Can Muslims write about Jesus? Fox News doesn't think so

The Fox News presenter went straight for the jugular — not Aslan's, but that of the channel's own credibility — with her first question: 'You're a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?'

Deepanjana Pal July 29, 2013 15:05:08 IST

Are you among those who turn on the TV to watch the news and then despair at the state of Indian journalism? Well, here's the good news. No matter what you think of the Indian media, we have a long way to go before we can beat America's Fox News at being foolish.

On Friday, in a programme titled Spirited Debate, Fox News interviewed (read: attacked) academician Reza Aslan about his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. The book has been perceived by some as controversial. The Fox News presenter went straight for the jugular — not Aslan's, but that of the channel's own credibility — with her first question: "You're a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?"

Can Muslims write about Jesus Fox News doesnt think so

Aslan's great failing is that despite not being Christian, he does find Jesus an interesting figure. Screengrab from Fox News.

It made no sense to the presenter when Aslan stressed — while enunciating as though speaking to someone with learning disability— that he is a scholar of religions and it is his job to write about religions. Other religions may be worth being scholarly about; Christianity is only about worship, if Fox News is to be believed. There's complete rejection of the notion that there may be thought-provoking ideas contained in the stories of Jesus's life and his sayings. It's as though if he's interesting, he can't be Jesus. "For the boring and by the boring," seems to be the official description of Christianity by Fox News's right-wing Christian stance. Only the congregation gets the glory of Jesus. It's a bit like drugs: only users really understand the point of these substances. To those who aren't under the influence, it's just stuff.

In the past, Fox News's bloopers have ranged from misspelling "education" to describing political activist and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel as "Holocaust winner" and marking out Iraq as Egypt on a map. The channel has earnestly asked in a programme, "Chuck Norris Facts: Are They True?" This time, aside from how it bludgeoned its barely-there credibility, this edition of Spirited Debate actually did precisely what it was accusing Aslan of doing: it made a mockery of the founder of Christianity.

Aslan's great failing is that despite not being Christian, he does find Jesus an interesting figure. He tried to establish the fact that his personal religion was of little significance because he's an academic who has spent years studying religions. He pointed out that he is fluent in Biblical Greek, that one of his four degrees was awarded to him for his study of the New Testament and that he is a PhD. He may as well have been saying it in Biblical Greek though because the presenter's response was this: "It still begs the question though, why would you be interested in the founder of Christianity?"

Possibly in an attempt to get through to his interviewer, Aslan compressed his earlier response into Belieber-speak and said, "I've been obsessed with Jesus for, really, 20 years." He also pointed out that many members of his family, including his wife and his mother, are Christians even though this doesn't really have any bearing on his book. Perhaps Aslan was hoping that since logic wasn't making a headway, an emotional tug would.

It didn't.

Quoting those who disapprove of Zealot (including an op-ed published by who else but Fox News), the presenter first tried to discredit Aslan's scholarship. (One of Aslan's critics is William Lane Craig, a theologian who has written on science and religion. Of course it's not a problem that Craig has written about scientific theories even though he isn't a scientist.) The criticism quoted by the Fox News is dodgy, at best. For example, the statement "This is not a historian's report on Jesus, but an educated Muslim's opinion on Jesus" isn't exactly a criticism. Unless you think being educated or a Muslim or an educated Muslim is a bad thing.

Then, the anchor, who isn't aware of the difference between interpretation and information, tried to establish Aslan was presenting "different" facts in his book. "That's the thing about scholarship," said Aslan. "It's a debate... and I'm one of the people making a debate." The anchor also effectively cut Aslan off when he was speaking about how he saw Jesus as a political revolutionary who fought for the poor. Presumably this is only admirable if a Christian says it; if a Muslim says good things about Jesus, then it's still criticism. Because a Muslim said it. D'uh.

When shot down by Aslan for questioning his research, the presenter tried another tack and accused him of hiding his Muslim identity, thus attempting to paint Aslan as an intellectual stealth bomber who had slyly embedded himself into the Christian academic establishment and then launched an attack against it with his book. Except this is a man named Reza, a popular Muslim name and a word of Arabic origin. Not just that, as Aslan pointed out, he's never made any secret of his religion. It's on the second page of this book. Plus, Aslan is also the author of the bestseller, No God But God: The Origins, Future and Evolution of Islam. That could clue a few people in, if they are so inclined.

You'd think the American right-wing that equates Islamic with Islamist would be happy that a Muslim has been, in his own words, obsessed with Jesus. But the reaction, at least on Fox News, is precisely the opposite. The problem isn't what Aslan has written in Zealot. That Jesus is mentioned in The Quran (and favourably; he's a messiah) is irrelevant. The thorny problem is the fact that Aslan wrote Zealot in the first place. It seems Fox News and its tribe can't fathom for the life of them how the founder of Christianity can be interesting to anyone who isn't a Christian. For a Muslim man to possess the generosity and objectivity to see Jesus worthy of research when a collection of Jesus's present-day followers are constantly trashing Islam just seems too, well, Christian.

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