Reza Aslan is many things: he is an expert on religion and best-selling author of books like Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in the Age of Globalization. Aslan has several eggs in the basket, as he is working on another ABC comedy which he hopes 'will do for Muslims in Americam what Will & Grace did for LGBT men and women' as he mentioned in a recent podcast.
He is also broadcasting an internet series called The Secret Life of Muslims which talks about the lives of Muslims in the United States.
But it is not these shows that he is receiving flak for: he is now hosting a new show on CNN called Believer, where he immerses himself in several different religions in an attempt to understand the emotional truths at their cores.
In the hour-long premier, Aslan sits down with an Aghori guru and ends up getting smeared with cremated ashes, while the guru drinks alcohol from a human skull. He even gets a taste of what is touted to be cooked human tissue, reports The Huffington Post.
"Want to know what a dead guy’s brain tastes like? Charcoal," Aslan wrote on Facebook. "It was burnt to a crisp!"
The guru later threatens to cut off Aslan’s head if the scholar asks any more questions, and begins throwing his own waste at Aslan and the camera crew.
The outcry was immediate. Aslan was accused of sensationalising and mischaracterising Hindus and hinduism.
The US India Political Action Committee (USINPAC) said in a statement it was a time of 'intolerant attacks on minorities' and the show would 'add more misrepresentation, bias and may lead to more hate crimes'.
In a statement to The Indian Express, the committee's chairman, Sanjay Puri, added: 'In a charged environment, a show like this can create a perception about Indian Americans which could make them more vulnerable to further attacks.'
Shalab Kumar, an Indian American who is a public speaker and philanthropist, also described the show as a 'disgusting attack on Hinduism'.
'It is unbelievably callous and reckless of CNN to be pushing sensational and grotesque images of bearded brown men and their morbid and deathly religion at a time when the United States is living through a period of unprecedented concern and fear," Vamsee Juluri, a media studies professor at the University of San Francisco, wrote in the Huffington Post.
Aslan also interviewed several non-cannibal Aghori practitioners, including those who ran an orphanage and a group of volunteers who cared for people with leprosy reports Washington Post. Still, some critics thought the focus on the flesh-eating Aghori was inappropriate and done for the shock value. Aslan responded to the drama on Facebook. He said, "As someone who writes and speaks about religion for a living, I know better than most the sensitivities of the topic, and I have spent much of my career trying my best to address those sensitivities. In the case of the episode on the Aghor - which, as I repeatedly state on camera and in voice-over, are not representative of Hinduism but are instead an extreme Hindu sect who reject the fundamental Hindu distinction between purity and pollution."
Aslan said he sees religion through a particular lens: "As a matter of identity than a matter of belief. The living experience of religion and the theoretical concepts of religion are different,” he has said in a previous interview.
Aslan is to pursue Scientology and Christianity in the upcoming episodes.