On the October 3rd episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, Ben Affleck joined the panel to — in part — promote his new film Gone Girl. Sam Harris, a tactful advocate of atheism and human rights, joined the panel to promote his new book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion when Bill Maher nudged the conversation toward this topic of Islam and Harris responded by saying,
“We have been sold this meme of Islamophobia, where every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry toward Muslims as people,” which Harris used to reference Liberals’ reluctance to criticize the proportion of otherwise conservative Muslims who retain sexist and homophobic beliefs.
Affleck went on to prove Harris’ point by positing that Harris was painting the entire religion of Islam with ‘broad strokes’ and that it was “racist” like calling someone a “shifty Jew” then summed up Harris’ argument by saying “Your argument is ‘you know, black people, they shoot each other.’” While Affleck may have misused the word ‘racist,’ and, in my opinion, behaved like a dickhead rather than an adult, he appears to either have good intentions or be overeager to take any opportunity to solidify a baseless claim to high-brow tolerance.
I don’t use ‘high-brow tolerance’ as a slap to Liberals at all, for all intents and purposes, I consider myself a Liberal. I voted for Obama, I’m pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, pro-equality for women, pro-1st Amendment, all of that. I grew up with a multi-ethnic group of friends; I’m half-Mexican, I celebrated Persian New Year and Korean New Year. I don’t say these things to paint myself as a pompous or noble ‘citizen of the world,’ but to say that even in my rather sheltered suburban upbringing, I’ve seen and heard racist and bigoted remarks thrown at my friends and in defending them I’ve become reflexively sensitive to those issues.
The argument Harris made, in its entirety, struck no ‘racist’ or ‘bigoted’ chord with me, but it was dragged through the muckraking gutter as Harris took potshots from Liberals and pundits eager to defame his character to supplement their own agenda. I can’t believe I just said the word ‘agenda,’ I feel like I’m sounding like Bill O’Reilly and it’s freaking me out. I DVR The Colbert Report and The Daily Show and laugh at how pathetic Fox News is, and it’s no surprise that they’re in support of Maher and Harris, but keep in mind these two are routinely brought on Fox News to be ridiculed.
What you should be saying right now is “Who the fuck made you the judge or what’s racist or bigoted?”, and I agree with you, as well as commend your healthy skepticism. I’m a 24-year-old with a desk job submitting articles to Thought Catalog without a monetary incentive, so here’s someone with ethos: Nicholas Kristof. He’s a Harvard graduate, Rhodes Scholar, two-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and contributor to the New York Times. He was on the panel and defended Affleck at the time of the debate, then wrote this five days later:
A few days ago, I was on a panel on Bill Maher’s television show on HBO that became a religious war.
Whether or not Islam itself inspires conflict, debates about it certainly do. Our conversation degenerated into something close to a shouting match and went viral on the web. Maher and a guest, Sam Harris, argued that Islam is dangerous yet gets a pass from politically correct liberals, while the actor Ben Affleck denounced their comments as “gross” and “racist.” I sided with Affleck.
After the show ended, we panelists continued to wrangle on the topic for another hour with the cameras off. Maher ignited a debate that is rippling onward, so let me offer three points of nuance:
First, historically, Islam was not particularly intolerant, and it initially elevated the status of women. Anybody looking at the history even of the 20th century would not single out Islam as the bloodthirsty religion; it was Christian/Nazi/Communist Europe and Buddhist/Taoist/Hindu/atheist Asia that set records for mass slaughter.
Likewise, it is true that the Quran has passages hailing violence, but so does the Bible, which recounts God ordering genocides, such as the one against the Amalekites.
Second, today the Islamic world includes a strain that truly is disproportionately intolerant and oppressive. Barbarians in the Islamic State cite their faith as the reason for their monstrous behavior — most recently beheading a British aid worker evoted to saving Muslim lives — and give all Islam a bad name. Moreover, of the 10 bottom-ranking countries in the World Economic Forum’s report on women’s rights, nine are majority Muslim. In Afghanistan, Jordan and Egypt, more than three-quarters of Muslims favor the death penalty for Muslims who renounce their faith, according to a Pew survey.
The persecution of Christians, Ahmadis, Yazidis, Bahai — and Shiites — is far too common in the Islamic world. We should speak up about it.
Kristof just swallowed his pride and conceded that “we should speak up about it.” In this day and age, when journalists would rather avoid an issue than risk losing part of their audience, that’s incredible.
In an attempt to further my ethos argument, let’s look at what some notable comedians are saying about the issue. Now, I know that this may seem like a drop-off from Kristof’s statement, but comedians — like Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart who have yet to comment on the issue — are hyper-sensitive interpreters of semantics and social-commentary:
Adam Carolla: “Hey, um um, progressive folks on the left, here’s a group that are flying in the face of everything you stand for in their treatment of homosexuals and women and everything else, so let’s see if we can focus on that a little bit. And everyone goes ‘That’s racist.’ And it’s like, racist?”
Jim Norton in Response to Ben Affleck: “That’s just such a childish, typical like, limousine-liberal fuckin’ attitude…[we do have Muslims who listen to the show.] Yes we do, and I’m sure that they would understand that there is a homophobia in Islam and that there is violence in Islam and I don’t think they’re going to deny that.”
The discussion on October 3rd ripples onward and now UC Berkeley has begun a petition to disinvite Maher’s deliverance of their commencement speech, which will take place on the 50th anniversary of the Berkeley Free Speech movement. Maher replied to the protest last week by saying, “I guess they don’t teach irony in college anymore,” and “who ever told you you only had to hear what didn’t upset you?” These comments engendered applause from Maher’s liberal audience, which begs the question: has the pendulum swung so far left that liberals are becoming the joke?
Why do we have such itchy trigger-fingers when it comes to the Christian or Western oppression of women and homosexuals yet hesitate to make the same critiques of Islam when we’ve been given the statistics? I think it’s part of the guilt and shame we feel for the dark turn humanity took in the aftermath of 9/11. That fear and indignity manifested in stereotyping and racial profiling. It’s taken years of conscious effort to admonish a dilution of that misunderstanding, and it’s something of which we’ll never wipe our hands clean. As a people, we regressed. It’s a chip on all of our shoulders.
We were merely children then, we were incapable of change but now we are. I’m proud of the progress this generation’s made by encouraging and bending perspectives towards equality. I’m liberated by the enthusiasm and political involvement provided by the digital age, the opportunity each of us have to make our voice heard. The access to knowledge, challenging of hypocrisy, refusal to settle into history’s blueprint are all steam powering this engine of progression. Let’s never settle or cower away from critiques where warranted. Let’s not become the joke.