The interview with Reza Aslan on FOX News is already internet famous. (You can watch it here if you haven’t already seen it.)
There are so many things one could say about this. Prima facie, the interviewer’s behavior is absurd, and seems to miss some basic distinctions that we cover in the first week of Religion 101, like one needn’t be a Christian to study Christianity, any more than one need to be a Nazi to study Nazism or a plant to study plants. On the other hand, I’ve no intention of standing behind Aslan—I haven’t read his book, but the HarperCollins religion catalog is pretty awful.
First, let me point out the relatively obvious:
- The interviewer appears to know very little about Aslan and nothing about the book other than what she read about in a few reviews she found online.
- The interviewer seems to assume that academic scholarship has the same goals as FOX News: to advance or retard social agendas. This is evident when she makes an analogy to a democrat promoting democracy by writing about republican Ronald Reagan, as if the function of all scholarship is directly political.
- The interviewer seems to assume that Aslan’s “Muslim” identity is far more salient here than his “academic” identity; she seems to presume that the former makes his work on Christianity biased and therefore we can dismiss it. (One wonders if she assumes that Christians writing on Christianity are any less biased.)
Now for the less than obvious.
While it seems clear to me that the function of scholarship is not directly political—as standards of rhetoric in academia are typically (if not always) more rigorous than standards of rhetoric in politics—it seems naive for Aslan to pretend that there is nothing political about academia, or that his “Muslim” identity has no relationship to his scholarship. When I go the the American Academy of Religion annual meeting, I see lots of scholarship production tied to scholars’ identities, and much of it is very political.
Aslan suggests that this book cannot be an attack on Christianity if his wife and family members are Christian. However, if his own “religious” identity is divorced from his “academic” research as he suggests throughout the rest of the interview, wouldn’t his family members’ “Christian” identity equally be irrelevant?
The interviewer seems to assume a one-to-one correlation between Aslan’s “Muslim” identity and his behavior: if he identifies as a Muslim this will lead him to attack Christianity. There are many reasons to doubt this essentialist assumption, as those who share identities do not always behave in the same ways. However, note that Aslan seems to make a similar assumption: his identity as an “academic” essentially determines his behavior in academic fields. Here Aslan seems to presume the same sort of essentialism, just one that makes his “academic” identity more salient than his “Muslim” identity.
What if, by contrast, subjects’ behaviors are not determined by their “identities” (“religious,” “academic,” or otherwise)? What if, perchance, identifications are made ad hoc in relation to social agendas? Perhaps the cry of “he’s a Muslim” is designed to dismiss someone’s claims in a predominantly Christian context, and the cry of “I’m an academic” is designed to persuade others to take one’s claims more seriously?
Perhaps I’ve even employed a dubious essentialism myself? It seems that I’ve applied the “HarperCollins” identity to Aslan’s book in order to dismiss it without reading it (as apparently the interviewer did). Arguably, however, the HarperCollins identity doesn’t predetermine the quality of all the books affiliated with that identity.