Unlike J.K. Rowling or Donald Trump, Reza Aslan knows what it’s like to be “canceled.”
On the evening of June 3, 2017, a van barreled into a crowd of pedestrians on London Bridge before its passengers emerged, stabbing onlookers in nearby Borough Market. Before their blood was even dry, or the culprits’ identities revealed, President Donald Trump tweeted, “We need to be smart, vigilant and tough. We need the courts to give us back our rights. We need the Travel Ban as an extra level of safety!”
That Trump was using an in-progress terrorist attack as justification for his so-called “Muslim Ban,” which he described as “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” during his campaign, did not sit well with Reza Aslan, a leading religious scholar and one of the most prominent Muslim voices in media. So, the CNN pundit and host fired off a tweet: “This piece of shit is not just an embarrassment to America and a stain on the presidency. He’s an embarrassment to humankind.”
He was immediately inundated with emails, texts, and missed calls from producers, CNN execs, and even liberal-celeb acquaintances chastising him for the move. #FireReza and #CNNisISIS began trending on Twitter, as a right-wing mob called for his ouster. At the network’s urging, he issued a diplomatic apology—which they accepted. All seemed fine.
And then four days later, without warning, he received notice that his highly rated travel series, Believer, which saw Aslan immerse himself in different religions (from a Hawaiian death cult to getting audited by Scientologists), had been canceled by CNN honcho Jeff Zucker. The move struck Aslan and his crew as odd given the show’s popularity, his public apology, and the fact they were set to begin shooting Season 2 in days. Most curious of all was how the man who dropped the hammer, Zucker, is a longtime friend of Trump’s who, as president of NBC Entertainment, breathed life into the real estate mogul’s dying empire with The Apprentice.
Thankfully, Aslan has kept busy since. He hosts a talk show, Rough Draft, which had its first season on Topic; has been helping develop a new Chuck Lorre sitcom, The United States of Al, for CBS; and is “knee-deep” into a book about Howard Baskerville, a Presbyterian missionary who led a volunteer militia during the Constitutional Revolution of Iran in the early 1900s. Oh, and Believer will finally be available to stream on Topic beginning July 16.
There is certainly no love lost between Aslan and Zucker, and over the course of our lengthy chat, he reveals the whole messy backstory behind Believer’s cancellation—including the CNN chief’s alleged broken promises, “vindictiveness,” and a legal tug of war that drove a stake through the show’s heart. He also has plenty to say about Trump, whom he calls “a lecherous, pussy-grabbing pathological liar who has been credibly accused of rape multiple times.”
Let’s start with all the hullabaloo surrounding the cancellation of Believer. Could you walk me through the day where you sent your Trump is a “piece of shit” tweet?
That was the day in which there was the awful terror attack on the bridge in London, in the Thames. It was an attack where somebody who had pledged loyalty to ISIS had run over a bunch of pedestrians on the bridge, and many of them had been flung into the river.
And then they got out of the van and began stabbing civilians in Borough Market.
Right. I was following the story as soon as it broke, since this is a topic that I write and talk about a lot. I was in the process of getting my family to go out to dinner that night when I saw Trump’s tweet. Essentially, what he had done was—in the first two minutes of the attack, while the Brits were still fishing bodies out of the Thames, and before any real information was known about the perpetrators or their motives—he used the attack, as he often does, to promote his racist, anti-Muslim agenda, suggesting that this attack is more proof for the “Muslim ban” that he was so desperately trying to enact at the time. When I read that tweet, I was just enraged. I was perfectly aware of who Donald Trump was. I understood that he was a vile bigot and an unrepentant racist, and knew precisely what he felt about Muslims. This is a man—and an administration—who very explicitly said that Islam is not a religion but a political philosophy, and that it is not protected under the First Amendment in the United States because it’s not a religion. I know who this man was.
But to have the president of the United States, the supposed leader of the free world, use this to stoke anti-Muslim sentiment, and to use it to justify his own race-baiting and xenophobia in the United States, frankly, I just snapped. I don’t remember my exact tweet but it was something along the lines of “this man is a piece of shit and an embarrassment to humanity”—both of which are fundamental facts that I stand by.
Yes, I believe the exact words were, “This piece of shit is not just an embarrassment to America and a stain on the presidency. He’s an embarrassment to humankind.”
Exactly. All of which are objective truths borne out by reams of evidence. And I’ll be honest with you: I didn’t think twice about it. I turned off my phone, left it behind, and took my family to dinner. My wife had been giving me a really hard time lately about always having my phone with me and constantly checking the alerts and going through Twitter, so I had been trying to spend more time away from my phone. The other thing I should mention is, this is not the first time that I had referred to the president as a “piece of shit.” I had tweeted that he was a “piece of shit” on at least four other occasions before then. So it was in no way the first time I had called him a “piece of shit,” and I didn’t think anything of it. I came home that night, saw the response, and clearly something had happened. I had voicemails from my agent, from the producers of the show, from CNN execs, from liberal “celebrity” friends on social media saying, “How could you say something like this? You have to respect the office! Even if it’s true, you can’t talk about the president in these terms.” These were liberals and progressives telling me this.
“And the quote that was delivered to me [from Zucker] was, “I have no choice in the matter. I gotta get rid of your boy.” I was flabbergasted.”
How did you respond?
My first response was to sit down and write a very long statement essentially saying, “I’m not sorry.” In that statement, I outlined all of the despicable, racist things that Trump has said and done. I made the argument that those of us with a voice have to be able to shout as loud as possible, and in as public a way as possible, when we are confronted with someone who is clearly an existential threat not just to American democracy, but to the world as we know it, and that calling him a “piece of shit” was frankly the most polite thing I could say about him. I sent that statement to my small group of representatives and was told in no uncertain terms, especially by my agent and publicist: “Send this thing out and the show is done.”
I came up with the concept for Believer in my early twenties, had pitched it, sold it, and poured my life into this. I really and truly thought of Believer as the culmination of all the work that I had ever done. My entire adult life had been predicated on teaching people what religion is, showing people what religions have in common, and setting myself up as someone who can explain things that look weird and foreign and scary and exotic, and in doing so, break down these walls that separate us into these religious groups. The threat of that being taken away was enough for me to dispose of the original statement and issue a very short apology.
Which CNN initially said they accepted.
Immediately. It was quite clearly, “Yup, it’s over. It’s fine.” That was Sunday. And on Monday, we were back into pre-production. That Friday, we were all supposed to go to the U.K. to film the first episode of the second season. So on Monday, we were back in the office and I apologized to my crew and staff, and said I didn’t want to jeopardize their jobs. The crew was on my side, and that was the end of that. Back to work.
And then Thursday, which I remember because it happened to be the first day of [James] Comey’s testimony, in the break between the morning testimony and the afternoon testimony, [Jeff] Zucker informed the production company that he was pulling the plug on the show. The response from the production company was, “Wait a minute, what? We thought this was over. He apologized. You accepted the apology. This was four days ago.” And the quote that was delivered to me [from Zucker] was, “I have no choice in the matter. I gotta get rid of your boy.” I was flabbergasted. It just didn’t make sense to accept an apology, wait four days, and then in the middle of one of the biggest news day of the year to just simply cancel it.
It certainly sounds strange. Why do you think Zucker did that?
I’ve made a lot of friends at CNN and had a long relationship with CNN as a political commentator, appearing on almost every show. So I had enough friends there who were able to tell me: “Look, it’s a matter of access. It’s an access issue.” The idea was that Trump wouldn’t come on CNN anymore as a result of this. And also, this was at the height of the AT&T merger where Trump was illegally—and publicly—saying that he wasn’t going to allow this merger to happen unless CNN fire Jeff Zucker, because they have this fake “conflict” between them. That week was the week when right-wing sites like Breitbart and The Daily Wire started trying to “cancel” liberal voices. #FireMaddow was a big trending hashtag on Twitter, as was #FireReza.
Right. Which tells you a lot about the motivation behind the #FireReza movement. And then they went through every social media post I’d ever made. So they were trying to “cancel” me.
And this is a time when anti-Muslim sentiment had seen a spike, given the London Bridge terror attack and Trump’s proposed “Muslim ban.” So the timing of this right-wing campaign against you seems rather suspect, to say the least.
Oh, absolutely. And in June of 2017, I am one of the most prominent Muslim voices in America. And the #CNNisISIS tag is indicative of it, that this was motivated by Trump’s anti-Muslim sentiment. And there wasn’t any coordinated attack on me the first four times I’d called him a “piece of shit” on Twitter. But this time was different. And the Eric Trump thing was outrageous. To have Eric Trump go on Hannity and just flat-out lie, and say I’m a “journalist,” an “anchor sitting behind the desk,” an “employee of CNN,” and that I called him a piece of shit “on-air.” None of those things were true. And I don’t know what happened in those four days. We had packed our bags, had plane tickets, and were 24 hours away from shooting the first episode. And then the call came.
“There wasn’t any coordinated attack on me the first four times I’d called him a “piece of shit” on Twitter. But this time was different. And the Eric Trump thing was outrageous.”
It’s curious, the cancellation, because we do know that Jeff Zucker at the time had a close relationship with Donald Trump, and was one of the people who helped him become Donald Trump. And during the 2016 election, CNN had their cameras trained on an empty microphone for an hour before Trump’s speeches even kicked off, so they gave him a tremendous amount of airtime. They even had a rotating team of pro-Trump pundits, from Jeffrey Lord to Corey Lewandowski (as he was still being paid by the Trump campaign) to the “mazel tov cocktail” lady. So they played a pretty big role in getting this guy elected.
An intimate relationship. And Donald Trump had helped Zucker become Zucker. And they played a huge role, massive role. What I was made to believe from my friends at CNN was that, since Trump had come out against the AT&T merger, this was another reason for him to try to prevent that merger from happening. The thing that I heard most often, however, was that it just comes down to the simple issue of feeling threatened by the president that somehow CNN would lose access to the White House. OK, but why do you say all is forgiven and then four days later cancel the show? It came as a surprise both to us, and to people at the network. Even the higher-ups at CNN were surprised by this move. We tried to call [Zucker] and get some clarity, and that’s when I was sat down and told that the following came directly from Jeff Zucker. What he basically said was, “Keep your boy in line, stay quiet, don’t do any interviews—this is obviously going to be a big story—don’t comment about this, and in exchange, when this brouhaha dies down, you will get the show, the masters, and the format”—because CNN technically owned not only Believer but the format, by which I mean they owned Reza Aslan goes around the world exploring religions, or my entire livelihood. So I couldn’t go around doing that for anyone else. I was told I could have all of it back if I just stayed quiet. So I had been purposely muzzled—fooled—into keeping my mouth shut. Which I did.
So you’re saying you were essentially conned by Jeff Zucker into staying quiet.
“Conned” is the perfect word for it. I was deliberately conned with a false promise: be quiet, you’ll get the show back. And during those couple of weeks, I was getting inundated with requests from other networks. It was a very successful show, but the cancellation of it was such a big issue that there were a number of networks who very much wanted to take advantage of that, and to step in and say, “We picked it up.” And so I would respond to these emails, either directly or through my agent: “Give us a couple of weeks.” So we told the staff: “We know you’re not getting paid for a couple of weeks but just hold on. We’ll go back into production and everyone will get paid again.”
The first offer came in from CNN, and it was the legal equivalent of “go fuck yourself.” It was, you don’t get the show back; you don’t get the tapes back; you don’t get the format back; we’re not going to pay anyone on your staff; and, despite the fact that you were pay-to-play, meaning the second I signed the contract for that second season my salary was guaranteed, we’re going to negate the pay-to-play and say that you violated a “morality clause”—which, again, when you think about who the president of the United States is, the idea that I violated a “morality clause” in my contract is laughable—and we’re going to cite that to also not pay you. It was a straight-up con.
It sounds not only ruthless but vindictive, in a way.
Well, let’s talk about how vindictive it was. He canceled the show on Thursday. On Friday, he made the announcement. Monday was the first day of Emmy voting. And look, I’m not saying I was going to win an Emmy, but there were articles in Variety and Deadline saying we were in the mix. CNN had a robust Emmy plan in place for it—an FYC, or For Your Consideration plan—and there was every reason to think that we were well-positioned for an Emmy nomination. It’s one thing to withdraw that Emmy plan, I get that, but what he did was he scrubbed the show from the CNN archives, so he made it literally impossible for any Emmy voter to actually see the show. It was pure vindictiveness. There’s no explanation for that at all. It was incredible.
Long story short, it took almost a year to negotiate on the show. When negotiations were over, we ended up getting almost everything he said we would get if we kept our mouths shut—we got the show back, we got the format back. We still didn’t get paid but at least we got the show back. But by design it took so long, and the process was so deliberately dragged out, that by that point any excitement from the networks who wanted to take show in order to make a statement had pretty much died down. And I’d moved on. I’m excited that people will get to watch the show now, because I’m very proud of it, but this was a deliberate plan to make sure the show could not be revived in the aftermath of this controversy.
And it sounds like it was done to appease one person.
Unquestionably it was done to appease one person.
There is all this talk about “cancel culture” right now, when we talk about Trump’s speech and the Harper’s letter decrying “cancel culture”—the latter signed by a bunch of people who have committed plagiarism and other fireable offenses yet haven’t been canceled. To me, the real “cancel culture” doesn’t involve elites but people of color and marginalized voices. It involves anyone who may, say, speak out in favor of Palestine. These elites with giant platforms and followings are not the ones being silenced.
It’s just another tool to make sure that people in the minority keep their mouths shut. The intersection between how this plays with “cancel culture” and the other aspect of the Trump years, the insistence that we all remain “civil,” is interesting. You can call him a lying, narcissistic, megalomaniacal, racist man but don’t say the word “shit!” Because if you say the word “shit” somehow you’ve lost your ability. And to me, this appeal to “civil dialogue” when you’re a minority sounds like “you should shut the hell up.” That’s what it sounds like to me. And this idea of “respect the office” went out the door shortly after my incident, because that was when Charlottesville happened.
Another of my gripes with the Harper’s letter is that this was a letter written by gatekeepers complaining about this vague “cancel culture.” And they seem to be upset that we’re not living in the past, where 75 to 100 media gatekeepers controlled the entire narrative, controlled who was “canceled” or not, and could drown out dissent from, say, minority voices. They’re unhappy that discourse has become more diverse and democratic, really, and that their views are being criticized and questioned.
The idea that they could possibly be held accountable for their work and ideas is something that they have never, ever dealt with before. So the idea that it’s all about “free speech” is absurd. It’s not about free speech—it’s about privilege. That’s what it really is.
Since the tweet and your firing, has CNN frozen you out? Because I don’t see you making a lot of appearances on the network anymore.
This was in June 2017, it’s now June 2020—that’s three years, and I have not been on CNN. I wasn’t even on CNN while I was on book tour. But it’s not just CNN. With the exception of a couple of MSNBC appearances while literally on book tour, I’ve been completely cut out of the cable-news commentary. Am I weepy about that? No. What this experience has taught me is that cable news is garbage, and you’re better off avoiding all of it. I don’t watch cable news anymore. And there’s no question I was iced out after all this happened. No question about it at all.
So this is one of the world’s leading Muslim cable-news commentators being iced out because he upset Trump and Jeff Zucker.
Exactly. For upsetting a man who is the Islamophobe-in-Chief and who was, at the time, actively engaged in a policy to keep Muslims out of America, and at the time was literally transforming America’s refugee program so that it only allowed Christians in. This man was pushing for me to lose this show, the entire purpose of which was to create religious literacy and religious understanding, and to make sure people thought that no matter how weird or frightening someone’s religion seems to be, it’s actually not that weird and not that unusual, and you actually have more in common with it than you think. This show was the polar opposite of everything that Trump was, and everything that he was trying to do.
If we compare you to, say, Bill Maher—you’ve been chased off cable news yet Maher has said every Islamophobic thing under the sun, platformed Milo Yiannopoulos, and even used the N-word on his program.
The Bill Maher thing is astonishing to me. It just shows what we really refuse to talk about when we talk about these issues of “cancel culture” or “free speech” issues. These are just ways of making sure that certain voices that are troublesome and that undermine the system that we live under are silenced—and silenced in the name of “civility,” “free speech,” or “cancel culture.” It’s truly what’s at stake here.
A CNN spokeswoman issued the following statement to The Daily Beast:
At the time of Believer’s cancellation, we made it clear to Reza that we did not move forward with the series because of his inappropriate tweet and we parted ways amicably. While we owned the series, Reza’s agreement was with Whalerock, the company that produced it. Once we gave Whalerock the rights and paid what we were responsible for, it was their decision on what to do with the series.