In a recent episode of Real Time With Bill Maher, host Bill Maher and guest Sam Harris expressed concerns that there is a repression of human rights in the Muslim world, especially with regard to freedom of expression, religion, gender equality and rights for homosexuals. Maher notes that few liberals address these problems with Islam, though they are eager to take issue with the conservative Christian right, who have sought to impede freedom of expression in some instances; propelled battles against women’s reproductive rights, both in terms of abortion rights and limiting access to birth control; and vehemently opposed marriage equality. At no time do either Maher or Harris suggest that all Muslims adopt totalitarian, misogynist, or homophobic beliefs, but when responding, guest Ben Affleck accused Maher and Harris of making ‘gross’ and ‘racist’ statements. The sad fact of the matter is that whilst trying to come to the defense of Islam, no doubt with the best of intentions, Affleck showed not only that he fails to understand the words he uses, but also fails to listen to what Maher and Harris were actually arguing. Instead of asking them to defend what they said, Affleck asked them to defend what he thought he heard.
Before addressing Affleck’s assertion, it is important to understand exactly what Maher and Harris are arguing. First, Harris is “not denying that certain people are bigoted against Muslims as people.” Harris recognizes that this bigotry is a problem. He is not attacking the Muslims, but rather the ideas and doctrine of Islam, stating that the “crucial point of confusion is that… we have been sold the meaning of Islamophobia where every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry towards Muslims as people.” Criticizing ideas that people choose to believe is different from attacking people because they belong to a category. Harris believes that there is a “link between doctrine and behaviour”, as demonstrated by the fact that 78% of British Muslims believe that Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard should be prosecuted for his illustrations featuring the prophet Mohamed. This overwhelming majority believes in suppressing freedom of expression, and this is in a liberal country. These stats, coupled with what Harris describes as an overwhelming number of Muslims who keep “women and homosexual immiserated” is cause for concern and criticism that he feels liberals are reluctant to offer for fear of sounding Islamophobic. Harris suggests that these problematic behaviours need to be addressed, and that “we have to empower the true reformers in the Muslim world to change” the ways in which the doctrine of Islam negatively impacts human rights. Ultimately, Harris argues that we “have to be able to criticize bad ideas”, and that “Lying about the link between doctrine and behaviour is not going to” facilitate progress.
Whilst laying out this argument, Harris is repeatedly interrupted by Affleck, who, rather than listen to what Harris said, projects meaning onto his words. Affleck begins by asking a question of Harris: “Are you a person who understands the officially codified doctrine of Islam?” The answer, in short, is yes. He is a scholar who has spent a great deal of time researching this, and though, like all humans, Harris is fallible, there are problematic pieces of scripture in the Qur’an that promote violence (though there are passages that promote peace as well), just as there are instances of prescribed violence in the Bible. Criticising either text for the violence they prescribe and opposing those who adopt these prescriptions is a reasonable position. Affleck, though, claims that Harris is arguing “that Islamophobia is not a real thing”, but Harris never makes any such claim. He states that people conflate criticism of the ideas in Islam with prejudices against the people of Islam. Affleck then claims this imagined argument is ‘gross’ and ‘racist’, stating that the argument Harris and Maher are putting forward what amounts to saying “Black people, you know…” Affleck does not finish the analogy, likely because it is a flawed one. Claiming that criticizing people who choose to adopt a certain belief or logic is the same as criticizing people who are through no choice of their own are born a different colour, is not in the least bit analogous. Criticizing somebody who chooses to be homophobic is not the same as criticizing somebody for being Black. In one instance you are criticism a person for ideas they have chosen to adopt, in another you are prejudging them for something that is beyond their control. Affleck continues to grasp at straws when he claims that criticising the doctrine of Islam is like suggesting that all homosexuals commit cannibalism because of the example put forth by Ted Bundy. Of course, Bundy was neither homosexual, nor did he indulge in cannibalism. I assume that Affleck meant to reference Jeffery Dahmer, a homosexual serial killer who ate his victims, but this confusion demonstrates Affleck’s reactionary and unthinking response to the debate. Affleck seems to lump all serial killers together, making generalizations about their sexual preference? When Harris mentions ISIS once toward the end of the conversation, Affleck states that “ISIS couldn’t fill a double-A ball park” and that Harris makes “a career out of saying “ISIS, ISIS, ISIS”. Given that international intelligence has no firm numbers on ISIS, Affleck assertion that their numbers are a meager few thousand it would take to fill a AA stadium seems like an underwhelming guesstimate based on nothing, unless he is talking about ISIS the Egyptian goddess, in which case, you my be correct Mr. Affleck! Numbers for ISIS actually reach as high as 50 000 according to some reports, and those same reports attribute almost 2000 deaths in Iraq during the month of June, 2014. Affleck‘s figures seem to be minimizing the threat ISIS poses to the people of Iraq. If Affleck doesn’t think ISIS is a significant threat, then he’s likely been spending to much time at comic conventions in preparation for his role as Batman and has confused the the group ISIS with heroine. As to Affleck’s claim that Harris has made a career out of saying ‘ISIS, ISIS, ISIS’, it is blatantly false. Not only did Affleck mention ISIS four-times more than Harris had up until that point of the conversation, but Harris has had an academic career that has been in existence far longer than ISIS and has covered a range of topics outside of Islam.
Affleck engages in the same behaviour when ‘debating’ with Maher. When Maher suggests the troubling nature of a poll in Egypt that suggested 90% of Muslims in that country feel that capital punishment is an appropriate response to a person leaving Islam (an article from the Washington posts suggests the numbers are closer to 60%, which is still frighteningly high), Affleck says that he wouldn’t use the word ‘all’ to describe them. The issue is that Affleck’s response implies Maher is suggesting this applies to all Muslins, which is not Maher’s claim. It also shifts the focus. Where Maher and Harris argue that the cultural problems impeding human rights in the Islamic world extend beyond a few extremists, Affleck argues that such antiquated barbarism is only present in a small minority. When Harris and Maher offer stats suggesting that in some countries these attitudes reflect that of a majority, Affleck shifts his argument to state that is it not reflective of ‘all’ instead of a ‘majority’. The Maher/Harris argument is not that the majority of Muslims believe in murder, but that the prevalent interpretation of the doctrine inhibits human rights. Affleck takes issue with this claim, but as Harris and Maher provide context and evidence, Affleck changes his argument to state that the Majority of Muslims don’t believe in murder. The problem is that murder is not the only issue. There are issues with equality and voting rights for women, and prison or corporal sentences for people whose sexual orientation does not conform to the prescriptions offered in the Qur’an, among many other issues. Maher and Harris are concerned with all of these things, but Affleck reduces his initial argument the claim that the majority of Muslims do not believe in murder, which is not the argument that was being put forward. Affleck then asserts that “More than a billion [Muslims]…. don’t do the things that [Maher says] all Muslims do.” Of course, Maher at no point claims that all Muslims are guilty of anything, and when Maher asks Affleck about his belief about a billion Muslins who are not extremists or jihadists (not to be confused with Jyhad, the poor man’s Mage: The Awakening) inhibiting human rights, Affleck is more than happy to generalize about every single one of them by stating that they are innocent of such charges . This is consistent with Affleck’s defensive and reactionary tone throughout. When Maher, for instance, suggests that if there were a group of people kidnapping other people, he would criticize ‘that’. Affleck responds that he would not criticize and entire nation of people, but Maher didn’t say he would criticize ‘them’, as in the people, but ‘that’, as in the act. Affleck fails to note the difference and conflates criticisms of an act or an idea with criticisms of a category of people. Affleck, in both his arguments with Harris and Maher, proves nothing other than the fact that he fails to listen and carefully consider his words.
The most articulate voice outside of that of Harris, is that of Nicholas Kristof. Though Affleck’s misguided voice does influence how Kristof interprets the words of both Harris and Maher, he raises some important points. He admits that though it “is certainly true that plenty of fanatics and jihadies are Muslim… the people who are standing up to them” are also Muslim. He notes three fine examples in Malala Yousafzai, who promotes education for Muslim girls and women, Mohammad Ali Dadkhan, who was imprisoned for nine years for defending Christians, and Rashid Rehman Khan, a Pakistani lawyer who was shot and killed for defending apostates (aka: people who leave Islam). The problem with these examples is that they actually prove what Harris is arguing. Malala, a young girl who was simply going to school, was shot in the head in a failed assassination attempt because of the staunch opposition to the education of women in that part of the Islamic world. The reason she has had to promote education for Islamic women, is because they are often denied the right to education. In her journeys, she has needed body guards because the violent response is so dangerous. As for Mohammad Ali Dadkhan, he was not assassinated by a rouge jihadist, but rather was imprisoned by the government for representing Christians and opposing their persecution, demonstrating the prevalence of the issue of oppression based on religion. Rashid Rehman Khan, another example of a Muslim attempting to reform Islam and secure human rights for all, was shot and killed for defending apostates. Far from suggesting that the jihadists are the ‘fringe’, these examples actually suggest that the moderates are the underwhelming minority. Maher, for his part, contributes another commendable name among the Islamic community, noting that Ayaan Hirsi Ali puts her life in danger in her opposition to the tradition of female circumcision mutilating female genitalia, a common practice in some regions in the Islamic world. In campaigning against this practice, Ayann Hirsi Ali, who identifies as an atheist though she was born in an Islamic community, actually has to bring body guards with her to protect her because the opposition is that prevalent. Michael Steele (who I actually kind of like despite the fact he’s a Republican), adds onto Kristof’s observations, observing “there are [Muslim] voices that are often times raised in opposition… but they don’t get covered”. They do get coverage, such as is the case with Malala, whose autobiography received significant coverage in the media, but the reason such Muslims don’t get as much coverage is because they are a minority in places like Saudi Arabia and Iran and their opposition is against the dominant culture in the Islamic world. It is not only fringe terrorists, but also many political leaders in the Islamic world who repress the freedom of religion and expression, and as Harris puts it, ‘immiserates’ women and homosexuals.
Affleck’s comments amount to race-baiting and reactionary ignorance. He displays an utter lack of understanding of the word ‘race‘, which though complicated, certainly does not apply to instances where people choose to adopt a certain world view. The concerns expressed by Harris and Maher about the doctrine of Islam are legitimate. Anybody who values freedom of expression, and religion, and believes in equality for women and members of the LGBT community, cannot look at the Islamic world and suggest that is it the template of progress. The oppression that is present is not simply the result of a few extremists, but of a culture supported by systemic and legislative processes the strip humans of their rights. There is a reason to be concerned with the prevalence of certain ideas that are commonly held in the Islamic world, but this is not to say that bigotry against Muslims is acceptable. Living in Canada I have had the great fortune to develop friendship with a great many Muslim people who have inspired me with their stories struggle in the face of oppression. I have met brilliant and independent Muslim women and men who promote tolerance and try to improve the world for all people, regardless of one’s faith. I know Muslim men who support the education of their wives and their daughters, and I know Muslim women have receive support in their education from the men in their lives, but this does not mean that there are not issues present in the global Islamic community that deserves consideration. Harris and Maher are discussing the problems of adopting certain ideas; Affleck tries to makes himself look like a hero by race-baiting a legitimate concern whilst slandering both Maher and Harris and failing to address the issues they have raise. It seems clear that Affleck had the best of intentions, but ultimately he makes himself look like a reactionary fool. All that said, it would have been nice to see Maher invite somebody from the Muslim community to take part in the conversation.
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