need to really get on that. I am starting to do some school visits, virtually. One of the best parts of my job and the best parts of my day is getting to go into schools, getting to talk to young people about the ability to celebrate our differences. And how as a disabled woman, whilst many people will look at my disability as something that is negative, it has shaped who I am. I wouldn’t have this podcast. I wouldn’t be able to do this show. I wouldn’t be talking to the people that I talk to. I wouldn’t be interested in these areas if I wasn’t disabled. But with schools closed in most parts of the world, it’s hard to do that. So I’ve put a call out to teachers, to principals to see if I can join, whether it is a Zoom class or a Skype class, and see if I can talk to the children.


[02:19] Sinéad Burke: But one of the challenges of this, and what I’m realizing and perhaps I should’ve been aware of it all along, is that not only are schools not connected or have the resources or abilities to do so, but how many students don’t have access to the Internet. Or laptops that they can use. Or phones that are recent enough that can download the software or have the space to do so. And I think so much of what we’re realizing now is that the divide is just wider. It’s even more explicit in these times of isolation. And those who need to be connected to us are at the greatest distance. 


[02:53[ Sinéad Burke: This week, I got to watch Crip Camp. It is an incredible documentary that’s actually on Netflix, it landed this week. It is executive produced by the Obamas. Yes, those Obamas. And it tells the story of this incredible camp that existed in the U.S. in the ‘60s and the ‘70s, that brought together disabled people and non-disabled people. And it was a time of not just respite, but development and learning for everybody. Now, I do have some questions about the lack of manual handling courses that may have existed during that era, but it is an amazing piece of social commentary that I think is necessary for us all to watch. The story is rooted in the civil rights movement, particularly for disabled people in the United States. It shows the huge amount of work that it took in order to get to where we are now. And yet still it’s not enough. There is so much more to do. And it feels overwhelming. And particularly if this is the gold-standard that exists now, where is the rest of the world in ensuring that disabled people have rights? So I would recommend that you watch that, because the responses that people are having from watching this — because it’s easy to think that everybody is exposed to the quotidian experiences of life with a disability. But they’re not. But so many people are watching this and saying, “how can I be involved? What can I do? How can I be an ally?” And it’s giving me hope that even in this pandemic, even in a world that is isolated, and where things are on hold and on pause, that we can use this moment to educate ourselves. To cultivate empathy and to realize that there is so much that we can all do to make everybody feel included. 


[04:41] Sinéad Burke: Speaking of more that we can do, I’m so thrilled that on this week’s show I’m joined by author, scholar, podcaster Reza Aslan. And I was talking with our producers about the show, which was recorded before the self-quarantine, I wondered how relevant it was. And it forced a conversation about how all the issues we face before the quarantine are still here. Perhaps they’re even more magnified and amplified. Islamophobia. Confusing self-doubt, you name it. So, yes. This episode is as relevant as ever. 


[05:13] Reza Aslan: Before 9/11, I was allowed to be many different things. I was allowed to be Muslim, I guess. Iranian, Middle Eastern, Persian heritage. I was allowed to be all of those things. After 9/11, I was only allowed to be Muslim. And I never was all that Muslim until 9/11. Because when everyone else began to force that singular identity upon me, the answer that I responded to was absorbing it. And everyone, everyone in America who looks like me has that exact same story. I used to be Pakistani until 9/11, and then now I’m Muslim. I used to be Arab and now I’m Muslim. That experience was a real wakeup call in the ways in which you really don’t have as much control over how you are identified as you think you do. That so much of your identity comes from the way that other people view you. And that there are two responses to that. One is to push back, and the other is to accept that identity and use it as a tool for transformation. And I feel like that’s what I did.


[06:31] Sinéad Burke: What’s going on in my mind this week is trying to be kind to myself. I fluctuate between these tectonic plates of trying to be productive and useful. And as much as I hated performing that usefulness and productivity, trying to make sure that at the end of this I gain something. Whether that’s weight loss, whether that’s greater metabolism and exercise and insights into the world — whether that’s reading 15 books, or whether that is coming up with some sort of evidence for what I did during this time. But also realizing that probably what I need most in this moment is to rest. To spend time playing cards with my family, having conversations with friends that I haven’t seen, not only in person, but digitally, in a really long time. And I find myself in one moment completely rational and understanding that this pause is essential and necessary. But then, on the other hand, worrying about what the world is going to look like. And as somebody who is self-employed with their own company, working in a space that is reliant on other people’s budgets and them not shrinking, I have no idea what my work is going to look like, if it will still exist after this. So I’m trying to be kind to myself because the frantic nature that will be required to respond to this when it changes is going to be exhausting. So trying to remind myself and keep it at the top of my mind to take a deep breath, to go for some exercise, just for myself. And to just do something for me that isn’t resulting in engagement or isn’t about performing it. It is just for me. Are you ready for this week’s episode? Let’s go.


[08:26] Sinéad Burke: This is As Me with Sinéad. And today I’m talking to Reza Aslan, who has seen more of the world than any person I’ve ever met before. And based on that, has this incredible emotional, empathetic understanding of people and places. And I cannot wait to get started with this conversation. Reza, thank you so much for coming on the show. 


[08:47] Reza Aslan: My pleasure. Although I think my wife would insist on me admitting that she has seen more of the world than I have. 


[08:55] Sinéad Burke: And what’s the percentage difference? 


[08:57] Reza Aslan: I think she’s pretty close to her goal. We both, long before we met each other, we had individual goals that we would visit every country. And she’s way ahead of me. 


[09:11] Sinéad Burke: How many have you got? 


[09:14] 50, maybe? And I’d say she’s probably 65. She’s just pointed, It’s actually 100. I have large swaths of the globe that I haven’t — like sub-Saharan Africa. I’ve never been to. And she’s lived throughout sub-Saharan Africa. So she wins that contest. 


[09:35] Sinéad Burke: And what made you, or can you remember being at a young age and knowing that that was an ambition?


[09:42] Reza Aslan: For me, it was something different. So I was born in Iran. We left in 1979 after the revolution. We fled with basically nothing, came to the United States originally because my dad managed to get some kind of student visa. But that thing ran out. And so we were basically illegal in this country for a good while, almost a decade. And it wasn’t until I — so I arrived in America at seven and I became a citizen at 23. So if you’re in this country and you’re not a citizen, and you’re not even all that legal, you can’t leave this country. So I never left until I was 23. I wanted to visit the world, but I never did. So I would just fantasize about all the places that I would see. And the countries that I would visit one day when I actually was legally allowed to do so. 


[10:37] Sinéad Burke: And did your parents have a conversation with you when you were 7 or 8 about the fact that you were in the United States illegally? Was that explained? 


[10:44] Reza Aslan: No, no, no. I don’t think that there was ever — there may have been sort of conversations about what to avoid and what not to avoid. But no, the idea of being undocumented, no, that didn’t that didn’t make any sense to me. Certainly not until I was like 16, 17.


[11:04] Sinéad Burke: How did you learn?


[11:05] Reza Aslan: I do remember that there was a trip that kids at my high school went to. I don’t remember where it was. It could have been as simple as Canada. But of course, I wasn’t allowed to go because I couldn’t. Just in case, you know. 


[11:22] Sinéad Burke: Was that the reason that was given or was it just that you weren’t allowed to go on the trip? 


[11:25] Reza Aslan: No, no. I remember in that case very clearly that it was I could not go on the trip because I wasn’t legally safe. 


[11:36] Sinéad Burke: Did you offer that information at school? 


[11:37] Reza Aslan: Hell, no! No, no, no, no. In fact, the people who know me know that I spent, you know, a good part of the 1980s pretending to be Mexican. Because this was the height of the Iran hostage crisis. And, you know, it was not a good time to be either Muslim or Iranian in America, as opposed to now when it’s awesome. And then I think, you know, for a good part of my childhood, I just thought that the best way to fit in would be to tell people that I was Mexican, not knowing that Americans also don’t like Mexicans. So that didn’t help at all.


[12:13] Did you find it difficult to make friends in school because of that?


[12:17] Reza Aslan: Now by the time of — first of all, in most of elementary school, I just said I was Mexican. And so, yeah, I had a lot of friends. They were all Mexican. 


[12:27] Sinéad Burke: Where did you learn that phrase or know that that was OK?


[12:30] Reza Aslan: We grew up in it in an immigrant community. And so I was surrounded by Mexicans. And so like I learned Spanish, and I have the same skin tone. Reza sort of sounds slightly Spanish. In fact, it is a Spanish word. If you say it right. It’s the command to pray. 


[12:50] Sinéad Burke: Wow. 


[12:51] Reza Aslan: So people would be like, oh, my God, not only are you Mexican, but you’re like a hardcore Catholic. And I’d say, sure!


[12:56] Sinéad Burke: And how do you say it properly? 


[12:59] Reza Aslan: RESSA Yeah. RESSA would be like “pray!”


[13:04] Sinéad Burke: With a name meaning pray, how do you describe yourself personally and professionally? 

[13:15] Reza Aslan: I mean, I do a lot of things, but if I were to describe myself in the simplest way, I’d say that I’m a writer. I’m a storyteller. That’s kind of my bread and butter. And I do that in many different platforms and different genres, but fundamentally that’s that’s what I am. I think stories are how we define ourselves. We all have kind of a story that we tell about ourselves as individuals, about ourselves as a race, or as a community, as, you know, a sexual orientation. I’m fascinated by religion. That’s what all my major degrees are in. And religion is just storytelling. I do a lot of work in politics. Politics is just storytelling. I’ve done a lot of work studying ancient prehistoric cultures. And that is where you really understand what story means. Story is not how you understand the world. Story is how you understand yourself. Story is how you make sense of who you are as an individual, and how you fit into an indeterminate world. In fact, what a lot of scholars will tell you is that in ancient oral traditions, all of the tribes’ stories were the purview of the shaman. That what made the shaman distinct from the rest of the community is that the shaman held the stories. And his knowledge of the stories, and his ritual recitation of those stories throughout certain periods of the year, not only defined a tribe, but it allowed for the continued existence of the tribe. Literally, the belief was that the world would come to an end if these stories were not told in order, in time, in specific moments. That’s how powerful the idea of storytelling was, that all of creation is dependent upon the story being told. 


[15:21] Sinéad Burke: And when did you first want to tell your story, or realize that there was a need or want for it?


[15:28] Reza Aslan: It was a long time — I actually avoided telling my story for a really, really long time. Because part of the training that I underwent as an academic, and particularly when you study the world’s religions, is about removing yourself from the equation. That you can’t allow personal beliefs, personal opinions to cloud your objective analysis of other people’s beliefs. And so I was trained diligently to exclude my own beliefs from everything that I did. And it made me a good writer and it made me a good teacher.


[16:07] Sinéad Burke: But there’s a contradiction within that, because the reason why we ask specific questions, or have a lens through which we view religion, culture is based on us as individuals and our own experience. 


[16:18] Reza Aslan: And there’s no question that it was my own personal experience that got me into the field anyway. I mean, the childhood experiences that I had of revolutionary Iran, I think seared into my consciousness the power that religion has to transform a society for good and for bad. And there’s no question that that childhood experience is what ultimately led me as an adult to dedicate a life to studying what people believe. 


[16:47] Sinéad Burke: And when you’re looking for answers? 


[16:48] Reza Aslan: No, not at all. It was quite divorced from my own beliefs, my own views, because, again, it’s just this sort of rigorous training in the discipline to remove yourself. You’re not doing theology. You’re doing religion. A theologian can tell you what he or she thinks. A scholar of religion removes him or herself completely from the conversation. 


[17:16] Sinéad Burke: And when did your narrative become part of the storytelling? 


[17:19] Reza Aslan: When I became famous, like that’s kind of what happened. I mean, people like my books. And, you know, I was talking about religion and politics in ways that I think other people were not talking about it. And I think as a product of modern media, I feel very comfortable speaking and using the tools of modern media. And I think because it was nobody else doing it, I just kind of became the go-to person. 


[17:53] Sinéad Burke: Well, there’s that phrase, you shouldn’t talk about religion or politics. And there are you, talking about the two. How do you manage that because, you know, we’ve been born into a society that those are the topics that we’re supposed to be blinkered to outside of our personal space.


[18:07] Reza Aslan: It’s twofold. Number one is that you just have to develop a thick skin. And you just have to understand that you are going to get attacked from every corner. And you just kind of learn to deal with it. I’d like to say that you just ignore it and move on and pretend it doesn’t bother you. But it does bother you. You just kind of deal with it. I mean, I have files and files of death threats to me, now increasingly to my wife, increasingly to my children. You know, I’ve had multiple investigations. I’ve had plainclothes police officers have to sit in on my classes. You know, I’ve had security have to follow me around when I give lectures, it’s just kind of comes with the territory. 


[18:55] Sinéad Burke: Why keep going? 


[18:57] Reza Aslan: Because I think they’re important. They really are sort of the two most important aspects of modern society. They’re the two that have the most currency and the most weight when it comes to not just how we define ourselves as individuals and as communities, but how these communities conflict with each other. You know, different politics, different religions. Those two things alone have led to the death of tens of millions of people just in the last century. So if we’re not willing to have people try to create some measure of understanding, some new perspective, new way of thinking about these things, some attempt to bridge these divides, well, then we’re screwed. 


[22:24] Sinéad Burke: I grew up in a country where education is still, for the most part, run and organized and, you know, priests and nuns are on the boards of education. And a lot of our schools are religious schools. We have a secular establishment flourishing. But, you know, making your first holy communion, your confirmation, the church being similar to the state, or there being a lack of separation between the two, has been a part of my being in consciousness for as long as I can remember. And there has been a radical shift in my country in the past five to 10 years from bringing in marriage equality to bring in legislation in relation to women’s rights and abortion. And a lot of the conversation coming out of my nationality and country at the moment is, how did that happen? What was the point of transformation in which a new culture, or a new ethos could flourish? And I think a lot of it was individuals rather than institutions. And individuals sitting around a dining room table and having very uncomfortable conversations with loved ones, challenging them on their language, on their beliefs, on what they’ve been conditioned to see the world as. And offering vulnerability in a way that has danger and risk and all sorts of potentials with it. Saying this is a new way we must live and it’s been so extraordinary to be part of that. I mean, I was born in 1990, which was the year Mary Robinson became president of Ireland. And her inauguration speech said that the women of Ireland didn’t just rock the cradle, they rocked the system. And I was born that year. And Mary Robinson served six and a half to seven years, then went to the United Nations. And then we had President Mary McAlesse. And now we currently have Michael D. Higgins. And when Michael D Higgins was brought into office,  I remember thinking, “Oh, wow. A man can be president.”


[24:16] Sinéad Burke: And it’s that thing of if you can see it, you can be it. And it’s fascinating now when I travel, because I hadn’t realized the prominence of religion and politics and state and governance and people within my own island until you see other spaces.


[24:30] Reza Aslan: All of those things — nationality, religion, politics, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, all of the things that you’ve mentioned — they are all factors of identity. So it all comes back to how we define ourselves as individuals. Each one of us is essentially made up of these multiplicity of factors. I sometimes think of them as different strands that come together to make sort of the rope of our being, something solid. I think the problem often comes when one of those strands is allowed to sort of take over the rest. And it could be your religion. It could be your race. It could be your nationality. It could be your gender. 


[25:24] Reza Aslan: Whatever the case may be, I think the unhealthy individual, the unhealthy society, is that which takes all of these different factors, which should all be uniform and equal, and begins to emphasize one over the rest. Be it nationalism, or be it religion or whatever the case may be. And I think that part of the process of progress, of change towards greater equality, change towards people sort of understanding the similarities that we have as opposed to the differences, comes from a sense of confidence. About allowing those different factors to coexist, to live together. And I think that confidence is, I think you’re right, is an individual confidence. Institutions are not built for change or by definition, they’re built to last. They’re built to be unchanging. But individuals are the opposite.


[26:36] Reza Aslan: An individual has to be constantly shifting and changing and evolving and growing and adapting to whatever the societal changes are, environmental changes are. And that tension between individual and institution is something that I write about a lot, because that’s really — everything that you know about religion, for instance, is just the result of the tension between institutions and individuals. Everything you knew about statecraft, nationality, race, it’s all about this kind of conception of who gets to speak for us. Is it the individual or is it the institution? That argument has led to wars and bloodshed, but it’s also what’s led to, I think, the progress of society. I think the mistake is that thinking that inclusive means a kind of watering down where we all kind of become the same. 


[27:31] Reza Aslan: White people say it all the time. “Why do we have to talk about race? Why can’t we all just be together?” Oh, cause you’re white. That’s why. Or you hear it a lot nowadays with the argument about whether there should be LGBT protections and rights and then call me, say “why do they need extra rights? You know, we should all just be the same.” Only privileged people say that sentence. But I think it’s not about, I think, watering down your own individualism. I think it’s recognizing the multiplicity of ways in which you define yourself, that those factors exist in all people. But as we were saying before, in sort of different proportions. And by the way, for a lot of individuals, for a lot of states, some of this what we’re talking about here, this attempt to create a sense of parity or equilibrium, comes from a you know, a good place. It’s a real desire to sort of try to level the playing field. But I think when you have been at the top of a mountain for all of your life, you think that anyone who asks for a step up is asking for some kind of special privilege. 


[28:58] Sinéad Burke: Well, when equality has been your norm — 


[29:01] Reza Aslan: Yes, exactly. You don’t understand why anybody needs any help or a hand. You just assume that everyone else should have the same experience that I’ve had. I talk about it as kind of the difference between tolerance and pluralism. I think that people in positions of privilege, for whatever reason, tend to speak of tolerance. They think like, oh, well, other people are different and we’ll just kind of put up with it. And that’s that’s what it means to be a pluralistic system. But that’s not what it means. Tolerance is not the goal. Pluralism is the goal. And I think what pluralism assumes is that all people should have equal access. But no person should have to deny their own individuality, whatever that individuality has to come from. You know, you look at a country like France. France is a perfect example of everything that’s wrong with sort of top-down identity formation in the name of, you know, fraternity and all of that stuff. The idea in France is that, oh, you should strip yourself of your cultural differences. That assimilation means stop being who you are and just be who we are.


[30:22] Reza Aslan: And that makes no sense to the second-generation Algerian living in a slum, who can’t rent an apartment because his name is Mohammed. And if you’re telling him, well, just stop being so Algerian and just be more French and everything will be fine. That a nonsense statement. What really is the core of a functioning society, certainly a functioning democratic society, is an adherence to pluralism. By which we mean that there are many, many different ways to be us. There are tendrils that connect us, that make us part of a single nation. If that’s how you’re defining the broader community or state or whatever the case may be. But that within that, there are multiple ways of being, and those things should be celebrated. Really, the problem that we’re having right now in the United States with the surge of white nationalism and deterioration of race relations isn’t just that we have a racist in the White House. It’s that I think for a great many Americans who feel as though they were never given special chances, they feel that way because their entire life is a special chance.

[33:29] Sinéad Burke: You’ve had so many interesting roles and positions and experiences, be it traveling the world, be it working as an academic, being famous, but what are the moments that have changed how you think, feel and see the world?


[33:45] Reza Aslan: I mean, I think, you know, the most obvious answer to that question would be 9/11. I think for anybody with my identity, they would say that 9/11 changed everything. Not because of all the social issues and all that. It’s just that before 9/11, I was allowed to be many different things. I was allowed to be Muslim, I guess. Iranian, Middle Eastern, you know, Persian heritage. I was allowed to be all of those things. After 9/11, I was only allowed to be Muslim. And I never was all that Muslim until 9/11. Because when everyone else began to force that singular identity upon me, the answer that I responded to was absorbing it. And everyone, everyone in America who looks like me has that exact same story. I used to be Pakistani until 9/11, and then now I’m Muslim. I used to be Arab and now I’m Muslim. 


[34:52] Sinéad Burke: How did that change you? 


[34:56] Reza Aslan: Well, I mean, I think for me, I’ve always been fascinated by identity. That’s really always been kind of the core interest that I pursue. How do we define who we are? How do we define ourselves in opposition to others? That was my childhood experience growing up in the US. But I think that experience was a real wakeup call in the ways in which you really don’t have as much control over how you are identified as you think you do, that so much of your identity comes from the way that other people view you. And that there are two responses to that. One is to push back. And the other is to accept that identity and use it as a tool for transformation. And I feel like that’s what I did. 


[35:44] Sinéad Burke: And did it change how you travel around the world? We started this conversation by you talking about your love for travel, and that idea that, you know, as a child, you wanted to see as many different places as possible. But obviously, there has been legislation and policies involved in perhaps how certain types of people can travel and where you can go to. How did that impact what you could do?


[36:08] Reza Aslan: I guess it was really interesting because before I used to travel as an American. And then after 9/11, I traveled as an Iranian. And certainly before that, advertising my Iranian-ness, was not something that I would pursue, whether I was in America or anywhere else in the world. And post-9/11, that’s kind of what happened, is that, you know, I would be in different parts of the world and people say, what are you? And I would say, I’m Iranian instead of I’m American. And so that’s kind of what I meant by sort of doubling down on an identity. Which, by the way, is an extraordinarily common thing that people do. When one factor of their identity becomes demonized, they don’t necessarily excise that identity. On the contrary, they double down on it. “Oh, you this is how you think of me? Well, then that’s what I will be.”


[37:00] Sinéad Burke: Absolutely. And did being a parent change you? And the obvious answer to that seems like yes, but did it change in terms of the conversations that we have had, in terms of how you moved through the world and you as a person and the different identities that you possess? 


[37:14] Reza Aslan: It’s impossible not to always know that these children carry within them an identity that I spent — I mean, I didn’t have a child until I was 40, so I spent 40 years fostering an identity, and then just handed that off to my kids. And every parent has that push and pull of allowing your child to become who they want to become themselves while also trying to maintain that core that you’ve implanted in them. And I think that experience has been eye-opening for for me and my wife. I mean, we both come from such vastly different worlds. She’s a white, Midwestern Christian, and I’m a brown Iranian Muslim. And the idea that we were able to just perfectly blend those two identities together to create three magical human beings is the thing that we are both most proud of in this world. We want them to see the world, to be at home with the world, to understand how different people are, but also how alike they are. And everybody knows that, you know, oh, if you teach a kid a language before they’re seven or eight or whatever, they will remember that language and it’ll be second nature to them. The same is true when it comes to the sort of cultural immersion that we are so committed to. They see the world as a very small place. When they look at a globe, what they see is familiarity. And that’s all that we could hope for. 


[39:01] Sinéad Burke: And what have you learned from seeing the world through your children’s eyes? 


[39:07] Reza Aslan: The way in which the smallest differences have this sort of profoundly meaningful impact. So, for instance, you know, the boys, they still they still bring this up. They ordered a milkshake in Paris. And what came bore no resemblance to anything that they would call a milkshake. And one of my boys said, and I’ll never forget this, “Oh, I think I just realized something. Milkshake doesn’t mean milkshake in Paris.” That statement is so profound. Milkshake doesn’t mean milkshake in Paris. You know, the idea that what I take for granted, or what I understand to be one thing, is something completely different when you go to another country. If every child in America could just know that thing, our future would be bright. I mean, we are in a good place in the sense that we do have the technological tools necessary to give children a truly global education without doing what we did, which is save all of our money, you know, basically empty our savings account in order to take him around the world. Not everyone can do that, obviously. But in the programs that you watch, the games that you play, the kind of education that you foster. I mean, all of that has to be geared towards creating global citizens, because whether we like it or not, the borders and boundaries that have been separating us into distinct nation-states are diminishing before our eyes. And if you are not comfortable at home in the world, then you are looking at a very bleak future. 


[41:00] Sinéad Burke: Reza, as somebody who, when I was younger, never thought that I would be able to travel the world because of accessibility reasons. Because airports, planes, trains, boats, they’re all challenging. And I am fairly mobile. To see the value and the importance and the education in looking at the world through different lenses from talking with you, it has been incredulous. Thank you so much for your time. Really appreciate it. 


[41:27] Reza Aslan: Thank you. 


[41:32] Sinéad Burke: We are a good chunk of the way through this season. And when we started the show, one of the theses is that we had was that everything is relatable and our experiences are often universal. Which sounds grandiose and really a bit simplistic. But this episode is just one that proves that point. As a white woman raised in Ireland, particularly in the ‘90s, there was a tangible lack of diversity in this country. And in many ways still is. It’s not reflected in our popular culture. People who are not white are often asked, “where are you really from?” And as a disabled person, not that I experienced that line of inquiry, but that human feeling of being an other, of not being what the norm is, made me relate to Reza so much. I don’t know what it is like to receive Islamophobic harassment, or to be continuously pulled out of a line in an airport for more intense questioning, just because of the color of my skin or the religion that I practice. But as a disabled woman, I can empathize with the constant surveillance, feeling like you were an object that is for other people’s entertainment or scrutiny. And I think more of us need to realize that that empathy is not just powerful, but is an important tool to instigate action upon. To stand not just up for one another — because that term is ableist — but to stand with one another. And Reza taught me so much in this episode. Next week, I’m speaking with Akila Hughes, which we recorded very recently. Akila is a comedian and also has a daily podcast with Crooked Media called What a Day. She’s got a lot to say about what’s happening in the world right now. 


[43:20] Akila Hughes: This is going to change the way we do work in business and education. And, you know, our civic duty is, you know, like voting. Everything is affected now because we’ve realized that we didn’t even have a plan. There was no contingency plan for anything like this happening. And what we’re realizing is like, yeah, anything could happen that would require people to, you know, vote by mail. Anything could happen that would require someone who can no longer get to the office, for whatever reason, to need a strong connection and software that, you know, isn’t breaking the bank to talk to people. And so I truly do believe that this is going to be one of the hardest lessons humanity has learned. 


[44:07] Sinéad Burke: This week’s person you should know is Mona Chalabi. When we talk about the pandemic and making sure that information is accessible, that can mean a whole bunch of things, whether or not you’re using alt-text or captions. But so much of the information that is circulating the world at the moment is difficult to comprehend. My background is not in science. I am a humanities gal. Languages and relating to people were my skillset. No surprise. But Mona is the most incredible artist who takes the information that is alienating and sometimes complicated, and puts visual cues with it that are both beautiful and so important for us to really understand the most essential of information that’s relevant right now. So you should follow Mona on every platform. But on Instagram, she’s @MonaChalabi. Tell her I said hi. 


[45:03] Sinéad Burke: As Me with Sinéad is a Lemonada Media original and is executive produced by Jessica Cordova Kramer. Assistant produced by Claire Jones and edited by Ivan Kuraev. Music is by Jerome Rankin. Our sales and distribution partner is Westwood One. If you’ve liked what you’ve heard, don’t be shy. Tell your friends or listen and subscribe on Apple, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you like to listen, and rate and review as well. To continue the conversation, find me on Instagram and Twitter @thesineadburke and find Lemonada Media on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook @LemonadaMedia.


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