Like me, you may have watched in horror as Fox news anchor Lauren Green interviewed Reza Aslan about his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. The interview however, turned out to have little to do with the book. I want to focus on the implicit (and sometimes outright explicit) assumptions behind the line of questioning in that interview.
Green’s first question for Aslan was: “You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” Aslan, maintaining his composure even in the face of this tells her: “Well, to be clear, 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.” But this is not good enough for Green and she persists with the same question throughout the interview, even after Aslan explains to her that he is an academic and that “it is [his] job as an academic ... and that is what [he does] for a living, actually.”
The interview is awful to watch, especially when Green, exasperated at not being able to get Aslan to agree that he has no right to write a book on Jesus, accuses him of not “disclosing” that he is a Muslim (almost like it’s a pre-existing condition that must be revealed). Of course, it is not a secret that he is a Muslim (as he tells her, it’s right there on the second page of the book!). But the fact that Green feels that 1) Aslan should not write about Jesus and 2) that everything Aslan writes must be understood as the writings of a biased Muslim, are what I want to explore here.
This interview raises the larger questions of authority and bias in scholarship: Who gets to study what/or whom? And can we expect their scholarship to be unbiased, scientific, and scholarly? These questions, though encapsulated perfectly in this interview, have significance beyond the interaction between Green and Aslan. These are questions that minorities in academia have dealt with and continue to deal with in various forms.
Let’s first look at the question of who gets to study (or teach) about what. Clearly, given that academia in this country has been mostly white and male up until recently, it seems that being white, Western, and male “naturally” confers upon you the ability to research, write, and teach about anything, any person, any group, and any place in the world. You want to study India? Sure! Tanzania? Yes! Papua New Guinea? Go for it! Inherent in this assumption of a “natural right” is the idea that nothing is off-limits to the white Western (and mostly male) intellectual who is curious about the world. Who else is going to tell the rest of the world what life is like in these places? Minority scholars, on the other hand, must confine themselves to a study of themselves and when they don’t, they should be viewed with suspicion. Nothing but an introverted gaze upon oneself and one’s community is allowed when you don’t belong to the “right” group.
The assumption here is also that a white, Western (and again mostly male) perspective is never biased. When they produce research it is “knowledge” but when Others produce it, it is “a perspective.”* The first word implies an unbiased, universal Truth, while the second implies a bias that is inherent in the scholar’s location/position and cannot be overcome. This model imbues Western white scholars with objectivity and reason and all Others with emotions and bias. This dichotomy is not simply about difference; it is an ordered hierarchy where reason is equated with a highly evolved, disinterested scholar in pursuit of knowledge, and the Other is simply a biased scholar who is a slave to his or her passions and feelings – a lesser scholar, if a scholar at all. That one must “out” him or herself as a member of a particular group before engaging in scholarly activity (in this case Aslan must loudly and publicly declare that he is a Muslim before he conducts any interview) speaks to this underlying presumption of bias and subjectivity in minority scholars--whereas others are innocent of bias until proven otherwise.
The irony in all of this is that people who offer a counter-position to the dominant discourse are usually uncovering bias that exists all around us. For example, I often tell my students when discussing Judith Lorber excellent article, Believing is Seeing: Biology as Ideology, that feminism is much more about uncovering a (white) male bias that has existed and exists all around us (whether it’s in medicine, sports, the military, or our vocabulary) than about imposing a perspective that privileges women. It is a difficult lesson to learn and judging from Green’s interview, one that she clearly has not.
* I include women in my definition of Others and minority scholars in academia. Of course our gender identity intersects with many others ( including race, class, sexual orientation, nationality, religion) to produce more pronounced Othering in some cases than others.