An author who came to widespread attention during the past couple of months over the release of his book Zealot (July 2013) on the life Jesus, Reza Aslan has been known primarily as an authority on Islam and the Middle East. He has been hailed by an array of commentators, most notably the celebrity comedian Jon Stewart, who described him as "the fantastic Reza Aslan." But where did this reputation come from? More importantly, does it hold up to critical scrutiny?
To understand the rise of Aslan, one must turn to his 2005 book No God but God. Aslan was alarmed by what he saw as a supposed "clash of monotheisms" through polarizing rhetoric in both the West and Middle East. Denouncing "rising anti-Muslim vehemence that has become so much a part of the [Western] mainstream media's discourse about the Middle East," Aslan purported to demonstrate continuity between Islam and its predecessors, Christianity and Judaism. In other words, to demonstrate that there is no need for a "clash of monotheisms."
Fundamental to Aslan's argument is that the message of Islam, as intended by its founder, is a "revolutionary message of moral accountability and social egalitarianism." Aslan is open about his apologetic intentions, making it clear that "there is no higher calling than to defend one's faith, especially from ignorance and hate." Indeed, as one reviewer noted, "this book is designed for the west."
The result is not scholarship, but apologetics. It leads Aslan to make usual and predictable howlers. To focus on a single crucial issue, he asserts that "the most important innovation in the doctrine of jihad was its outright prohibition of all but strictly defensive wars," while Qur'anic verses such as 9:29, with the injunction to fight non-Muslims until they pay a poll-tax in a state of subjugation, are explained away as "directed specifically at the Quraysh (the pagan tribe in Mecca opposed to Muhammad) and their clandestine partisans in Yathrib (Medina, with the Jews opposed to Muhammad)."
Aslan is of course entitled to his personal interpretation of the texts, but presenting it as the "true" view for a non-Muslim audience amounts to disinformation. This is evident especially when he portrays what he terms the "classical doctrine of jihad" as something formulated during the "height of the Crusades" and "partly in response to them." In fact, the doctrine of jihad demands that the "House of Islam" (Dar al-Islam) must subdue the "House of War" (Dar al-Harb, the non-Islamic world), although Aslan uses the softened (and misleading) phrase "in pursuit of "the "House of Islam."
In sum, Aslan presents offensive jihad as a response to Western aggression. This is blatantly unhistorical: offensive jihad as a doctrine—beginning with elaboration from the first biographers of Mohammed such as Ibn Ishaq in the ninth century—was developed precisely to unify and justify the rapidly growing Arab empire from Islam's early years.
Though Aslan also purports to be a voice for reform, his apologetic approach in No God but God leads to little insight in the wider realm of modern Middle East analysis. Instead, he regurgitates worn-out talking points.
Thus, given his portrayal of jihad as merely defensive, Aslan refuses to consider whether al-Qaeda's worldview might have any ideological appeal with roots in Islamic theology. Rather, the only way to diminish al-Qaeda's influence is to address the "very grievances that the movement uses to rally young Muslims to its cause: the suffering of the Palestinians, American support for Arab dictators . . . the fact that we in the west tend to treat that entire region [the Middle East] as a giant gas station." In fact, this is typical of the propaganda that al-Qaeda employs in messages to Westerners.
Other recycled talking points from Aslan include the familiar idea that the U.S. should work with non-violent and supposedly moderate Islamists such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, whose nefarious role in the country he hailed as a "good thing," along with cheering the election of Mohammed Morsi. For Aslan, these groups offer a healthy antidote to the real problem of violent Islamists.
What then if the lines are blurred, as when Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood [MB]-led government indicated it would have no problem with its citizens going to fight jihad in Syria, or when its claims of Coptic conspiracies behind the anti-MB coup in Egypt resulted in an upsurge of attacks on churches? How about Tunisia, where the Islamist-led government under Ennahda has tolerated Salafist mobs provided they pose no direct threat to its rule?
As a matter of fact, Islamism, according to Aslan, is nothing more than "religious nationalism of the Islamic variety," to be distinguished from jihadism, which is defined as a transnational project. Amusing, to say the least. For by Aslan's twisted logic, Iran must be a jihadist state, for it is foremost committed to spreading its Islamist ideology of vilayat al-faqih ("guardianship of the jurists," whereby supreme political authority should rest in the hands of Islamic clergy) beyond its own borders, both among established Shi'a communities and through proselytism (including far afield areas such as West Africa via its surrogate Hezbollah, which Aslan denies is a proxy of Iran and hails for supposedly focusing "solely on nationalist politics" with an agenda of "domestic reform" and "civic duty").
Despite being widely touted as an expert on Islam and the Middle East, in reality, Aslan's ideas and arguments do not really extend beyond Islamist apologetics repeated ad nauseam. While he frequently touts his academic credentials (which he has misrepresented, including an absurd claim to "fluency" in Biblical Greek), Aslan's response to criticism is generally to resort to profanity and childish ad hominems, deriding those who disagree with him as "morons" (as he addressed this author once), "ignorant twits," and "f*****g liars."
Hardly the tone of a scholar and frequently self-described "expert," yet so long as Aslan's spiteful behavior, disinformation, and nonsensical talking points go unexamined, he will continue to have fans in the mainstream and among celebrities.
Aymenn Jawad Al Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum. He wrote this article for Campus Watch, a project of the Forum.