Last Friday Dr. Reza Aslan was interviewed by Lauren Green of Fox News on his recent book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.
Bigotry reigned as Green repeatedly asked Aslan why as a "Muz-lim" he would write a book about Jesus, whom she referred to as "the founder of Christianity."
As an American academic scholar, whose work supports secularism in Islam, freedom of conscience, freedom of expression and human rights for women and sexual and religious minorities, he replied:
"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. So it's not that I'm just some Muslim writing about Jesus, I am an expert with a PhD in the history of religion..."
That wasn't all Aslan said:
Meanwhile, as Aslan's interview took place, halfway around the world, another secular Muslim, with values similar to those of Aslan, sat in a Saudi prison, awaiting his sentence.
His crime? Attempting to liberalize religion in Saudi Arabia and criticizing religious police.
His name? Raif Badawi.
On Monday, Badawi, founder of the Liberal Muslim Network and Free Saudi website, was sentenced to 600 lashes and seven years in jail.
(Muslims for Progressive Values has issued a statement from all its affiliates, including us here in Canada, condemning the Saudi government's actions against Badawi which are both in contravention of UN agreements to which Saudi Arabia is signatory and against Islam. We also ask Muslim organizations, international leaders and individuals of conscience to join us to demand Saudi Arabia allow Badawi's immediate and safe release.)
What do these two men have in common?
They are Muslim. They are secularists. They are advocates for freedom of expression and human rights.
And they have been told to stay silent.
It means freedom of expression, the cornerstone of a democracy, is at risk in America, a place we love to believe is a model of freedom and human rights for the world.
If a leading secular American academic scholar in religion, who happens to be Muslim, cannot talk about religion -- any religion -- without coming under fire, then who can?
Is this now the sole job of the Christian Right?
The demise of freedom of expression in America is particularly dangerous in our small connected world where freedom of expression and freedom of conscience is extinguished in order to maintain the dictatorship of Saudi Arabia whenever and wherever possible.
Especially since Saudi Arabia upholds itself as a model society of the Muslim world.
Because in a place that does not permit churches, temples and synagogues to be built, if Muslims in Saudi Arabia cannot even demand alternative interpretations of Islam, silencing leaders like Badawi, feeds the dangerous ideology held by terrorists, that all other belief systems in the world, all other ways of life, must be extinguished.
Silencing moderate Muslims will not make the world a better place.