Is Muslim Academic Reza Aslan More Biased Than a Christian Scholar?

Fox News's Lauren Green seems to think so.
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Anyone looking for a case study in how not to interview an author can look no further than this painful encounter between Reza Aslan, the writer of a new book on Jesus, and Fox News host Lauren Green. Aslan, a scholar of religion, has written a new book called Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, and it has inspired some backlash, particularly on the right. Among many other condemnations and mockeries, BuzzFeed's Andrew Kaczynski suggested it might be the "most embarrassing interview Fox News has ever done." 

The video speaks for itself, but a few thoughts follow below.

1. Anyone who brags about their degrees is almost immediately laughed out of a room -- and for good reason. In this case, however, that's misguided. Greene's line of questioning is such that it's practically impossible for Aslan to do anything but list his credentials. I've seen the interview characterized as "anti-intellectual," but that's a misreading of the issue at stake here, which is that Green and others subscribe to a mistaken view of how academic research works. The nature of research is that scholars make arguments about the material they study. When that's about, say, William Makepeace Thackeray's views on marriage, it's not controversial enough to make cable news, but more politically contested fields like 20th century history or Jesus are no more immune to legitimate disagreements of interpretation and scholarship than comparative literature. But the root of this controversy seems to be an objection to Aslan making arguments about Jesus in the first place.

2. Setting that question aside, here's what Aslan's assailants get right -- his portrayal of his qualifications was misleading. From First Things:

Aslan does have four degrees, as Joe Carter has noted: a 1995 B.A. in religion from Santa Clara University, where he was Phi Beta Kappa and wrote his senior thesis on "The Messianic Secret in the Gospel of Mark"; a 1999 Master of Theological Studies from Harvard; a 2002 Master of Fine Arts in Fiction from the University of Iowa; and a 2009 Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

None of these degrees is in history, so Aslan's repeated claims that he has "a Ph.D. in the history of religions" and that he is "a historian" are false.  Nor is "professor of religions" what he does "for a living." He is an associate professor in the Creative Writing program at the University of California, Riverside ...

What First Things fails to note is that the sociology degree is in the sociology of religion. Aslan may not have a graduate degree in history, but he does have a Ph.D. and an M.T.S. that bear on the topic at hand. He has also published extensively on religion. Arguing he's somehow not a scholar, as John S. Dickerson did, isn't really credible. *

3. Green's main thrust is that it's somehow wrong for Aslan, a non-Christian, to discuss Jesus. (Throughout the interview, she demurely insists that she's just passing along questions that others have asked, but that's a canard: Just because a silly question exists doesn't mean she's obligated to amplify it.) Quoting from a viewer's note, she likens Aslan to a liberal political scientist writing a book about how Reagan "wasn't a good Republican." That's misleading in two ways -- first, Aslan isn't discussing how Jesus could have been a better messiah; and second, plenty of lefty political scientists have written about the Gipper!

4. Aslan remains impressively calm and collected throughout the interview. Yet I find myself wishing he'd flipped the argument around on Green: After all, isn't any Christian too hopelessly biased to write a serious book on Jesus? Most folks would say no; it's as spurious as the attack against Aslan. But for a network that defines itself against a "liberal media" it insists is too biased to offer a clearheaded, fair interpretation of current events, there's a glaring double standard.

5. Aslan might also have mentioned the many non-Muslims who have written books about Muhammad and Islam. Fox has happily given a platform to Christians and Jews who have been critical of the prophet and the religion, from the scholarly (Bernard Lewis) to the hysterical (Frank Gaffney) to the ... also hysterical (Andrew McCarthy). In addition, although Aslan noted his conclusions conflicted with Islamic positions on Jesus -- for example, he argues that the crucifixion, which Islam denies, actually happened -- it might have been helpful to point out that Muslims revere Jesus as an important prophet, though rebutting his divinity.

6. It's hardly unusual for scholars of Christianity to question the historicity of orthodox religious beliefs -- many of whom describe themselves as devout Christians. Meanwhile, plenty of non-Muslim scholars, like Patricia Crone, have questioned the historical accuracy of the official account of Islam held by the religion (eliciting negative reactions from Muslims not dissimilar to the backlash against Aslan!).

7. Finally, this is a great example of the Fox News hype cycle. Green's top example of the backlash against Aslan is a John S. Dickerson's column that appeared on, you guessed it, FoxNews.com. We report, then we decide, then we prime the outrage machine for another run: It's nice work if you can get it.


* Update: Mark Juergensmeyer, Aslan's adviser, weighs in:

Since I was Reza's thesis adviser at the Univ of California-Santa Barbara, I can testify that he is a religious studies scholar. (I am a sociologist of religion with a position in sociology and an affiliation with religious studies). Though Reza's PhD is in sociology most of his graduate course work at UCSB was in the history of religion in the dept of religious studies. Though none of his 4 degrees are in history as such, he is a "historian of religion" in the way that that term is used at the Univ of Chicago to cover the field of comparative religion; and his theology degree at Harvard covered Bible and Church history, and required him to master New Testament Greek. So in short, he is who he says he is.
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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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