Religious scholar Reza Aslan is promoting his controversial new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, and on Friday afternoon he appeared for an interview on the Fox News program Spirited Debate. The program, hosted by Fox News religion correspondent Lauren Green, runs on the online-only Fox News Live and doesn't usually draw a lot of attention. This weekend, it did. (Watch above)
By Saturday night, BuzzFeed's Andrew Kaczynski asked if the Aslan chat is "the most embarrassing interview Fox News has ever done?" A day later, Slate's Daniel Politi isn't asking: "It's got plenty of competition but this may just be the single most cringe-worthy, embarrassing interview broadcast on Fox News. At least in recent memory."
What's so bad about Green's interview? Here's the first exchange:
Green: You're 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.
That's basically the template for the remaining nine minutes of the interview. Aslan repeatedly points out his academic credentials, his decades of research, some ways his historical look at Jesus as a political revolutionary differ from traditional Muslim beliefs, the various members of his family who are Christian (including his wife and mother), and his book's copious end notes citing scholars who disagree with him.
Green mostly seems interested in Aslan's religion, and whether that inherently colors his writing. After Aslan explains that writing about religions is his job, Green cuts in: "But it still begs the question though of why you'd be interested in the founder of Christianity?"
"Does it really beg that question?" says Dan Murphy at The Christian Science Monitor. "Not to me. And Green, a Christian, doesn't seem to think there's anything wrong about expressing her own opinions about Islam." On top of that, her opinions about Islam, unlike Aslan's about Christianity, "are ill-informed," even incoherent.
That's also true of the numerous Christian and Jewish commentators Fox has brought on over the years to explain Islam — including Daniel Pipes, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Pamela Geller — often depicting it as inherently violent, says Murphy. "None of those people are Muslims, yet as far as I'm aware their comments have never been questioned on the network as suspect since they came from non-Muslims."
Aslan does have an agenda. He has written a book about the historicity of Jesus, and attempts to locate Jesus as a figure of historical study have always been profoundly controversial, particularly for people who believe in Jesus Christ, the son of God and savior of mankind. Will there be scholarly criticisms of the book, saying he's gotten it wrong? Inevitably. His book is just the latest entry into the scholarly debate over the historical Jesus.
Green appears confused — or perhaps angry about — the separation of scholarship and belief (she herself is a devout Christian who was brought up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church). [Christian Science Monitor]
Even worse than the double standards, says Josh Kurp at Uproxx, is that "at no point does Fox News realize the irony of persecuting someone over their religion in a discussion about Jesus."
Look, "there are a lot of things wrong with the 10-minute FoxNews.com Live interview," says Asawin Suebsaeng at Mother Jones. And none of them "are perpetrated by Aslan." But the "most damning part" is when she says that Aslan, on his several media appearances, has "never disclosed that you were a Muslim." That's not only irrelevant, it's also just plain wrong — as Aslan points out. He isn't shy about being a Muslim. But let's cut Green some slack, Suebsaeng says:
In the grand (or not-so-grand, even) scheme of things, this Aslan episode on Fox isn't a landmark moment in anything. It was a poorly conducted interview, of which there are many. It was a moment in which a Fox News employee acted ridiculously while talking to or about Muslims, and that isn't exactly new. But it does do more to highlight the widespread Google problem of right-wing hysteria: So much humiliation could be avoided if certain pundits and media personalities just devoted 10 seconds of their day to fiddling with [Google]. [Mother Jones]
The interview is an embarrassment to Fox News, says Connor Simpson at The Atlantic Wire, but don't feel bad for Alsan. "Controversy like this usually drives book sales through the roof." And so while the experience may have been insulting or tedious for him to sit through, "the disgust and glee and outrage stemming from the interview should actually help Aslan."