The Reza Aslan interview reveals our collective ignorance

Lauren Green's not the only pundit who assumes that only members of a group can talk about it

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published July 30, 2013 7:58PM (EDT)

Reza Aslan             (
Reza Aslan (

If you didn't know the name Lauren Green until a few days ago, you likely do now. In a display that was embarrassing even by Fox News standards, Green earned herself a special place in a canon of cringe over the weekend when she interviewed author Dr. Reza Aslan about his new book, "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth." "You’re a Muslim," she declared as her opening salvo. "So, why did you write a book about the founding of Christianity?" "Well, to be clear," he replied, "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 happens to be Muslim. It's not just that I'm some Muslim writing about Jesus. I am an expert with a PhD in the history of religions." Green's unblinking response? "It still begs the question, why would you be interested in the founder of Christianity?" Well, sure, you possess four degrees and twenty years of experience and know Biblical Greek, but what else have you got?

It pretty much went on like that for a full ten, awkward minutes. If you boiled down a few seasons of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and crossed it with the entire run of the original British version of "The Office," you would be getting close to something roughly on a par with this interview. At one point she testily told Aslan, "I believe that you've been on several programs and never disclosed that you're a Muslim." Dun dun dun! Aslan, in response, swiftly pointed out that "The second page of my book says I'm a Muslim. Every single interview I have ever done on TV or in print says I'm a Muslim."

In the days since it first aired, the clip has continued to gain steam, attracting a gratifying amount of criticism and conversation. As Aslan later said on "The Majority Report," "It's weird to all of a sudden talk about it, that only practitioners of a faith can talk about that faith. If that were true, there would be a lot fewer books about Islam in America." It's weird, all right. It's also fascinating, in a slow-motion car crash kind of way, watching Aslan compelled to tick off the members of his family who are Christian to prove a point to to Fox News.

You may, upon deeper examination of it, find Aslan's book and the claims within it "explosive," as the Daily Beast calls them. You may even understandably question whether Aslan has accurately represented his academic credentials. But one thing is certain -- it shouldn't take four university degrees to know that you don't have to be the thing to speak about the thing. That's one of the coolest things about education, in fact – that whole understanding and empathy business. And as Media Matters and others have noted, Green herself doesn't seem to have any trouble talking about different faiths, including the "radicalization" and "violence" of Islam -- despite being a Christian herself. Dun dun dun!

Yet while Green's interview has, at least for this week, earned the distinction of "Most Embarrassing Interview Fox News Has Ever Done," her inability to believe that someone would want to explore something outside of his personal experience is far from unique. In fact, it is a perpetually flummoxing puzzle to a whole lot of media pundits, a question bottom-feeders never tire of asking. This past spring, Publishers Weekly's Annasue McCleave Wilson boggled that author Claire Messud had created a character "I wouldn’t want to be friends with." She also asked her, "Would you?" – assuming that every character ought to be similar enough to the novelist to be her friend. Messud, bless her heart, snapped back, "For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that?… If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities." A few weeks later, there was the traditional outbreak of astonishment that heterosexuals can play gay characters – and concern that it's "risky" -- timed to the HBO premiere of "Behind the Candelabra." CNN even helpfully compiled a list of "straight actors who have played gay characters" as if the idea of actors portraying people who are different from themselves was just amazing, even though I'm pretty sure that's the definition of acting. And earlier this year, after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar penned a thoughtful take on Lena Dunham's "Girls," he noted, "Some questioned why a man my age would watch a show about girls in their twenties," and explained that "When I read Moby Dick I first had to convince the bookseller that I was a former whaler named Queequeg. When I read the poetry of Sylvia Plath, I had to pretend I was a depressed white woman with daddy issues." The shocker, he revealed, is that "I do have many interests other than sports."

That Green was rude, unprofessional and flat-out stupid is undeniable. But her ignorance is not unusual. We see it repeatedly when people have the audacity to display proficiency in an area outside of their neatly defined areas of assumed expertise. What made the exchange with Aslan different was that he didn't humbly aw shucks himself around the issue, asking for indulgence as a presumed outsider. Instead, he boldly asserted his authority on his subject matter. He said that we can learn about things beyond our personal borders. He made Green look foolish, but more significantly, he offered a cool retort to every similarly ignorant line of questioning. He proved, in ten uncomfortable minutes, that personal identity is not a job description.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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