Reza Aslan is surprised to find himself stranded in Stupidtown.
I try, with only partial success, to avoid spending too much time on the "A conservative said something offensive!" patrol. First, there are plenty of other people doing it, so it isn't as if the world won't hear about it if I don't remark on the outrage du jour. But second—and more important—most of the time there isn't much interesting to say about Rush Limbaugh's latest bit of race-baiting or Bill O'Reilly's latest spittle-flecked rant or Louie Gohmert's latest expectoration of numskullery.
But let's make an exception for this interview Reza Aslan did on Friday with Fox News to promote his new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. You've no doubt seen Aslan on television multiple times in the last decade, and maybe even read something he's written. In the post-9/11 period, he became a go-to guest on shows from Meet the Press to The Daily Show as someone who could explain Islam to American audiences. Young, good-looking, and smart, Aslan could be counted on to put events like the sectarian civil war in Iraq into historical and religious context in ways viewers could understand.
This interview is something to behold, because the Fox anchor, one Lauren Green, obviously not only didn't read Aslan's book (not a great sin, given that she probably has to interview a few people a day) but instead of asking him about it, decided to spend nearly ten minutes challenging whether Aslan has any right to write a book about Jesus, since he's a Muslim. Seriously:
The first question she asks him is "You're a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?" Aslan answers defensively by citing his ample qualifications as a scholar of religion; he could have said he wrote the book because Jesus is one of history's most important and interesting figures, but before he can get to that, Green interrupts with, "It still begs the question, why would you be interested in the founder of Christianity?" He manages to squeeze in a little bit about his book, talking about the political context in which Jesus emerged, but Green quickly returns to question his right to write about Jesus. "But Reza, you're not just writing about a religion from a point of view of an observer," she says. "I believe you've been on several programs and never disclosed that you're a Muslim." That's just false, not to mention idiotic, and Aslan immediately corrects her by noting that he not only mentions his faith on the second page of the book they're discussing, but it's mentioned in practically every interview he's ever done.
Now maybe we shouldn't be too hard on Lauren Green—for all I know, her producer could have handed her these questions and told her how to conduct the interview. She obviously knew nothing about Aslan or his book. But I wonder about what kinds of conversation at Fox preceded the interview. "This guy calls Jesus a zealot!" somebody says. "And he's a Muslim! Let's nail him."
I haven't read Aslan's book, so I have no idea what if anything it adds to the hundreds of books that have already been written about Jesus. But Green came pretty close to saying that as a Muslim, Aslan must by definition be hostile to Christianity in general and Jesus in particular and therefore incapable of writing a measured piece of history. This gets back to something I wrote about last week on the privilege associated with being the default racial setting, although here it's the default religious setting. If you're in the majority, it's your privilege to be whatever you want and speak to whatever you want, and you can be treated as an authority on anything. But those in the minority are much more likely, when they come into this kind of realm, to be allowed only to speak to the experience and history of their particular demographic group. So Fox has no trouble treating Reza Aslan as an authority on Islam, but if he claims to also be an authority on Christianity, those Christians react with incredulity.
I'm not saying that similar assumptions never travel in the other direction. People in minority groups have sometimes told those in the majority that their identity as part of the majority renders them unable to speak to certain experiences; you can call that the "It's a [insert my group] thing; you wouldn't understand" effect. But what we're talking about here isn't testimony, where someone says, "Let me tell you how life is for us," demanding to be the reporter and interpreter of their own experience. It's history, and ancient history at that. If someone came on Fox to promote a biography of Aristotle (I know, I know), it wouldn't be too likely the interviewer would demand to know who they thought they were writing such a book since they aren't even Greek.
But at Fox and in many other places, Christianity and Islam aren't just different tribes, they're different tribes that are in a state of virtual war. The war flares brighter at some times than others—for instance, if you didn't watch Fox during the "Ground Zero Mosque" brouhaha, you were spared an unbelievable orgy of anti-Muslim hate-mongering, as they gave shocking amounts of time to despicable bigots like Pamela Geller—but it's always there. For all the talk from more establishment figures that America isn't at war against Islam (and by the way, that was something George W. Bush was very good about repeating), down where conservatives get their news, it's a very different world.