Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Publicity, Faith, Reza, and Me

Reza Aslan's new book on the historical Jesus, Zealot (Random House, 2013), is climbing the bestseller charts and provoking a bounty of positive and negative reviews. In what is rapidly becoming a viral video clip, Aslan is interviewed by Lauren Green on Fox News. If you haven't seen it, watch it. Green shows no interest in listening to anything Aslan has to say. Her singular mission appears to be dismissing the book on the basis that Aslan's faith compromises his objectivity.

I have written two books on the Qur'an: Reading the Qur'an in English (Cape Breton University Press, 2009) and Women, War & Hypocrites (Cape Breton University Press, 2010). While neither of my books has enjoyed even a small fraction of the sales of Zealot or Aslan's previous book, No God but God (Random House, 2006, 2011), there are similarities with respect to the responses we receive. The most common question I get about my books from both Muslims and non-Muslims is, "Are you Muslim?" When I respond by asking why that would matter, some non-Muslims give me a puzzled look and say something like, "If you're not Muslim, why would you bother?" It distresses me to think that this is a thinly-veiled articulation of the opinion that I'm crazy to waste my time on what they believe to be a nonsensical and dangerous superstition. Similarly, some Muslims openly state that if I am not Muslim, then my opinion either does not matter, or I must be attacking their faith. As with Aslan's treatment on Fox, too often, the merits of the book, whatever those may be, are viewed as secondary, or irrelevant, compared to the merits of the man.

Like Aslan, I was raised a Christian, I spent several years at university studying Christianity, and I have a PhD in sociology. One big difference comes with respect to our declarations of faith. I taught introductory courses on the religious traditions of the East and West, as well as more advanced courses on sacred texts, including a course on the Qur'an. In all of these classes I did my best to be objective about the subject matter and neutral with respect to my own religious views. Students always wanted to know what religion I followed, and I continually refused to answer. Aslan is openly Muslim, and I am openly noncommittal.

In the Fox interview, Aslan continually tries to make the point that he is an academic, and that writing books such as Zealot is his job. Sociologists studying criminals do not have to be criminals. Why should a sociologist writing about Christianity or Islam have to be a Christian or a Muslim? Big subject for another day, perhaps, but there is no question that scholars of religion are often subjected to a particularly mean-spirited version of anti-intellectualism.

Of course, one truism that gets reinforced by Aslan's appearance on Fox is that there is no such thing as bad publicity. I hope that significant numbers of people who buy Aslan's book actually read it. Similarly, even though I have not sold many books, I hope that the copies that are out there have been read. At the same time, as Oscar Wilde said: "The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about." Hey Fox News, give me a call.