As talking heads in the media once again make problematic, ultra-general claims about Islam’s supposed essential bellicosity, or attribute to Islamic texts and practice the power to make adherents violent, we might be tempted to respond with Reza Aslan’s counter-arguments. Aslan is a willing pundit, unafraid and unreserved in responding to vacuous, literalist, and historically ignorant readings of Islam or claims about Muslims. There are few others willing to play this role, and it is an important one, given how much bigoted bullshit on the subject shows up from various commentators, ranging from Fox News commentators to ‘New Atheist’ authors such as Sam Harris.
I wish, though, that it wasn’t Aslan performing this role. I am not the only one to take issue with Aslan, and I suggest reading the views of actual scholars of religion on his views and work, as I am not a specialist in this area.
One reason for this is my concern for Aslan’s apparent credential inflation. Aslan routinely identifies as as scholar of religion, despite his academic post being in creative writing and not having, from what I have been able to ascertain, a single refereed publication. Indeed, he has from what I can tell only one scholarly publication, in a non-refereed journal that does not accept unsolicited submissions (ie it’s highly unusual and not part of mainstream academic conversations). While he has written numerous books on subjects ranging from the historical Christ to political Islam, all of these books are in popular presses, rather than academic ones. Aslan’s PhD is in sociology, and his dissertation research was apparently on the study of Islamist social movements, which does much to explain his perspective but which does not necessarily situate him in the sociology or anthropology of religion.
I have great respect for those who manage to do a doctorate in sociology, but if they do not publish in scholarly journals or present at scholarly conferences, then they are not scholars. They have retreated from scholarly conversations and from the academic spaces in which scholarly research is produced and discussed. Though I respect the role of informed and educated popular authors writing books on relevant subjects, I also have an interest, as an actual scholar (albeit of most junior level), in policing the boundaries of the term, and of keeping it distinct from popular commentaries.
Much more important, though, is my discomfort with Aslan’s substantive views. After all, you don’t have to be a scholar of religion to make valid and helpful points about it. Aslan appears to have taken an approach from social movement theory and inflated it into a general theory of religion in politics. Again, this is unsurprising given his educational background, but it also is methodologically unsound and misrepresents what this approach is actually good for, as exemplified in scholarship on Islamism produced by people like Carrie Wickham or Asef Bayat.
Aslan’s theory of religion and politics is that people ‘bring their values to their religion‘. This is a very succinct and illustrative quote. His approach is to view religion as a language through which political claims can be articulated, and a concrete institutional space (places of worship, community centres, schools, etc) where social movements can organise. This is fine for examining particular facets of social movement activism during periods of contentious politics, and should be a vital part of any discussion of Islamism.
It must not, however, be the end of the story when we talk about radicalisation and the role of specific religious narratives in fueling violence. The other side of the coin here is that religions are potent sources of value-generation (cf. William James) and socialisation in society. Religious spaces are where people learn their values, and theological traditions determine the boundaries or horizons of intellectual and interpretive possibility. By taking political claims-making into the realm of particular knowledge-traditions, you privilege some views over others.
In other words, we cannot treat religion as some kind of cultural epiphenomenon, reflecting non-theological cultural processes that determine the form and expression of values and beliefs. Theology is part of those processes. It is not the only part, and those processes are dynamic and complex, showing the bankruptcy of most literalist readings of religious texts or of simplistic, unidirectional causal arguments that go from textual interpretation to cultural practice. But Aslan does not seem interested in discussing that complexity, and prefers to offer a simplistic causal theory of his own, in just the opposite direction. This may be a tonic for one kind of anti-Muslim bigotry, but it does not help anyone understand Islamism better.
In addition to advancing a view of religion and politics that no sociologist or anthropologist of religion would find remotely adequate,* Aslan also seems to misrepresent the social and cultural conditions of Muslim majority countries. In this widely shared clip of him engaging with Bill Maher—whose views I find even less palatable than Aslan’s, by a long shot—Aslan suggests that countries such as Indonesia, which have de jure equality between men and women, may be held up as examples of actual gender equality in Islam. He also states that female genital mutilation is a ‘Central African problem’, which is empirically false (as discussed in this previously shared link). Either Aslan is knowingly playing fast and loose with the facts, or he just doesn’t know the facts.
With all due respect to the rarity with which scholars are willing to do what Aslan does, and the man’s many well-reviewed popular books, I see him as a charlatan, at least when it comes to his self-presentation in his media commentaries. He claims the mantle of scholarship without producing scholarship, and claims to be a scholar of religions while advancing theoretically problematic views not held by sociologists of religion (despite his background being in sociology). His defence to (possibly bigoted) attacks upon Muslims is to respond with false or dissembling claims, and while I am sympathetic to the epistemic limits of sound-bite territory, he doesn’t offer follow-up clarifications either.
There are a few other commentators on Islamism whom I would suggest going to instead of Aslan, too. Maajid Nawaz is one good example, and Shiraz Maher is another (though Nawaz has a more prominent media presence).
*Based on my admittedly limited knowledge, confined to a few books and articles in these fields and a habit of attending their conference panels when I have spare moments, as I find they are home to some innovative and sophisticated social theorising.