10 Questions for Reza Aslan

4 minute read
Belinda Luscombe

Your book Zealot is about Jesus. Why write about such a well-studied historical figure?

My biography of Jesus is probably the first popular biography that does not use the New Testament as its primary source material. My primary source material is 1st century Palestine, the world in which Jesus lived.

Isn’t that like trying to write a biography of Barack Obama by writing about 1960s Hawaii?

The New Testament is not a historical document. It was written by communities of faith many years after the events that they describe. So the historian has no choice but to try to cull as much information as possible from the world in which he lived.

This is sort of personal for you, right? You were a Christian.

When I was 15 years old, I heard the Gospel for the first time and gave my life to Christ and began preaching the Gospel for the next five years to everyone, including my family.

How’d that go down?

I had a pretty good conversion rate. My mother and my sister converted to Christianity. My mother is still a Christian. I now rely upon the symbols and metaphors of Islam.

You rose to fame as a guy who explained Islam to America, and now you’re casting aspersions on America’s favorite faith. Do you like hate mail?

When you write about religion and politics for a living, you get used to being hated. But my book is not about Christianity, because Jesus was not a Christian. Jesus was a Jew who lived in the most tumultuous era in the history of the Holy Land.

You said the Muslim Brotherhood would have a role to play in post-Mubarak Egypt. Do you stand by that?

When you forcefully suppress religious nationalism, you radicalize it. When you give it a role in the marketplace of ideas, one of two things always happens. Either the ideologues moderate their views, like the Justice and Development Party in Turkey, or they don’t, and they fail spectacularly, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Both of those are good outcomes.

And Syria?

It’s too late for intervention. The greatest fear about Syria has always been that the civil war bleeds out of its borders and begins to engulf Lebanon, Israel and Jordan, and we are watching that happen. This is what happens when your President dithers on consequential geopolitical decisions.

Do you think the U.S. is becoming less religious?

Polls show the percentage of Americans who define themselves as spiritual but not religious is ascendant. Partly, that has to do with the taste the marriage of religion and politics left in the mouths of American Christians. I think a lot of evangelicals came to the conclusion that they were being used by politicians. But spirituality has not declined. Atheists say that their numbers are increasing, and it’s true–they’re about 7% now.

Your wife Jessica Jackley was a co-founder of Kiva. What does she do now?

She’s in venture capital, investing in companies that are at the forefront of the transition that’s taking place in the global economy, from owning things to sharing things.

How do C.S. Lewis fans respond to your last name?

By the time I was able to read English, I was too old to read the Narnia books.

There is no “too old to read the Narnia books”!

I was confronted by this wave of excitement every time I’d introduce myself, and I never understood what people were talking about. I’ll eventually read the books to my kids, who will be more excited about their last name than I was growing up.

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