Reza Aslan, FOX News, and Islamophobia

In 1944, shortly after the liberation of Paris by Communist-led partisans and Anglo-American-French troops, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote an essay on the hatred that the Nazi occupiers had used to justify their crimes against the French people and all others. The essay, titled “Anti-Semite and Jew,” was widely translated in the 1950s and came to be considered a classic.

Sartre’s most important point was that bigotry is always about the bigot, his or her failures, frustrations, problems, not about the bigot’s target. For that reason one cannot use reason, logic, and the rules of evidence to argue with the bigot and his or her close followers.

To tell them that Judaism is a world religion, not a “race,” that people of the Jewish religion are of many nationalities, are both secular and religious, can be found in all of the major social classes and in parties and movements across the political spectrum, has no meaning. They will say and print the same things over and over.

I thought of Sartre’s “Anti-Semite and Jew” when I heard about the recent FOX News television interview with Reza Aslan, a scholar who has written widely on the relationship of religion to politics in the contemporary world.

I also thought of a discussion I once had with a Frenchman visiting the U.S. who had been in the French resistance during World War II. He hadn’t been in the U.S. for a long time. He told me that he had been listening to right-wing talk radio and the Fox TV gang and they all reminded him of the French Nazi-collaborationist Vichy radio, blaming everything on Communists, Jews, and selected foreigners, using religion to justify war against the Soviet Union and proclaiming a mission to purify France from domestic and foreign enemies.

The targets, my friend said, were different, but if you substituted Muslims for Jews, and made a few other substitutions, it was pretty much the same.

Aslan has written a book titled “Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” (now number 4 on the New York Times bestseller list). Lauren Green, the FOX News anchor, started off her interview by asking why he, a Muslim had written a book a book about Jesus.

She kept on asking that question, over and over. Unfortunately, Aslan became defensive, mentioning his scholarly credentials, his 20 years of writing and teaching about religion, contending that he was not anti-Christian. Green kept on quoting right-wing sources attacking his view of Jesus without any explanation even of those sources, except that they were “Christian scholars” and thus supposedly more knowledgeable than Aslan.

When Green finally gave him a chance to speak, Aslan impressed me by his portrayal of Jesus as a political revolutionary in the context of his times. But Green kept ignoring him, as if she were some kind of Inquisitor.

At one point, she even accused him of not admitting in the work that he was a Muslim, even though it was in his book. It pretty much ended there, with Aslan contending that he was a scholar of religion and that his Muslim faith, which he never hid, did not disqualify him from studying Christianity any more than a Christian should be disqualified from studying Islam.

I felt sorry for Aslan although some might say that anyone who goes on FOX News should expect such treatment.

If I were him, I would have told those viewers with the capacity to listen that Islam is a monotheistic religion that developed over 1,300 years ago out of a relationship with both Judaism and Christianity; it is the third in chronology of the world’s monotheistic religions. Just as Christianity, the second, incorporated Judaism and Judaism ignored Christianity, so Islam incorporated Judaism and Christianity while both ignored Islam.

But that would be the end of my use of reason.

I then would have told the audience to look at Green’s Murdoch FOX employers, for whom right-wing politics and its associated religious and ethnic prejudices are a kind of racket, as it was for the old Hearst press in the U.S.

Islam is a world religion with more than a billion adherents among many nationalities through the world. It has many schools of thought who differ on questions of the relationship of religion and politics, the responsibilities of believers, etc.

Saying that to FOX News, though, would be like saying similar things about Judaism and Jewish people to the Vichy government or the Nazis in Sartre’s pre-liberation France.

Fortunately, FOX News doesn’t have the power to send its opponents to concentration camps, or even blacklist them from employment as its predecessors did in the U.S. during McCarthyism, if they refuse to say, “I am not now nor have I ever been a Muslim.”

For the rest of us, though, it is FOX News, not scholars like Aslan, who threaten free thought everywhere.



Norman Markowitz
Norman Markowitz

Norman Markowitz is a Professor of History. He writes and teaches from a Marxist perspective, and has written many articles on a variety of topics, including biographical entries on Jimmy Hoffa, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the civil rights movement, 1930-1953, and poor peoples movements in U.S. history.