How to Become a Left-Wing Celebrity

Creative writing professor makes dubious claims, is worshipped for defeating bigotry

Creative writing professor Reza Aslan. (Wikimedia Commons)
• October 3, 2014 1:47 pm


My former college professor posted this Media Matters clip of Reza Aslan responding to a rant from Bill Maher, the comedian liberals adore right up to the minute he starts talking about Islam the same way he talks about Christianity—with disdain. Aslan is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, but he’s also regarded as an expert on religion, apparently, and judging by the 7.4 million views for this particular clip, he also seems to be a minor intellectual celebrity.

The Media Matters headline reads: "You need to watch this: Reza Aslan calls out the media for generalization and bigotry when reporting on Muslims." Salon made it the video of the week: "Reza Aslan takes down Bill Maher’s ‘facile arguments’ on Islam in just 5 minutes."

Basically, Aslan wants the media to stop using Saudi Arabia to make generalizations about violence and women’s rights in Islamic societies. He calls that "the definition of bigotry." There are plenty of Muslim countries, he argues, that are less violent and more respecting of women’s rights than Saudi Arabia, and it’s wrong to generalize.

Because his CNN arbiters don’t really know what they’re talking about, Aslan appears to be DEMOLISHING his opposition, and striking a decisive blow for all who oppose bigotry. This explains why so many liberals loved the video, and proceeded to wet themselves in the Facebook comments section.

i really dislike bigotry

an excellent scholar

destroyed those bigoted hosts

on a different level of intellect

tore those imbeciles a new one

a rare genius

Later on in the video, one of the hosts tried to make another generalization about "Muslim countries," but Aslan was having none of it. He unleashed a DEVASTATING riposte: "I just told you. [In] Indonesia, women are absolutely, 100 hundred percent equal to men," he says, and goes on to cite Turkey as another example of a Muslim country with a positive record on women’s rights.

He speaks with such confidence and indignation that it’s tempting to just nod along and not question whether what he just said is complete and utter bullshit—kind of like those 9/11 Truther videos. To be fair, the argument he's making is, on it's face, pretty uncontroversial: Saudi Arabia doesn't represent all Muslim countries, and overgeneralization can be a bad thing. But what about his specific claims that Turkey is a beacon of women's rights, and that in Indonesia, "women are absolutely, 100 percent equal to men"?

If that latter claim seems especially dubious, it’s because it is. From Human Rights Watch:


(Jakarta) – Indonesian women and religious minorities faced heightened discrimination in 2013 from the government’s failure to enforce human rights protections, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2014.

Indonesia’s government under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono should reverse course and enforce laws protecting religious freedom, Human Rights Watch said. Indonesia should amend or abolish hundreds of local bylaws that discriminate against women and religious minorities. The government should also release the dozens of political prisoners, mostly Papuan and Moluccan activists, imprisoned for peaceful dissent…

Indonesia’s official Commission on Violence against Women reported in August that national and local governments in Indonesia had passed 60 new discriminatory regulations in 2013 in addition to the 282 such rules already on the books. These include 79 local bylaws requiring women to wear the hijab, or head scarf. In August, H.M. Rasyid, a district education chief in south Sumatra, proposed that high school girls be subjected to mandatory "virginity tests" to tackle perceived problems of "premarital sex and prostitution." Raysid later insisted he had been misquoted – but similar tests were also proposed in East Java.

Absolutely equal, indeed. Sounds like a progressive paradise. Here's Reuters:

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Activists say local governments have introduced more sharia-based laws controlling how women dress, behave and work – eroding women's rights over the past few years in the world's most populous Muslim country.

The central government has been slow to react at best and complicit at worst, activists say, despite the laws contravening Indonesia's constitution and the various United Nations conventions it has signed up to.

Okay, but the government would never do anything crazy like banning women from straddling on motorbikes, would they?

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In Indonesia’s conservative Aceh province, an Islamist government has put women on notice that female passengers cannot straddle motorbikes because the "curves of a woman’s body" are too alluring unless they sit sidesaddle.

"Muslim women are not allowed to show their curves; it’s against Islamic teachings," the mayor of the Aceh city of Lhokseumawe told the Associated Press on Monday.

What about Turkey? Here’s the Huffington Post:

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ISTANBUL — There are few things that shock Pinar Ilkkaracan, one of Turkey’s most prominent women activists. For three decades, she has battled what she describes as stifling sexism and stubborn politicians. But in 2010, in a revealing moment she says still haunts her, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Ilkkaracan and dozens of representatives from Turkey’s top women’s organizations that he simply does not believe in gender equality. It was a shocking blow to her lifetime of work.

"Turkey is going in a very bad direction," Ilkkaracan, co-founder of a leading women's rights NGO, said with an air of defeat. "Erdogan is becoming more and more dictatorial. As long as he is here, it’s very clear: things will get worse for women."

In the '80s and '90s, a blossoming women’s movement emerged in Turkey, leading to protests against gender-based violence and the creation of new human rights groups. But the situation for Turkish women remains grim.

Okay, but at least women are still allowed to do normal things like laugh in public, right? From The Guardian:

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These are interesting times to be a woman in Istanbul. When deputy prime minister Bülent Arinç lectured women to refrain from laughing in public in an Eid al-Fitr address last week, women and men took to social media in protest.

Much of the remainder of Arinç's speech, however, in which he criticised "moral degeneration" in Turkey, reminding women to be "chaste", was no laughing matter.

The headscarf has been politicised ever since it was banned by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, and it still is now. Under the government of the religiously conservative Justice and Development party (AKP) the ban on wearing the headscarf in universities and public offices in recent years has been lifted. Prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan often patronisingly refers to women covering their hair as "my little headscarved sisters", while more Kemalist-minded Turks voice their fear about the new proliferation of conservative dress in areas they used to consider their domain: universities, parliament, fashion.

So, again, the basic premise of Aslan’s argument—don’t overgeneralize—is not controversial. But when he says things that just aren’t true, or makes broad generalizations when they happen to support his argument (e.g., Indonesia is a beacon of women's rights), Aslan is doing exactly what he accuses the "bigots" of doing. His adoring followers clearly don’t care because they want everything he says to be true, and presumably feel deeply that it is. See also: Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Remember: Bigotry is bad. It just gets confusing sometimes when anti-bigots have to whitewash persecution against one vulnerable population (e.g., women) in order to defend another.