The Loathsomeness of Reza Aslan

The tweet, sent out on the evening of September 18, only minutes after the announcement of the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, was succinct and straightforward: “If they even TRY to replace RBG we burn the entire f—ing thing down.” Within hours, these words had been widely retweeted and commented upon. 

Apparently, it was the author’s most attention-getting tweet since January 19, 2019, when—in the wake of the instantly famous encounter at the Lincoln Memorial involving a group of polite MAGA cap-wearing boys from Covington High School in Kentucky, a drum-banging Native American provocateur named Nathan Phillips, and a trash-talking gang of Black Hebrew Israelites—the selfsame author posted the now-iconic picture of one of the boys, Nick Sandmann, standing calmly in the face of Phillips’ provocation, and wrote: “Have you ever seen a more punchable face than this kid’s?”

The author in question was Reza Aslan, who, when he himself was a kid, fled the Iranian Revolution with his parents for the United States, where he grew up in the Bay Area. He went on to collect a B.A. in religious studies from Santa Clara University, an M.A. in theological studies from Harvard, an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Iowa, and a Ph.D. in sociology from UC Santa Barbara. His first book, No god but God (2005), whitewashed Islam and blamed Islamic terror on Western imperialism; the predictable plaudits in such left-wing organs as the New York Times, New York Review of Books, Los Angeles Times, and Financial Times made it a “worldwide success” (The Guardian) and launched his career as a “multimedia force” (L.A. Review of Books). 

After his second book—which was entitled How to Win a Cosmic War (2009) in hardcover and Beyond Fundamentalism in paperback, and which, essentially, was more of the same—Aslan moved on to Christianity, depicting Jesus, in Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (2013), as a fanatical and faith-driven political rebel not unlike Osama bin Laden. Most recently, in God: A Human History (2017), Aslan summed up the history of monotheism in such a way as to make Islam, particularly in the form of Sufism, seem its natural apotheosis. 

In addition to his books, Aslan has served as a consultant on Islam for various media projects. He hosted a short-lived CNN religion series, “Believer,” on which, in one memorable episode, he ate part of a human brain. He’s sat on the board of the National Iranian American Council, which lobbies for the Mullahs in Iran, and he’s given talks under the auspices of groups linked to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. In several articles over the years, the indispensable Robert Spencer has documented Aslan’s chronic dishonesty about a wide range of topics, from Islam and Christianity to his own academic credentials.

One thing that Spencer repeatedly has pointed out is that Aslan is not terribly bright or well informed: he makes endless simple mistakes on subjects about which he poses as an expert and is a fount of spelling and usage errors. Yet dumb though he may be about a lot of things, he’s a genius at self-promotion. After 9/11, to borrow a phrase from George Washington Plunkitt, he seen his opportunities and he took ’em, making himself eminently useful to the media as an apologist for Islam. 

What repeatedly has gotten in the way of Aslan’s own attempt to maintain this image of serenity and equanimity is his own poisonous hatefulness, which frequently gets the better of him.

Presentable in appearance, measured in tone, he packaged himself at once as a standard-issue left-winger and as an authentic believer in an orthodox yet somehow “modern” Islam. Like the now-disgraced Tariq Ramadan, he was a “bridge-builder,” thoroughly assimilated into Western civilization, who sought nothing more than to educate Westerners about the beautiful beliefs and traditions of his faith—and thereby dispel the ugly suspicions that flow from ignorance. 

What repeatedly has gotten in the way of Aslan’s own attempt to maintain this image of serenity and equanimity, however, is his own poisonous hatefulness, which frequently gets the better of him. This phenomenon is not unique to Aslan. It can be observed in the cases of many Muslim public figures in North America and Europe who try to project a calming, moderate profile but who, in certain circumstances—for example, when strongly contradicted—can let the mask slip and sound, suddenly, like nothing so much as a firebrand imam calling for someone’s head. 

This has happened with Aslan again and again. In 2012, for example, he responded to a foolish comment by Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) by tweeting that he hoped Akin would be raped. He’s used the words “piece of s—” to describe Sean Hannity, former Israeli ambassador Michael Oren, and both Donald Trump and Donald Trump, Jr. (He is particularly hostile to the president, whose supporters are, in his view, Islamophobes, possessed of a discomfort with Islam that has nothing to do with 9/11 and myriad other acts of jihadist terror but with insidious anti-Islam propaganda.) 

In May 2017, he called the president a “lying conniving scumbag narcissistic sociopath piece of s—.” A month later, following the London Bridge terrorist attack, the president tweeted: “We need to be smart, vigilant and tough. We need the courts to give us back our rights. We need the Travel Ban as an extra level of safety!” Instead of deploring the vile act of jihadist mass murder, Aslan condemned Trump’s utterly reasonable response: “This piece of s— is not just an embarrassment to America and a stain on the presidency. He’s an embarrassment to humankind.” 

This tweet was too much even for CNN, which cut Aslan loose as a result. But Aslan was undeterred. Discussing the incident with a reporter some months later, he reiterated, matter-of-factly: “The president is literally a piece of s—.” He hasn’t changed his mind on this subject: last fall, in the lead-up to the Trump impeachment hearings, Aslan tweeted that instead of trying to remove Trump from office, the Congress should “waterboard him instead.” 

Some may argue that you shouldn’t have to lose your job for criticizing a president, any president, even in scatological and violent terms. Fair enough. But Aslan’s disgusting tweet about Nick Sandmann was another story. At the time, Sandmann was an unknown kid from Kentucky; without the malicious, irresponsible media storm that broke around him and his friends that day, he might have lived a long and happy life without ever becoming a public figure. But that episode changed everything. He was soon a household name. And of the many inexcusable things that were written and said about him by people in positions of responsibility—people who should have known better—none were more reprehensible than Aslan’s: “Have you ever seen a more punchable face than this kid’s?” 

No one who was familiar with Aslan’s writings should have been terribly surprised by that tweet, which some would justifiably describe as a thinly veiled threat of physical violence. This was, after all, a man who, however civilized his prose, had made it his errand in one book after another, as well as in any number of essays and TV appearances, to downplay, relativize, excuse, and even defend the bloodthirsty perpetrators of Koran-inspired murder. If you’re capable of looking benignly upon killers of children, it’s no stretch at all to describe the face of a teenager whom you’ve never met before, and about whom you really know nothing except for that he supports the sitting president of the United States, as “punchable.” 

This year Sandmann sued ABC, CBS, CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Gannett, and Rolling Stone for millions of dollars for their depictions of him; he has since privately settled with CNN and the Post. While he has not yet taken legal action against Aslan, several other Covington students have done so, and have also filed suits against CNN’s Ana Navarro (who called the boys “racists”) and half a dozen or so other media figures, politicians, and activists. While we have yet to see how the suit against Aslan turns out, the fact that he has been called out in this very public way is exceedingly satisfying to observe. For this loathsome figure who had presented himself for years as an educator about Islam had, indeed, with a single malevolent tweet, taught millions of Americans a memorable lesson about the dark, destructive faith that animates him. 

Moreover, the violence implied in his Sandmann tweet was made thoroughly explicit in his tweet responding to the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg. That the passing of a woman who, whatever you thought of her views, was famously civil in her interactions with political opponents, including her good friend Antonin Scalia, could evoke such a cry of rage only underscores just what kind of a monster hovers behind Aslan’s placid façade—and, indeed, beneath the surface of the savage ideology that calls itself a religion of peace. 

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