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

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Reza Aslan

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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THR: Which is interesting to contrast with some of your Twitter responses, which have certainly been more confrontational.

Aslan: Which again, I am absolutely unapologetic about. There is a difference between having a conversation on the news with a clearly biased journalist and being inundated on social media by trolls and people like Robert Spencer [author of The Truth About Muhammad], whom the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center have designated a hate group leader. I say this to my fans, I say this to people who ask me: You respond to people with the respect that they show you. If a biased newscaster asks you a prejudiced question, you respond with patience and with dignity. If a racist, xenophobic troll attacks you and your identity, tell them to go f--- themself.

So I have no apology, no apology at all for telling these slimeballs, these people who are the dregs of human society, exactly who they are and where they should go.

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THR: The Weekly Standard called you a bully and a martyr and also questioned the veracity of your credentials. Can you respond to that?

Aslan: Sure. So what they were saying is that I am neither a historian nor do I have any degrees in the New Testament nor do I teach religion. OK, my degree in religion from Santa Clara University is in the New Testament. That’s what my degree is in. And my minor was in biblical Greek. My master's of theological studies is literally in the topic of the history of religion. It’s also called world religions. My Ph.D. -- and people have no idea how academic disciplines work -- my Ph.D. course work is in the history of religions in an interdisciplinary university. My dissertation, which was on Jihadism as a social movement, was sent to the sociology department. So technically my Ph.D. is in the sociology of religion, which encompasses the history of religion. It also encompasses, by the way, philosophy of religion, anthropology of religion. They are considered the same academic enterprise. I hold a joint position at the University of California Riverside: I am an associate professor of creative writing, but I'm what’s called non-affiliated faculty with the department of religion. I have previously held two full-time academic positions in departments of religion: one at Drew University in New Jersey, one at the University of Iowa. So again, it’s so funny. I can totally understand Glenn Beck going off on this, because that’s what he does. But as I tweeted, I thought Weekly Standard was supposed to be the smart guys in that group. Is there nobody with a Ph.D. at the Weekly Standard? Is there nobody who has ever been to graduate school? Do they not understand how this works? I mean yeah, Glenn Beck is one thing, but come on.

It’s funny because the first website that actually launched this attack is called First Things, and they were the first ones to [question] my credentials, et cetera. My dissertation adviser and the chair of my work at UCSB actually wrote back on the site, in the comments, "I'm the person who actually gave him his degree. I can tell you what his degree is in. And he is exactly what he says he is." You would think that would end the matter. The actual person who gave me the degree is saying, "You are wrong." But of course it didn't matter. This is not about facts.

THR: It seems like the controversy is mostly about the interview, and about you to some extent. Do you think the book is controversial, and did you expect the book to be controversial?

Aslan: I mean, look, anytime you are writing about any religious figure you’re going to be in controversial territory. It was controversial when I wrote No God But God about Mohammad, and it was controversial when I wrote Zealot about Jesus. In the case of Jesus, of course because billions of people think he is God. Simply treating Jesus as a person is in and of itself controversial. In other words, just thinking of him as a product of his day and age, putting him in the context of the world he lived in, that by itself turns a lot of Christians off. Because if you believe that Jesus is God incarnate, then you believe that he is without context, that his words and actions are universal. Who cares, you know the world in which he lived. Who cares about the powers that he confronted? Those are irrelevant. This is an eternal being who always was and who always will be.

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THR: What would you say to the suggestion that you just wrote the book to court controversy?

Aslan: I wrote the book to show that you can be a follower of Jesus without being a Christian. That’s why. I mean if you want to know, I wrote the book because I’m an academic and this is what I do and I’m interested in Jesus, and I think I have an educated and interesting take on him that I would like to share with audiences. But my agenda in writing the book is not some secret Muslim plan to destroy Christianity. My agenda in writing the book is to show people, especially those who are not Christian, what an incredible, charismatic and remarkable man this was. How the things that he said and did were so revolutionary, so threatening to the powers of his time, that he was ultimately executed for it. You know, what we’re talking about is an illiterate, uneducated, poor, peasant day laborer from the backwoods of Galilee whose charisma was so magnetic, whose teachings were so revolutionary that in the name of the poor and the outcasts, the marginalized and the dispossessed, he took on the greatest empire the world had ever known. And, as a result, was killed for it. How could you not want to know who that person was? That sounds like the most interesting person who ever lived. I mean, are you kidding me? That’s an amazing story. Forget about everything else. Forget about whether he was God or not or Messiah or not or whatever. Forget about everything else that’s been said about Jesus. Just the basic, basic historical facts of his life make him worth knowing.

THR: Why do you think you couldn’t really get that out during the Fox interview?

Aslan: Here’s the thing: The Jesus of history would be a very bad Republican. What I mean to say is, this is a man whose ministry was predicated on the reversal of the social order. That the rich and the powerful would be made low. That the weak and the powerless would be made high. First will be last and the last will be first, which is why it was so appealing to the poor and the powerless and so threatening  to the rich and the powerful. If you compare that message to what so many political and religious leaders claim about Jesus, that this is a man whose entire ministry somehow was focused on guns and gays, there is a massive disconnect. I mean truly, the real Jesus would be a shock to a lot of conservative Republicans, because this is a man who said it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle then for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. This is a man who advocated absolute, 100 percent social equality for everyone. If you truly, truly follow the teachings of Jesus -- not what people say about Jesus but what Jesus said himself -- that contradicts a lot of what his conservative commentators say about him.

THR: You have your own production company called BoomGen Studios. Any plans to adapt the book for the screen?

Aslan: All I can say is that there are things in the works to translate this story into different media platforms. Graphic novels and film. But that’s pretty much as far as I can say at this point, unfortunately.

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