Friday's Washington Post carried a large article with color photographs of Jesus-bashing author Reza Aslan called "The Book of Reza." Post reporter Manuel Roig-Franzia mocked "the astonishingly absurd questions lobbed at him" by Fox News religion correspondent Lauren Green, asking why a Muslim would write about Jesus.
Aslan told the Post he held Fox in low esteem (like almost every leftist). "I know what Fox News is about," he says. "This is a network that has spun fear-mongering about Muslims into ratings gold for 10 years." But this didn't end up being a puff piece. Roig-Franzia found that the "absurd" Fox network accomplished something notable. Aslan implausibly inflated his academic resume, and then arrogantly dismissed he'd done anything unethical. Aslan is exposed:
Green did, however, accomplish one thing in her much-ridiculed interview: She goaded Aslan into talking about his academic qualifications. "I am an expert with a PhD in the history of religions," Aslan said. Then he said it again. Moments later, he said he was "a scholar of religions with a PhD in the subject."
Even as he has achieved phenomenal success as the author of well-crafted religious history books that appeal to a mass audience, he's eager — perhaps overeager — to present himself as a formidable academic with special bona fides in religion and history.
The boy who posed as something that he was not has become the man who boasts of academic laurels he does not have. Aslan, 41, has variously claimed to hold a doctorate in "the history of religions" or a doctorate in "the sociology of religions," though no such degrees exist at the university he attended. His doctorate is in sociology, according to the registrar's office at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Aslan, who has an undergraduate degree in religious studies and a master's in theological studies, is not currently a professor of religion or history. He is an associate professor in the creative writing department of the University of California at Riverside. He has asserted a present-day toehold in the field of religion by saying he is "a cooperative faculty member" in Riverside's Department of Religious Studies.
Yet this is not so, according to Vivian-Lee Nyitray, the just-retired chair of the department. Nyitray says she discussed the possibility last year with Aslan but that he has not been invited to become a cooperative faculty member, a status that would allow him to chair dissertations in her former department.
Aslan dismisses criticism of his credentials — which has reached a feverish pitch on the Internet and in parts of the academic world — as the result of misinterpretation of his unconventionality more than anything else. He's irked by academia, saying it's populated by scholars prone to "sit around in dusty rooms arguing about the vowel markers of ancient texts for the next 30 years."
To be sure, Aslan has toggled between teaching creative writing and religion. He was a visiting scholar, he says, at the Drew University Center on Religion. "I like to go back and forth. I get easily bored," Aslan says in an interview. "The reason there's been so much suspicion about my credentials is because academics tend not to do that. For the life of me, I can't understand why there's so much controversy."
Aslan argues that he is within his rights to claim a PhD in the sociology or history of religion because the history and sociology of religion are encompassed in the larger field of sociology. To back him, he refers questions to his graduate adviser, Mark Juergensmeyer, of UC Santa Barbara.
"We don't have a degree in sociology of religions, as such," Juergensmeyer acknowledges. But he says he doesn't have a problem with Aslan's characterization of his doctorate, noting that his former student did most of his course work in religion.
Juergensmeyer helped arrange the shift of Aslan's doctoral dissertation on Jihadism from the religious studies department to sociology. Juergensmeyer says the shift was undertaken to get Aslan out of time-consuming required language courses; Aslan says he moved to another department because religious studies professors were jealous about the 2005 publication of his best-selling book "No god, but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam." Juergensmeyer did not recall resentment among professors being a factor.
Dale Martin, a Yale University religious studies professor who reviewed Aslan's "Zealot" for the New York Times, sees Aslan's characterization of his credentials in a different light. "I think he overplayed his hand," Martin says of Aslan in an interview. "He's just overselling."
Martin, who has praise for Aslan's writing skills, was critical of his seeming reliance on the work of previous scholars to formulate one of the central theories of his book: that Jesus was a revolutionary executed because he posed a political threat to the Roman Empire.
"The record needs to be corrected," Martin says. "Both about his credentials and his thesis."
It turns out Aslan isn't really sold on religion, any way: "It's not [that] I think Islam is correct and Christianity is incorrect," Aslan says. "It's that all religions are nothing more than a language made up of symbols and metaphors to help an individual explain faith."