07/30/2013 10:23 am ET Updated Sep 29, 2013

Reza Aslan: Speaking Truth to Power


Can a Muslim write about Jesus? And why would he want to? A recent Fox News interview with scholar Reza Aslan, author of a new book about Jesus, asks this question repeatedly. The interview, with Fox News correspondent Lauren Green, has gone viral, sending Aslan's book to number one on the Amazon charts. In the interview, Aslan, a creative writing professor at the University of California at Riverside, repeatedly defended his credentials: four degrees (including an MA in Theology from Harvard and a PhD in the Sociology of Religions from UC Santa Barbara) and fluency in ancient Greek. Nonetheless, his motives were still held to be suspect, and Green even accused him of hiding his Muslim-ness from the media. A Muslim writing about Jesus, no doubt, must have a thinly veiled agenda to dismantle Christianity and implement shari'a law throughout the heartland.

Let's leave aside for a moment the fact that Fox News does not have a history of questioning Christian scholars on their own bias in studying other faiths. What interests me, as an anthropologist who, like Aslan, has been studying a religion that is not my own for two decades, is how our culture decides who gets to discuss and write about the Other. In 1978, Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said, who died in 2003, advanced an important argument in his seminal book, Orientalism. Since the dawn of the age of exploration, Said wrote, Westerners have had more than just a scholarly interest in the Middle East. While a few intrepid explorers might have written firsthand accounts, most were studying ancient Islamic texts and using those texts to make claims about the supposed essential character of contemporary Muslims, the better to colonize them with.

Historically, Said argued, scholars writing about Islam were part of a larger project of dominance. Hundreds, if not thousands, of books and articles about the Middle East and Muslims were produced around the same time that countries like Britain and France were making military incursions into Muslim countries. Those texts, Said says, were built up on the texts that came before them, and the picture that emerged of Muslims was an unflattering one: representatives of a stagnant culture and dogmatic faith, they were weak, depraved and in need of colonial civilizing.

Whether those early Orientalist scholars saw themselves as participating in the colonial mission is another issue. The larger point is that being in a position of dominance has made it easy for one group to write about the other, and to have those writings accepted as truth. For the past few hundred years, the most widely read books about Islam in the West have been written by non-Muslims. This is still largely the case: the authors whose bestselling books about Islam and Muhammad that you are most likely to read include Karen Armstrong, John Esposito, and even Deepak Chopra. To write about a subject and have many people read your words as authoritative pronouncements carries, in itself, a kind of power.

It is for that reason that Aslan's Muslimness is threatening. Usually we write about them, and not the other way around. In response to the interviewer's repeated questioning of his background, Aslan replies, "It's not that I'm just some Muslim writing about Jesus - I am an expert with a PhD in the history of religions." But even Aslan's twenty years of academic study, plus the thousand references he uses to write his book, are not enough to convince Green that he has the right to be the one writing about us.

To Americans, Edward Said wrote, Muslims were either "oil suppliers or potential terrorists." Aslan, a Muslim daring to write about something besides his own faith, does not fit into that mold, despite Fox News' attempts to force him into it.