Jul 30, 2013

Reza Aslan's outrage

Among scholars of religion, there's no consensus on the relevance of scholar's personal religious beliefs and practices to their scholarship.

Some scholars are quite open. They mention their religious identity in the classroom, affiliate themselves in their books, explain their interests in terms of their religious identities, and even on occasion write from the position of a believer. Others are open but private. They're willing to talk about themselves and their beliefs, but keep it separate from their scholarship. This is where I'm at: I sometimes talk with students or colleagues about my own faith and religious history, but it's not something I talk about in class or in my writing, mostly because it seems like it would cause more confusion than clarity. Others, still, are entirely private, and simply refuse to answer any personal questions.

When scholars are open about their religious identities, though, it is entirely fair to ask them about their religious identities.

This seems to me to be commonsensical, but perhaps it isn't.

There's a big loud kerfuffle right now about a recent FOX news interview with Reza Aslan, author of a popular book about the historical Jesus. The interviewer, Lauren Green, started the interview with the question, "you're a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?"

Aslan was outraged at the question and went on the offensive. The clip went viralPeople got pretty excited ("Reza Aslan is superhuman"; "Hats off to Reza Alsan"), and expressed their outrage at the question.

It's bullshit.

There was nothing wrong with the question.

One can assume, as many have, that the subtext of the question was that Muslims don't have the right to write books about Jesus, but that's an assumption. One can assume the question is Islamophobic, but that's an odd assumption that would need to be defended. There's nothing necessarily biased about mentioning a scholar is Muslim, especially when the scholar has regularly talked about his own religious biography in relationship to his work.

The question could also be taken at face value, as a question about this scholar's personal interest.

Aslan choose to treat the question as hostile, but he didn't have to.

He could have responded by talking about how historically important Jesus is, or talking generally about how he's interested in various religions' origins, including Christianity's. He could consistently defer personal questions, as many scholars do (saying something like "my personal beliefs aren't that interesting or important; what I want do is try to understand this subject in it's historical context").

Aslan also could have talked about his own changing relationship to Jesus -- which he has, actually, in numerous interviews. On Fresh Air, he told Terry Gross that he grew up a secular Muslim and converted to Christianity when he was 15, but left the faith shortly thereafter. On The Daily Show, he told John Oliver that his mother and wife are Christians and his brother-in-law is a Christian minister. Aslan told the Huffington Post he's been "obsessed with Jesus for a very, very long time," adding "I heard the Gospel when I was 15 years old and it just blew me away." On NPR's Weekend Edition, he explained his current religious position by saying,
I wouldn't call myself a Christian because I do not believe that Jesus is God, nor do I believe that he ever thought that he was God, or that he ever said that he was God. But I am a follower of Jesus, and I think that sometimes, unfortunately -- I think even Christians would recognize this and admit it -- those two things aren't always the same, being a Christian and being a follower of Jesus.
Aslan is clearly open to talking about his own religious beliefs, and talking about how they shaped, informed, inspired and contextualized his scholarship. He's repeatedly said that his own biographical position -- for instance, that his wife and mother are Christians -- should inform readers' opinions. It's reasonable, then, for him to expect to be asked how his religious beliefs should affect readers' opinions.

In this case, though, he opted for outrage.

It's feigned bullshit.

It's another manufactured scandal, which makes for good TV, I guess. If you're into that. It appears to be pretty irresistible on the internet, where we all apparently troll around looking for clips and snippets that confirm the stupidity and/or evilness of those we believe to be stupid and/or evil. Smugness reigns, as always, and controversy is good for sales.

This isn't an example of attacks on Muslims or attacks on scholarship. It's evidence that this is an age of viral marketing, and that publicity stunts are pretty effective marketing tools, even if they are pretty tiresome and generally shady, conning people into an emotional response that makes someone money.

The outrage, if there is an outrage, is that so many people bought into fake outrage.

"Bought" literally.

Forgive me if my distaste for FOX and for right wing anti-intellectualism doesn't compel me to rush to Aslan's defense. If he doesn't want his personal life and religious identity to be a factor in how his scholarship is seen, he's entitled to keep those things private. If he talks about them sometimes, though, and other times acts like it's outrageous to ask about what he regularly talks about, I'm going to be fairly short with my sympathies. When that inconsistency isn't just idiosyncratic, but appears to be part of a book marketing scheme, I'm not going to share the "outrage."

When, in addition to all that, the man misrepresents his scholarly credentials, he's not a hero of academic freedom. He's not a champion of scholarship in the face of the forces of anti-intellectualism. He's yet another creature of the culture of fake outrage, manipulating cultural divisions for the sake of sales of his book.


  1. If I may push back.
    I think you'd have to be completely tone deaf to miss the hostility of the question being posed. This wasn't a "hey, give me a self reflexive standpoint on this work so we can discuss how it influences your work" this was a "You're Muslim, your scholarly work is clearly hostile, biased and therefore we should just dismiss your work." The "Why would a Muslim write about Jesus" made me wince. I can totally understand Aslan's reaction, I think I would bristle too. I mean sometimes people ask me, "where are you from" and from their tone I usually answer accordingly. Sometimes people ask me that question and I can tell by their tone that they're giving me a "where are you really from, you can't be from here" and I answer, "I'm from Canada" and I hold that line. Sometimes people are genuinely interested and their tone reflects that and to them I usually give them the rich tapestry of my heritage. In the same way I think Aslan for instance on the Daily Show is more than forthcoming on where he's coming from in writing this. But I can absolutely see why he would start out with a defensive posture from the tone taken by the interviewer. The tone from that interview is basically the tone taken from http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2013/07/22/liberal-media-love-new-jesus-book-zealot-fail-to-mention-author-is-muslim/

  2. Happy to have you push back.

    I don't think the tone is clear at the point Aslan responded to it. It's possible it was hostile, and there are certainly hostile versions of the question, but this one specifically didn't have to be taken that way. A different answer could have lead to a very different conversation -- one that wouldn't likely have gone viral or helped sales, though.

    I be more likely to accept his response, too, if he weren't so open about his religious history elsewhere. If he mentions he's a Muslim on page 2 of the book, as he says in the interview, why is it wrong to ask about that?

    1. "why is it wrong to ask about that"

      Nono, I absolutely agree the question is totally relevant, I have a friend who graduated religious studies who totally agrees with you too: http://www.dhakatribune.com/op-ed/2013/jul/29/reza-aslan-angered-ignorance-video

      I think it's always important.

    2. I thought you'd appreciate his take, Daniel, especially here:
      " Truth is, it’s a reasonable question. I have often wondered why an American would dedicate decades to studying Italian art, or why a Christian would spend his life becoming an expert on Islam. What’s their motivation?

      That’s the question Green asked Aslan: “You're a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” What’s perhaps embarrassing about the whole affair is that he didn’t really answer the question. Rather, he told Green that he had a right to write about Jesus because he’d graduated from university.

      There’s a certain dignity in refusing to be offended by offensive people. There is only one way to strive for civility and reason, to paraphrase Vaclav Havel, and that is civilly and reasonably. There was an opportunity missed in Aslan’s interview to educate the public about why a Muslim would be interested in Christianity, and thereby, about a possible reason for pluralist dialogue."

  3. Leaving aside the question of tone (and I believe it was 100% hostile, as reiterated by the many attacking quotes Green had marshaled for use in the interview, long before she knew how Aslan would respond), I believe that the phrasing of the question is very telling and hugely problematic. It's not, "What drew you to this subject?" or even "How does your own identity inform your work?" or the like. It's "Why *would* you" write this book, as if one can or should only write books about one's own group or affiliation. That's anti-intellectual, tribal, stupid, and wrong wrong wrong--perhaps especially for scholarly books, but really for any writing.


    1. It's the "as if" that bothers me.

    2. You're not suggesting that she *didn't* mean it that way or that I'm reading into it, are you? Here was her *immediate* follow-up: “It still begs the question though, why would you be interested in the founder of Christianity?” Not sure anything could be more overtly tribal than that.


    3. Personally, I'm more offended by the misuse of "begging the question."

  4. see also: http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2013/07/29/scholarly-misrepresentation/

  5. I read his AMA on Reddit, where he basically admitted that he was going into the Fox interview on the defensive because he had read this article published a few days before on the website: http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2013/07/22/liberal-media-love-new-jesus-book-zealot-fail-to-mention-author-is-muslim/

  6. He knew what he was doing and there is even more context to this. After FOX wrote that editorial his Amazon page for the book got trolled with one star reviews. Be that as it may, as I said he knew what he was doing and I think Daniel is right about that. However, where I disagree is on the binary conclusion drawn from that fact. Just because Aslan was stoking the flames on purpose, and no doubt in part to sell more books, doesn't mean that there isn't any anti-intellectualism going on here, or bigotry for that matter. Those flames were well in place when he showed up with the gasoline, and his opponent showed up with her own gasoline in fact. She was prepped with follow up questions and quotes, which were not innocent comments about his identity at all.

    1. I don't think I'm defending Green or FOX. I can point to a dozen things she did wrong, but don't see how any of that requires me to be co-opted into Aslan's publicity-stunt outrage.

      Not sure I see the binary. Of *course* there was anti-intellectualism going on. It's TV.

  7. A number of people have brought up the follow-up questions. I have several responses to this:

    1) In principle, there's nothing wrong with questions structured like "Other people are saying (horrible attack). How do you respond?" For a soft, soft, soft version of the above, see Aslan's interview with John Oliver on the Daily Show (which no one had a problem with).

    2) There were other ways to deal with those questions.

    3) The fact that the interview got hostile after Alsan responded to the interview as if it were hostile don't really affect my point.

  8. I wonder if more people will be touched by reading the book in a positive lasting way than would otherwise have been informed (as FOX News viewers no less) if he had responded in a "kill with kindness" fashion. I could see that being enjoyable to watch and informative, actually, and haven't really re-examined the way she asked the questions. I did pick up that he was being pretty aggressively defensive from the beginning, but it was clear he was prepared to a specific set of talking points and apparently he did make the decision that he would rather have more people read his book and spend hours taking in nuance and history vs. blowing people's minds (WHOA, MUSLIMS THINK JESUS WAS A PROPHET BUT NOT PURE MAGIC! I DINT NO). I'm being flippant but I don't know for sure what outcome would be better...but I don't mind what he did and am glad that tons of people will be reading his book, many of whom won't be having any grand epiphanies themselves but will be better equipped to discuss this with their less informed friends and family.