Bill Maher’s Islam Problem

Talking about religion is hard. Talking about religion on television is even harder.

If you watched “Real Time With Bill Maher” last night, you probably saw his explosive segment with Nick Kristof, Ben Affleck, Sam Harris and Michael Steele.

Maher, who’s views on religion are inane and glib as what I really want to write here, is took the, suffice it to say, controversial stance that Islam is “the only religion that acts like the mafia, that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book.” To Maher, Islam is a religion of death and violence; as he said in a recent interview with Charlie Rose, it “is the center of the religion.” He continued: “To claim that this religion is like other religions is just naive and plain wrong,” as is evidenced by “[w]hen they do crazy things and believe crazy things, somehow it’s not talked about nearly as much.”

These are opinions, not fact, and while Maher is entitled to his opinion, he should make clear he’s an entertainer, not an expert by any stretch of the imagination. Does ISIS have a connection to at least some kind of Islam? Yes, but no more so than the FLDS did to mainstream Mormon, or even Christian, thought. Is jihad central to Islam? In my opinion and many other people’s opinions, yes, but that comes with a big “but.” Jihad can mean a lot of things. Traditionally, you can break it down to two distinct meanings: It describes the inner spiritual struggle (the “main jihad”) and the outer physical struggle against the unbelievers (the “lesser jihad”). Both are fairly characteristic of Abrahamic faiths and for a good reason. Conflict is a big part of our life, and engaging in conflicts, both metaphysical and physical, helps us carve out our own identities and come to terms with new ideas. A life without conflict is intellectually and spiritually boring.

All of this is basic stuff, and all of it is relevant to the debate or at least to how the debate is framed. None of it was actually brought up. That brings me to my main point: Maher, and to some extent Affleck, doesn’t want to actively engage with Islam in the first place. Both pick and choose who they want to talk about and who they want to represent Islam as a whole.

Cafeteria comparative religion, if you will.

Indeed, both define Islam nebulously in such a way to aid their own arguments, exemplified by the placeholder of the moderate Muslim — the Muslim who adheres religiously, pun intended, to what are perceived as inherently Western ideals — women’s rights, democracy, free speech, etc. The moderate Muslim walks in line with his/her fellow countrymen, and is, for all intensive purposes, the Muslim equivalent of the old adage “be a Jew in home and a man in the street.” S/he is quick to condemn the violence of those who claim to be Muslim as well and is quick to apologize.

Maher describes the “moderate Muslim” as a minority, Affleck a majority.

But a Muslim, just like a Jew, a Christian, a Hindu, a Buddhist, is a sum of many parts. We don’t know leads a person to embrace or eschew terrorism, but we know it’s more than one factor. Kristof puts it best: “The picture you’re painting is to some extent true, but it’s hugely incomplete.”

We can’t say it’s just Islam, just as we can’t say it’s just poverty, crappy civil society or anger at the Western foreign policy. Claiming it’s singularly one or the other is disingenuous and lazy.