You’ve seen the Fox News interview with Reza Aslan, a religion scholar and author, right? Oh you haven’t? Take a few minutes and give it a gander. It’s a little hard to watch. But in the same way that The Office was sometimes hard to watch. It’s hard to laugh through all the cringes.
Oof. That was bad. I was actually embarrassed for the host, Lauren Green, which doesn’t happen often with Fox News.
There are a lot of reasons why Buzzfeed wondered if this was “the most embarrassing interview Fox News has ever done.” Green was utterly schooled by Aslan. While it’s tempting to consider this clip to be 10 minutes of schadenfreude, it really illustrates the Islamophobia and anti-intellectualism that runs through the American right.
Green’s main contention, if I understand the clip correctly, is that Aslan, who identifies as a Muslim, has no business writing a book about Jesus because he’s, well, a Muslim. Anyone who heard Aslan’s interview with Terry Gross knows this isn’t the full story. According to that interview, Aslan was raised in quite a secular household, converted to Christianity as a teen, then back to Islam when he was in college. This isn’t someone who is unfamiliar with the finer points of Christianity.
That assumes, of course, that there is something wrong with a Muslim writing about Jesus. Which, of course, there isn’t. From an academic perspective, it’s probably preferable to be a non-Christian. Not having a dog in the fight — that is, not having a preconceived idea of how Jesus must have been — probably enhances his ability to be impartial. But I guess, because he’s a Muslim, Aslan must justify his writings on Jesus the man.
The Fox News interview also illustrates a lazy anti-intellectualism. It’s possible that Aslan is wrong in his interpretation of the historical evidence. It’s not an exact science; different evidence can be interpreted and weighted in different ways. But Green’s endless reiteration of the same question — which boils down to, what gives you, a scary Muslim, the right to study and write about Jesus? — didn’t give us anything to chew on. Her entire critique, if you can even call it that, was to call into question his qualifications.
That’s not to say that you should automatically accept anything someone with with an advanced degree tells you. Of course you shouldn’t. But a quick Amazon search reveals that Aslan has written about religion before. This isn’t just some schmoe off the street. If he couldn’t answer actual criticism, that’s one thing. But this interview offered none of that. Instead, it just went after a Muslim’s ability to talk intelligently and fairly about Jesus, which no regard for the individual involved.
Perhaps it’s not anti-intellectualism, as David A. Graham argues at the The Atlantic. Perhaps it’s just a fundamental misunderstanding of how academia works.
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.
I think that’s right. The entire interview did just boil down to, ERMAHGERD MUSLIM. But I’m not sure that means that the interview isn’t anti-intellectual. Green may not understand how academic research works, but…she’s a journalist! It’s kind of her job to find out. If Green was interested in having an in depth discussion on the historical Jesus, nothing seemed to be stopping her. She had the book at her disposal, and presumably, she can read. But attacking his credibility, instead of his arguments, was easier. That is lazy thinking at best.
If you’re interested in watching an actual good interview of Aslan, in which the book is actually discussed, check out the clips from The Daily Show embedded below. As usual, a bunch of comedians do news better than the journalists at Fox News.
Image credit: YouTube