Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Bill Maher's Attack on Islam (and facts)

When uneducated, socially conservative, Christian fundamentalists attack Islam and Muslims, I am neither surprised nor particularly interested. It’s inevitable that among the ignorant and the bigots in America (of which there are many) opinions like that are going to be held. Likewise, when far-right political parties in Europe take anti-Muslim stances, it’s to be expected. It doesn’t interest me that much because I don’t have much respect for the opinions of those groups. However, when intelligent people who call themselves liberals, and with whom I agree on a number of issues, start attacking Islam in ways that go beyond any rational justification, I do feel some need to speak out, and that’s what I’m doing right now.

I want to take as a particular example Bill Maher’s recent anti-Islam rant, because it nicely captures the phenomenon I’m talking about. It’s already been pretty well refuted by Reza Aslan, so I might end up reiterating some of his points, but I’d like to expand on what he said a little. Now, I like Bill Maher, and I agree with him the vast majority of the time—I think his recent reaction to our new war in Iraq was spot-on, for instance. But when it comes to Islam, he starts to sound like people I agree with a lot less of the time, like Sam Harris or the late Christopher Hitchens, both defenders, at least to some extent, of the Iraq War (the second one, that is). Now, before I dissect his tirade, I’d like to make it clear that I’m not arguing for holding Islam to some standard other than any the one I’d hold any other religion to; I’m not a Muslim, nor do I agree with Islamic orthodoxy. But Bill Maher and some of the other outspoken atheist personalities are painting a picture of Islam that’s absurdly oversimplified, and are using criticism of Islamic dogma as a pretense for attacking Muslims as people.

Maher starts by arguing that due to its views on apostasy, adultery, etc. the “Muslim world” has not only common ground with ISIS, but too much common ground. He
casually claims that “vast numbers of Muslims” believe in the death penalty for apostasy. He cites absolutely nothing to back this up, but that’s not even really the point. The real issue is that he fails to take into account the various countries and cultures from which these “vast numbers” of Muslims hail; take Turkey, a country of over 76.5 million people where Muslims make up over 98% of the population; in that country, support for making Sharia law the law of the land is a paltry 12%, based on a Pew poll released in 2013; among that twelve percent (half of whom think Sharia should only be applied to Muslim citizens even if it is made the law of the land), support for stoning as a punishment for adultery is only 29%, and support for the death penalty for leaving Islam—i.e., apostasy—is only seventeen percent. That means among the whole population, support for either of those is in the low single digits. Let’s keep in mind that in America’s golden age during World War II, around thirteen percent of our population supported the extermination of the Japanese race, man, woman, and child; Turkey suddenly seems pretty enlightened, doesn’t it? And, if you look at the poll yourself, you’ll find the results are similar in plenty of other Muslim countries.

But that’s just the beginning. Maher goes on, talking about how the “rule of law” is better than theocracy—okay, fair enough. But what evidence is there that Islam necessitates theocracy? Lebanon, Turkey, Kosovo, and Albania (just to name a few) are majority Muslim states run as parliamentary democracies. As said before, support for making Sharia the law of the land in countries like these is often quite low. So in what way is it fair to equate Islam with theocracy? The fact that there exist Islamic theocracies is no more indicative that Islam promotes theocracy than is the fact there exists atheist states that repress religion indicative that atheism necessitates state suppression of religion.

Maher’s talk of “rule of law” is just another part of the problem; he talks about “liberal Western values” earlier in the segment, too, but there’s sort of an issue with that whole idea: those “liberal Western values” are for Us, not Them. That’s been true from early on, when everyone had unalienable rights except for slaves or Native Americans, naturally. Granted, the “Us” has expanded from propertied white males to all citizens of the United States (to at least some extent), but the United States’ sphere of influence has expanded even more. Our “liberal Western values” have resulted in us supporting—sometimes personally installing—autocratic, authoritarian, and even genocidal regimes. Oh, and probably the worst Islamic theocracy, Saudi Arabia? We support them. The Taliban? We created them. It’s fine if Bill Maher wants to say the Muslim world doesn’t live up to the values that he holds dear—it doesn’t live up to the values that I hold dear, either—but if Maher honestly thinks the values the West has historically represented, and continues to represent, are better than the Muslim world’s, he needs to learn about American history from somewhere other than high school textbooks.

Maher goes on to talk about how in order to count as a liberal, you have to stand up for liberal values—again, fair enough. He then comments that “It amazes me how here in America we go nuts over the tiniest violations of these values while gross atrocities are ignored across the world.” Let’s take a look at the examples he cites. First, he cites how homosexual acts are punished by death in ten countries. True. But let’s keep in mind that anti-gay laws aren’t exactly exclusive to Islamic countries; Uganda—an overwhelmingly Christian country—recently passed a harsh anti-gay law. Further, while in every Muslim country there’s certainly progress to be made in terms of LGBT rights, there are promising events in some of them. In Albania, for instance, gays and lesbians were granted the right to serve openly in the military in 2008, when Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was still in effect for the United States, and a hate crime law has been passed which surpasses anything in effect in the US as well. Albania—a country where almost six out of ten people are Muslim—has also signed onto a UN Declaration supporting LGBT rights. Granted, Albania’s rights and protections granted to LGBT people extend beyond most of the other Muslim countries, but there are similar protections in some, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo.

Maher’s homophobia accusation provides a particularly interesting chance to examine the real origins of homophobia in many Islamic cultures. The Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim world notes:
Whatever the legal strictures on sexual activity, the positive expression of male homeoerotic sentiment in literature was accepted, and assiduously cultivated, from the late eighth century until modern times. First in Arabic, but later also in Persian, Turkish and Urdu, love poetry by men about boys more than competed with that about women, it overwhelmed it. Anecdotal literature reinforces this impression of general societal acceptance of the public celebration of male-male love (which hostile Western caricatures of Islamic societies in medieval and early modern times simply exaggerate).
In fact, it appears the current homophobia may be the legacy of intervention from those Westerners Maher is so fond of.

Maher’s next point is the supposed sexism of Islam; he cites Saudi Arabia as an example of Islamic oppression of women. Again, Saudi Arabia (a US ally as mentioned before) is probably the worst Islamic state, so using it to indict Islam is about as fair as using Uganda to indict Christianity. There are Muslim countries that have substantial numbers of women in government right now, and have had women as their heads of state. How many female heads of state has the US had? Oh, right—zero.

He then moves on to discussing female genital mutilation, ignoring the fact that that’s a problem that happens throughout Africa, including in Christian countries, and is by no means prevalent in every Muslim country. A particularly outlandish remark is made here, when Maher ridicules the argument made by Yale’s atheist group that Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a victim of FGM, doesn’t “represent a totality of the ex-Muslim experience,” by asking whether they mean the women who like mutilation. Perhaps worse than this remark is the utter non-response that it has elicited. Imagine that Bill Maher had mocked the idea that someone who had been molested by a clergyman doesn’t represent the ex-Christian by asking, “Meaning what? The people that liked being molested?” The outrage would have been enormous. Or what if he’d sarcastically asked if representing the ex-Jewish experience fairly meant finding someone who “had liked having his foreskin cut off?” The Anti-Defamation League would have pitched a fit.

Furthermore, there’s a better explanation to the lack of liberal outrage at these facts than some refusal to criticize Islam—these things aren’t happening here, in the country we’re supposed to be in control of. I haven’t heard a great deal of outrage from Bill Maher about North Korea’s prison camps—is that because he refuses to criticize an atheist country? Or is it maybe that what’s happening across the world, and which we have little, if any, control over, isn’t worth pointlessly raising hell about?

Maher accuses his fellow liberals of siding with people who “hold women down and violate them,” but this is just utter nonsense. There are no liberals defending female genital mutilation or oppression of women; there are just liberals who recognize that the attitudes of people like Bill Maher and Sam “at war with Islam” Harris will do nothing but hate-monger. You don’t defeat an ideology by attacking those who abide by it. The anti-Islamic sentiment of people like Harris and Maher is demanding that every Muslim abandon their religion if they want to fight against Islamic extremism and terror groups like ISIS. But convincing the Muslim world that the West really does hate their religion and want to wipe it out is not a recipe for some secular paradise; it’s a recipe for failure. Maher might think he’s being boldly truthful and politically incorrect, but he’s actually just incorrect, and he might want to consider doing research before he gratuitously attacks the religion of 1.6 billion people.

Note: This blog post was edited to change the description of Harris and Hitchens as "avid supporters of the Iraq War" to the current description as "defenders, at least to some extent, of the Iraq War." This was done after research on the subject revealed that Harris has not so much voiced support for the Iraq War (let alone avid support) as much as he has simply tried to argue it could be justified in some way on humanitarian grounds, and generally attacked those who opposed it. I apologize for the error.

No comments:

Post a Comment