The media was abuzz this week as clips of Bill Maher, host of Real Time with Bill Maher, and actor/director Ben Affleck, from Argo among other films, participating in a heated debate over “Islamaphobia” circulated the web. The argument centered on the pertinent topic of how we, as Westerners, shape our perceptions of Islam and Islamic society.
Frankly, the debate was a distraction: two self-proclaimed liberals arguing on separate planes. The dialogue between the celebrities was empty rhetoric; they both came off as ill-informed while poorly defending their positions. The argument begins when Maher points out that he does not have an issue with the Islamic people, but rather, his problem lies with the values that are inherent to the religion. Maher, deriving his validation from “expert” Sam Harris, author of Waking Up, berates the Islamic stance on prejudice toward women, homosexuals and non-believers as both depraved and vindictive.
He argues that there is an innate malevolence to the doctrine, so the religion, and by extension, subscribers to the religion, deserves to be discriminated against. Of course, he says this all with his usual supercilious, cocksure grin plastered across his face.
This infuriates Ben Affleck who, as a famous actor, has a duty to perpetual sanctimony. Affleck looks like he has just seen the box office numbers for Gigli, and he comes out swinging. He starts by questioning the authority of Sam Harris, asking him how he has the nerve to go speaking on Islamic doctrine of which he knows nothing about! Sam Harris swiftly diffuses this claim by assuring the crowd of his credentials.
Affleck then proceeds to reprimand Maher for his inciting comments. He calls Maher a “racist Islamaphobe” and equates his remark with calling someone a “shifty Jew” (Yes, Maher is Jewish). Affleck has the support of two dowdy politicians who make a couple of hollow points, but basically his argument primarily consists of attacking Maher as a racist. He points to all of the peaceful Islamic people who are contributing great things to the world (Chobani!).
The debate continues like this for a while, with the two trading barks and contradicting each other with dubitable statistics. Maher condescends to Affleck and Affleck lashes out at Maher, however, no actual progress is made. While Maher concedes that not all Islamists are radical jihadists, a term that is thrown around far too often, he maintains that the religion is highly problematic and does not deserve the sympathy that it is being treated with. He asserts that their hostile standards counter our Western, liberal values and that they can not be tolerated.
Conversely, Affleck basically holds the noble claim that no one person should be discriminated against; however, his lack of knowledge surrounding Islam renders his entire argument weightless. The truth is nuanced. Every politician and journalist wants to espouse his or her personal view on how to effectively handle the Islamic world but hardly anyone has an intricate understanding of Islam.
Firstly, both Maher and Affleck referred to Islamists who enforce their position through the use of violence as “jihadists.” The Islamic State, Hamas, Hezbollah, Boko Haram, etc. are all militant Islamic groups that use force in order to implement their will.
Regimes such as Mubarak in Egypt or Ben Ali in Tunisia are political Islamist systems that served as single party units that mobilized the interests of the autocrat. They too used force, but this is more of a human rights issue than an Islamic issue, though it is all related.
If you watch what has happened over the past four years since the Arab Spring, you’ll see that most of the people living in these countries are not radical; they are just trying to live and are in constant fear of the secret police.
The flaw with the debate between Maher and Affleck is that they oversimplify the issue. It is foolish to claim, as Maher does, that the Islamic religious doctrines are problematic (what religious doctrine is not?). There are stipulations that contradict our liberal values intrinsic to every religion; however, the common law reigns supreme. Also there are those who observe Sharia law by utilizing “Itjihad,” which translates to applying human logic. It is not a religious thing as much as it is a human thing.
Globalization is still a relatively young and highly flammable concept. People are resistant to change and it is incredibly arrogant to think that we, as Westerners, can fix their society through forcing our values on the Islamic world. Rather one must work within the society to gain an acute understanding. There is no easy solution, and that is why there is so much confusion clouding the surrounding dialogue. Morally, though, the situation is fascinating. What is worse: coercing a people to adopt your values or standing and watching while they violate your entire ethical framework?