Outrage over Muslim author Reza Aslan's biography on Jesus, 'Zealot', shifts Islamophobia debate

The scholar on religion who turned the tables on a conservative talk show last week wants to promote understanding between faiths. Taimur Khan reports from New York

Iranian-American writer Reza Aslan at the Jaipur Literature Festival in Jaipur, India.
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NEW YORK // "You're a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?"

Lauren Green, the Fox News interviewer, plainly thought she had cornered Reza Aslan, the author of a provocative new biography of Jesus.

But Mr Aslan more than wriggled free of the suggestion that as a Muslim, he had no right to pen a biography of Jesus. With an intelligence honed by years of scholarship and academic achievement, he turned the tables on his questioner, sparking a wide public debate in the United States about Islamophobia and the role of religion.

"Well, to be clear," Mr Aslan answered, speaking slowly for effect. "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."

Since it aired on July 26, Ms Green's online interview with Mr Aslan has been watched by millions of people, earning an unanticipated publicity bonanza for the author and propelling his already popular book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth to the top of bestseller lists. Within a week the book was Amazon's No 1 seller, and it debuted at No 4 on the New York Times best-seller list on Sunday.

More importantly, the interview with Fox News, a mouthpiece for conservative and right-wing views in the US, moved the discussion about Islamophobia beyond its usual liberal confines, Mr Aslan said.

"It's not even about me anymore, it's not about Fox News anymore," Mr Aslan, 41, said. "Any scholar who is able to launch a much-needed public discussion on these heady topics has to feel good about it."

The Iran-born scholar, who teaches both religious studies and creative writing at the University of California-Riverside, until now was best known for his 2005 book on the history and evolution of Islam, No God But God. He became a well-known commentator on Islam, regularly appearing in liberal media outlets such as The Daily Show.

Over the two weeks since his Fox News interview, Mr Aslan has broken through, at least for now, to a much larger and more politically diverse American audience.

"I've gotten a lot of emails from Fox viewers who said it was outrageous, that the interview was an embarrassment to them," Mr Aslan said.

He is not used to the words of support from those on the right, and has long been the target of what he calls the "anti-Muslim fringe". A well-funded and vocal movement in the US, its supporters have pushed for anti-Sharia laws in state legislatures and mobilised to attack attempts to portray Muslims as anything but violent fanatics.

Mr Aslan said the roots of these groups lie in the "identity crisis that's taking place in the US as a result of political and economic uncertainty".

"I feel proud that these rabid Islamophobes have focused on me and my work," he said. "It must mean that I'm doing something right."

His latest book, Zealot, is an attempt at a biography of the historical Jesus, not the divine Christ of the Christian religion, an idea Mr Aslan argues Jesus himself would not have understood.

The book sets out to portray the man as a revolutionary Jewish nationalist who sought to end Roman rule in Palestine on behalf of the poor and marginalised, not a messiah who preached peace and finding his kingdom in heaven.

This historical examination, which clashes with Christian beliefs, is at the heart of fundamentalist Christian anger over the book, represented in the clumsy Fox News interview. But for the most part, the response from Christians, even if they disagree with aspects of the book, has been "overwhelmingly" positive, Mr Aslan said.

The author was born in Iran but move as a child with his family to the US after the Islamic revolution in 1979. His parents were Muslim but not religious, and when he was 15, Mr Aslan said that he was "blown away" by the Gospels of Jesus and he converted to evangelical Christianity.

In college he found the contradictions between his spiritual beliefs and study of Christianity too difficult to reconcile, and he eventually converted back to Islam. He now considers himself to be a Muslim who practices in the Sufi tradition.

Despite his change of faith, Mr Aslan was still fascinated and inspired by Jesus, whom Muslims view as a prophet. He began working on the biography more than ten years ago.

"I've been interested in him when I was a Christian and I thought he was God, and I've been interested in him when I thought he was just a man," Mr Aslan said. "I really wanted to express my admiration for this person and try to get across this very important notion that you can be a follower of Jesus without necessarily thinking he is a god."

In that sense, Zealot is part of Mr Aslan's larger intellectual and political project of creating understanding between people of different faiths, whether on the basis of shared history and beliefs, or perhaps more importantly, in finding value and meaning in differences.

With the help of Fox News, interest in Zealot is surging. The book's publisher, Random House, ordered 50,000 more copies last week, with 150,000 copies now in print.

His Islamophobic detractors may soon have reason to become even more dismayed.

"Yes, absolutely, I think it's time for a new film on Jesus, for a more historically accurate look at who this person was," Mr Aslan said.

When asked if he had any cinematic plans for Zealot, he laughed. "That, I can't really talk about."

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