If you were on the Internet at all this past weekend, you probably caught a glimpse of Reza Aslan’s now viral interview with Fox News host Laura Green. The segment plays more like an interrogation, as Green begins the interview asking Aslan why he, as a Muslim, would be interested in the life of Jesus, the founder of Christianity. Aslan, who has studied theology for more than 20 years and holds multiple degrees—including a Ph.D in religion—repeatedly references his academic background to Green, but to no avail. The Fox News host continues to badger him with questions about his faith and his motives for writing the book. In the clip, Green appears unable to understand how Aslan could be capable of writing objectively on the subject of Jesus—or be trusted to deliver an account of his life, degrees or no degree.
The interview has inspired outrage and derision across the web. But while the clip has largely rallied public opinion in Aslan’s favor, it gives insight into the ways in which the Right—and to an unfortunately large extent, American popular culture—perceives Muslims. Green can’t comprehend—or refuses to comprehend—how a Muslim person could overcome their Muslim-ness and participate, as an academic, in conversations that are not about Muslims. For Green, for Fox News, and for people like Peter King
and Ray Kelly
, Muslims seem to be one-dimensional stock characters incapable of autonomy or the capacity to reason. Is Green incapable of accepting Reza Aslan as an academic because she is incapable of accepting his humanity?
Green is, after all, only a product of her culture. Let's face it: popular culture has told us, time and time again, that Muslims are only capable of occupying a handful of roles: The Terrorist, The Subjugated Muslim Woman, and The FBI Informant. Tune into the terrorist drama of the week (CSI
and Law & Order
frequently contribute episodes to the genre) and you’ll become familiar with these generic on-screen Muslims. It doesn’t matter whether they’re Pakistani, or Afghani, or Egyptian, or Palestinian—they all speak the same gibberish language, wear the same Muslim-ish garb, and have the same terrorist-brown skin. They feature in any number of films on the same subject, whether playing background roles to Sacha Baron Cohen’s racist Dictator
caricature or making cameos as oppressed, voiceless Muslim women in movies like Sex and the City 2
These uneven media portrayals are more than misrepresentations. They strip Muslims of their agency and their humanity. If Muslims are not slaves to their violent faith, then they are slaves to their sexuality or inherently lascivious nature
. Is it these portrayals that make it so easy for drone operators to shoot down anonymous Muslims in Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan, like video game targets? Is it these depictions that make it so easy to go to war with Muslim-majority countries, with little thought to the devastating aftermath?
Maybe it’s a chicken-or-the-egg question. But consider popular culture’s treatment of Muslims in its fictional narratives and then see how people like Green can completely disregard all other facets of a Muslim man’s identity—all the facets that make him a living, breathing human—and reduce him to a stereotype. In Green’s world, Aslan’s Muslim-ness overwhelms his distinctions as a scholar of religion and as a prominent voice on interfaith relations in this country. Unlike his non-Muslim colleagues, who have written extensively on Islam (pick up any book on the subject at Barnes & Noble and it’s likely the author is non-Muslim), Reza Aslan is not seen as an academic. Instead, he’s seen as someone to be suspected and interrogated, dissected, and exposed. Green—and others—will not let him get away with walking around in the clothes of a mortal human being.