Why Bill Maher Is Wrong About Islam

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As you’ve probably seen in the news of late, Ben Affleck and Bill Maher had something of a tête-à-tête on the latter’s TV show this week. The discussion came in the context of Waking Up , a book written by another of Maher’s guests, one Sam Harris, and specifically Harris’ view that liberalism has failed in its approach to Islam, and how “every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated into bigotry against Muslims as people.” We don’t often write about international geopolitics here on Flavorwire, but it’s worth looking at how the discussion unfolded, both because it took place between two prominent cultural figures on an HBO talk show and because the whole incident illustrates a fundamental problem with the way we discuss these issues.

Much of the discussion so far has been about how Affleck comes across as angry and hostile, and he does. But god knows you or I might do the same in the crucible of live TV. (One of the reasons I’m a writer is that I’m bad at elucidating arguments verbally but, hopefully, better at doing it in writing.) And look, Maher and Harris have a point — well, actually, they have half a point. They argue that “liberals should stand up for liberal principles” and that “people should be free to criticize bad ideas,” both of which are entirely correct. It’s when they start arguing that “Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas” that things start coming unstuck.

Criticizing Islam for the policies of, say, the Saudi Arabian government, or of the lunatic fringe of ISIS, is like blaming Christianity for the ghastly homophobic policies of the Ugandan government. Any religion is open to fundamentalist or liberal interpretations, and which becomes dominant is entirely dependent on the society in which that religion is practiced. This is not a defense of religion, per se — personally, I have little time for it — but I don’t think the principles of Islam are better or worse than the principles of Christianity, or Hinduism, or Wicca, or worshiping your cat. For the purposes of geopolitics, religion is basically a matter of choosing a team, and I don’t think it matters if it’s Team Allah or Team God or Team Whatever Else.

This is where Harris’ argument goes wrong. He’s firmly convinced that there’s something fundamental about Islam that encourages intolerance and violence. You can cherry-pick questionable phrases from the Koran that support this view, but shit, have you read Timothy 2:12 or Leviticus 18:22? (Or other fun parts of the Bible like Exodus 21:15 or Deuteronomy 13:7-12?) The Bible could be — and is — used to justify all sorts of evils. So can any other religious doctrine. I mean, shit, even Buddhists, whose faith has perhaps the most benign precepts of any mainstream religion or philosophy, are currently persecuting Muslims in Burma.

These are matters of culture, manifesting as matters of religion. At other times, Islam has been the faith of the world’s proudest and most developed cultures. From about 900 to 1200 AD, the Fatimid Caliphate was the most scientifically advanced and liberal place on earth, while the Christians in Europe were fumbling around in the Dark Ages. Islamic scholars have given us everything from the law of sines to the basis of optics to the numbers we use. They built the first university and were the first to formulate the scientific method. Was the preeminence of Islam at this time due to some inherent defect in Christianity? Of course not. It was because the prevailing socioeconomic climate allowed the Middle East to flourish.

Similarly, the climate to create extremism is only addressed via cultural change: education, the reduction of poverty, encouraging social mobility, abrogating global inequalities. Even if somehow Western liberals could wave a magic wand and make Islam disappear, they’d be disappointed by the results — demagogues would find another pretext for their beliefs, countries would find another reason to send their kids to war, and your average man on the street would find another god to worship.

Banging on about Islam being inherently violent or misogynistic or whatever else is basically saying that Those People are fundamentally different from us and can never be Like Us, which is precisely the sort of othering that’s been used to justify all sorts of atrocities throughout history. They’re a different color from us, they speak a different language, they worship a different god. Go and kill them. (And hey, while you’re there, take their land and resources!) Any religion is prone to being used this way in the right circumstances.

And the circumstances are right all too often around the world. Fundamentalism usually breeds in a climate of oppression and resentment, and it’s no accident that it has emerged in countries that are a) post-colonial, b) significantly less wealthy than the West, and/or c) under repressive regimes. Many of the latter are Western-backed, and solely for reasons of realpolitik — the continued existence of the House of Saud, for instance, whose brand of Islam is godawful and oppressive but tolerated because they provide the world with oil. Much of the Arab Spring was about removing such régimes. A lot of this, it must be said, can be traced back to Western foreign policies.

Blaming the West for the problems of the Middle East is simplistic, of course, but so is blaming the fact that the Middle East happens to be inhabited by Muslims. Maher and Harris are correct that we should be offended by the human rights violations that Maher cites — repression of women and homosexuals, lack of religious freedom, etc. I’ve never bought into the sort of cultural relativism that dictates that we shouldn’t criticize the actions of people in other countries because it’s “their culture” or whatever else.

But suggesting that these problems are an inherent property of Islam in particular, as opposed to an inherent property of an unhealthy society, is looking at the symptom rather than the cause. Conservatives are generally pretty happy to do that because it allows them to blame Islam rather than looking at deeper causes, which as often as not include the not-especially-invisible hand of the US, but we really should be able to expect better from self-professed liberals. If Maher and his ilk really cared about this stuff — or, let’s be honest, if they were a bit smarter — they’d look at all the causes for what’s happening in the Middle East.

Just saying, “Well, their book says this, so these people are always gonna be like that” suggests that the existence of Muslim extremists is a fact of life. It’s not, but if you want them to go away, you need to get rid of the conditions that breed extremism, and that’s hard. It’s easier just to blame religion and throw up your hands.

But doing so is in violation of the very liberal principles that Maher claims to support, because it’s a pretty egregious case of conflating the actions and beliefs of a hugely diverse group of people — we’re talking at least one-and-a-half billion people around the world here — with the actions of a few.

It’s important that religion doesn’t get off scot-free here — it’s clearly been used to justify all sorts of awful shit throughout history, and saying that society is to blame for everything is an abrogation of the responsibility of people who’ve done that shit. But it’s also important to see it in context. And it’s important to discuss this stuff without turning it into a Team A vs. Team B shitfight. There’s been more than enough of that already, and it helps no one. As long as we continue to see a certain cohort of people as fundamentally different from us, we will continue to have problems.