reza aslan

Getting the Narrative (Robert) Wright: On Islam and the West

I’ve been trying to pinpoint what bothers me so much about Robert Wright’s new article in the New Yorker. I think it’s this: I respect Wright as a writer and thinker, and therefore, when he comments on the relationship between Islam and terrorism, I’m always mildly hoping to have my mind changed about one or another aspect on this issue–but it never is.

In, “The Clash of Civilizations That Isn’t“, Wright warns of the dangers of walking straight into a self-fulfilling prophecy—that is, by engaging in too much exaggerated rhetoric about the fundamental struggles between traditional Islam and Western values, we risk deepening fault lines and creating a true clash of civilizations that could lead to more violence and/or to us freaking out again (e.g. the Iraq invasion) and making things much, much worse. Who are the spreaders of said narrative? There are the obvious Fox News crazies and right-wing war hawks, but Wright is more concerned with traditionally left-of-center and credible outlets, going after, in particular, Roger Cohen’s “Islam and the West at War” op-ed in the NY Times, and Graeme Wood’s popular piece, “What ISIS Really Wants” in the Atlantic.

The immediate objection to get out of the way is Wright’s conflation of Cohen and Wood’s two different arguments. They are not, if you read them, saying the same thing or engaging in the same narrative. Cohen’s piece is more expansive, using blanket terms like the “Muslim world” and suggesting that the combined jihadist movement is a result of Islam the religion, politicized or otherwise. On the whole, Cohen’s piece is not as wrong-headed as Wright tries to make it sound—the broadness of its title is the most controversial part. If Wright had stuck to Cohen’s article, I wouldn’t have been so off-put, but he had to drag in Graeme Wood’s piece, which I think should be largely exempt from Wright’s criticisms.

Wood’s article is not a narrative about Islam and the West. It is not an op-ed. It is researched journalism that confines itself rather painstakingly to ISIS’s interpretation of Islam. It is not expansive, it does not pontificate on Islam itself, or Islam as a whole, or the Muslim world. It does not say the West is at war with Islam. It is about ISIS and their interpretation of Islam. The article is clear that this interpretation is exotic, an aberration even among jihadist groups (the most interesting part, for me, was seeing how wide a gap there is between ISIS’ ideology compared to, say, Al Qaeda’s), and an interpretation criticized by the majority of Muslims. One must exert much effort to misconstrue Wood or even Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel as arguing that ISIS’ interpretation represents “true Islam” (though true masters of misinterpretation can do it). So what is Wright objecting to then? That ISIS is motivated by religion? Is that controversial? Wright seems to think so:

But what did Wood mean by saying that ISIS is ‘very Islamic’?

He rested this claim about the deeply Islamic character of ISIS largely on the views of a single scholar, Bernard Haykel, of Princeton. Haykel’s main point seems to have been that ISIS isn’t just making up an ideology and grafting it onto Islamic beliefs. ISIS draws (if selectively) on the Koran and later Islamic texts; indeed, if you went back far enough in time, you would find its views more widely accepted by Muslims and Muslim scholars than has been the case in recent centuries.

First, this “single scholar” business. Does one need a scholar at all to tell you this? ISIS itself tells us, again and again via a social media infrastructure rivaling Silicon Valley start-ups, that its primary motivation is Islam (rather obviously an uncommon, “ahistoric” version of Islam, though Wright complains that this qualification was left out of Wood’s article).  ISIS explains, intricately, carefully, gleefully, that it’s doing what it’s doing because of deeply held, absolutist religious beliefs. To quote the Almighty Will Ferrell, I feel like I’m taking crazy pills when this is denied or questioned. I can entertain the argument that some jihadist groups might be exaggerating their devotion to Islam, using it predominantly as a tool without actually being all that devout—but ISIS? Have you watched, listened, or read a single thing about ISIS if you’re making that claim?

Yes, there is always a risk that, bolstered by an over-simplified narrative, the West will engage in more foolish military undertakings in the “Muslim world”—will freak out, will do something stupid, and more people will die. But the answer is not to shut down the narrative, the answer is to get the narrative right.

We are not at war with Islam, though there are clear, tangible divides between the values of traditional Islam and the values of the West (that’s why the over-simplified narrative exists in the first place). Just today, a poll was released showing that “24% of British Muslims say violence against cartoonists who draw Muhammad is justifiable“. (Incidentally, when Wright argues  that the most effective tactic against extremism would be to stop U.S. policies like drone strikes that promote radicalization, I wonder what he suggests cartoonists should do?). Rather, we are at war, as reformer Maajid Nawaz would say, with Islamism—or, the desire to impose Islam, any version, on others. That is the correct narrative. That is the prophecy which has already been fulfilled. And that is the ideology we have to understand, not ignore, if we want to successfully combat extremism.


Just so everyone understands that I do really like Wright, just disagree with him on this topic, I want to plug one of his books: if you like science, particularly evolutionary psychology, you will love The Moral Animal. I was sad to finish it.

Check the original source! How so many writers got the facts wrong after the Maher vs. Affleck Islam debate

Today I’m excited to share a guest post by someone who has been instrumental in correcting several statistical errors in popular media reports regarding Pew’s 2013 report: The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics, and Society. We’ll call this person Fred, and he’s currently the author of a new blog, Empethop.

Fred’s post below shows how one survey response from the report in particular—the percentage of Egyptian Muslims favoring death for apostasy—was widely misinterpreted and incorrectly cited by numerous writers in the wake of the controversial debate between Bill Maher, Sam Harris, and Ben Affleck on an October 2014 episode of Real Time.

I was one such author who lazily reported that Maher’s claim that “like 90%” of Egyptian Muslims favored death for apostasy was wrong, and that the actual figure was 64%. My source was Max Fisher’s 2013 article in the Washington Post. Fred, a reader of this site, brought it to my attention that Fisher had been wrong, and that the source Pew report cites 88%, not 64%. Fred’s efforts eventually led to the correction that you currently see in the Washington Post article.

The 64% figure, however, is still widely cited. I hope Fred’s article below helps explain why the error was made, how it spread, and why it’s so important to always check the original source. The version below is abridged, but you can read the full article at Fred’s blog (the unabridged version contains a much more thorough discussion of the statistics from the Pew report).

Most importantly, I want to thank Fred for his vigilance in pursuit of accuracy. Enjoy…

A Fact-Check of Bill Maher and His Critics: A Closer Look at Pew’s (2013) Survey Report

By Fred, via Empethop

January 2015

            In an episode of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, October 3, 2014, Maher and his guests engaged in a heated argument about the extent of fundamentalist beliefs among Muslims and the contention that many liberals are unwilling to criticize those beliefs. In the subsequent controversy, some journalists and other writers took up the important task of fact-checking the claims made in that now famous debate. One of the most often attempted corrections deals with Maher’s claim that a Pew study showed “like 90%” of Egyptian Muslims support death as a punishment for leaving Islam. Many who try to correct him allege that the correct Pew figure is 64%. This article fact-checks those claims and a few related ones by looking to the original Pew source documents, researchers, and data. I’ve documented this fact check in detail here.

The Pew Research Center survey report most often cited in this controversy is titled The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics, and Society (April 30, 2013). In the Complete Report (April 30, 2013) and in the Topline Questionnaire, in a table on page 219 are shown the percentages of Muslims in each country listed, with each kind of response to Q92b, “Do you favor or oppose the following: the death penalty for people who leave the Muslim religion.” The table on p. 219 shows that 88% of Egyptian Muslims favored the death penalty for apostasy, 10% opposed it, and 1% didn’t know or else refused to answer. The table shows a wide range in support for the punishment, from about 1% in Kazakhstan to 88% in Egypt, with support in most countries below 50%. Note: I will be referring to the Complete Report throughout this article, so readers should keep it available for viewing.

Pew also published a brief article by Sahgal and Grim (July 2, 2013), highlighting some of the extreme restrictions on religion in Egypt. They wrote (parentheses are theirs): “Egyptian Muslims also back criminalizing apostasy, or leaving Islam for another religion. An overwhelming majority of Egyptian Muslims (88%), say converting away from Islam should be punishable by death.” A Pew study in 2010 found that 84% of Egyptian Muslims supported death for apostasy.

To provide verification that the data summaries on p. 219 are of the general samples of Muslims, I contacted the primary researcher of this (2013) study, who confirmed that 88% of Egyptian Muslims favored the death penalty for apostasy, and that the apostasy question was asked of all Muslims surveyed in the countries on p. 219. (Some contact information was removed at Dr. Bell’s request).

Pew Bell email larger

Pew made available to the public (June 4, 2014) the Data Set from which the percentages shown in the 2013 Complete Report were produced. Using freely-available statistical software, I’ve produced tables that will help clarify some issues about the numbers. In Table 3a, below, I show a cross-tabulation summarizing the percentages of the total, of Q79a (rows) by Q92b (columns) for Egyptian Muslims. (Following Pew’s instructions, I added the weight variable in the calculations). Q79a asked respondents whether they favored or opposed making sharia law the official law of the land in their country (see pp. 46 and 201, Complete Report). 74% supported sharia, and 86% of those who supported sharia favored the death penalty for apostasy (p. 55, Complete Report). Readers can compare the totals of the rows and columns in Table 3a with the rounded numbers for Egypt on pages 201 and 219, respectively, of the Complete Report to find that they do match up. Note that the “don’t know” and “refused” responses are merged in Pew’s report, but are separate in Pew’s data file.

PewWP Table3a png

In Egypt, less than 1% (.86%) overall opposed both official sharia and death for apostasy, while about 64% (63.80%) of Egyptian Muslims overall favored both. Note that the percentage for that latter response combination should not be confused with the percentage of Egyptian Muslims overall who favored the death penalty for apostasy (88.46%). Unfortunately, that confusion was made in a widely-cited secondary source.

A Major Source of the Error

            That influential secondary source was a Washington Post article by Max Fisher (May 1, 2013) originally titled “64 percent of Muslims in Egypt and Pakistan support the death penalty for leaving Islam.”  In the original uncorrected version (May 1, 2013), Fisher wrote:

“Although Pew [April 30, 2013] does not provide direct statistics for the share of Muslim respondents who support executing Muslims who convert to another religion, it does indicate the share of Muslims who support sharia and the share of these pro-sharia Muslims who back this policy. I’ve used this to extrapolate the data charted at the top of this page…”

By his own account, Fisher acted on the beliefs that Pew didn’t provide the statistics for the overall samples, and that he could extrapolate them from the limited information that he did have. Apparently, he overlooked or didn’t read adequately the report materials, available from the opening page, which do provide the statistics for the overall samples. For each country that he included in his calculations, he apparently multiplied the proportion supporting sharia (e.g., for Egypt, .74) by the proportion of sharia-supporters favoring death for apostasy (.86 for Egypt) to get what he described as the percentage of Muslims who supported the death penalty for apostasy (for Egypt, about 64%, or 63.64% based on multiplying the rounded numbers). As can be seen from the cross-tabulation of the data for Egypt in Table 3a, he obtained (a rough estimate of) the percentage of Egyptian Muslims who favored both official sharia and death for apostasy, not the overall percentage who favored death for apostasy.

Fisher presented his numbers for most of the countries in a red bar plot erroneously titled “Share of Muslims who support the death penalty for leaving Islam.” In the text of the original article, he referred to his numbers as “Pew’s data”:

“According to Pew’s data, 78 percent of Afghan Muslims say they support laws condemning to death anyone who gives up Islam. In both Egypt and Pakistan, 64 percent report holding this view. This is also the majority view among Muslims in Malaysia, Jordan and the Palestinian territories.”

On p. 219 of Pew’s (2013) Complete Report, the table shows that 79% of Muslims in Afghanistan and 75% of Muslims in Pakistan favored death for apostasy.

On October 15 (2014), I emailed the Washington Post, notifying them of the erroneous apostasy numbers in Fisher’s May 1, 2013 article (and in another article by him, dated May 2, 2013), providing them with a link to the Complete Report, and citing page 219. On about October 28 or 29, they made a partial correction to Fisher’s May 1, 2013 article, changing the title and stating in the text that 88% of Egyptian Muslims favored the death penalty for apostasy. However, the corrected article contained other errors, including a new error stating that 62% of Pakistani Muslims favored the death penalty for apostasy. (For a summary of my attempts to get various sources to correct their numbers, see Appendix III in my detailed article).

Some sources reported Pew’s (2013) apostasy numbers correctly. I haven’t done a thorough search, but here is a brief, casual, non-scientific sample of people who got the apostasy numbers right: Eugene Volokh (May 2, 2013); Andrew Bostom (May 4, 2013); Shadi Hamid (2014); and Nicholas Kristof (October 8, 2014).

Many people from multiple sides of the debate over Maher’s comments made or relayed the 64% error, and many cited Fisher’s (May 1, 2013) Washington Post article as though it were a valid presentation of the Pew (April 30, 2013) results [see Appendix IV in my detailed article]. Many writers went further, relying on Fisher’s article in attempting to correct Maher’s “90%” claim [see Appendix IV in my detailed article]. Here is a typical attempt, in this case by Dean Obeidallah at CNN Opinion (October 7, 2014):

“Maher then cited a Pew Research poll that he claimed found that 90% of Egyptians supported the death penalty for those who left Islam. I’m not sure where Maher got his numbers, but a 2013 Pew poll actually found only 64% of Egyptians supported this — still alarmingly high, but not 90%…”

He mentions the Pew (2013) study but links to the May 1, 2013 Washington Post article.  Obeidallah’s article remains uncorrected (as of February 8, 2015), though he apparently ignored a correspondent’s attempt to correct him on twitter on October 9th and 17th, 2014.

Aslan Spreads the Error, Adds More Errors

            In the debate in the weeks following Maher’s comments, Reza Aslan appeared often in the popular media. In an interview on “All In with Chris Hayes” (October 13, 2014), Aslan apparently accepted the same false assumption used in the original Fisher (May 1, 2013) article, as shown in the exchange below on MSNBC (The relevant part of the video clip begins at about 2:50):

Chris Hayes: I want to cite this poll that Bill Maher and Sam Harris, who is an atheist author who was on Bill Maher, who sort of have, have built a lot of this around. This is a Pew Research poll. I think it was conducted in 2013 of different views. This is views of Egyptian Muslims: 74% of Egyptian Muslims say sharia should be official law—that is, of course, sort of Qur’anically-derived religious law—and 86% of those say that there should be a death penalty for converts, for people who leave Islam. Now, that’s about 60% of folks when you multiply those two—64% that—when you multiply those two together. Now, that’s a troubling polling result, I think both you and I would agree, right?

Reza Aslan: The second number is a troubling poll result. The first one, you have to understand that those very same, that very same poll showed that of that 70-something percent, there was a massive diversity of views of what they even meant by sharia. We’re talking about marriage and divorce laws, and inheritance laws, as well as penal laws. But you’re right. 64% wanting the death penalty for, for converts out of Islam is incredibly frightening, until you read the rest of the poll wherein 75% of Egyptians also wanted religious freedom. If that sounds like a contradiction, it is, because religion and religious-lived experience is full of contradictions. So, 64% wanting the death penalty, that’s scary. But, of course, in neighboring Tunisia, it’s about 12%. In, let’s say Lebanon, it’s 1 in 6. In Turkey, it’s 5%.”

Hayes’ multiplying of the two percentages to get 64% is consistent with Fisher’s extrapolation; Pew didn’t do that in their report. Aslan strongly implies, to the naïve viewer, that he’s read from the same Pew (April 30, 2013) report, particularly when he says “that very same poll showed that…” and “until you read the rest of the poll, wherein…” In addition to Aslan’s 64% error for Egypt, page 219 of the Complete Report shows that his 12% for Tunisia and 5% for Turkey are incorrect; Pew’s figures are 18% and 8%, respectively. His errors for Tunisia and Turkey are not large. What’s more significant about them—together with his 64% error which is quite large—is that they suggest that he is unaware of p. 219 of the Complete Report (or Topline Questionnaire). (I deal with his claim of “75%” support for “religious freedom” in the next section, below)

Aslan’s approximation for Lebanon, phrased as “one in six,” happens to be consistent with the 17% on p. 219 of the Complete Report, though “one-in-six” is not uniquely linked to 17%. In a later interview with Hartmann, discussed below, Aslan describes the figure for Lebanon incorrectly as “10 or 9%,” which supports the idea that he hadn’t read p. 219.

Aslan also spread the 64% error via Twitter: “64% of Egyptians favor death for apostasy. 75% of Egyptians favor full religious freedoms. That contradiction sums up how religion is LIVED.” (October 13, 2014).  When the author of Uncertainty Blog challenged Aslan’s 64% figure, Aslan tried to correct him, replying “@uncertaintyblog nope. 64%,” and adding a link to the original Fisher (May 1, 2013) Washington Post article. Aslan had also spread the error via AslanMedia (Facebook, October 11, 2014), citing another Washington Post article that, at that time, contained an erroneous presentation of Pew’s (2013) apostasy and adultery numbers.

Aslan revisited the apostasy numbers in an interview with host Thom Hartmann (October 20, 2014) on the program “Conversations With Great Minds,” shown on Russia Today (RT). The relevant section in Part 1, below, starts at about 3:00 into the linked video [my brackets]:

Hartmann: “When people like Sam Harris [and Bill Maher], for example, attack Islam, they often point to last year’s Pew study of the Islamic world. From the Western point of view, that study showed some pretty shocking stuff, like how 86% of Egyptians, and 76% of Pakistanis, support the death penalty for [struggles with the word] apostasy—am I, I always mangle that word but—”

Aslan: “For apostasy, yeah.”

Hartmann: “Apostasy. Thank you. How should we interpret this study and others like it?”

Aslan: “Well, first of all, those numbers are incorrect. It’s actually 64% of Egyptians who support the death penalty for apostasy, which is outrageously high. But it’s also not very instructive, either about Egypt or about the larger Muslim world. For instance, in neighboring Tunisia, the number is like 11%. In Lebanon, it’s about 10 or 9%, I believe. In Turkey I th—  it’s less than 5%. So what some Egyptians believe is not instructive of the larger Muslim world. But it’s even more complicated than that, because the exact same poll that showed that 64% of Egyptians favored the death penalty for apostasy from Islam, also indicated that 75% of Egyptians want full religious freedoms for all Egyptians in the country. And if that sounds like a contradiction, that’s because it is a contradiction.”

Hartmann evidently didn’t have the appropriate data prepared, and did not question Aslan about his numbers. Aslan conveys firm confidence about the numbers, matter-of-factly “correcting” Hartmann with the 64% figure, and talking about the complication of the religious freedom result that appears to contradict the apostasy result. Again, he gives the impression, to the naïve viewer, of someone who has read the Pew survey. Note the downward migration of Aslan’s numbers for Tunisia and Lebanon, and the change in phrasing for Turkey, since his interview with Chris Hayes. I’ve summarized in Table 4 the relevant Pew (April 30, 2013) and Washington Post (May 1, 2013) numbers for comparison with the various numbers Aslan mentioned in the two interviews.

Pew WP Table4 png

Do 75% of Egyptian Muslims Support Religious Freedom?

            In his Washington Post (May 1, 2013) article, Fisher wrote:

“…majorities of Muslims in the countries surveyed, sometimes vast majorities, said they support religious freedom. That includes, for example, more than 75 percent of Egyptians and more than 95 percent of Pakistanis. It might seem like a glaring contradiction. And it is a contradiction…”

Like the 64% figure for the apostasy question, the figure of 75% (or the phrase “more than 75%”) support among Egyptian Muslims overall for religious freedom is not mentioned in the Pew (2013) report. Note that Aslan’s talking points from the Hayes and Hartmann interviews about the 64% apostasy figure and the 75% figure for religious freedom that “sounds like a contradiction…is a contradiction…” seem to come from Fisher’s article.

For its measure of Muslims’ support for the religious freedom of non-Muslims, Pew uses responses from two questions, Q10 and Q11, where the latter is a follow-up to the former. Here are the questions:

Q10: “And in our country, how free are people from religions different than yours to practice their religion? Are they very free to practice their religion, somewhat free, not too free, or not at all free to practice their religion?”

Q11: “…And is this a good thing or a bad thing?”

If a respondent answered “very free” to Q10, and said that that was “a good thing” in response to Q11, Pew deemed that pair of responses to indicate support for the religious freedom of non-Muslims. On pp. 63 and 172 (Complete Report), Pew shows data for Muslims who said, in response to Q10, that non-Muslims were “very free” to practice their (non-Muslim) faith in their country (e.g., Egypt). That subset is 31% of Egyptian Muslims overall, as Pew indicates on pages 62, 63, and 172 of the Complete Report. Of that 31% of Egyptian Muslims, 77% said that non-Muslims being very free to practice their faith was a “good thing” (p. 63). 77% of the 31% subset is 24% of Egyptian Muslims overall. The table for Q11 on p. 173 shows that 24% of Egyptian Muslims overall said non-Muslims were very free and that that was a good thing. (I summarize those results for Egypt in cross-tabulated format in Table 5, below). In other words, applying Pew’s own measure of Muslims’ support for the religious freedom of non-Muslims, we find that only 24% of Egyptian Muslims overall support it. Fisher appears to have taken the 77% of the subset as “more than 75 percent” of Egyptian Muslims overall. His “95 percent” claim for Pakistan also involves the same kind of error. Aslan reported the same error as did Fisher for Egypt, possibly due to having misread or not having read the original report, or due to having relied on Fisher’s article.

Pew WP Table5 png


            According to Pew (April 30, 2013), 88% of Egyptian Muslims support the death penalty for people who leave Islam (p. 219, Complete Report). That happens to be close to what Maher claimed. His critics who claimed that the Pew figure in question was 64% were in many cases relying on an erroneous secondary source from the popular media instead of reading the original Pew source with due diligence. Those who claimed that 75% (or more) of Egyptian Muslims supported religious freedom seem to have not read (or to have misread) the Pew (2013) report, which indicates that 24% of Egyptian Muslims overall supported “religious freedom” for non-Muslims (p. 173, Complete Report). This article highlights the perils of relying too heavily on secondary sources, and the need for due diligence in evaluating claims.

 Read the full article here.


Bart Ehrman comments on Zealot and Reza Aslan

After getting several email inquiries about Reza Aslan’s new book Zealot, biblical scholar Bart Ehrman has commented on the subject via his blog. You can’t read the full post unless you are a subscriber, but I with a few bullet points below. Finally, if you have any interest in biblical studies at all, consider becoming a member of Ehrman’s site, as his commentary is always interesting, the subscriber rate is minimal, and all the proceeds go to charity.

About Zealot, Ehrman notes that:

  • He hasn’t read it yet. The publisher sent him a copy before it was anywhere near a hit book, but Ehrman notes he’s generally swamped with reading scholarship and doesn’t have much time for books written for non-experts.
  • Because it has become such a hit, he has added it to the syllabus for his upcoming class at UNC, “Jesus in Scholarship and Film”.
  • His answer, in short, to the question of “is Reza Aslan a recognized scholar of early Christianity?”, is no.
  • Two other books he often has students read for the “Jesus in Scholarship and Film class” are Elain Pagel’s The Gnostic Gospels (which I’ve read, and it’s terrific) and John Dominic Crossan’s Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (which I have not read but am planning to).

You can dig into these answers quite a bit more by visiting the actual site, so if you’re at all interested I would go here now. I would also suggest, as I have before, checking out some of Ehrman’s own trade books like Jesus Interrupted and Misquoting Jesus.

Reza Aslan calls Dawkins a “fool” and a “buffoon” … and you’re probably wondering who Reza Aslan is …

Reza Aslan, my friends, is the author of a few books on religious history, including his most recent, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, now a bestseller on Amazon. He’s been catapulted to what may or may not be brief fame for Zealot’s pretty sophisticated PR campaign, helped inadvertently by this dastardly interview on Fox News, where commentator Lauren Green attacked his credibility to pen a historical work on Jesus because, of all things, he’s a Muslim.

Aslan correctly pointed out to Green that one’s personal religious beliefs do not disqualify someone from writing a work of historical scholarship, and that he has several advanced degrees, including a Ph.D. in sociology with a concentration in religion (even though he refers to it somewhat slyly as a doctorate in the “history of religion” which actually doesn’t exist at the university where he studied), making him well-qualified to write such a book. I defended Aslan in a previous post here, prompted by the unconscionable campaign of defensive Christians to review-bomb Zealot on Amazon, even though they had clearly not read a single page of the book.  I’ve now read Zealot, and it was fine, though, exactly as I suspected, it’s mostly a popularization of other peoples’ work, namely Schweitzer and Meijer. Aslan is much more of a writer than a historian or scholar (his current professorship is in Creative Writing, not any type of history or religious studies, for instance), and he doesn’t put forward any new ideas. In fact, he rather bizarrely treats many events in the Gospels as historically reliable in order to complete his narrative, even though that’s far from the modern consensus (see critical review of Zealot’s scholarship here). All in all though, Zealot is a fun read – he does a good job of summarizing the historical events leading up to the time of Jesus, including the complexity of Jewish culture, and has a very interesting section on the theological divisions between Paul and James, and why Paul’s view ultimately won out (which differs greatly from that of the historical Jesus…at least as best as we can tell, which we can’t very well).

But I won’t be defending Aslan anymore. Reacting to a controversial tweet from Richard Dawkins the other week (see post here), Aslan goes on to call him a “fool” on twitter and then a “buffoon” in a recent interview . This baffles me, particularly when one compares the professional accomplishments of one to the other (go ahead, just google it). Even Dawkins’ critics, and my goodness he has many, aren’t so silly as to say he’s not an intelligent person. If there’s anything Dawkins is not, it’s a fool. But I suppose when you’re just a lowly creative writing professor enjoying his first bestseller, there’s no better way to get attention than to attack the man just voted the world’s top thinker.

As Washington Post columnist Manuel Roig-Franzia notes in this fairly critical piece on Aslan, he’s a bit over-eager to be taken seriously as a scholar, often exaggerating his credentials (see Fox News article above, and note his slightly pompous self-assertion that he’s “actually quite a prominent Muslim thinker in the United States”) and academic expertise.

Hm, I’ve never seen Dawkins exaggerate his credentials. I wonder if it’s because he doesn’t need to?

Evangelical Christians Launch Smear Campaign Against Reza Aslan’s “Zealot”

There’s a new book out causing quite a stir in the Christian community – Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. I haven’t read it, but from what I’ve gathered listening to interviews (the book has gotten lots of media attention) it covers pretty familiar stuff if you follow biblical scholarship or textual criticism at all (which is not that many people, hence the media stir).

The main argument of the book is to redefine Jesus not as God or someone who thought he was God, but as (one of several) apocalyptic Jews. That is, Jesus was an influential Jewish teacher who taught that the Kingdom of God was coming within his lifetime (aka the apocalypse) and was executed by the Romans for sedition. Later followers of Jesus then created the mythology that became our modern understanding of Christianity.

Again, I want to emphasize that none of this is really new – the idea of Jesus as an apocalyptic preacher has been discussed and debated among mainline scholars  for many decades. See contemporary works by Bart Ehrman, E.P. Sanders, John Meier, Paula Fredriksen, or Dale Allison if you are interested in learning more.

Since I haven’t read the book, I can’t comment on its arguments directly, but what I can comment on is the smear campaign by a small group of conservative Christians to discredit Aslan’s credibility as a scholar. The most sickening part of this is that the reasons they are giving focus on Aslan’s identification as a Muslim – as in, because he’s a Muslim, he can’t be trusted to write responsibly about Jesus. The effort to discredit seems to have come from this Fox News blog by John Dickerson. Members of the smear campaign have completely commandeered the Amazon review section of Zealot – giving the book 1-star reviews and posting such insightful comments as:

The author of this fiction is a confirmed Muslim and not an Historian and is clearly presenting biased opinions. This author clearly has an agenda to present. An agenda that if changed to an analysis of Mohammad would earn a Fatwa.

If you go to the review page, it’s quite sad. The 1-star reviews are almost exclusively by people who obviously haven’t read the book, and many are just copying and pasting pieces of Dickerson’s Fox News blog. The highly rated reviews are also often by Christians, but more reasonable ones who attest to the books merit as a work of history and make a point to say that it did not damage their faith and in fact helped them better understand Jesus and the times he lived in.

The problems with the smear campaign are pretty obvious. First of all, Aslan is rather well qualified to write about the historical Jesus (though he’s not as seasoned as either Ehrman or Borg). He earned a masters of theology from Harvard Divinity School and a doctorate in the sociology of religions from UC – Santa Barbara. He’s also written several popular books about the history of religion. Second of all, ideas should be judged on merit alone, not on the religious persuasions of their author. Saying Aslan can’t be trusted to write about Christianity because he’s Muslim is like saying an American who studies Middle Eastern history shouldn’t be allowed to write a book about the Middle East. Is a Jewish scholar allowed to write about Jesus? Or an agnostic? Or a catholic (if you happen to be protestant)? Should we only read books that already agree with our points of view? If Aslan’s scholarship is sloppy, that should be easy enough to point out with a few clear examples. But instead of doing that, this group of Christians has stormed Amazon before even reading the book, and begun spouting off that he’s a “devout Muslim” and his book is full of lies. Finally, Aslan, from what I can tell via interviews and debates like this, is a rather liberal practitioner of Islam, in that he seems to suggest the different views (Islam, Christianity, etc) are just unique ways of getting to the same thing – the same water from different wells that is. He’s far from a fundamentalist (which I think they are using “devout” as a euphemism for) and doesn’t seem at all interested in converting anyone to his particular beliefs.

I have not been a major fan of Aslan’s writings or the views he’s expressed in public forums or debates – and we couldn’t have more different views of the divine – but he needs to be defended. The only thing to judge is the idea, not the person. A faith that can be destroyed by reading different perspectives is not a faith worth having, and trying to dissuade people from information by misinformation is ignoble at best.

So if you want to write a review about Zealot, by all means, do so – but please consider reading it first.