Last month, I wrote an essay for NewYorker.com about Reza Aslan’s new CNN show, “Believer.” Here’s the first paragraph with a link to the rest of the piece. In other news, I’m on my way to Lebanon this evening to attend the School of Mamluk Studies’ annual conference, which is being held this year at the American University of Beirut. I’ll be giving a talk about the great 14th-century litterateur, Khalil ibn Aybak al-Safadi, and his anthology about paronomasia, Jinan al-jinas. No doubt many of you will be in attendance!
The Contradictions of Reza Aslan’s “Believer”
A few years ago, a friend sent me an e-mail with the subject line “Reza Aslan is insulting you!” The message was an excerpt from an interview with Aslan, by then already a well-known commentator on religion, in which he was asked about the role that scholars should play in informing public debates about the Islamic world. “You can’t be trained to speak to the media in a weekend seminar before going on Anderson Cooper,” he said. “I honestly think that the best hope that we have is to foster a new kind of student, one who doesn’t spend eight years in the basement of Widener Library at Harvard poring over a thirteenth-century manuscript and writing a dissertation on the changes in the vowel markings of a sentence.” At the time, I was in the basement of Widener, examining half a dozen manuscripts and writing a dissertation on a fourteenth-century Arabic encyclopedia. The caricature stung, but I feared he was right. Less than a decade after 9/11, there was even more public hostility toward Islam than there is today; few scholars of religion had mastered the rhetorical tools to thrive in the arena of public debate. (keep reading)
Well written. I don’t think succeeding in a “talking heads” debate is really something I would like to see more people strive towards. Especially when blending religion, conflict & politics it is rarely substance that makes for success. The most successful rhetoric in that kind of environment uses disingenuous tactics, in the way politicians are. Avoid the question, avoid nuance, accuse the opponent of bigotry or ignorance or somesuch. Stuff like that. The Muslim apologists that seem to be most successful at this game make a lot of hay from “Islam is diverse, therefore nothing anyone says about it can be true.” On the other side, the most effective talking heads pull out a rehearsed verse and try to frame the entire conversation around it.
I think the reason Reza is good, is because he doesn’t frame things as debate questions. Instead, he seems inclined to go with an “isn’t his interesting” approach, not trying to answer any specific questions. He differs from most people who do this in that he doesn’t avoid the political aspects of religion. The ultra-orthodox episode, is a particularly good example.