Response to Matthew Facciani about Reza Aslan’s credentials.

Response to Matthew Facciani about Reza Aslan’s credentials. August 18, 2015

I wrote a post about Reza Aslan’s academic credentials in which I pointed out that he doesn’t have the credentials he claims.  This, of course, doesn’t make him wrong in debates, but it does make him sketchy as hell – especially when Reza has a tendency to cite those “credentials” at length (see video in the post I linked above).

But Matthew Facciani, newcomer here to Patheos (welcome, Matthew!), didn’t care for it.  He wrote a response post titled Stop calling Reza Aslan a fraud and learn how academia works.  Yikes!  Harsh words.

According to Facciani, sometimes “the name on your degree does not match up with your expertise,” and if we don’t understand that then we’re ignorant of how academia works.  Remember, that charge doesn’t just apply to me and Dan Arel, but presumably to Dr. Majid Rafizadeh who wrote the article I cited (and used to teach at USC Santa Barbara):

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and scholar, is president of the International American Council and serves on the board of the Harvard International Review at Harvard University. Rafizadeh is also a former senior fellow at the Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington, DC and is a member of the Gulf Project at Columbia University.

This poor guy just doesn’t understand how academia works.  This article was shared by Sam Harris, a PhD in neuroscience (that’s really what his PhD says, but it would still be strange and ethically questionable for Harris to say his PhD is in something else despite having done a great deal of course work in religion).  Maybe Dale Martin (Yale University religious studies professor who reviewed Aslan’s “Zealot” for the New York Times) just doesn’t get academia either:

“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.”

So…condescendingly dismissing me as non-academic really doesn’t fly.  Facciani is really saying that a great number of academics don’t understand academia, which I hope nobody is buying.

So how else does Facciani defend this?

Let’s look at the facts.

Reza Aslan has a B.A. in religion from Santa Clara University…

Which is not a PhD in Western religions.  If the argument I was making was “Reza Aslan has never taken courses in religion, doesn’t have an undergrad degree, and/or doesn’t know anything about religion” then this would be a spectacular rebuttal.  But since I didn’t make any of those arguments…

…an M.T.S in Theological Studies from Harvard…

Which is not a PhD in Western religions.  If the argument I was making was “Reza Aslan has never taken courses in religion, doesn’t have a graduate degree in Theological Studies, and/or doesn’t know anything about religion” then this would be a spectacular rebuttal.  But since I didn’t make any of those arguments…

…an M.F.A. in Fiction from the University of Iowa…

Good for him.

…and received his Ph.D in sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Which would qualify him to say something like, “I have a PhD in Sociology that covered a particular area of Islam.”  But that’s not what Aslan says.  He says he has a PhD in Western Religions.

So why are we to take Aslan’s PhD in Sociology as the equivalent of a PhD in Western Religions?  According to Facciani:

Academia is weird and sometimes the name on your degree does not match up with your expertise. What really matters is what area your research is in (i.e. your dissertation).

Ok, that was addressed in the article I cited:

…the expertise – which Reza Aslan claims is based on his PhD – should be determined by the topic of the dissertation. Reza Aslan’s dissertation, titled “Global Jihadism as a Transnational Social Movement: A Theoretical Framework” reveals that if he is an expert based on his PhD, he should be an expert on social movements in early twentieth-century Islam, not on Christianity or even modern Islam.

So Facciani says one’s area of expertise is determined by their dissertation.  By Facciani’s own standard Aslan’s dissertation reveals an expertise in one facet of one religion.  Can we then agree that Aslan doesn’t have a PhD in Western Religions (note how “Religions” is plural).

Maybe it’s just that I don’t get academia, but I don’t see how a dissertation about a single aspect of a single religion gets to be taken as a PhD in multiple religions (and neither do plenty of academics).  You can say that Aslan has taken courses on other religions until you’re blue in the face, but that doesn’t change the fact this his PhD work covered literally a single religion: Islam.

What’s more, I’m perfectly capable of going to UCSB’s religious studies web page to see what PhD’s are available:

This program is for students transferring to UCSB with a Master’s degree in Religious Studies or its equivalent and preparing for or other careers for which a doctoral degree is desirable. Concentrations are offered in the following areas: Philosophy of Religion, Religion and Culture, Buddhist Studies, Mediterranean Religions, South Asian Religions, East Asian Religions, Religion in America, and Native American Religions.

One can only wonder why all those specific PhDs in religion are available if a Sociology degree that incorporates a single religion will suffice.  When pressed on his PhD, why does Reslan not say it’s in Sociology with a focus on certain aspects of Islam rather than saying he has a PhD which suggests, by Facciani’s own standard (dissertation), PhD work in the Western Religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism)?  We’re left to wonder if this is Reza just being coincidentally vague or being intentionally vague to mislead people.  Going with the first option seems awfully charitable (and the latter is what I claimed in my original post).

Facciani continued:

And yes [Aslan] does teach creative writing now, but he previously has taught courses on religion.

I followed that link.  You should follow that link.  It links to a lecture Aslan gave at the University of Iowa in 2002 titled After Afghanistan, but does include the line:

 In August of 2000, Aslan was named the visiting professor of Islamic studies at the University of Iowa. In that capacity, he has taught courses in Introduction to Islam, Gender and Human Rights, and Religion and Politics in the Middle East.”

So yes, Aslan has taught some religious courses specifically on Islam in the Middle East while he was getting his Masters in Creative Writing from Iowa .  This, so far as I can tell, is the only time Aslan has taught anything regarding religion and it was specifically about Islam.  This does nothing to rescue the claim that Aslan has a PhD in Western Religions, but I guess it does mean that at one time he could’ve been called a professor of religion.

But remember the full quote from Reza we’ve heard on several occasions:

“I am a professor of religion including the new testament, that’s what I do for a living.”

Of all the times we’ve heard this from Reza (and they are legion), one was in the Fox News interview discussing his book Zealot.  Zealot was released in 2013, but Aslan was a visiting scholar at the University of Iowa from 2000-2003.  So when Aslan made this claim he most certainly was not a professor of religions doing it for a living (and it’s questionable if teaching courses as a visiting scholar counts as “doing it for a living”).  That is flat out false on its face, which was the whole point.

Reza said “I am a professor of religion,” not “I was a professor of religion,” or “I taught some intro level courses on Islam while I was getting my Creative Writing degree.”  This is important because Reza said this in response to the Fox interviewer (dumbly) asking why he’d write a book about Jesus when Aslan was, himself, a Muslim (which is stupid as hell because Muslims can write books about Christianity and vice versa).  Reza says he is a professor of religion (which he wasn’t) and has a PhD in Western Religions (which he doesn’t) to paint himself as having academic bona fides outside of Islam (which he does, but to a far lesser degree).

So if that conversation had run honestly, this is what it would’ve looked like:

INTERVIEWER:  Why are you, a Muslim, writing a book about Jesus?

ASLAN:  Well, I’m not just a Muslim, I briefly taught Intro to Islam, also Religion and Politics in the Middle East while I was getting my degree in Creative Writing.  I also have a PhD in Sociology that incorporated my understanding of Jihad.

But that’s not how it went down, probably because it wouldn’t have had the effect Aslan desired.  Hell, Aslan could’ve said he had an undergrad in Religion or a Masters in Theological Studies that covered religions outside of Islam and it would’ve been true.  But that just doesn’t have the same ring as saying you’re a professor of religion for a living.  This is the very definition of misleading people.

And why should this surprise anybody?  Aslan has tried more recently to pass himself off as a professor of religion, but even those attempts are also dishonest:

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.

Facciani goes on to cite Aslan’s PhD advisor at UCSB, Mark Juergensmayer:

But don’t just take my word for it, here is a quote from his PhD advisor Mark Juergensmayer:

“Since I was Reza’s thesis adviser at the Univ. of California-Santa Barbara, I can testify that he is a religious studies scholar. (I am a sociologist of religion with a position in sociology and an affiliation with religious studies). Though Reza’s PhD is in sociology most of his graduate course work at UCSB was in the history of religion in the dept of religious studies. Though none of his 4 degrees are in history as such, he is a “historian of religion” in the way that that term is used at the Univ of Chicago to cover the field of comparative religion; and his theology degree at Harvard covered Bible and Church history, and required him to master New Testament Greek. So in short, he is who he says he is.”

Ok, so Aslan’s PhD advisor is taking up for Aslan.  I think his arguments suck, primarily for all the reasons I’ve given above, but let’s examine this.

Juergensmayer’s testimony that Aslan is a historian is contradicted by the fact that , “[Aslan] has never attained a degree or had professional training in history, and has never even taken an elementary course in historiography for that matter.”  It seems Juergensmeyer is equivocating on the word “historian” meaning Aslan has taken some history courses when that’s clearly not how Aslan is using the word.

This has been pointed out in several places by several experts, such as Elizabeth Castelli a (current) professor of religion who has published numerous peer-reviewed works in her field (compared to Aslan who has published hardly any):

To the extent that he did coursework in the UCSB Religious Studies department, he can certainly lay claim to preparation in the history-of-religions approach. Although this approach was influential on the study of the New Testament and early Christianity in the first two decades of the twentieth century, it has had little impact in the decades since.

Aslan’s broader claim to working as a historian, however, is another matter. Frankly, he would probably have been cut a good deal more slack by specialists had he simply said that he was working as an outsider to the field, interested in translating work by scholars of early Christianity for a broader audience. But his claims are more grandiose than that and are based on his repeated public statements that he speaks with authority as a historian. He has therefore reasonably opened himself to criticism on the basis of that claim.

Hrm, perhaps Castelli should stop saying these things and learn how academia works.  Castelli goes on to give several examples and reasons why it is wrong for Aslan to make the claims he does:

Aslan does not claim to be engaged in literary analysis but in history-writing. One might then expect his reconstruction of the world of Jesus of Nazareth to display a deep understanding of second-temple Judaism. Yet, his historical reconstruction is partial in both senses of the term. For example, he depends significantly on the testimony of the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, taking it more or less at face value (which no scholar of the period would do).

So yes, Juergensmeyer makes apologetics for Aslan, but he’s roundly contradicted by experts who don’t have a personal relationship with Aslan (and who don’t have a vested professional interest in Aslan not looking bad).  Juergensmeyer and Aslan also have differing excuses for why Aslan moved to the Sociology department from the Religious Studies Department:

“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.

Lots of people take courses in religion, but that doesn’t give them the right to call themselves honest if they run around saying they have a PhD in Western Religions – especially if their dissertation in sociology covered only a particular concept in a single religion.  There are people in the world with actual PhDs in Western Religions, so Aslan could’ve gotten one if he so wished.  He clearly didn’t for one reason or another.  He could say he has a Sociology Degree that incorporated Islam – in fact, saying otherwise gives the impression that his dissertation (which Facciani even says is the marker for one’s PhD expertise) covered something else (which, let’s be real, was Aslan’s intention).  Reza could say he has a Masters in Theology from a prestigious university.  He could argue how those things lend him credibility (they do), but to say he has a degree he doesn’t has the opposite effect.

I mean, can you name any people with PhDs in Western Religions saying they have a PhD in Sociology?  Me neither.

Look, Aslan is educated.  Nobody, including myself, has said otherwise.  But like Dan Arel said, any way you slice it this guy is misleading people to prop himself up.  Nobody’s saying that Aslan’s knowledge base is zero or that he doesn’t have any education in religion (and it boggles my mind that the people hacked off about my initial article seem to only be rebutting those two assertions that nobody made).  Nobody is even saying you can’t make contributions to a field that isn’t necessarily your own.

But the guy is obviously willing to mislead people about his credentials.  That’s the charge that was levied and I don’t think it’s been sufficiently rebutted.  What’s more, as I said in my first post, Aslan probably wouldn’t feel compelled to do this if his arguments spoke for themselves.

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