Reza Aslan, and the perks of being slimed by Fox News

     Detail from the book cover of

    Detail from the book cover of "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth," by Reza Aslan.

    This morning, religion scholar Reza Aslan’s new biography of Jesus was the top best-seller on Amazon, outpacing everyone from George Martin and J.K. Rowling to Dan Brown and Sheryl Sandberg. For that honor, Aslan should send a thank you card to Fox News. In fact, fellow authors who think they could benefit financially from being slimed on the air should beg to get booked on Fox News.

    We know, of course, that Fox News has long been a cultural blight, that it does for journalism what toxic dumps do for the environment, and that, according to numerous studies, it sows misinformation. But what we probably didn’t know, until this week, was that a target of its ire could profit so nicely. All it takes is Fox being Fox, and national attention being paid.

    Which means you may already know what happened when Aslan appeared last Friday to discuss his book, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.” It’s worth watching again, if only for the inadvertent laughs. And if you haven’t seen it, I’ll give you the gist. Suffice it to say that host Lauren Green thought it was appalling that a scholar of the Muslim faith would dare to write about the founder of Christianity. And, hewing to Fox News’ trademark Islamophobia, she kept being appalled regardless of how often Aslan humiliated her.

    Interview’s greatest hits

    Green’s first question: “You are a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?”

    Aslan: “Well, to be clear, I am a scholar of religions with four degrees, including one in the New Testament, and fluency in biblical Greek, who has been studying the origins of Christianity for two decades, who also just happens to be a Muslim. So it’s not that I’m just some Muslim writing about Jesus. I am an expert with a Ph.D. in the history of religions. I have been obsessed with Jesus…”

    Green: “But it still begs the question. Why would you be interested in the founder of Christianity?

    Aslan: “Because it’s my job as an academic. I am a professor of religion, including the New Testament. That’s what I do for a living, actually. It would be like asking a Christian why they would write a book about Islam. … But honestly, I’ve been obsessed with Jesus for 20 years. I’ve been studying his life and his work and the origins of Christianity both in an academic environment and on a personal level for about two decades. Just to be clear, this is not some attack on Christianity. My mother is a Christian, my wife is a Christian, my brother-in-law is an evangelical pastor. Anyone who thinks this book is an attack on Christianity has not read it yet. … It’s perhaps a little strange that rather than debating the arguments in the book, we are debating the right of the scholar to actually write it.”

    Aslan said he worked as a scholar, not as a Muslim. For instance, “Islam doesn’t believe that Jesus was crucified,” yet he has concluded that “Jesus was most definitely crucified.” Then he tried to explain to Green why Jesus was crucified:

    “Start by placing [Jesus] in the world in which he lived. … You have to understand that crucifixion in first-century Palestine was a punishment that Rome reserved exclusively for crimes against the state, like sedition or rebellion or treason or insurrection. … What a troublemaker this guy must have been. The movement that he started was such a threat to the political stability of the empire that they actually had him arrested, tortured and killed for it. … The Romans [were] very good at documentation. And the picture that arises from this is a real political revolutionary who took on the religious and political powers of his time on behalf of the poor and the meek, the dispossessed, the marginalized, who sacrificed himself in his cause for those who couldn’t stand up for themselves and whose death ultimately launched the greatest religion in the world.”

    Historical context, a positive take on Jesus … but apparently the Fox host hadn’t heard a word of it.

    Green: A critic “just says your book is written with clear bias, and you’re trying to say it’s academic. That’s like having a Democrat writing a book about why Reagan wasn’t a good Republican. It doesn’t work. What do you say to that?”

    Aslan: “It would be like a Democrat with a Ph.D. in Reagan who has been studying his life and history for two decades writing a book about Reagan.”

    Green, moments later: “You’ve been on several programs and never disclosed that you’re a Muslim, and I think that’s an interest in full disclosure.”

    Aslan’s rebuttal (a model of concision): “Ma’am, the second page of my book says I’m a Muslim. Every single interview I have ever done on TV or on print says I’m a Muslim.”

    Green (with metaphorical egg sliding down her face): “All right, Reza, thank you very much for coming on.”

    Fealty to the Fox culture

    Hilarious stuff, even for Fox News. Green’s operating assumption was that all Muslims by definition are fanatics; therefore, they are incapable of professional scholarship; therefore, they should never write about Christianity. Aslan demolished that one in a single sentence: “That would be like saying that a Christian who writes about Muhammad is by definition not able to do so, because he has some bias against it.”

    Of course, if a Fox host were interviewing a Christian author of a book on Islam, she’d never suggest that the author’s religion rendered him inherently biased.

    By the way, I loved Green’s line about how Aslan’s credentials were just as phony as a Democrat presuming to write about Reagan. When was the last time that a Fox host has ever rebuked Sean Hannity or Mike Huckabee or performance artist Ann Coulter for writing a book that attacks liberals and Democrats?

    But let’s cut Green a little slack. As a loyal employe, she was merely voicing fealty to the network’s Islamophobia (remember the network’s 2010 hysteria over the “Ground Zero mosque,” which was actually a proposed community center to be located blocks away?), and that mentality starts at the top with the chairman. Roger Ailes remarked to his friendly biographer that he’d be happy to give money to Muslim charities “if they disarm.” A source close to Ailes reportedly remarked in 2011, “He has a personal paranoia about people who are Muslim—which is consistent with the ideology of his network.”

    Fortunately for Aslan, the notorious interview went viral, his sales have soared, and his public appearances are packed. Fox News’ attempt to discredit him has spectacularly backfired. May that be a business model for other authors.

    ——-

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1 

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.