Fox News’s now infamous interview with Reza Aslan last week has rallied much of the media to the Iranian-born and now Hollywood-based academic’s defense, and catapulted his recently published Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth to number one on Amazon. Fox's Lauren Green grilled the author of about his credentials to write a book about the historical Jesus, and questioned whether a Muslim should be writing a book about Christianity in the first place.
The press was reliably eager to take potshots at its conservative nemesis Fox. At the Get Religion blog, Joe Carter catalogued the reactions.
The Atlantic Wire says the “whole ordeal was embarrassing for Fox News” while Buzzfeed called it “The Most Embarrassing Interview Fox News Has Ever Done.” “This Fox interview with Reza Aslan is absolutely demented (& he handled it with remarkable calm)” said The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum on Twitter. Wired’’s Steve Silberman called the interview “embarrassing” and Digg editorial director David Weiner said, “Please, please watch this if you haven’t yet. It’s amazing.”
Under Green’s persistent, and arguably misguided, questioning, Aslan defended his credentials: “I am a scholar of religions with four degrees including one in the New Testament . . . I am an expert with a Ph.D. in the history of religions . . . I am a professor of religions, including the New Testament—that’s what I do for a living. . . To be clear, I want to emphasize one more time, I am a historian, I am a Ph.D. in the history of religions.”
It seems that Aslan’s defense wasn’t entirely accurate. First Things, published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, examined Aslan’s claims. “Aslan does have four degrees,” writes Matthew J. Franck.
None of these degrees is in history, so Aslan’s repeated claims that he has “a Ph.D. in the history of religions” and that he is “a historian” are false. Nor is “professor of religions” what he does “for a living.” He is an associate professor in the Creative Writing program at the University of California, Riverside, where his terminal MFA in fiction from Iowa is his relevant academic credential. It appears he has taught some courses on Islam in the past, and he may do so now, moonlighting from his creative writing duties at Riverside. Aslan has been a busy popular writer, and he is certainly a tireless self-promoter, but he is nowhere known in the academic world as a scholar of the history of religion. And a scholarly historian of early Christianity? Nope.
Aslan’s Ph.D., explains Franck, was in sociology. “He cannot plausibly claim, as he did to Lauren Green, that he is a ‘historian,’ or is a ‘professor of religions’ ‘for a living.’”
As Joe Carter of Get Religion argued, “Aslan is not presenting himself as an ‘amateur historian’ like David McCullough; he is claiming to be an academic historian with a doctorate degree in history.”
After the interview, Aslan went on Piers Morgan Live where he lamented, "There’s nothing more distasteful than an academic having to, like, trot out his credentials." That may be true, but Aslan has nonetheless made a habit of it on Twitter, often misrepresenting his credentials just as he did on Fox.
@matanlurey I have a BA, MA , and PhD in the history of Western Religions so yes, again, I am an ACTUAL expert in Judaism. Anything else?— Reza Aslan (@rezaaslan) July 27, 2012
As the Fox interview showed, Aslan gets touchy whenever someone questions his expertise:
@matanlurey Well now that you mention it I actually have a PhD in the subject so yes, I'm pretty well versed, thanks.— Reza Aslan (@rezaaslan) July 27, 2012
Aslan has left a long trail of evidence on Twitter that suggests the “remarkable calm” he showed in his Fox interview is far from his characteristic demeanor. Rather, Aslan tends to treat his interlocutors with disdain and contempt, especially when the issue touches on matters in which he considers himself an expert—which, from foreign policy to world history and state legislatures, seems to be virtually everything under the sun.
In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, I entered a Twitter exchange with Aslan concerning his contention that Islamism is a form of nationalism. He replied:
@OrenKessler If you don't define it as a form of nationalism you ignorant twit then you have no fucking idea what it is.— Reza Aslan (@rezaaslan) April 19, 2013
This professor of creative writing commonly employs curses, vulgarity, and playground epithets in Twitter exchanges with people he’s never met.
On comparing deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi to Hitler:
On the Palestinians:
@joshrogin Are you fucking joking? You're a journalist and you're totally ignorant of Palestinian nonviolence? Sheikh Jerrah? Beilin? Jesus!— Reza Aslan (@rezaaslan) June 28, 2012
On gun control:
@SanBoomKid Until you actually read Colorado gun laws and figure out what you're talking about I suggest you shut the fuck up.— Reza Aslan (@rezaaslan) July 21, 2012
Author of a dissertation titled, “Global Jihadism as a Transnational Social Movement: A Theoretical Framework,” Aslan has compared Osama bin Laden to Martin Luther, to Queen’s late frontman Freddie Mercury, and even to writer and frequent critic of Islam Ayaan Hirsi Ali. When one interlocutor questioned that last analogy, Aslan snapped back:
@PowerElement religious reformer is neither a positive or negative judgement dumbass— Reza Aslan (@rezaaslan) August 18, 2012
When Aslan was asked about the efforts his website, Aslan Media, made to raise awareness of a preacher sentenced to death for practicing Christianity in Iran, Aslan replied:
@shawncuthill I'm the editor dumbass. I decide what's written. We launched a HR write in campaign. What'd you do? Send a tweet.— Reza Aslan (@rezaaslan) July 8, 2012
Aslan’s own tweets suggest that the author portrayed as quasi-heroic figure forced to endure the slings and arrows of a conservative corporate media giant has a mean streak. What was most unusual about the Fox interview is that, for once, it wasn’t Aslan who came off as the bully.
Oren Kessler is a Tel Aviv-based writer and analyst.