What was Reza Aslan thinking, as his patient explanations to a Fox News reporter about his book on Jesus seemingly fell on deaf ears?
“I was embarrassed, more than anything,” Aslan told The Times in a telephone interview Tuesday from Oregon. He’d gone on the cable network to talk about his book “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.” Instead, he found himself making that most unpredictable and volatile of modern media creations: a viral video.In a 10-minute segment on Fox News last Friday, reporter Lauren Green kept on questioning why a U.S. scholar with Muslim roots would want to write a book about Jesus. And she also suggested that Aslan had neglected to inform his readers and the media of his faith, when in fact Aslan mentions it quite early in his book.
Aslan said he was embarrassed that he had to “trot out my credentials” as a student of religions. (He is a scholar of religion as well as an associate professor of creative writing at UC Riverside.) “It’s something most academics don’t like to do,” he said. “It’s uncomfortable to have to constantly tell someone why you’re qualified to do the work you’re doing. Unfortunately, she put me in that kind of position.”
As Green kept on trying to pin Aslan on his faith and motives, she made herself look increasingly narrow-minded—while making Aslan seem to be the epitome of rational argument. The video of their exchange has helped propel “Zealot” to the top of the Amazon bestseller list.
“I really felt compassion toward her, to be honest,” Aslan told The Times.
Aslan’s family fled the religious extremists of the Iranian Revolution, and later he converted to an especially devout belief in Christianity, before returning to Islam. “I understand what it’s like to believe something so completely that anyone who questions you in the slightest way, or who seemingly overturns some basic facts of your belief system, can seem to be attacking your very identity,” he said.
As to the subsequent repetition of the video again and again on websites and social media pages, Aslan said: “In a sense I’m just kind of an interested bystander right now. It’s taken on a life of its own. It’s become a cultural dialogue about these very important issues about media, journalism and scholarship. People like me, who deal with these kinds of issues, love to talk about them.”
It’s also helped him sell a few books.