Aziz Ansari is not a Muslim, he is an atheist

By Razib Khan | November 11, 2010 1:51 am

Aziz08A few days ago a friend was asking me about Aziz Ansari, the brown American comedian who grew up in South Carolina, and is of Tamil Muslim heritage. Since I don’t watch Parks and Recreation, I knew about him mostly through the Sepia Mutiny weblog. Some of the comments there indicated that Ansari was a practicing Muslim. That did not surprise me, South Asians are very religious. In particular, group religious identity matters a great deal to people whose origins are in Indian and Islamic civilization (and their intersection).

This is in contrast to East Asians, for whom group religious identity matters far less. It is notable that the most Sinic Southeast Asian nation, Vietnam, is closest to the East Asian model, with no single organized supernatural tradition being identified with the national consciousness. In contrast the more Indic mainland Southeast Asians, and those of maritime Southeast Asia, do fuse religion and national identity. To be Thai is to a great extent to be a Theravada Buddhist, and to be a Malay is to be a Muslim.*

The USA, unlike Canada, Singapore, or the UK, does not have breakdowns of religious affiliation by ethnic group down to the level of sub-Asian ethnicities, so I don’t know how religious or irreligious South Asians are. I assume that they’re less religious than Canadian or British South Asians, in large part because they’re a more advanced community in terms of education and economics vis-a-vis the mainstream in the USA (though to be fair it seems that the Punjabis of British Columbia and the Pakistanis of Britain are responsible for most of the social dysfunction of South Asians in those countries). But it still seems that a substantial number of American South Asians retain nominal religious identity even if their personal beliefs and practices are relatively secular. Fareed Zakaria was for example drafted as a “moderate Muslim” in the wake of 9/11 despite the fact that he used to be Slate‘s wine columnist. Here’s Zakaria on the role of religion in his life:

Growing up in a country like India, riven by sectarian violence, Zakaria says, “you’re absolutely aware of the power religion has, in a positive and negative sense—in its ability to inspire people and its ability to inspire people to kill.” On the other hand, his own upbringing was open-minded and secular; he sang Christian hymns at school and celebrated Hindu as well as his own Muslim holidays. “I do know a lot about the world of Islam in an instinctive way that you can’t get through book learning,” he says thoughtfully, but admits he finds the role of token Muslim explainer in the American media slightly uncomfortable. “I occasionally find myself reluctant to be pulled into a world that’s not mine, in the sense that I’m not a religious guy.”

He was born and raised in India, so no matter how assimilated he is Zakaria retains the stamp of the nation of his birth. The Zakarias are a powerful Indian Muslim family, and in India his identity was that of a Muslim, albeit one who was comfortable with South Asian supernatural pluralism.** Zakaria also believes that he has an implicit cultural understanding of Islam because that was the milieu in which he was raised. But he admits candidly what is pretty obvious, he’s not particularly religious in any conventional understanding for a Muslim. Nevertheless he does not disavow Islam, or assert he’s an atheist or agnostic.

I’m obviously not in Fareed Zakaria’s camp. I’m not a Muslim, I’m an atheist. Just like my paternal grandmother was not a Hindu even though she was born into a Hindu family. This sort of plain and naked assertion of atheism is not something that many Americans are comfortable with, since theism is normative. But in a South Asian context the bigger issue is the rupture with historical communal memory. I have met Americans who were born into a Hindu family who were atheists and ate beef who nevertheless winced when I admitted that there were Hindus in my family tree only a few generations back who obviously converted for reasons of rational self-interest. The power of “team Hindu” and “team Islam” still remains within Diasporic South Asian communities. Of course this sort of phenomenon is cross-cultural, an atheist friend who was from a Calvinist part of the Netherlands felt confident in mocking the special superstition of Roman Catholicism in a manner which would have made the Reformers of yore smile.

For myself, close readers will be aware that my explicitly asserted denial of the existence of God and rejection of identification with Islamic civilization is something of an affront to the memory of my recent ancestors. My mother’s paternal grandfather was a wandering Muslim mystic. In his lifetime he came to be revered for his piety, and the site of his grave has become a object of pilgrimage in the local region. The superstitious local folk naturally believe that we who descend from this man carry his holiness in our blood, and my mother remembers as a small child people approaching her as if she was a special talisman. On my father’s side I come from a line of Ulama.

But if religiosity is heritable it is highly amusing to me that I probably come very close to lacking the “God gene.” My understanding that I was an atheist as a small child was less of a rejection of the existence of God than an acknowledgment of the lack of belief which had always implicitly been part of of my model of how the world worked. I simply was never “Wired for Creationism.” But by lack of belief in and of itself does not entail that I reject “team Islam.” I was always struck by the fact that Edward Said, a Christian Arab by birth, an atheist as an adult, defined himself as a product of Islamic civilization. The connection between an individual and a religious ethos runs deeper than belief alone. It even runs deeper than explicit identification. I have argued repeatedly that most American Jews and Roman Catholics adhere to a view of what religion is, and what their religion is, that is clearly in keeping with the confessional sectarian Protestantism which has shaped the history of the United States of America. For me my personal disaffection with Indian and Islamic civilization was completed by my reading of Chinese philosophers, in particular Xun Zi, as well as the pre-Socratics of the Greeks. The fact that my ancestors wasted their lives on metaphysics, mysticism, and the Madhhab is a shame. Their Eudaimonia would have been deeply alien to me, in a way that Marcus Aurelius never was.

So what about the point of the article? Here’s an addendum to an article from last spring in The New York Times:

In an earlier version of this article, Michael Schur, the co-creator of “Parks and Recreation,” partly described Mr. Ansari as a Muslim. Mr. Ansari describes himself as an atheist.

Whoever claimed Ansari was a practicing Muslim was lying, deluded, or mistaken. Because of my general knowledge that South Asians do not usually disavow any religious identity I simply accepted this as a given and repeated the falsehood. And that is why I am putting up this post, and hoping that Google picks up this for the appropriate search queries.

* I am aware that there are small communities of Thai-speaking Christians, as well as larger communities Thai-speaking Muslims.

** I once talked to a man who was of Indian Christian background whose personal beliefs were closer to Hinduism, but in India everyone defined him as a Christian because of his birth, despite his rejection of Christian beliefs and acceptance of Hindu ones.

Image Credit: Mb3741, Wikimedia Commons

MORE ABOUT: Aziz Ansari, Islam

Comments (24)

  1. Sandgroper

    I once asked a Hindu friend/tennis doubles partner how you become a Hindu, and he said “Erm, I think you have to be born as one.”

    Southern Thailand is a good place to spend Christmas (apart from the bombings, ride-by beheadings, etc) – 2/3 Theravada Buddhist, 1/3 Muslim. No canned carols in elevators and department stores, no big commercial lead-up for 3 months before, the Muslims know how to make good coffee, the Theravada Buddhists know everything else, you get bacon for breakfast, they give you a turkey dinner on Christmas Eve, and that’s it, that’s all you get, it’s all over.

    What a bloody relief.

  2. @Sandgroper I love the insane build-up to Christmas in London.

    The tube system also shuts down and everyone gets together.

    Can’t imagine spending Christmas in a “hot” country; perhaps NY.

    @Razib interesting post; for religions like Hinduism/Judaism, which were once proselytizing but now no more, they are able to “retain” their atheists. Once Christianity/Islam are in retreat from a more aggressive and domineering ideology then perhaps they’ll evolve mechanisms to “retain” their atheists somehow. Is Hinduism to India/South Asia what Islam is to the Arabs?

    I mean the rise of the cultural “Catholic/Christian” in Europe is perhaps a good example, where now Christianity in hyper-secularized circles is a heritage/legacy passed down rather than a religious practice. I know quite a few atheist/agnostic English people who view the CoE as a national treasure and Christianity a liberal balm against homegrown extremism.

  3. Anthony

    Zachary Latif – The Catholic Church retains their atheists pretty well, especially in predominately Catholic countries where the Church isn’t strongly identified with one politicial party. They also do a reasonable job of retaining atheists in the U.S. It would be interesting to find if this effect is stronger or weaker among traditionally Catholic ethnic groups (Italians, Irish, Poles).

    But the Catholic Church is not really a proselytizing religion in the U.S. or in Latin America or the Catholic heartland of Europe, so this doesn’t really falsify your thesis.

    (Similarly for the Church of England and the Episcopal Church in the U.S., which are basically non-Papist Catholics.)

    In the U.S. and the British Isles, there is the phenomenon of “Catholic Atheists” and “Protestant Atheists”. I first heard about it in a story told by Bertrand Russell about Northern Ireland, but it exists beyond the bounds of Ulster. As I see it, the terms are not entirely attached to their religion namesakes, but are more of a “style”. The Catholic atheist is someone who has come to his atheism as an intellectual result – either being convinced by the various logical argumentation against God, or having lacked the “faith gene”, or having picked up on the absurdities of religious belief. Protestant atheists, on the other hand, appear to have a more emotional source of their disbelief; in fact, it’s more of a rejection of God than a disbelief, and often stems from abuse suffered from an authority figure who justified the abuse in the name of God. (It’s not always a personal experience, and “abuse” is a very relative term here.) These are the “angry atheists” – Dawkins and Hitchens are classic examples of the type. The Catholic atheist is often comfortable around religious people, and sometimes will not abandon their nominal membership in the church of their birth, while the Protestant atheist is upset by any expressions of religious belief, and can’t stand being in a religious environment. Even though Razib’s background isn’t Christian, he seems very much the “Catholic Atheist” type.

  4. well, i’m not angry, and not a ‘new atheist.’ but i don’t have a nominal religious affiliation, don’t socialize much with religious people, etc.

  5. Jean M

    On the contrary, Anthony, large numbers of Catholics are leaving their Church because of the abuse of children by Catholic priests. See

    Where Catholicism or any other religion is embedded in a society as a majority faith, and particularly where it is state-backed, no doubt many an atheist or tepid believer will go through the motions (while regarding it as so much meaningless mumbo-jumbo) and not bother to get into all the hassle of disassociation. That is particularly the case where there are effectively social penalties for such disassociation. It takes courage and commitment to stand out from the crowd.

    The “angry atheist” has that. Naturally they make more of an impression on the public than the majority of atheists, who make no ripples. It looks as though you are personally familiar with the private disbelievers who were christened Catholic, but not the huge numbers of similar people christened as Protestants. The UK is full of them. In fact Britain would be almost overwhelming secular, if it were not for
    1) those highly religious immigrants from South Asia. 🙂
    2) the many who still like to be married in church, though they barely know what else it’s for 🙂

  6. britain is overwhelmingly secular. south asians are only 4% of the pop., max.

  7. Of course this sort of phenomenon is cross-cultural, an atheist friend who was from a Calvinist part of the Netherlands felt confident in mocking the special superstition of Roman Catholicism in a manner which would have made the Reformers of yore smile.

    Exactly the same for me. I’m from Holland, the Calvinist, culturally dominant part of the Netherlands. And although I was already raised in a very weak Dutch Reformed family and also lack the “God gene” – I never felt any connection to Christianity, Calvinist or otherwise. But still I’m on ‘team Calvinism’, because it is so ingrained in the culture of Holland. Distrust or even hatred of ritual is ingrained in me. (Of course the paradox is that this distrust of religious ritual was detrimental to the Calvinist, especially after the most important 20th Calvinist theologian, Karl Barth, declared religion a human activity that distorts faith.)

  8. deadpost

    Regarding the “faith gene” idea or being wired for creationism, any rough estimates or thoughts about its frequency in the population? Would you say it compares to certain atypical (not a value judgement) personality types like homosexuality, people with mildly Aspergers syndrome-like traits or even extreme introverts?

    Even if its say 1%, that means that there’s a non-trivial population of crypto-atheists, even in the countries that get close to 100% reports of believers (like Pakistan), probably afraid to out themselves. This might encompass a lot of apatheist personality types too in places where religion isn’t a part of society.

  9. dave

    I’m a midwestern Irish Catholic by birth, but basically an agnostic/atheist. I just don’t especially care about religion one way or the other. My best friend is a midwestern nordic Lutheran raised in a strict Protestant family. His grandmother’s dying wish is that he swear that, no matter what, that he would never marry a Catholic!

    Anyway, he’s also an agnostic/atheist. But what’s funny is that we both tease each other about religion. He’ll call me a damned papist and I’ll tease him about not belonging to the one, true Church.

    What I say to people is that I’m not religious, but the church I don’t go to on Sunday is a Catholic church.

  10. Of course he’s Muslim. He’s Lebanese.

    (Razib won’t get this joke since he doesn’t watch Parks and Rec. 😛 )

  11. deadpost, i think it’s partly heritable. gene talk was mostly a joke. but has to do with a lot of different dispositions.

  12. Anthony

    Jean M – you’re missing my point in a couple of different ways. People leaving the Catholic Church over its mishandling of child abuse are not generally leaving because they’ve lost their faith in God, but because they’ve lost their faith in the clergy. Over time, it appears that they lose their faith in God, too, but the immediate break doesn’t tend to change their beliefs in the supernatural. (And those who go to other churches, like the eastern Orthodox ones, tend to not lose their faith in God.)

    Labelling the two different tendencies in atheism as “Catholic” vs “Protestant” is not an absolute dividing line – Madalyn Murray O’Hair is a typical “Protestant atheist”, despite having left the Catholic Church, not a Protestant one. It’s an association, which in the U.S. is probably getting weaker with time, probably partially due to American Catholics being culturally much more “protestant” than Catholics in Latin countries.

    I know quite a number of people who were raised (not just christened) protestant who are atheists, and there are proportionally more “angry atheists” among them than among those who were raised Catholic. Even among the “angry atheists”, not too many of them make a point of bringing it up; you only see it if you ask them about it. And living in the San Francisco Bay Area, there are more social costs to being formally affiliated with a church than there are to being formally not affiliated, or even openly atheist.

  13. Arun

    Hello Razib,

    Great article! Just a nitpick though – I really think we need to stop this South-Asia nonsense.

    Think about it. The dominant ideologies in India and Pakistan couldn’t be farther apart. Pakistan practices outright religious-supremacism. Even as we speak there is a Christian lady facing trial for *blasphemy* against Islam there!

    India is constitutionally secular – state and religion are not allowed to mix (well, officially, anyway). As far as the state is concerned, one religion is just as good (or bad) as the other. In addition to this, I don’t think any Indian can help but be influenced by the various native religious traditions in India (Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Christianity, Jainism and Buddhism), each of which have strongly influenced the collective religious outlook of the society in their own ways. We really have an Amar-Akbar-Anthony culture.

    This ideological difference naturally influences those who spend their formative years in the two countries. We need to highlight this difference, which is very real. Indians have an Indian outlook – there’s no reason we have to suffer for Pakistan’s negative karma.

  14. arun, i think that’s a defensible assertion.

  15. Aziz Ansari resembles the class clown in an Indian high school. He’s funny sometimes.
    Regarding atheism, yeah I remember being an atheist since…I dunno 3rd grade? I think I might be missing this God gene thingy too. My parents are also atheists and so is my maternal grandfather. So heritability is a decent explanation.

  16. omar

    Arun, I think you have a valid point, but there are other aspects to consider:
    1. Pakistan and Bangladesh are genetically, culturally and linguistically part of India and Indian civilization. That Indian civilization included a thousand year history of penetration by Afghan and Turkic armies and a certain Islamic supremacism that came with them. But even as they ruled over large parts of India, they themselves became Indianized in many ways. Still, the Islamic supremacist, separatist element was part of the North Indian Muslim elite’s understanding of themselves. In Partition, this element led the Pakistan movement and became concentrated in Pakistan (and mostly in West Pakistan). That has meant that within India, the large Muslim population has actually lost a lot of its separatist, “foreign” and supremacist notions and with some significant hiccups and tragedies, is on its way to deeper integration. Pakistan now represents this “anti-indian” formula in more concentrated form. But this is still an elite phenomenon. It is very hard to change the lived details of a culture overnight. It is not a very “deep” difference. If you travel through Punjab and Sindh today, the political and ideological notions of the educated elite may sound different than the ones considered ideal in India, but their practice and their actual life is surprisingly similar. In time, the divergence can become greater and greater and education and mass indoctrination may create very distinct cultures. But the time required is more than you may think. And there are countervailing forces in play. I would suggest you suspend judgment on this for a few years and see what happens.
    2. The ideological basis of Pakistan is not a deep enough ideology in any case. Lets take North Korea as an example. North Korea and South Korea are more different right now than Pakistan is from India. Yet we dont expect this to be a permanent condition. This difference is sustained by a rather shallow layer of robber-baron opportunism at the top. The Kim regime is in control, but it would not be a good idea to regard it as a deep and sustainable ideological alternative to South Korea. 50 years of indoctrination will lead to 50 years of clean-up and a couple of lost generations, but it will not change the korean peninsula into two different civilizations. Pakistan is not exactly comparable with that situation, so don’t misunderstand me. But I am using the analogy to try and say that at a very deep level, this ideology is not sustainable. It may self-destruct or (more likely, in my opinion) it will become modified and re-Indianized. Not necessarily by becoming one country again (I dont think that is likely at all) but by quietly laying aside or ignoring a lot of poisonous BS and reopening cultural and economic relations at a very intensive level. I do not mean this as some kind of romantic attachment to India and Indian-ness. I just think a “thick description” of Pakistani society and its economic imperatives necessitate this change. I also do not mean to suggest that everything will be hunky-dory at all levels (it never has been and is not within India either). But I think reports of the death of the wider Indian subcontinent are exaggerated.

  17. ajit

    @Arun: Saying Pakistan India are different is a half-truth. The fact is that India and India are different.

    If tomorrow, by some miracle, North and South India (or East and West India or indeed any two large parts of India) were to be separated they would within a few decades begin to look so different, we would laugh at anyone insisting on there being such a thing as ‘Indian’ culture.

    India is like a piece of cheese being carried by a group of ants. We marvel at the teamwork of the ants. But if you take a knife and split the cheese into two pieces they will instantly start moving in different directions.

  18. omar

    Ajit, I disagree. You could split India into ten states (and people have, many many times) and they would all still be Indian. The common elements are as real as the differences…

  19. Your view of South Asians, Punjabis in British Columbia is insulting. Fact remains that Sikhs of Punjabi origin are visible in every part of Canadian life. With almost 12 MPs in the House of Commons, A BC premier, judges, police, every scope. The difference between Canada and the US Punjabis is that Canadians are proud of their Punjabi heritage. They retain their language, their turbans and facial hair even though in the US after 9-11 more scrutingy for that.
    To say that the community is disfuntional is a a huge statement. But I am not surprised as many Non Punjabis are jealous of the success of Sikhs and Punjabis in general. The reason Mr. Ansari has done so well is because he is acting like a white guy devoid of culture, religion or language.

  20. Look Americans like to view all Indians and all Middle Eastern people as the same. They are not we all have different languages, religions and looks. The view that all brown people are somehow the same is racist. While I maybe Punjabi Indian and Ansari a Tamil Indian we do not share food, language or even religion.
    India is as diverse as any country on the planet. I have seen Middle Eastern people who are as white as the redneck next door, I have seen brown ones, asian looking ones and African ones. Same is true with India so diverse in looks.
    Even Afghanis and Persians can be white, asian looking or brown.
    Your blog makes no sense other than to blame disfunctionality on Pakistanis and Punjabis of British Columbia. Nonsense is all I can say buddy.

  21. shutup. you’re being incoherent.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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