Fox News, a Muslim, and Jesus

It is not uncommon for me to log onto Facebook and find friends who have posted the most recent viral Fox News gaffe. Nine times out of ten the gaffe is something that I have seen before — a news anchor putting their conservative foot in their mouth or a liberal guest who puts the anchor’s foot in their mouth for them — but, even so, nine times out of ten I still click on the link.

Today, I clicked on such a link. The title of the link was “Is This The Most Embarrassing Interview Fox News Has Ever Done?” which seemed to promise me something I hadn’t seen before. It didn’t. I had seen it before in one form or another, but that doesn’t make the video any less intriguing.

In the video, Fox News anchor Lauren Green interviewed religious scholar Reza Aslan about his new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, which debuted this week at No. 2 on the New York Times best-sellers list. However, it became clear very quickly that Green was not concerned about the book on Jesus, she was concerned that Aslan, a Muslim, thought himself qualified to write such a book.

Reza Aslan // Photo by Malin Fezehai - Random House
Reza Aslan // Photo by Malin Fezehai – Random House

Green’s first question right out of the gate was, “You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” as if Muslims are not or cannot be interested in the historical person of Jesus.

Aslan responded and continued to reiterate throughout the interview that he was in fact an expert in religious history and had every right to write an authoritative book about Jesus. He said,

“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.”

Already, 15 seconds into the interview, it was abundantly clear where each party stood. Fox, never known for its subtlety, was not shy about its anti-Muslim bias, and Aslan was not shy about his expert “unbiased” approach. Aslan does not try to hide his Muslim faith (he said he mentions this fact on the second page of his book) but he does, I think, under-appreciate the role that his religious bias plays in his thinking. (Particularly for history, a subject predicated on the biases of the historian.) It is simply impossible to have an unbiased account of history. An informed account, yes, but unbiased, no.

Aslan argues that since he is an informed expert, his Muslim faith is actually of little importance when it comes to his academic work. He just “happens” to be a Muslim as if this happening may unhappen as easily as it happened. However, to think that a person’s beliefs and practices aren’t relevant to a conversation about their particular interpretation of history is to be completely out of touch with the nature of history – which, judging by many of the responses to this interview, seems to be a large portion of the population.

One commentator at Mother Jones, a prominent news and opinion site, even compared Aslan’s Muslim faith to Green’s third runner-up finish in the 1985 Miss America competition saying,

Now, forget for a moment that Aslan’s personal religious beliefs and practices aren’t actually relevant to this conversation. (It’s about as relevant as asking why Green doesn’t use the beginning of every Fox segment she hosts to disclose that she was once the third runner-up in the 1985 Miss America competition.)

This comparison should barely justify a response because I don’t understand how one can think that a religious belief is at all similar to a past event like a Miss America competition, but unfortunately I think this way of thinking is emblematic of our current misunderstanding of religious belief. We are told that religion is a personal belief, something to be kept private, and when we come into the public realm of facts we are to leave our private beliefs behind – which is what Aslan appeared to do.

zealotThis is also the main reason Aslan unequivocally ‘won’ the interview with Fox News. Yes, Aslan was courteous and well-spoken and everyone (myself included) loves to hate on Fox News at times, but Aslan ultimately won because he presented himself as an unbiased expert who is most concerned with the facts, not personal or traditional beliefs. According to the real-time historians tracking this debate, Fox had a biased agenda but Aslan had an unbiased argument. If you put the debate in these terms it is little wonder why the public gets weary of private (ie. biased) beliefs.

The interesting part that has been lost in this whole debate is that the question Lauren Green opened the interview with, “You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” is both an interesting and relevant question, and it is a question that I would love to hear Aslan talk about more. But unfortunately, Fox News’s bias against Muslim interpretations of Christian history made the question more about “You’re a Muslim” and less about “why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?”