It seems as though every writer, who has ever made any criticisms of Islam of any kind, has found himself in the following debate in one form or another:
Writer: Though I believe generalizing all Muslims as terrorists is wrong, many immoral ideas can be found in Islamic holy books, and can lead to the problematic behavior of many of those who hold those ideas to be, not only true but, the infallible word of God.
Liberal: But many evils things can be found in the Bible too. Why do you never criticize Christianity?
Writer: I do, all the time.
Liberal: But not all Muslims are terrorists.
Writer: Of course not. I never said that.
Liberal: But in your book you wrote “We should fight against ALL MUSLIMS.” That’s RACIST!
Writer: That is out of context. I wrote “We should fight against all Muslims who are committing genocide.” And Muslims are not a race. They are people who share common beliefs, not physical characteristics.
Liberal: That’s not what the meme on Facebook said. And for the record, I know many Muslims that are really nice people; they are not all terrorists like you keep saying.
Writer: Have you ever even read any of my books?
Liberal: We are out of time.
It seemed that for many years, after the attacks on the twin towers on September eleventh 2001, an honest and necessary debate could be take place concerning religious faith and its consequences on individuals. Now, in 2014, the debate seems to be taking steps backwards.
There is undoubtedly one overarching problem in the world today that must be dealt with, that of religious violence, particularly religious violence inspired by Islamic dogma. Conservatives and Liberals have different approaches to this problem, but both share one essential common characteristic. Ignorance of Islam. I would preface this with saying, I alone am not the only one educated on Islamic studies and the Muslim world, nor am I claiming to be all-knowing on the subject. I do believe however, that given the importance of Islam, and the relationship between the East and West, there has not been enough emphasis on actually educating the public on the subject. Presently, opinions are abundant, yet knowledge is limited. Given the importance that Islam holds as the second most important religion in world, and its significance in our geopolitical atmosphere, Islamic studies (or a generalized religious studies course) should be a required part of education, especially before graduating high school. How many teachers are telling their students that they should “Read the Qur’an.”, “Read the history of Middle East.”, or “Learn the recent history of key middle eastern countries.” Crossings paths with a non-Muslim who has read the Qur’an is rare to none. However, it is naturally every liberal’s desire to be on the right side of, not only any debate but, every debate. Unfortunately, some debates require more knowledge than others. While it is not necessary to understand the biological implications of melanin on pigmentation to know that Black men and women deserve equal rights, it is necessary to have a basic understanding of economics before making any substantial evaluation on the pros and cons of capitalism versus communism. Yet, some modern liberals would prefer ‘Political Correctness Made Easy’, and no better solution for such dilemmas is held higher than that of Tolerance. It is commonplace to believe that any increase in tolerance can only lead to a better outcome. However, when offering infinite tolerance to bad ideas, one can only expect adverse results.
This brings us to the recent debate on Islam between Sam Harris, Bill Maher and Ben Affleck, in which Affleck accused Harris of being “Racist”. Affleck seemed to be very aggressive as soon as Harris began speaking, and accused him of racism within in the first 70 seconds of his comments. Looking over many articles, you will find many misapprehensions to what actually was said in the debate and when. Though many news outlets claimed that Affleck’s racism claim was in response to Harris saying “Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas”, or claiming that his accusation was directed towards Bill Maher who said that it’s the only religion that “acts like the mafia”, Affleck actually made this accusation prior to the “mother lode” and “Mafia” comment, and prior to any comments Maher had made at all. The dailymail.co.uk for example began their article with:
“Ben Affleck clashed with Bill Maher during a heated discussion on Islam where the controversial TV host claimed being a member of the religion is like being in the Mafia.
The Oscar-winning director was also appalled when author and guest on the talk show Sam Harris said the Muslim faith was the ‘motherload of bad ideas’.
The trio, appearing on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher on Friday, collided while debating whether large numbers of the Muslim population share the beliefs of jihadists.
It led to the actor saying: ‘It’s just an ugly thing to say. It’s gross, it’s racist. It’s like saying: “Oh you shifty Jew”.’”
So what did Harris actually say that merited being called a racist? Harris’ first commented:
Harris: “The crucial point of confusion is that we have been sold this meme of Islamophobia, where every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry towards Muslims as people, and that’s intellectually ridiculous.”
Affleck: “Hold on, are you the person who understands the officially codified doctrine of Islam? You’re the interpreter of that?”
Harris: “I’m actually well-educated on this topic.”
Affleck: “I’m asking you; you’re saying that Islamophobia is not a real thing.”
Maher: “Well, it’s not a really thing when we do it. It really isn’t.”
[*I can only assume when Maher said “Not when we do it.” he meant that he, unlike others, makes a distinction between violent Muslims and moderate Muslims.]
And after already being interrupted by Affleck at this point Harris reiterated:
Harris: “I’m not denying that certain people aren’t bigoted against Muslims as people, and that’s a problem.”
Affleck: “That’s big of you.”
Maher: “But, why are you so hostile about this..”
Affleck: “It’s gross. It’s racist. It’s like saying ‘shifty Jew.’”
“I’m not denying that certain people aren’t bigoted against Muslims as people, and that’s a problem.” was the last comment Harris made before his words were described by Affleck as being “gross and racist”, and similar to people speaking pejoratively about Jews. As the debate ran its course it seemed that no matter how many times Sam Harris clarified his opinion “Not ALL Muslims” Affleck was simply unwilling to hear it. Media websites everywhere, that branded Affleck comment heroic, felt it inconvenient to quote Harris in this respect. In fact, dozens and dozens of major news outlets decided to omit this sentence from their articles, including CNN, Salon, Rawstory [1 and 2], The Daily Beast, Politico, TIME Magazine, US Magazine, The Guardian, NY Daily News, Mediatie, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, Japan Today, News.com.au, CNS News, The Times of India.
There were, in fact, some pretty blatant omissions of what Harris said before being called a racist. For example, The Telegraph:
“…criticism of the doctrine of Islam is conflated with bigotry towards Muslims as people. Which is intellectually ridiculous.”
Affleck was angered by his comments, questioning Harris’ interpretation.
“You are saying that Islamaphobia is not a real thing?” he said. “It’s gross, it’s racist. It’s like saying ‘that shifty Jew’.”
Harris replied: “Ben, we have to be able to criticise bad ideas. And Islam at this moment is the motherload of bad ideas.”
And by Aljazeera:
“..criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry towards Muslims as people. It’s intellectually ridiculous.”
Affleck came back solidly: “Hold on – are you the person who officially understands the codified doctrine of Islam?”
On Maher and Harris’ stereotyping, Affleck continued, “It’s gross and it’s racist. It’s like saying ‘Oh, you shifty Jew!”
thenational.ae decided to reframe the conversation:
“Affleck interrupted, asking: “So let me understand, are you the person who understands the official codified doctrine of Islam? You are the interpreter of that?”
Harris said: “We have to be able to criticise bad ideas … and Islam right now is the mother lode of bad ideas.”
This article by CNN decided to not give any quotes by Harris at all. The only legitimate news site that provided an undistorted version of the conversation (from what I searched at least) was CBS News.
Towards the end of the debate Sam Harris, obviously frustrated with Ben Affleck who had already compared him to people bigoted against Jews, Gays, and Blacks, made a final effort to clarify:
Harris: “Let me just give you what you want. There are hundreds of millions of Muslims, who are nominal Muslims, who don’t take the faith seriously, who don’t want to kill apostates, who are horrified by ISIS, and we need to defend these people, prop them up, and let them reform the faith.”
All of this was of course lost on the angry ears of the very agitated actor, who responded nonsensically:
Affleck: “ISIS couldn’t fill a Double A ballpark in Charleston, West Virginia, and you’re making a career out of talking about ISIS, ISIS, ISIS.”
Despite attempts at clarification, the floodgates have opened with an abundance of articles praising Ben Affleck for having defended all Muslims against the racist and bigoted comments of those who condemn all Muslims in their entirety. Cenk Uygur, of the online show The Young Turks, said in a video:
“Sam Harris says ‘Aaaa, the other religions I don’t know about, but MUSLIMS are ALL responsible for EVERYTHING in the Koran’. That’s just not true. Now I guarantee you, he will say and you guys will say ‘you’ve miss represented him again’.”
Other authors in the media have decided to take the racist accusation, and push it even further. Amanda Marcotte of Salon now has an article titled “Sam Harris doesn’t know anything about feminism, decides to set feminist priorities anyway” in which she refers to Harris as a “Classic Mansplainer”. What did Harris say that warranted this? Apparently because in his opening comments on Real Time, he said:
“Liberals have really failed on the topic of theocracy. They’ll criticize white theocracy, they’ll criticize Christians. They’ll still get agitated over the abortion clinic bombing that happened in 1984. But when you want to talk about the treatment of women and homosexuals and free thinkers and public intellectuals in the Muslim world, I would argue that liberals have failed us.”
Of course, it is obvious to everyone, except Amanda Marcotte, that Harris was saying that liberals should be as outraged by violence against Muslim women as they are by abortion clinic bombings. Marcotte’s simplification takes no account of the importance that Sam Harris, for example, has given to stem cell research.
Parallelly, Reza Alan and CJ Werleman have been rehashing old accusations against Sam Harris, such as he promotes “A nuclear first strike against the Muslim world” or “Killing someone just for just having bad ideas”. A meme that was taken out of context and created years ago by Chris Hedges, and Harris, despite all efforts, has not been able to kill off the meme. Notice the repetitive use of similar talking points by Chris Hedges in 2008, and now CJ Werleman and Reza Aslan in 2014, when speaking about Sam Harris’ position on religion.
So, is there a need for the term Islamophobia? Perhaps there is. Some authors attribute it to receiving rather rude and unwarranted remarks. There are also those in the extreme right-wing who generalize all Muslims as being evil, and/or potentially violent for simply being a Muslim. Any such comments must be met with, not only a correction of the facts, but ridicule. Though, what they actually know about Islam, or Muslims, is probably as little as any politically correct liberal. They begin by first misrepresenting a problem, and conclude with exaggerating the solutions. Nonetheless, the polar opposite to such ignorance should not be, cannot be, and must not be, an utter shutdown of all religious criticism as a whole.
“You’ve offended over a billion Muslims” is what you will hear when authors write books, or artists draw cartoons, offending the faith.
Christopher Hitchens saw this coming some years ago. That criticism of Islam will be met with terms like ‘Islamophobia’ and ‘racism’; and will function as muzzle on those who blaspheme against it.
“This is very urgent business ladies and gentlemen, I beseech you. Resist it while you still can, and before the right to complain is taken away from you, which will be the next thing. You will be told ‘You can’t complain’ because you’re Islamophobic. The term is already being introduced into the culture. As if it was an accusation of race-hatred or bigotry. Where it is only the objection to the preachings of a very extremist and absolutist religion. Watch out for these symptoms. They are not just symptoms of surrender, very often ecumenically offered to you by men of god in other robes, Christian, and Jewish, and smarmy ecumenical. These are the ones who will hold open the gates for the barbarians. The Barbarians never take a city till someone holds open the gates for them, and it’s your own preachers who will do it for you, and your own multicultural authorities who will do it for you. Resist it while you can.”
Pakistani-Canadian author Ali A. Rizvi wrote in his article “The Phobia of Being Called Islamophobic”
“In an increasingly effective move that’s fast become something of an epidemic, I can shame you into silence for criticizing my ideas simply by calling you bigoted or Islamophobic.
In addition to calling out prejudice against Muslims (a people), the term “Islamophobia” seeks to shield Islam itself (an ideology) from criticism. It’s as if every time you said smoking was a filthy habit, you were perceived to be calling all smokers filthy people. Human beings have rights and are entitled to respect. But when did we start extending those rights to ideas, books, and beliefs? You’d think the difference would be clear, but it isn’t. The ploy has worked over and over again, and now everyone seems petrified of being tagged with this label.”
There have already been attempts by many Muslim leaders to have a law passed by the United Nations that would make blasphemy illegal everywhere. But of course, getting western liberals to censor themselves against any ill-speaking of Islam could just be the next best thing.
Reza Aslan, in response to a criticism of Islam by Bill Maher on Real Time, appeared on CNN. Aslan pointed out that while the media likes to highlight that women cannot drive in Saudi Arabia, they continually ignore Muslim majority countries like Indonesia, which Aslan claims to be havens of perfect gender equality.
Aslan: “I just told you that in Indonesia women are absolutely 100% equal to men.”
Reza highlights Indonesia multiple times in the interview as a principal example of a Muslim majority country that does not oppress women in the ways we typically might associate with other less evolved Islamic states like Iran or Saudi Arabia. For example, forcing women to veil themselves, not allowing women to drive automobiles, or making women undergo virginity tests like in Egypt. So what does the Human Rights Watch’s 2014 World Report say about “Women’s Rights” in Indonesia? It says as follows:
“A gender equality bill first submitted to parliament in 2009 remained stalled in 2013 due to opposition from Islamist politicians.
Meanwhile, discriminatory regulations continued to proliferate. An August update by Indonesia’s official Commission on Violence against Women reported that national and local governments had passed 60 new discriminatory regulations in 2013. Indonesia has a total of 342 discriminatory regulations, including 79 local bylaws requiring women to wear the hijab. As of July, the Ministry of Home Affairs had signaled its intention to revoke only eight of them.
These regulations include one banning women from straddling motorcycles—only riding side-saddle is permitted—in Lhokseumawe, Aceh. In neighboring Bireuen, a local regulation prohibits women from dancing. In Gorontalo, Sulawesi Island, the government transferred its entire female support staff to other offices in July, replacing them with men as part of an initiative to discourage “extramarital affairs.”
In August, an education office in Prabumulih, southern Sumatra, cancelled plans to have high school girls undergo mandatory “virginity tests” to tackle “premarital sex and prostitution.” Despite a public outcry, plans are afoot to introduce similar tests in Pamekasan, East Java.”
Under “Freedom of Expression” the report noted:
“On July 2, Indonesia’s parliament enacted a new law on NGOs that infringes on rights to freedom of association, expression, and religion. The law imposes a variety of vague obligations and prohibitions on NGO activities, severely limits foreign funding of NGOs, and forbids NGOs from espousing atheism, communism, Marxist-Leninism, beliefs deemed contrary to Pancasila*, the state philosophy.”
[*Pancasila is the the official philosophical foundation Indonesian, consisting of five main points, the first being “Belief in the one and only God”.]
“The United Nations is reviewing Indonesia’s human rights record. It should call on President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to crack down on extremists and protect minorities. While Indonesia has made great strides in consolidating a stable, democratic government after five decades of authoritarian rule, the country is by no means a bastion of tolerance. The rights of religious and ethnic minorities are routinely trampled. While Indonesia’s Constitution protects freedom of religion, regulations against blasphemy and proselytizing are routinely used to prosecute atheists, Bahais, Christians, Shiites, Sufis and members of the Ahmadiyya faith — a Muslim sect declared to be deviant in many Islamic countries. By 2010, Indonesia had over 150 religiously motivated regulations restricting minorities’ rights.”
I wonder if Reza would find this information, as he put it, “stupid” as well.
Religion of Peace
In its most basic form, people like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and the late Christopher Hitchens, simply argue that the bad ideas, when held by people as firm beliefs, can have violent outcomes.
When criticizing Islam, which will include both the bad ideas of the Qur’an and Muslims who act on them, so called “Moderate Muslims” have every right to say these ideas are not part of their beliefs and that they do not condone those ideas written in the Qur’an. However, the problem in the conversation arises when the bad ideas of the Qur’an are not recognized as existent. Debates on the topic of religion frequently find themselves in the realm of,
“There are no violent passages in any religious holy books in the history of mankind, and any quotations you mention are out of context, mistranslations, cherry-picking, or signs that you might be a closeted bigot.”
If both sides of the table cannot recognize reality when it is in printed black and white form, the conversation is essentially over.
On March eleventh 2011, Bill Maher had on as guest U.S. Representative Keith Ellison, who was the first Muslim to be elected into Congress in 2006. When pointed out by Maher that many terrorists are inspired by violent passages in the Qur’an, Ellison responded, “They’re not getting it from the Qur’an” and that “taking books out of context is a very easy thing to do.” Ironically, to defend his point on the passivity of the Qur’an, his cites the passage that reads,
“Anyone who takes a life it’s as if he has killed the whole world. And anyone who saves a life it’s as if he saved the whole world.”
Though, there is a problem. The Qur’an does not say that. What it says, in its entirety, in Sura 5 “The Feast (Al-Mã’edah)” verse 32, is:
“On account of [his deed], We decreed to the Children of Israel that if anyone kills a person– unless in retribution for murder or spreading corruption in the land– it is as if he kills all mankind, while if any saves a life it is as if he saves the lives of all mankind. Our messengers came to them with clear signs, but many of them continued to commit excesses in the land.”
Verse 33 goes on to say:
“Those who wage war against God and His Messenger and strive to spread corruption in the land should be punished by death, crucifixion, the amputation of an alternate hand and foot, or banishment from the land”
[*M. A. S. Abdel Haleem 2004 translation]
Of course, I do not mention this quote as a way of proving “Islam is a religion of violence!” That cannot be done in a blog post, nor would it possible to do so by citing a few specific passages from the Qur’an, or any book. I do make mention of this passage to reinforce my right, and the right of any reader of any book, to observe proposed ideas and make judgments without being reduced to ‘racists’ or ‘bigots’. It is he who makes judgments completely void of all knowledge or experience that is defined as prejudice. To say that the dogmas of an entire religion are ‘violent’, or are ‘peaceful’, without even knowing what they are, is in itself a pre-judgment.
It’s NEVER about Religion
Another group who suffer from intellectual dishonesty are those who claim,
“There are violent passages in the Qur’an, but they have nothing to do with any violence or discrimination in Islamic countries or Muslim majority countries. These are the product of American foreign policy, poverty, Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in occupied territories, oil interests, the military industrial complex, ANYTHING but religion.”
I have yet to understand how people, who rationalize religious terrorism this way, find these factors to be the driving force behind the Taliban destroying the Buddhas of Bamiyan, or ISIS destroying ancient mosques, or their killings of Yazidi men, women and children. How does American foreign policy lead a Shia Muslim to blow myself up in Sunni mosque full of Muslim women and children? What exactly is going through the mind of a man who gets on a school bus and shoots a 15 year old girl in the face? It appears no matter how loud violent voices claim religion as their main motivator, political correctness demands deaf ears listen.
Moreover, when bringing up such occurrences you will nevertheless come across the never-endings rebuttal that has been drummed to death by every apologist,
“Most Muslims are not terrorists. Most are nice people just like you and me. I know many Muslims and have been to many Muslim countries and they were very kind. How can you compare these people to terrorists? I think you just hate Muslims, that’s your problem.“
Obviously, a peaceful Muslim does not logically equal a peaceful Qur’an, or a peaceful religion. Many Muslims have never even read the Qur’an in any language (79% of people in Pakistan are illiterate). It is not, nor should it be, enough to meet a nice communist to conclude whether or not communism is a useful economic system. It is not enough to meet a lovely group of Anti-Vaccination believers in order to determine whether or not vaccines cause Down syndrome. I, for example, live in Santiago, Chile, and Chilean people (in very general terms) are tremendously racist against different ethnic minorities, particularly Blacks or Asians, and openly so. However, it is not a stretch of logic to believe, as I do, that Chilean people are extremely kind and hospitable, while at the same time holding their racist beliefs in contempt. Indeed anyone, from any western country, in all likelihood has meet at least one Christian family who perhaps is deeply homophobic, or does not believe in any form of sexual contraception, or believes that creationism should replace evolution in science classrooms. This Christian family might be the most delightful family that has ever invited you into their home, but this is not to say that their beliefs on specific subjects do not fall under scrutiny, nor should it be free from criticism no matter how offended they might feel. Pointing out bad ideas, that small or large quantities of people hold, is not an attack on their personality or affability, it is only an attack on an idea.
Addressing the Problem
When confronting the problem of religion, in this case specifically Islam, there must be separate solutions to separate problems. The solutions we apply to confront the actions of ISIS, cannot be the same solutions to convincing any quantity of Muslims that the punishment for apostasy should not be death. Evidently, our first reaction should be to rationally converse with those who hold erroneous ideas, and convince them through logical argument that the opposite of what they believe is true. Nonetheless, political correctness must be held at bay when presented with the situation of ISIS fighters holding hostage a few thousand Yazidi families at the top of a mountain, waiting for them to come down, only to slaughter them for paganism. The correct response in such moral dilemmas is not to debate, but the military defense of those who cannot defend themselves. Yet, those who hold the belief that the punishment to apostasy should be death, is one of many ethical problems that the world must address as well. Sadly, the solution to such moral dilemmas becomes lost in circular logic during debates that go round and round the same talking-point with no advance towards betterment.
Person A: “Many Muslims believe that the punishment for apostasy should be death, and we have to figure out how to deal with that problem.”
Person B: “But not ALL Muslims believe that.”
Person A: “I never said all Muslims.”
Person B: “But you implied it.”
When author Ayaan Hirsi Ali was invited to speak at Yale University, the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA) sent a letter in protest, signed by various campus organizations. Among them, surprisingly, was the Yale Undergraduate Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics club (AHA). In their post, justifying the censorship of Hirsi Ali from Yale, they explained,
“As a diverse group of undergraduates with a membership that includes ex-Muslims and atheists from Islamic cultures, we do not believe Ayaan Hirsi Ali represents the totality of the ex-Muslim experience. Although we acknowledge the value of her story, we do not endorse her blanket statements on all Muslims and Islam.”
Exactly when and where has Hirsi Ali, or anyone else, ever claimed that she “represents the totality of the ex-Muslims”, or that she has ever made statements that generalizes “All Muslims”?
Both Sides of the Table
Watch this conversation for a long enough time and you will see that at the far end of the table you have the intolerant conservative who much rather Muslims would just go away, and if they could make that happen by just bombing all of them, they would be all the happier. Oppositely, on the Liberal end of the table, we have those who believe that all problems can be solved with infinite tolerance of all religious ideas as a whole. No war, no violence, merely an understanding that different people have different beliefs, and should any violence occur, it bears no connection to religious beliefs what so ever.
Conversely, there are real liberals, and even conservatives, willing to have an honest debate, but it is those Muslims who are taking a sincere look at their religion, and attempting to make true reform, that should be “propped up” as Sam Harris said. For example, in a recent article by Pakistani author Sameen Qazi she wrote,
“We, Muslims, love to comfortably deny any criticism thrown towards us regarding extremist elements by simply saying that it is an insignificant minority, and what that extremist minority does neither represents the true picture of Islam, nor do they have popular support for their actions. This brushing of issues under the carpet, which make us uncomfortable, neither helps us nor the image of Islam in the world. Thus, the moderate majority (if that exists), does very little to collectively counter the extremist narrative and therein lies our problem.
As Muslims, we need to stop brushing aside every criticism as Islamophobia, we need to listen to opposing voices, and deal with the rising intolerance in our societies.”
[*Notice that the picture of Sameen Qazi had to be blurred on her post.]
I do not believe for a moment that Ben Affleck had actually read any books or articles by Sam Harris prior to appearing on Real Time. In all likelihood what happened was (I am speculating) Affleck spoke with someone who is not a fan of Harris’ work and described him as a person who discriminates against all Muslims everywhere without exception. This drove Affleck to perform the noble deed of sticking up for Muslims by antagonizing Harris and calling him out as a “racist”. It really didn’t matter what Sam had said in the past, or was saying at the moment, and no amount of clarification was going to save him.
At this point Affleck has dug a hole so deep for Harris, no matter how hard he tries to get out, the hole will only get deeper. Websites will have declared Affleck a hero for defending Muslims against ignorant bigotry, critics of Harris will seize the opportunity to rehash any made-up slander they can dish out, and no matter how many times Sam Harris says, or writes, “I don’t believe all Muslims are terrorists” hundreds of websites and blogs, will have quoted him as saying “Harris hates all Muslims.” Fortunately, Sam Harris is already an accomplished writer and has been around long enough that he has made his own beliefs extensively clear in print and in person. Though, those who were previously unfamiliar with Harris might find their first impression of him to be “That guy who Batman called a racist”.
Bad ideas cannot be solved by encompassing all people who hold those ideas and yelling out “Bomb them!”, but they equally cannot be solved with overcompensating political correctness and tolerance, and shouting “Racist bigot!” when any criticism is given.