Reza Aslan misrepresents his status as scholar of ‘religions’; downplays his ties to extreme Islamists

Charles C. Johnson | Contributor

Reza Aslan, celebrated author of the new Jesus book “Zealot,” falsely claimed to be “a scholar of religions” in the widely-circulated Fox News interview that boosted his book to bestseller status. Aslan holds a doctoral degree in sociology of religion and his prominence as a pundit on religious issues is mainly a function of his ability to provide moderate-seeming comments that favor Islamists.

Aslan also presents himself as a moderate despite his affiliation with the Iranian government. The long-time pundit is an advisory board member of the National Iranian American Council, a group that has been described by Iranian dissidents under oath as a “front group” for the Iranian government.

NIAC was funded by the Alavi Foundation and the PARSE Foundation, both of which have since been shut down, the former because of its status as a front group for the Iranian regime.

Aslan also has a long history of downplaying the dangers of jihadist groups, specifically denying the extremism of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the country where the Brotherhood got its start and which recently toppled its extremist Brotherhood-affiliated president.

The Hollywood-based scholar has gotten an enormous boost, for both his reputation and his book sales, from a Fox interview last week in which he compellingly argued that he was simply a humble scholar of religion being unfairly targeted because of his Islamic faith.

Speaking with feckless Fox host Lauren Green, Aslan claimed that he was “an expert with a Ph.D. in the history of religions,” that he was a “historian,” and that he was a “professor of religions” for “a living.” The interview has caught on widely, with pro-Aslan commenters calling it an “Islamophobic attack,” the “most forehead-slapping Fox interview of the year,” and a “debacle” that left viewers “outraged.”

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In fact Aslan was misrepresenting his academic credentials. His Ph.D. is in sociology of religion from the University of California-Santa Barbara, and his dissertation was titled “Global Jihadism as a Transnational Social Movement: A Theoretical Framework.” Although he has a Master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School, his academic concentration has been in sociology and creative writing.

Aslan has a posting at the University of California, Riverside, in the creative fiction department, having obtained his M.F.A. in fiction from the University of Iowa’s Creative Writing program in 2002.

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One of the “four degrees” he cites is a work of fiction—his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Iowa, titled, “The Story of Zero” and published in 2002.

According to records from the University of California-Riverside, Aslan is currently a professor in the Department of Creative Writing. He does teach courses in the Middle East and Islamic Studies department. In 2010-2011, Aslan taught “Contemporary Literature from the Modern Middle East.”

He is not listed as teaching religious courses anywhere on the Middle East and Islamic Studies website.  His Ratemyprofessors.com page does mention many courses taught in creative writing, but none taught on Islam.

Nor is Aslan listed as teaching courses in religion on the school’s website.

Aslan is also a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, writing for the Washington Post in 2012, “The Muslim Brotherhood will have a significant role to play in post-Mubarak Egypt. And that is a good thing.” Aslan also praised the election of Mohammed Morsi, the Islamist leader of Egypt who was recently ousted by a military coup with wide popular support.

This easy tone goes back at least to a 2007 appearance in which Aslan categorically stated that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was not a jihadist organization.

In a February tweet, Aslan guessed that the relationship between Morsi and extremist Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would “help their countries” — an assertion that raises serious questions about his reputation as a moderate, in addition to having been proven spectacularly wrong in the ensuing five months.

Aslan’s claim would also come as a surprise to Morsi himself, who in a 2012 speech exhorted the chant “Jihad is our path, and death for Allah is our most lofty aspiration.”

Aslan also claimed that Osama bin Laden was not inspired by Islam to attack the United States. “His justifications are not religious,” Aslan stated in a 2007 debate with atheist writer Sam Harris. “He states very clearly it’s because of Palestine, it’s because of troops in Saudi Arabia, it’s because of now what’s going on in Iraq.” He repeatedly told Harris that there were no theological grievances.

That, too, is false. Bin Laden had repeatedly invoked the Koran and the Prophet Muhammad to justify his attacks. “I’m fighting so I can die a martyr and go to heaven to meet God. Our fight now is against the Americans,” he told al-Quds al-Arabi the day after the Islamist terror attacks of September 11, 2001.

Reza Aslan with Mohammad Khatami. Facebook

Aslan does not limit his kind words to Sunni extremists, however. His comments on Iran rarely if ever depart from the official line of that country’s mullahs.

Aslan, whose last name is actually Aslanpour, did not return a phone call request for comment.

Since Aslan’s Fox News interview he has become a cause célèbre for BuzzFeed, The New York Times, Huffington Post, and many others. His book has also skyrocketed on Amazon’s bestseller lists.

The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple has demanded that Fox apologize to Aslan.

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