Saturday, August 3, 2013

Who Owns Jesus?

Part of Dow’s successful argument was couched in the logic that if Jesus, a Middle Easterner, was white, it only followed that George Dow, also from the Middle East, was white too. It was notions of Jesus’ whiteness—in a largely white Christian American culture—that ultimately won the case for Dow. White Christians owned Jesus and the right to call him theirs, and they were unable to let him go.

Every 10 years, millions of Middle Easterners in the U.S. turn to their census forms and check the box under race labeled “white.” This is, after all, their legal classification. The U.S. government formally recognizes anyone from “Europe, the Middle East or North Africa” as white.

This seems counterintuitive, but it’s the product of several contentious court battles that occurred in the early 1900s. The most prominent of these was Dow v. United States, a 1915 case in which Syrian immigrant George Dow fought to overturn two lower court decisions that found him ineligible for naturalization because he wasn’t white. A federal appeals court ruled in Dow’s favor. And he won because of Jesus.

Perhaps popular perceptions of Jesus have not changed since then, as evidenced by the extremely uncomfortable Fox News interview with Reza Aslan—a religious scholar and professor at UC Riverside—that has gone viral since it was posted July 26. Aslan is the author of “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” which has been the center of some controversy at Fox News, but not for anything that’s in the book. The point of contention for Lauren Green, host of the program “Spirited Debate,” and Fox News guest writer and Christian pastor John S. Dickerson is the author himself, who is Muslim.

“I want to be clear, you are a Muslim,” Green began the interview. “So why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?”

In a manner befitting that of an elementary school teacher, Aslan carefully explained to Green that he was a scholar who’s devoted much of his academic career to the history of religions. His own religion was inconsequential.

“Well, to be clear,” replied Aslan, “I am a scholar of religions with four degrees, including one in the New Testament, and fluency in biblical Greek, who has been studying the origins of Christianity for two decades, who also just happens to be a Muslim.”

But Green’s line of questioning did not let up, and she continued to prod Aslan’s motives for writing the book, even quoting from the Dickerson Fox News op-ed piece that purported to “out” Aslan as a Muslim. Aslan, clearly unsurprised by her persistence, informed her patiently that he’s never tried to hide the fact that he’s Muslim—it’s something he states quite clearly on the second page of his new book.

This went on for almost 10 minutes, making it clear that this wasn’t an interview. It was an interrogation. In Dickerson’s op-ed and in Green’s interview, it was not Aslan’s book that was being put on trial, but Aslan himself.

“But it still begs the question,” Green persisted in the interview, “why would you be interested in the founder of Christianity?”

The insinuation underlying Green’s questions was that a Muslim writing about Jesus was not just outlandish, but inconceivable without some kind of hidden agenda. Aslan’s religion nullified his scholarly objectivity. Throughout the interview, Aslan appeared unfazed, perhaps because this has come to be the modus operandi of Fox News hosts, or perhaps because Aslan, like many Muslims, faces this kind of suspicion in his everyday life—by policemen, TSA officers and passers-by who find his dark skin and foreign name threatening.

But what’s really revealing about Green’s interview is what it exposed about how Jesus exists in the popular Christian imagination—not just white, but exclusively Christian. Green overlooked the fact that Jesus appears in Islamic theology as one of the great prophets of God, one of the few prophets mentioned by name in the Quran. He’s highly revered among Muslims, who acknowledge Jesus as the founder of Christianity, and Christianity as a precursor to Islam. But Green and Dickerson both ignored these facts—something that could have made for a better interview discussion—and chose instead to attempt to implicate Aslan in some grand conspiracy against Christianity itself. 

Despite Aslan’s academic distinctions, Fox News will view him only as a Muslim writing about Jesus. But what Aslan tried to get across to Green was that he was just an interested scholar writing about a man who 2,000 years after his death, plays a role in the lives of billions of people around the world. Ultimately, however, Aslan has no right to Jesus’ story. As far as Fox News—and much of white, Christian America—is concerned, Jesus’ whiteness is fact, and Aslan, no matter what box he checks on his census form, will never be white. 

Tasbeeh Herwees is a freelance writer and producer in Los Angeles. She is also the co-founder of Kifah Libya, an independent, online magazine about Libyan political, social and cultural affairs. (

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