On Monday, November 14 the 2022–2023 global scholars cohort along with interested students from the community met with Reza Aslan for a conversation over lunch. The conversation came after the announcement of Aslan’s Global Initiatives Event and the subsequent backlash from certain students and adults in the Poly community. Emmy- and Peabody-nominated producer Aslan is a renowned writer, professor, and expert in world religions. The event was supposed to focus on Aslan’s recent book, An American Martyr in Persia: The Epic Life and Tragic Death of Howard Baskerville; however, some students raised concerns about Aslan’s involvement with the National Iranian American Council(NIAC). NIAC is an active Iranian civil rights organization that has been accused of being lobbyists for the Iranian government. As an advisor for NIAC, Aslan, by association, was also accused of being a lobbyist for the Iranian government.
Prior to the lunch, attendees were asked to self-educate themselves on the controversy around Aslan and NIAC by reading a few articles and conducting their own research. During the conversation, there were many concerns brought up, questions asked, and knowledge shared. Though the group and Aslan did not meet one shared conclusion, I thought it was valuable to have a civil conversation, despite differing opinions. Aslan denied all claims of lobbying, even on behalf of NIAC. In fact, he called the claims “absurd” and “nonsensical.” Aslan credited the success of the rumor to modern-day technology and fake news.
One of his thoughts on news sources that stood out to me was when he said that “if the news has ads, it's entertainment.” Aslan talked about how modern-day news sources prioritize monetary success over providing true, unbiased, pure news. He explained how every news story is prioritized by its ability to keep the audience engaged. Furthermore, Aslan connected this information to the privilege and power dynamics of global news. Specifically, Aslan referenced the unfortunate lack of coverage of the crises in Iranian. As he was talking about the lack of coverage on Iranian news, I realized that I am a product of this targeted, and therefore inherently biased news. I had not realized the urgency and depth of the issue because I am not shown it in the news. In order to fully understand the situation, I realized that I would have to actively search for the information myself.
This conversation taught me a lot about Iranian issues, fake news, and Reza Aslan; however, what stayed on my mind after the event was how I consume media overall. For me, this event served as a reminder of how careful I must be with my news and resources of information. I have also realized that there is no such thing as an unbiased resource. Therefore, I can still find credible sources but I have to remember and consider the biases of that resource to obtain the “truth.”
Because of the backlash and safety concerns around the Reza Aslan event, the event was rescheduled for December 8. At the event, I hope to hear more about Aslan’s book and expertise on world religion and Howard Baskerville.