Jesus Biographer Reza Aslan on Fox News: 'People Are Starting to See Through It' (Q&A)

Reza Aslan
Reza Aslan
 Getty Images

The controversial author discusses the interview that turned him into an Internet sensation and why he’s been less than polite with online "trolls."

Who would have thought that an academic promoting a biography of Jesus would unseat Sharknado as the Internet’s latest obsession? That’s exactly what happened after Reza Aslan appeared on Fox News recently to discuss his latest book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Clips of the interview, in which Fox’s Lauren Green repeatedly -- and incredulously -- asks Aslan why he, a Muslim, would choose to write a book about Jesus, quickly went viral, amassing more than 5 million views on BuzzFeed. Aslan took time out from a busy book tour to talk to The Hollywood Reporter about the aftermath of the interview, the surprising response he’s received from Fox viewers and a possible multiplatform adaptation of Zealot, which is currently atop Amazon's best-seller list.

The Hollywood Reporter: What's it like for an academic to become an overnight Internet sensation?

Reza Aslan: Well, I will say that for an academic to launch a public conversation in this country about journalistic integrity, the role of religion in society, scholarship and faith is a dream come true. These are the kinds of things that we sit around talking to each other about in our dusty libraries. To see these conversations take place in popular culture is the best thing that could have ever happened. 

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THR: It's kind of like a strange by-product of a very strange incident, but I would imagine that you see it as a very positive one despite all of the controversy. Would you say that’s true?

Aslan: Absolutely. It's a surprise to me that it has gone around the globe in the way that it has. I’m getting e-mails from Indonesia, from Malaysia, from India, from Portugal, from Brazil. So obviously it has struck a chord in some way. And it’s entered the zeitgeist. But more than anything else, I’m at this point just an interested bystander watching this conversation take place. And it’s weird that I’m the subject of the conversation, but the sociological experiment is far more interesting to me than anything else about it.

THR: How has the response been generally beyond the media?

Aslan: Overwhelmingly positive. And, interestingly, positive from Fox News watchers and from conservative Christians. That’s the weirdest thing about this. I cannot tell you how many hundreds of e-mails I have gotten from people that start out with "I am a Fox News watcher" or "I am a Christian and I was appalled by this interview"; "I don't think that it's important, whether you're a Muslim or not, I may disagree with your take on Jesus, but I'd rather have a conversation about that take than about your right to make it." I've even had a number of Fox News watchers e-mail me and tell me they're not going to watch anymore, that this was a kind of jump-the-shark moment. Let's be honest: This is a news organization that has spent the last decade spinning Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment into ratings gold. They have been trying to convince Americans that Muslims are out to get them, and it’s worked for them. But I think that people are starting to get tired of it. People are starting to be able to see through it. If there's anything that I really hope will happen from this inadvertent viral situation, it is that the veil will have been lifted, for those for whom it hasn’t already been lifted. And they will see what this news network is all about.

THR: What was the process like with Fox, pre-interview? Did you know what the line of questioning would be?

Aslan: There was no pre-interview with Fox. There sometimes is, there wasn't in this case. But about two days before the Fox interview they published this attack piece on me, which was basically the same argument: that I am not a scholar or an academic, that I am just -- I believe the quote was "an educated Muslim with an opinion." Heaven forbid. Which of course is not true, but I went into that interview recognizing that we were going to address this. I wasn't that surprised that it was the first question out of the box. I wasn't that surprised that it was the second question. I was a little more surprised that it was the third question. By around the eighth or ninth minute when we are still talking about this subject -- that's when it gets really surreal.

THR: A lot of people have made the observation that you are remarkably calm and patient during the interview. Was that a conscious decision on your part?

Aslan: When you're a brown Muslim from Iran talking about Jesus on TV, you need to keep your cool at all times, OK? That’s not rocket science. Yes, of course, I was consciously maintaining my composure as much as possible because a person in my situation can’t be overcome with that kind of emotion on TV. It never works in your advantage. It just fuels the fire of bigotry and the perception that people already have.

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