Bill Maher’s Islamophobia
By Nayyer Ali MD
The noted comedian and HBO show host Bill Maher got into a heated exchange with the actor Ben Affleck last week over Islam. Bill Maher is a liberal, he is not the usual right-wing Muslim-basher that populates talk radio and various dimly lit corners of the internet, but when it comes to Islam, he holds extremely critical views. He claims that Islam is the only religion that kills those that criticize it. In fact, he said Islam is “the only religion that acts like the mafia” because “they will (expletive) kill you if say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book .” Affleck attacked him for basically being ignorant and racist.
So is Maher right? Does he have a point? And if he is wrong, in what way is he wrong? Obviously I think Maher completely misses the boat here. The fundamental and obvious error that Maher has fallen into is the idea of “essentialism”, namely that there is an “essence” of Islam that is within every Muslim in every place and every time, and that this essence is fundamentally intolerant, misogynistic, authoritarian, and illiberal, and that it therefore makes perfect sense to criticize Islam as such.
This gets to a more fundamental question: can we speak about any religion as having an essence that exists independent of its adherents? How do we define any religion? Is it based on texts (and some religions have highly complex, multiple, and contradictory texts), or do we define a religion based on the behavior of its adherents? And if the latter, which believers would count? We certainly can’t know about all of them, so who do we pick as being the most “true” to their religion? And why should we limit ourselves to the present day, should we not look at how previous generations understood and practiced their religion?
For example, during much of Christian history, women were viewed as inferior beings, non-Christians were heavily discriminated against, Jews confined to ghettos, and in Europe over 100,000 women were burned alive for being witches. Now no Christian today would see that as being a true representation of the message of Jesus in the Gospels, but why can’t we judge Christianity based on its worst adherents and practices in the past and not its best in the present? Maher would certainly concede that religions are capable of change, and that communities can come to understand their religion in a way different than it was understood in the past. Christians in the antebellum American South certainly saw slavery as a completely acceptable practice, but that belief is gone with the wind.
So what about Islam? Is Islam somehow different than other religions in that it does have an unchanging essence that has persisted for 1400 years and has managed to permeate widely disparate societies and cultures and yet remain unchanged in the process? That does defy logic, doesn’t it?
In fact, the evidence of massive social change in Muslim societies is all around us, and Bill Maher has to have his eyes forcefully closed to not see it. Half the world’s Muslim populations now lives in democracies. The young generation that brought the Arab Spring to Tunisia and Egypt are in fact very liberal compared with their parents. The world’s four largest Muslim countries have all elected women as Prime Minister. Even in Iran and Saudi Arabia, women make up the majority of university students. The majority of medical students in Pakistan are women. The American Muslim community is very liberal in its outlook, and votes overwhelmingly Democratic. The elite press in many Muslim countries have a liberal editorial bias (certainly the leading English language papers in Pakistan are all liberal).On the flip side there are many, far too many, extremely conservative Muslims. But what is interesting about even the most extreme Salafists and Al-Qaeda supporters is that they too have evolved as Muslims. The Qur'an does not forbid slavery, though it does encourage the freeing of slaves and gives no legal basis for enslaving people. Despite that, throughout Muslim history slavery was widely practiced. But even the most conservatives Muslims today would agree that slavery is rightly banned and should not be permitted. So if they can concede that Muslims can evolve a more refined sense of justice over time with regards to slavery, why is that not permissible for a whole range of issues, from democracy to the death penalty?
Maher is absolutely correct that the Muslim world as a whole has a long way to go. I would love to see the day when every Muslim society is a liberal democracy with equal rights for all, but America wasn’t that in 1776, it has taken 240 years and a bloody civil war in the middle of that to reach our current state. The pace of change in the Muslim world, where most societies are 1 or 2 generations removed from pre-modern agricultural or nomadic subsistence with near universal illiteracy, has been almost too rapid. It is this bewildering and disorienting ongoing transformation that feeds the forces of reaction and conservatism. The Ayatollah Khomeini was trying to stop the massive change that was wrenching a modernizing Iran. But even he has failed; Iranians if given a choice would toss out the mullahs and become a democratic society, as the protests after the 2009 election made clear.
The problem with Maher is that he seeks to make universal judgments about a religion, when all we can really do is judge the behavior of its adherents. No religion can be evaluated outside of that, not even Islam. Just consider the varied opinions of the Shia ayatollahs. While Khomeini pushed the idea that the clergy were the only legitimate rulers, there were other Iranian ayatollahs who totally disagreed with him and supported real democracy. In Iraq, the Shia clergy have stayed out of politics and not formed a party, though that has not stopped the descent into communal violence that has wracked Iraq for ten years. I am a liberal Muslim, why does my view of my religion hold any less weight than that of the barbarians who decapitate people or fly planes into buildings? Or is it that my Islam is politically incorrect?