My first thought as I watched the now infamous interview between Reza Aslan and the Fox News “Religion Reporter” Lauren Green (note to Religion Reporters Guild, take away her membership card before she permanently destroys the credibility of the profession) was that this was some kind of Onion satire Aslan had done to promote his book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.
While social media is abuzz with the evidence of the raging Islamophobia the interview represented, I think the antagonistic line of questioning from the host is more revealing about the innate hostility towards scholarship by Fox.
How else can you explain Green declaring to one of America’s most well-known Muslim scholars and media personalities that “I believe that you’ve been on several programmes and never disclosed that you’re a Muslim”. Even Jon Stewart would have started laughing a third of the way through the question.
I don’t know if this interview is the “single single most cringe-worthy, embarrassing interview broadcast on Fox News. At least in recent memory”, as Slate’s Daniel Politi described it. But it’s certainly a world-class exemplar of why trying to wing an ambush interview with a guest who has “a PhD and four graduate degrees” and knows Biblical Greek to boot (as Aslan felt he had to inform her numerous times), is probably not the smartest strategy to adopt.
While social media is abuzz with the evidence of the raging Islamophobia the interview represented, I think the antagonistic line of questioning from the host is more revealing about the innate hostility towards scholarship by Fox, its host and, at least until yesterday, its audience. Aslan agreed when I spoke to him yesterday morning, in between a barrage of last-minute interviews that have come his way thanks to the suddenly viral clip.
“I want to emphasize that not at all have I had overwhelming positive response, particularly from Christians – even from conservative and Evangelical Christians, who have called or emailed to tell me this wasn’t how most Christians think. The negativity is almost exclusively from the same folks attacking me for ten years, the denizens of the Islamophobia industry.
“To be honest, I felt I had to defend academia more than defend the right of Muslims to study Jesus,” he continued. “I work in a field that where Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and others all study religions without their own faith being an issue.”
By attacking his right as a Muslim to write about Jesus, Green and arch-anti-Muslim commentators like Pamela Geller (who’s called the mild-mannered Aslan a “vicious… jihadi operative“) and John Dickerson (whose foxnews.com column, which likely provided the fodder for the interview questions, was devoted entirely to declaring that Aslan argued he’s a scholar of religion without telling people he’s also a Muslim, as if the two are mutually contradictory, or even related) are doing far more than simply attacking Islam. They are trying to stop historically grounded discussions about Jesus’s life and highly progressive messages on social justice-related issues – messages which, needless to say, are almost entirely at odds with the conservative American Christianity that dominates Fox and the Republican Party.
The rise of progressive populism
Not surprisingly, Aslan took pains to point out that he’s never hid his religious affiliation and indeed discussed its role in his “twenty year obsession” with Jesus on page two of the book. But there is a long history of the Islamophobia community making demonstrably wrong accusations and continuing to make them long after the’ve been challenged on it (my most amusing experience was being labelled a “rock musician and a Marxist” by David Horowitz based on supposedly reading a book of mine that hadn’t even been published when he determined my political affiliation).
Ironically, some scholars have called into question Aslan’s credentials, or at least his representation of them, in a manner that, on the surface, is not that different from the critiques on Fox. But arguing that someone with a PhD in the sociology of religion shouldn’t be calling himself a historian – a disciplinary hairsplitting that is increasingly at odds with the interdisiplinary reality of contemporary methodologies – is a very diffferent thing than arguing that a scholar’s faith prevents him from looking objectively at another religion (one of the most ludicrous arguments imaginable coming from Fox News, with its legion of overtly hostile non-Muslim “experts” on Islam).
Ultimately, what’s involved in the attack on Aslan’s book represented by the Fox interview, however, is something much more telling than mere Islamophobia. Rather, it’s an attempt by conservative Christian commentators deeply tied to the corporate elite to stifle any attempts to reapproach the founding acts of their faith from a progressive perspective at a moment when an unprecedented number of Americans have, or will at some point, live near or below the poverty line – eighty percent of Americans, according to a just released study by the Associated Press.
Whatever one thinks of Aslan’s arguments, there is no evidence that his attempt to historicise Jesus is based on Islam.
In such an economic situation, the potential grows tremendously for the rise of a kind of progressive populism that Thomas Frank’s work has shown to be once common across the United States. And few ideologies and historical narratives are more suited to such politics than a vision of Jesus steeped in his “zealous” focus on the poor and the powerless. “What would Jesus drive/do/bomb/buy” suddenly becomes a powerful clarion call to activism when over two hundred million Americans have lived close to or in poverty.
Needless to say, conservative Christians are not alone in the attempts to silence anyone who challenges their muscular and chauvinistic vision of the founder or central figure(s) of their faith. The Catholic Church devoted incredible energy to silencing Liberation Theology for the same reason a generation ago; more recently the marriage between the authoritarian and corrupt political and religious systems in countries as diverse as Russia and Israel follow a similar script, while across the Muslim world scholars or others attempting to historicise the life and message of Muhammad – especially in a way that challenges entrenched economic interests – have been ostracised and even murdered for attempting to do so. All the while the leaders of these systems declare that they represent the very faith and people they continually betray.
In the present case, so far removed are people like Dickerson from what Republicans have long derisively referred to as the “reality-based community” that they imagine their inability to separate faith from the question of historical accuracy to be universally shared. Instead, everyone has to “have a horse in this race”, as he accused Aslan of having. “He is not an objective observer, but, to use his own word, a zealot, with religious motivation to destroy what Western culture has believed about its central figure for hundreds of years.”
Whatever one thinks of Aslan’s arguments, there is no evidence that his attempt to historicise Jesus is based on Islam; in fact, the very idea is ludicrous since conservative Muslim theologians are no less antagonistic to placing their history – which includes Jesus and accepts events like the virgin birth, which Aslan critiques – before the microscope of secular humanistic criticism.
Fox host Green was unable to dig very deep into Aslan’s arguments during her interview precisely because she couldn’t get past his faith background and the attempt to argue he was hiding something that is so clearly out in the open. Dickerson gets a bit closer to the truth when he argues that “in many ways, this conflict is larger than Christianity and Islam”.
He couldn’t be more right. But for very different reasons than Aslan’s conservative Christian critics believe.
Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh. His book, Heavy Metal Islam, which focused on ‘rock and resistance and the struggle for soul’ in the evolving music scene of the Middle East and North Africa, was published in 2008.
Follow him on Twitter: @culturejamming