As of this writing, more than 5.4 million people have seen the Buzzfeed link to the painful and at times comical interview by Fox News's Lauren Green of the now top-of-booklists author Reza Aslan, whose most recent book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth brought him to Fox News. The interview would not have been a complete disaster had Green managed to ask Aslan about the arguments he makes and perhaps find out more about his research methodology. Instead, she grabbed onto one aspect of his personal life and didn't let go: Aslan happens to be Muslim. Again, the interview may not have been as much of a fiasco if Green had mentioned this fact once, twice, even three times. But she took it further and explicitly suggested that Aslan's scholarship was biased because of his faith and questioned why a Muslim would write about the founder of Christianity.
It is here that I'd like to add my own full disclosure before venturing further: I have been trained as a journalist and I happen to be Muslim. I also minored in religion in college, which is nothing compared to the four higher degrees Aslan claims or the fact that he's fluent in Biblical Greek (I'm still figuring out Spanish). I've studied Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Judaism, among other religions, and reported stories with religious facets to them.
Fox News didn't hesitate in posting a rebuttal on their website by Dan Gainor titled, "Liberal media miss reality in jabs at Lauren Green's interview with Zealot author Aslan." As can be predicted from the title alone, the article mainly chides the "liberal media" for slacking in their duties as diligent journalists to question a Muslim's motives. Gainor writes, "The reason so many are after her is that she raised the uncomfortable question about why a Muslim was writing to deny the existence of the Christian faith."
And that's nothing compared to the beginning of the piece, which goes like this: "There's nothing the left likes better than attacking Fox News. Almost all liberal media 'analysis' revolves around such activity, without ever noting the outlandishly liberal biases of the traditional outlets that outnumber Fox like the Persians outnumbered the Spartans." I find the Persian/Spartan analogy quite striking since Aslan is Iranian himself. But while the bantering between conservative and liberal media continues, Fox News, and Gainor in particular, completely missed the point on this one: the reason why many people found this particular interview disconcerting, even offensive, is simply because one man's many accomplishments as a scholar were cast aside under the assumption that they are overridden by religion. Forget what degree of faith he practices, or how much a role religion might play in his life. Once a Muslim, always a suspect -- that was the mentality Green portrayed.
The fact of the matter is that identifying as Muslim is just like identifying with any other religion. Muslims come in all shapes, colors and sizes with varying degrees of ideologies, beliefs and practice. And there is plenty of research to document Muslims in America. The Council on Foreign Relations notes, "U.S. Muslims are more affluent, educated, and culturally integrated than Muslims in Western Europe." A Pew report from 2011 found that Muslims in the U.S. are very racially and ethnically diverse, coming from as many as 77 different countries. Another Pew report from 2007 concluded, "In many ways, Muslim Americans seem like a mosaic of many other American groups, sharing certain traits with these other groups while not being identical to any of them. They are anything but wholly apart; indeed, in important respects, Muslim Americans reflect the religious and political values held by most other Americans."
However, the message hasn't gotten across. Suspicion of Muslims still prevails and it is in moments such as Green's interview that we see it tangibly expressed. As someone who grew up in the post-9/11 years in the United States, I saw the reactions and the repercussions 9/11 had, both for Muslims in America and for the Muslim world, especially with regard to America's foreign policy. I was fortunate enough to live in an accepting and tolerant community where my affiliation with a faith did not mean that I condoned someone else's obscene actions. What scared me however, was the reality that the rest of the world was not as tolerant and accepting and that in many places, the blame for 9/11 was put on all Muslims.
While we may be moving away from that kind of blame in America, albeit very slowly, this new discourse is equally distressing. One label and one aspect of one's identity doesn't define a full, multi-faceted human being and there is no reason why someone's lifetime of work should be whittled down and dismissed to a religious identity that the interviewer doesn't fully understand. Religion is a personal choice and how much faith a person has and how many of the rituals they subscribe to are equally personal. Someone as educated as Green, who has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University surely knows the distinction between personal subscriptions and the ability to be objective professionally because otherwise, she could never claim to do her job as a journalist; nor could any other journalist, for that matter. What Green forgot reminds us all that we live in a society where labels are widespread and connotations associated with them even more so. But we should also remember that these labels are our own constructs, the connotations, our own projections, and many times they distort the reality of the communities we live in and in doing so, inaccurately ascribe values to people and groups of people, to the extent that we undermine our own ability to remain objective or acknowledge our own biases.
Reza Aslan spoke at The Commonwealth Club of California a few days before his interview with Fox News. You can listen to what he had to say here.
The views expressed in this article are solely of the author and do not represent The Commonwealth Club of California.