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Can Muslims write about Christianity?

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Ann Hermes

(Read caption) Naga Hamadi in Upper Egypt.

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American public discourse about Islam is filled with essentialist paranoia, fear, and the commentary of people who not only don't know much about the topic but are often dismissive of people who do.

But the reception that scholar Reza Aslan received on Fox last Friday was a new twist: Muslim views of Christianity are inherently suspect, it seems. Mr. Aslan, who has a PhD in the sociology of religion from the University of California at Santa Barbara and a masters in theological studies from Harvard, is promoting his new book "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth" and was on with Fox religion correspondent Lauren Green to talk about it. He was born in Iran, his family fled the Islamic Revolution there in 1979, and he grew up in the US where he converted to Christianity as a teen and later converted back to the faith he was raised in.

Fox has been filled with Christian and Jewish commentators explaining Islam to their audience over the years. Daniel Pipes has been one of them. As has Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Muslim who became an atheist (an earlier version of this story incorrectly described Ms. Ali as a Christian) and who describes Islam as fundamentally violent and has written books attacking the faith. As have Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, who both describe Islam as inherently violent. In the past, it's even had conspiracy theorist Glenn Beck give long expositions of the essence of Islamic law as he sees it.

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None of those people are Muslims, yet as far as I'm aware their comments have never been questioned on the network as suspect since they came from non-Muslims. Yet his faith was a major talking point for Ms. Green in their interview. Her first question? "You're a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?"

He responds: "Well to be clear, I am a scholar of religions with four degrees — including one in the New Testament, and fluency in biblical Greek, who has been studying the origins of Christianity for two decades — who also just happens to be a Muslim. So it’s not that I’m just some Muslim writing about Jesus, I am an expert with a PhD in the history of religion..."

At this point Ms. Green breaks in: "But it still begs the question though of why you'd be interested in the founder of Christianity?"

Does it really beg that question? Not to me. And Green, a Christian, doesn't seem to think there's anything wrong about expressing her own opinions about Islam.

She wrote in 2011: "My area is religion, not politics. So my queries about Islamic terrorism tend to break the question down theologically and ask the question:"

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Is there something in Islam itself that makes believers more susceptible to radicalization?... I believe essentially there are three things that may make Islam more prone to radicalization. One is the Koran itself. The fact that it's not a narrative makes it easier to pick and choose verses to fit your interpretation. Two, the Prophet Mohammed's own words and deeds. In Islam's early days, Mohammed spread the faith with the sword. Three, Islam was introduced into a world rife with tribalism; a shame and honor culture which revered and respected power. Much of what's going in Libya and what went on under Saddam Hussein, are extensions of that tribalism. 

Green has a right to her opinions, of course. But they are ill-informed.

On her first point, while it's true that elements of the Quran have been emphasized at the expense of others by various Muslim schools and sects, that's also happened with Christianity. Elements of the Bible about slavery, the role of women, giving of alms, sexuality, and even snake handling and speaking in tongues have been seized upon by various Christians down the centuries.

To say that Islam was spread by the sword is a gross oversimplification. While Muhammad and his followers conquered Mecca by force in 630, the earliest years of the faith were focused on peaceful proselytizing. While Islamist conquests spread Islam throughout the Arab world after his death, Islam spread largely through trade and cultural contacts in strongholds of the faith like India, Pakistan, and Indonesia.

Her third point is particularly incoherent. While it's true that Islam, founded in the 7th century AD, "was introduced into a world rife with tribalism" the same is true for the advent of Christianity six hundred years earlier.

I'm interested in this topic because as someone who lived in Muslim majority countries from 1993 to 2008, I find the level of hostility to Islam back here in the US to be deeply frustrating. I have known Muslims with a wide range of political views. I have met some who I'd describe as terrorists, others whose political views, informed by their faith, I find profoundly regressive and disrespectful of fundamental individual rights – and many more who were thoughtful, open-minded and respectful of other creeds.

Yet frequently the US mass media places Muslims all in one box and it's not only inaccurate, but also harmful to a real understanding of the world and its problems.

Ms. Green's interview with Aslan is a premier example. Her first question clearly implies that Aslan – whose book is controversial – has some kind of agenda, something suspicious. His answer to her, expounding on his academic credentials and the fact that as a scholar he's interested in religions (plural), not just his own faith, is spot on.

He tells her: "It would be like asking a Christian why they would write a book about Islam.... I've been obsessed with Jesus for 20 years." He also points out that his wife and his mother are Christians, and says that "anyone who thinks this book is an attack on Christianity has not read it yet."

But Green presses on, quoting a Fox op-ed by Christian pastor John S. Dickerson, who wrote: "Media reports have introduced Aslan as a 'religion scholar' but have failed to mention that he is a devout Muslim." 

Really? On July 16, the excellent WNYC host Brian Lehrer had Aslan on and mentioned his faith before asking the first question: "Just some background on you first. You come from Iran originally, you've been through Christianity and Sufi Islam among your personal beliefs. Are you a practicing anything today?" Aslan responded: "Yeah, I'm definitely a Muslim and Sufism is the tradition within Islam that I most closely adhere to." 

I'm sure other interviews and reviews have failed to mention his faith. But, well, so what? This is a classic case of attacking the man, and not the argument.

Make no mistake: Aslan does have an agenda. He has written a book about the historicity of Jesus, and attempts to locate Jesus as a figure of historical study have always been profoundly controversial, particularly for people who believe in Jesus Christ, the son of God and savior of mankind. Will there be scholarly criticisms of the book, saying he's gotten it wrong? Inevitably. His book is just the latest entry into the scholarly debate over the historical Jesus.

Green appears confused – or perhaps angry about – the separation of scholarship and belief. (She herself is a devout Christian who was brought up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.)

"You're promoting yourself as a scholar, and I've interviewed scholars who have written books on the resurrection, on the real Jesus ... who are looking at the same information that you're saying is somehow different from theirs is really not being honest here," she charges.

Aslan answers back: "I think it's unfair to just simply assume because of my particular faith background that there is some agenda on this book – that would be like saying a Christian who writes about Muhammad is by definition not able to do so because he has some bias against it."

Green responds: "I believe you've been on several programs and have never disclosed that you're a Muslim and I think that there's an interest in full disclosure." To that he said: "Ma'am, the second page of my book, the second page of my books says I'm a Muslim ... it's simply incorrect that media isn't saying I'm a Muslim."

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