Fox News and its right-wing supporters were cast into shame after Fox News’s interview with Reza Aslan went viral on the internet. Embarrassed and reeling from this intellectual beat-down by Reza Aslan, the right-wing responded by questioning Aslan’s credentials. Matthew J. Franck of FirstThings.com wrote:
Aslan does have four degrees, as Joe Carter has noted: a 1995 B.A. in religion from Santa Clara University, where he was Phi Beta Kappa and wrote his senior thesis on “The Messianic Secret in the Gospel of Mark”; a 1999 Master of Theological Studies from Harvard; a 2002 Master of Fine Arts in Fiction from the University of Iowa; and a 2009 Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
None of these degrees is in history, so Aslan’s repeated claims that he has “a Ph.D. in the history of religions” and that he is “a historian” are false. Nor is “professor of religions” what he does “for a living.” He is an associate professor in the Creative Writing program at the University of California, Riverside, where his terminal MFA in fiction from Iowa is his relevant academic credential. It appears he has taught some courses on Islam in the past, and he may do so now, moonlighting from his creative writing duties at Riverside. Aslan has been a busy popular writer, and he is certainly a tireless self-promoter, but he is nowhere known in the academic world as a scholar of the history of religion. And a scholarly historian of early Christianity? Nope.
Franck’s post also took on a life of its own, but this time on right-wing sites. Career Islamophobe Robert Spencer linked to it as well, and then said this gem (emphasis added):
Here again, the problem is Aslan’s dishonesty. I don’t care about his scholarly credentials. Even if everything he had said about his degrees had been true, it would confer on his book no presumption of accuracy or truth. I am constantly assailed for lacking scholarly credentials, but as it happens, when it comes to writing about religion I have exactly the same credentials as Aslan, a B.A., Phi Beta Kappa, and an M.A. in Religious Studies. His other two degrees are in other fields.
Reza Aslan is being called “dishonest,” but it is really Matthew Franck and Robert Spencer who are guilty of this, by themselves misrepresenting Aslan’s credentials. Franck fails to mention that Aslan’s Ph.D. wasn’t just in sociology but in the sociology of religion. This is a very major omission by Franck, one that is almost certainly intentional and meant to mislead.
Meanwhile, Robert Spencer specifically says “[Aslan’s] other two degrees are in other fields.” This is an outright lie. As MediaMatters.org writes (emphasis added):
Aslan has a Ph. D. in the sociology of religion, a master’s degree in theological studies from Harvard University, and a bachelor’s degree in religion from Santa Clara University, as well as a master’s of fine arts in fiction.
So, to summarize, Reza Aslan has four degrees, with three of them being in the study of religions:
1) Ph.D. in the sociology of religion from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
2) Master’s degree in theological studies from Harvard.
3) B.A. degree in religion from Santa Clara University.
With a B.A., master’s, and Ph.D. in the study of religion, Reza Aslan is a scholar of religion. Meanwhile, as for Robert Spencer’s claim:
[W]hen it comes to writing about religion I have exactly the same credentials as Aslan, a B.A., Phi Beta Kappa, and an M.A. in Religious Studies.
This is also clearly not true. I wrote an article on Robert Spencer’s [lack of] credentials earlier in an article with a self-explanatory title: “Is Robert Spencer a Scholar?”
It should be noted that Spencer now tries to insulate himself from attack by claiming:
I don’t care about his scholarly credentials. Even if everything he had said about his degrees had been true, it would confer on his book no presumption of accuracy or truth. I am constantly assailed for lacking scholarly credentials…
But anyway, it doesn’t matter: there are plenty of fools with degrees, and plenty of geniuses without them. My work, and Aslan’s, stands or falls on its merits, not on the number of degrees we have.
Yet, I didn’t “attack” Robert Spencer’s credentials because I believe he has to be a scholar to write on Islam. Rather, I “attacked” his credentials because he specifically pretends to be a scholar of Islam. In fact, Spencer’s site JihadWatch.org proudly declares him (emphasis added) “the acclaimed scholar of Islam.” Spencer accuses Aslan of lying about his scholarly credentials, yet here we have Spencer misrepresenting himself as “the acclaimed scholar of Islam.”
Or, does blogging about Islam on a site called “JihadWatch” make one a scholar? Spencer’s minions quickly claim that he is a best-selling author. Leaving aside the fact that being a best-selling author doesn’t make one a scholar (is J.K. Rowling a scholar?), there is also the issue that Spencer’s books such as The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) are from the same publisher that has similar “Politically Incorrect guides” on evolution being a myth, global warming being a scam, science = bad (yes, an entire book about how liberals and scientists are in cahoots), and a book on the truth of the Bible (“[t]he enemies of the Bible are the enemies of true reason and tolerance”). Does this make Spencer a scholar as he pretends to be?
Robert Spencer claims that he has the same credentials on religion as Reza Aslan, but Aslan has a Ph.D. in religion. Spencer does not. So, how is Spencer making this claim? But, it’s worse than that. Spencer’s M.A. is in the field of early Christian studies. His thesis was on Catholic history. So, how does this make him a scholar of Islam?
To be clear, Reza Aslan did not claim to be a scholar of Christianity, but rather a scholar of religions (notice in his interview that he specifically says he writes on all different religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, etc.). His multiple degrees in religion corroborate his claim of being a scholar of religions.
Meanwhile, Robert Spencer claims to be a scholar of Islam, even though he has zero degrees in Islam. Again, how does having a master’s degree in early Christian studies and Catholic history make one a scholar of Islam?
We arrive at the inevitable conclusion: Reza Aslan is a scholar, whereas Robert Spencer is nothing more than a fraudulent pseudo-scholar.
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Matthew Franck holds on to the idea that Reza Aslan misrepresented himself by claiming that he is a historian. After all, argues Franck, Aslan’s Ph.D. was in sociology, not history. Leaving aside the fact that the Ph.D. was in the sociology of religion, Reza Aslan’s dissertation adviser, Prof. Mark Juergensmayer, weighed in:
Since i was Reza’s thesis adviser at the Univ of California-Santa Barbara, I can testify that he is a religious studies scholar. (I am a sociologist of religion with a position in sociology and an affiliation with religious studies). Though Reza’s PhD is in sociology most of his graduate course work at UCSB was in the history of religion in the dept of religious studies. Though none of his 4 degrees are in history as such, he is a “historian of religion” in the way that that term is used at the Univ of Chicago to cover the field of comparative religion; and his theology degree at Harvard covered Bible and Church history, and required him to master New Testament Greek. So in short, he is who he says he is.
It is not unreasonable for a person who majored in the sociology of religion to consider himself a historian of religion if his emphasis during study was in history. There is a very large overlap between the fields, especially since “most of his graduate course work was in the history of religion in the dept of religious studies.”
Yes, he is a professor of creative writing, but he also teaches courses–as a professor–on religion.
The crux of the matter is that Reza Aslan is a scholar of religion (which includes the history of religion). Aslan has hefty academic qualifications and did not misrepresent himself. But, just as the Fox News interviewer was guilty of projection, so too is Robert Spencer guilty of projection when he accuses Aslan of misrepresenting his scholarly credentials.
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Lauren Green, the Fox News “journalist” who interviewed Reza Aslan, is an ardent Christian herself who has engaged in faith-based attacks of Islam, which is why she wrongly assumes that Reza Aslan’s book is a faith-based attack on Christianity (another case of Fox projection). In 2011, for example, Green wrote (h/t Dan Murphy of The Christian Science Monitor):
Is there something in Islam itself that makes believers more susceptible to radicalization?… I believe essentially there are three things that may make Islam more prone to radicalization. One is the Koran itself. The fact that it’s not a narrative makes it easier to pick and choose verses to fit your interpretation. Two, the Prophet Mohammed’s own words and deeds. In Islam’s early days, Mohammed spread the faith with the sword. Three, Islam was introduced into a world rife with tribalism; a shame and honor culture which revered and respected power. Much of what’s going in Libya and what went on under Saddam Hussein, are extensions of that tribalism.
Here we see the familiar claims: Compared to other religions (such as Christianity), Islam is more violent because (1) The Koran is more violent; (2) Muhammad was more violent; and (3) Islamic history was more violent. These are the central arguments of Islamophobia, and are in fact the same arguments I refute in my article series and upcoming book, The J Word: Jihad, Between Hype and Reality.
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In response to Robert Spencer’s claim about “war is deceit”, please see: Silencing Spencer: Taqiyya and Kitman are part of Judeo-Christian belief.
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