Why this perfect response to negative stereotypes about Islam is being shared again

An interview with an author who criticised negative stereotypes about Islam is being widely shared online again after the Paris attacks. Reza Aslan’s interview on CNN, in which he was asked ‘Does Islam promote violence?’, initially made headlines in September last year.

He was asked to appear on the news channel after comedian Bill Maher made controversial comments about Islam. On his chat show, Maher claimed that “vast numbers of Muslims around the world believe that humans deserve to die for merely holding a different idea, or drawing a cartoon, or writing a book, or eloping with the wrong person”. He added: “Not only does the Muslim world have something in common with Isis, it has too much in common with Isis.”

Iranian-American academic Aslan, who released best-selling book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth in 2013, was questioned about female genital mutilation in Muslim countries during the CNN interview.

“This is the problem. These conversations that we’re having aren’t really being had in any kind of legitimate way. We’re not talking about women in the Muslim world, we’re using two or three examples to justify a generalisation. That’s actually the definition of bigotry,” he replied. “The problem is that you’re talking about a religion of 1.5billion people and certainly it becomes very easy to just simply paint them all with a single brush by saying, ‘Well in Saudi Arabia women can’t drive,’ and saying that’s representative of Islam. That’s representative of Saudi Arabia.”

Reza Aslan: A Jesus scholar who’s often a moving target

Reza Aslan can’t help but chuckle when he looks back on the 1980s, for he says he spent much of the decade pretending to be Mexican.

 

The Iranian-born immigrant mastered break dancing and embraced the nickname “El Pinguino,” (The Penguin) a nod to his bowlegs. Assuming an alternate ethnic identity suited a singular purpose for the young Aslan, who came to the United States in 1979 at the age of 7.

 

“I was scrubbing myself clean of any hint of my ethnicity or my religion,” says Aslan, whose mother was a less than enthusiastic Muslim and whose father was a more than enthusiastic atheist. “It was not the best time to be Iranian in America.”

 

Two decades later, Aslan — author of the bestseller “Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” — still seems to be calibrating his identity in small but telling ways. Even as he has achieved phenomenal success as the author of well-crafted religious history books that appeal to a mass audience, he’s eager — perhaps overeager — to present himself as a formidable academic with special bona fides in religion and history.

The Life of Jesus: Reza Aslan Talks About ‘Zealot’

In a recent interview heard round the world (or at least, round influential Twitter feeds), the Fox News host Lauren Green spoke to Reza Aslan about his new book, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.” Ms. Green’s focus on why Mr. Aslan, a Muslim, would write about Jesus, created a stir on social media (and traditional media), bringing more attention to the book, which was already on The New York Times best-seller list.

 

“Zealot” argues that the historical Jesus was a Jewish revolutionary interested in overthrowing Roman rule in Palestine, not in establishing a celestial kingdom, and that he would not have understood the idea of being God incarnate. In a recent phone interview, Mr. Aslan discussed the strong reactions to his book, his desire to reach a Christian audience, the difficulty of writing about ancient history and more. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation:

 

Return of the Jesus Wars

BEFORE “The Da Vinci Code” and “The Gospel of Judas,” before Mel Gibson’s “Passion” and Martin Scorsese’s “Last Temptation,” before the Dead Sea Scrolls were unearthed and the Gnostic gospels rediscovered, there was a German scholar named Hermann Samuel Reimarus.

 

Today there are enough competing “real Jesuses” that it’s hard for a would-be Strauss to find his Shaftesbury. Which is why every reinterpreter of Jesus not named Dan Brown is probably envious of Reza Aslan, the Iranian-born academic and author of “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” who achieved Strauss-style liftoff thanks to 10 painful minutes on Fox News.

 

Those minutes were spent with the interviewer, Lauren Green, asking Aslan to explain why a Muslim would write a book about Jesus — with Aslan coolly emphasizing his credentials and the non-Islamic nature of his argument — and then with Green asking variations on the Muslim question, to increasing offense and diminishing returns.

 

The video quickly went viral, turning Aslan into a culture-war icon, a martyr to Fox’s biases … and soon enough (as these things tend to go) a martyr with a No. 1 best seller.

 

The irony is that Aslan’s succès de scandale would be more deserved if he had actually written in defense of the Islamic view of Jesus. That would have been something provocative and — to Western readers — relatively new.

 

Instead, Aslan’s book offers a more engaging version of the argument Reimarus made 250 years ago. His Jesus is an essentially political figure, a revolutionary killed because he challenged Roman rule, who was then mysticized by his disciples and divinized by Paul of Tarsus.

 

Reza Aslan, researching while Muslim

It’s about time.

A real conversation about religion has begun in this country. In fact, it has gone viral. Up until now, public religion has too-often been about name-calling, confessionals, politics and cartoon versions of “the other.”

Thanks to a shockingly insensitive interview with religious scholar Reza Aslan, the author of “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” and a man who just happens to be Muslim, the Internet has lit up like a Christmas tree. Lauren Green of Fox News began her questioning with this: “You are a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” Once wasn’t enough. She kept asking the clearly dumbfounded Aslan the same question as he tried to explain that he is a scholar of religion. Given her insistence, one might have wondered why an African American Christian woman would be interviewing a white Persian male Muslim.

Aslan is not upset about the interview. In fact, he has reason to be pleased. It has given his book wide media exposure.

“I am so glad people are having this conversation,” Aslan says. “I was surprised how it captured the zeitgeist. This is a topic usually discussed by academics in stuffy libraries.”

What’s so outrageous about the book? He calls Jesus a zealot, for one thing. But as he explains, “in Jesus’s world, ‘zealot’ referred to those Jews who adhered to a widely biblical doctrine called zeal.” They were against Roman authorities and their collaborators, wealthy temple priests and aristocratic Jews. The fact that Jesus was a revolutionary — a rabble-rouser — is not exactly news in the world of theology. He wasn’t running around passing out Easter eggs.

What’s interesting here is the backlash from what he calls “the anti-Muslim fringe, the rabid Islamophobes, who have been attacking me for a decade and calling me vile and racist names.” He wasn’t surprised by what happened on Fox News and has no hard feelings toward Green. “I have nothing but compassion for her. I understand where she is coming from. I used to be like her. I used to be a fundamentalist evangelical Christian. It’s a fear in the world of being confronted with questioning the most basic tenets of your faith.”

Reality TV Goes Where Football Meets the Hijab

“All-American Muslim,” the latest from TLC (the channel behind “Sarah Palin’s Alaska”), starting Sunday night: “Through these families and their diverse experiences, we will explore how they blend their values and traditions with everyday life in America.” The author Reza Aslan, whose media entertainment company, BoomGen Studios, has been helping TLC with publicity, calls it “a groundbreaking, intimate look inside the lives of a group of Muslim families in Dearborn, Mich., who are struggling with the everyday issues that all families deal with.” He adds, “Except they are doing it at a time of unprecedented anti-Muslim hysteria in America.”

The new TLC show, ‘All-American Muslim,’ offers up plenty of characters for a look at the everyday lives of a community much the same as any other.

Fresh Faces: He Could Care Less About Obama’s Story

By Reza Aslan Every time I hear about how Sen. Barack Obama is going to “re-brand” America’s image in the Middle East, I can’t help but think about Jimmy Carter’s toast. When the idealistic Democrat came to Iran in 1977 to ring in the new year with Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the country’s much-despised despot, throngs of young, hopeful Iranians lined the streets to welcome the new American president. After eight years of the Nixon and Ford administrations’ blind support for the shah’s brutal regime, Iranians thrilled to Carter’s promise to re-brand America’s image abroad by focusing on human rights. That call even let many moderate, middle-class Iranians dare to hope that they might ward off the popular revolution everyone knew was coming. But at that historic New Year’s dinner, Carter surprised everyone. In a shocking display of ignorance about the precarious political situation in Iran, he toasted the shah for transforming the country into “an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.” With those words, Carter unwittingly lit the match of revolution.