That Pesky Muslim Problem, Again

azlanThe disastrous interview of Reza Aslan, a religion scholar and author of a new biography of Jesus, by Fox News’s Lauren Green reminds me of a cartoon from The Far Side. Titled “What we say to dogs,” the image is of a man pointing his finger at a dog and saying, “Okay, Ginger! I’ve had it! You stay out of the garbage! Understand, Ginger? Stay out of the garbage, or else!” Below is exactly the same image with the caption “What they hear.” The owner is now saying, “Blah blah GINGER blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah GINGER blah blah blah blah blah. …”

Regardless of what Aslan says in the nearly 10-minute interview—in which Green asks him why, as a Muslim, he feels qualified to write about Jesus—she seems to hear Aslan saying only, “Blah blah blah MUSLIM blah blah blah MUSLIM!”

On the other hand, Aslan seems essentially to be saying, “Blah blah blah Ph.D. blah blah Ph.D. blah Ph.D. ”

The interview has gone viral, with nearly four million views on Buzzfeed, according to The New York Times, and has been good for Aslan’s book sales. Why has it been so popular? I suspect that the answer has less to do with the subject matter of who is qualified to write about Jesus and more to do with the interviewer’s unrelenting daftness, which is highlighted by Aslan’s evident frustration. Lauren Green is not listening, which is after all supposed to be half of the job of an interviewer. The other half, incidentally, is to ask questions how to write my essay for me, and not just the same question with petty variations. With surprising and unwitting clarity, the segment exposes the vacuous and scripted quality of a lot of TV-news culture.

This is not to say that the content of this so-called interview—which is akin to watching a wind-up toy walk into a wall for 10 minutes—doesn’t matter. It does. Fox News’s antipathy to Muslims is well known. Fox led the charge on television against the so-called Ground Zero mosque, for example. And Green’s false allegation that Aslan had been interviewed on several news programs and never “disclosed” that he was a Muslim is at the heart of the problem.

The pernicious assumption behind such a statement is in line with the view that Muslims are untrustworthy liars driven by an ideological commitment to usurp the Constitution and impose their faith across the United States. As long as you are in any way identifiably Muslim, in other words, each action you perform and every breath you take is done for one reason alone: the dominion of Islam on this earth.

For the simple reason that Muslims are people and not robots, this idea is both ludicrous and dangerous. And yet one should be able to make the distinction between charging Aslan with harboring a secret Muslim agenda and inquiring into how his religious background informs his scholarship. The question about his faith is not stupid; the accusation that it defines and controls him is. Aslan understands this, of course, which is why in the book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, and in interviews at he explains his own religious history, which includes attending an evangelical Christian camp as a teenager and converting to Christianity for a time. It is also why his statement that he “just happens to be a Muslim” and his repeated insistence that he holds a Ph.D. and other degrees in religion sound a bit apologetic and elitist.

Nevertheless, I sympathize with Aslan. The confines of this interview did not allow much room for nuance, but surely one of the key lessons of poststructuralism is to question seriously the idea of the disinterested scholarship of the expert. As Edward Said wrote in the introduction to Orientalism, “no production of knowledge in the human sciences can ever ignore or disclaim its author’s involvement as a human subject in his own circumstances.”

The point here is that people with Muslim names are routinely denied the complexity of their own human experience. Instead, Islam—and a very politicized and Orientalized version of Islam at that—must explain everything they do.

This is not limited to Fox News and the right wing, either. In her column last Sunday, Maureen Dowd, of the Times, manages something similar when offering dissertation help us her explanation of the stoic and upright behavior of the wife of Anthony Weiner: “When you puzzle over why the elegant Huma Abedin is propping up the eel-like Anthony Weiner, you must remember one thing: Huma was raised in Saudi Arabia, where women are treated worse by men than anywhere else on the planet. Comparatively speaking, the pol from Queens probably seems like a prince.”

Dowd not only suggests that Weiner is better than every adult male in Saudi Arabia. She is also telling us to dismiss every possible human emotion and any plausible reason that Abedin would have to support her husband. None of that matters, because the reason for her actions will always be staring you in the face. Islam makes her do it.

Moustafa Bayoumi is a professor of English at the City University of New York’s Brooklyn College and the author of How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America (Penguin, 2009).


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