It seems like the whole world is talking about Reza Aslan’s new book (Zealot), largely thanks to Fox News’ interview with him in which the host, Lauren Green, could not get over the fact that a scholar (who’s Muslim) would write a book on Jesus, writes Professor Omid Safi.
The story has gone viral. It’s on Upworthy, it’s on NPR, it’s on the Atlantic, and so on.
It also seems to have helped make Aslan’s book the #1 book in the country – in the interest of full disclosure I should state that the publisher sent me a free copy of this book.
Much of the attention is focused on Fox News’ profoundly problematic, possibly racist, and definitely religiously bigoted behaviour, combined with the calm (read: patronizing) way in which Reza kept repeating that he is a scholar of religion, with four degrees, and this is what scholars do. I say racist because religionist doesn’t seem to be a word in our language.
Privilege and double standards
Yes, it’s always fun to make fun of Fox News’ racism and idiocy, and we could go on and on about it here. But it’s actually about something else that has not gotten enough attention so far.
The real issue is not Fox News’s idiocy or at least not just Fox News’ idiocy. It is Privilege. It is about who gets to speak, where, in front of whom, and about what. And like so many other forms of privilege, this is not about one individual host’s racism or ignorance. It is about an institutionalized form of power, lorded by some over others to reinforce their own position of, well, privilege.
Surely, it’s not something as simple as a ban on people (or scholars) speaking about traditions other than their own?
After all, Lesley Hazelton, who describes herself as an agnostic, gave a viral talk on Muhammad, Bernard Lewis of British Jewish background, has certainly had a career (and a half) of speaking on Islam and Middle East.
Fox itself certainly has no issue putting on the uber-polemicist Robert Spencer (who is of Christian background, though we should not project his hatred on Christianity or all Christians) as an “expert” on Islam. And no one questioned him about his degrees in Islamic studies (he has none) or his command of Islamic languages (he has none). Fox also has no problem putting ex-Muslims on air to talk about Islam, as they routinely do with Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
So if Robert Spencer and Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Lesley Hazelton and Bernard Lewis can speak on Islam (not to mention anything about other voices of compassion such as Karen Armstrong, Bruce Lawrence, John Esposito, none of whom are Muslim), why can’t the Muslim-turned-Christian-turned-back-into-a-Muslim scholar Reza Aslan speak on Jesus? It is because of privilege.
It’s one thing for Fox to have people on who are discussing terrorism, or whatever. Those do not easily get into questions of cosmic and existential truths. But to have Muslims — even one who has had such a circuitous history with both Islam and Christianity — come on air and discuss Jesus gets to the very heart of the privilege that the host at Fox tried to preserve for the Christian tradition.
It’s kind of like when you go to Barnes and Noble. There is an Islam shelf (Qur’an, jihad, and women’s struggles). There is a Judaism shelf and a Buddhism shelf and a Hinduism shelf. When you get to the “Religion” shelf, it is almost all books on Christianity. It is as if Christianity is religion as such. That, friends, is what we call privileging one tradition above others.
Yes, there are similar ways that in other countries other traditions might be privileged. And what we are witnessing in Reza Aslan vs. Fox News is one layer of privilege being made visible. It’s not pretty, but it is a necessary part of dismantling privilege.
And though it shatters the self-made illusion of conservative Christians who like to pretend they are the persecuted minority, they enjoy the fruits of (unearned) privilege.
Its kind like when men think that only women have gender. It’s kind of like when white people think that race is something only African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians have. It’s kind of like when super-rich people think “class warfare” is the agenda of poor people. We’re talking about privilege.
Incidentally, someone should remind Lauren Green, the host at Fox, that she herself had no issues offering comments on a tradition other than her own. Which, by the way, was when she (a committed Christian from the African Methodist tradition) opined on Islam in a negative fashion.
“Is there something in Islam itself that makes believers more susceptible to radicalization? I believe essentially there are three things that may make Islam more prone to radicalization. One is the Koran itself.”
There was someone a while ago who said to want for your brother what you would want for yourself. I think his name was Jesus. Someone should remind the host at Fox of that. And I don’t even need a bunch of degrees or fluency in Biblical Greek to know that.
No, let us instead insist not on monopolizing conversation but on richer conversations, more honest conversations, conversation with depth and range and representations, where light and wisdom guide us—not the volume of our voice. Let us engage in conversations that are shaped by integrity, information, and yes, truth.
And let us begin by shining a bright light on privilege…and dismantling it.
Omid Safi is a Professor of Islamic Studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, specialising in contemporary Islamic thought and classical Islam. You can follow him on Twitter @ostadjaan