Bill Maher's atheist values: Why progressives must defend enlightenment, critique religious extremism

"Real Time" fall-out illustrates a debate between theocracy and rule of law and reason. Liberals must choose a side

Published October 8, 2014 10:59PM (EDT)

Bill Maher in "Real Time with Bill Maher"                          (HBO/Janet Van Ham)
Bill Maher in "Real Time with Bill Maher" (HBO/Janet Van Ham)

Bill Maher’s recent monologue on "Real Time" excoriating self-professed liberals for going soft on Islam -- hotly debated again last Friday with Ben Affleck and Sam Harris, and expounded on in this exclusive Salon interview -- might well serve as a credo for atheist progressives the world over.  He began by introducing a photo, originally posted on a social media site, showing a teenager in Pennsylvania mounting a statue of Jesus Christ in such a way as to create the impression that Jesus was fellating him.  Noting that it “may not be in good taste,” Maher declared that “there’s no picture that makes my heart swell with patriotism quite like this one.”

Why?  He explained that in the United States, with separation of church and state enshrined in the Constitution, the youth, on account of his sacrilegious prank, would not do jail time or face violence because “liberal Western culture is not just different, it’s better. . . . rule of law isn’t just different than theocracy, it’s better.  If you don’t see that, then you’re either a religious fanatic or a masochist, but one thing you are certainly notis a liberal.”

(In fact, Maher proved too sanguine about the supposedly religion-free workings of the U.S. justice system.  As punishment for the irreverent post, a court ordered the teen to do community service, observe a curfew, and stay off social media for six months.  Hardly comparable to facing a fatwa for drawing a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad, but indicative nonetheless of the worrisome pro-faith bias infecting at least courts of law in our supposedly secular republic.)

Maher included Barack Obama among those unwilling to talk straight about Islam, and rebutted the president’s repeated statements that ISIS is “not Islamic” by pointing out that “vast numbers of Muslims across the world believe . . . that humans deserve to die for merely holding a different idea, or drawing a cartoon, or writing a book.”  This means, said Maher, that “not only does the Muslim world have something in common with ISIS, it has too much in common with ISIS.”

Maher’s is no offhand opinion, but a blunt statement of fact.  A wide-ranging 2013 Pew Research Center poll, conducted between 2008 and 2012 in 39 countries, offered a deeply disturbing, unequivocal overview of the faith-based intolerance prevalent across much of the Muslim world.  Among other things, majorities of Muslims – varying somewhat according to region – favor putting to death apostates and adulterers, condemn homosexuality, abortion, and euthanasia as immoral, and believe that “a wife must obey her husband.”  Large minorities condone “honor killings.”  It should be noted that for practical reasons, the Pew Center could not survey Muslims in the repressive, highly conservative Gulf States (including Saudi Arabia, the homeland of Wahhabism), so, if anything, these numbers provide an excessively moderate summary of Muslim positions on issues progressives hold dear.

There can be no doubt about the wellspring of these nevertheless profoundly illiberal results.  Texts in the Koran and the Hadith (the sayings and teachings traditionally attributed to the prophet Muhammad) back every one of the retrograde, even repulsive, positions the Pew Center catalogued.  There are also passages in these writings that appear more tolerant, but the point is, Muslims looking to back up hardline interpretations of Islam do not lack for scriptural support.

Maher did not cite polls on his show – he is, after all, a comedian – but had he done so, he would have given doubters a way to verify the veracity of his monologue.  That left room for interpretation and dispute, or at least for what passes for such on cable news channels.  To decode Maher’s pronouncements about Islam, "CNN Tonight’s" hosts Don Lemon and Alisyn Camerota called on Reza Aslan, the author of "No God But God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam" and "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth."

To start the discussion, Lemon asked Aslan what he thought of Maher’s performance.  Jumpy and defensive from the start, Aslan quickly steered the discussion away from the gist of Maher’s monologue – that Islam does have a violence problem Western liberals need to be frank about – and toward Maher’s outrage at Female Genital Mutilation.  FGM, was “not an Islamic problem, it’s an African problem . . . a Central African problem,” Aslan asserted.  “Nowhere else in the Muslim, Muslim-majority states is [FMG] an issue.”

This is flat-out wrong.  Though the barbaric practice predates Islam, FMG occurs, as far as is known, in at least twenty-nine countries (among them Egypt, Kurdistan, and Yemen) across a wide swath of Africa and the Middle East, and beyond.  Muslims even exported the savage custom to Malaysia and Indonesia, where it is a growing problem.  Those working locally to eradicate FGM have, understandably, a good deal of trouble making it an “issue,” given the lack on openness in discussing sex-related topics in the countries involved, so the situation may in fact be worse than is now recognized.  And if it wasn’t originally Islamic, it has so been for fourteen centuries.  The Prophet Muhammad, in the Hadith, condoned it, even encouraged it (calling it an “honorable quality for women”) and ordaining only that it not be performed “severely.”

Aslan’s erroneous dismissal of FGM as a “central African problem” will help none of the tens of millions of girls and women who have suffered mutilation across the Islamic world, but it will give comfort to those who hope to continue butchering their victims without scrutiny from abroad.  Neither CNN’s hosts nor Aslan mentioned Maher’s call to liberals to stop ignoring the practice, nor did they bring up his pointed words about Yale’s craven, abrupt cancelation, earlier this year, of the invitation to speak sent to one of FMG’s most prominent victims, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the brave, Somali-born anti-Islam activist and writer.  Maher blames a misguided attempt at evenhandedness by the school’s “atheist organization” for the disinvitation, but -- surprise! -- it was actually the Muslim Students Association that first asked for her event to be called off.

Lemon pressed Aslan to admit that mistreatment of women is nonetheless a problem in Muslim countries.  Aslan misleadingly relegated the problem to Iran and Saudi Arabia, while declaring no such ill bedevils women in Turkey (where honor killings have increased in recent years), Bangladesh, and (FMG-riddled) Malaysia and Indonesia.  Nor did he mention the salient fact about the status of women in his chosen “lands of enlightenment” -- that women owe their well-being (at least in his eyes) there not to Islam, but to secularism and legal systems based on Western models curbing religious influence in jurisprudence.  In Indonesia, however, Shariah law is advancing and may undo protections women now enjoy.

Camerota, however, insisted, wanting to explore “the commonplace wrongs that are happening [to women] in some of these countries.”  She mentioned the Saudi prohibition on women driving, which gave Aslan the chance to browbeat both presenters for cherry-picking examples from one “extremist” country and using them to unjustly besmirch the entire Muslim world.  He then kept on about Saudi Arabia, as though his hosts, not he, were harping on the country, and declared that their Saudi-centered approach was not a “legitimate” way to talk about Muslim women, but amounted to “bigotry” – a charge sure to intimidate his questioners and get them to back off.

It worked, at least for a moment.  “Fair enough,” Lemon answered, though possibly less because he agreed and more because he wanted to move the interview along.  After airing a clip of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu equating ISIS and Hamas at the United Nations, he asked Aslan straight-out: “Does Islam promote violence?”

“Islam doesn’t promote violence or peace,” said Aslan.  “Islam is just a religion, and like every religion in the world, it depends on what you bring to it . . . .  There are Buddhist marauding Buddhist monks in Myanmar slaughtering women and children.  Does Buddhism promote violence?  Of course not.  People are violent or peaceful. . . .”  He then dribbled off into generic blather about social, political and psychological reasons for violence, none of which, in his telling, had anything to do with Islam or any other faith.

Aslan was apparently trying to establish a false equivalency of moral turpitude among religions and their supposedly more or less identical propensity to incite slaughter – a tactic singularly ill-suited where Islam is concerned.  After all, Muslim warriors spread their faith by the sword from Arabia west across Africa into Spain, and east to Indonesia.  As for Myanmar, that even Buddhism can be used in such a way as to justify murder stands as evidence that religion per se is to blame.

In contrast, ISIS’s very name pinpoints its inspiration: whether ISIS or ISIL or IS, “Islamic” figures in each acronym its followers have used to designate it.  Even the means of death it visits on its hostages – beheadings – finds support in the Koran (8:12), which commands its followers to “strike off [the] heads and strike off every fingertip of” unbelievers in wartime.  If Western countries have abandoned religious rule for secular governance, and thus left confessional conflict behind, ISIS jihadis are striving to do the opposite, and seek to establish, or already have established, a theocracy (the Caliphate), with Islam as their stated justification for warfare.  Why should we ignore their own words?

Camerota politely then asked Aslan for a definitive answer on whether the “justice system in Muslim countries . . . is somehow more primitive, or subjugates women more than in other countries.”

“Did you hear what you just said?” Aslan snapped back.  “You said in Muslim countries,” but in (FGM-afflicted) Indonesia, “women are absolutely 100-percent equal to men.  In Turkey, they have had more . . . female heads of state in Turkey than we have in the United States.”  (The Turks have had exactly one female head of state, and she presided before the crypto-Islamist Reccep Tayyip Erdogan came to power and began rolling back the women-friendly policies the secular Republic of Turkey had been known for since Kemal Ataturk, who abolished the Ottoman Caliphate, founded it in 1923.)  “Stop saying things like Muslim countries!”

Camerota tried to calm down her guest, and sought to find a “common thread” – that “somehow their justice system, or Shariah law, or what they’re doing in terms of stoning, and female mutilation is different than in . . . Western countries.”

Aslan dodged the question, condemning those practices (despite the Hadith’s prescription of stoning as a method of punishment) as “barbaric,” and retorted by once more mischaracterizing her question as an attempt to equate “what is happening in the most extreme forms of these repressive countries” – Pakistan and Saudi Arabia – with what is going on in Turkey or Indonesia.  He then called the version of the question he himself put in her mouth “stupid,” strongly implying that Camerota herself deserved the insult as well.

Lemon segued to footage from Netanyahu’s U.N. address and his statement that the problem was “not Islam, but “militant Islam.”  Was Netanyahu, correct, asked Lemon, in making such a “clear distinction?”  Aslan wouldn’t say, but instead jumped back to the Israeli prime minister’s earlier comparison of Hamas and ISIS, which Aslan found illogical, irrational and propagandistic.

Aslan provided an inept coda to the tense interview, instructing his hosts that they present “rational conflicts, rational criticisms of a particular religion,” and not “easily slip into bigotry by . . . painting everyone with a single brush, as we have been doing in this conversation, mind you.”

“We appreciate your perspective in helping everyone understand your perspective,” concluded Camerota before moving on to the next subject.

But that wasn’t the end of it.  In an on-air discussion the next day with CNN’s Chris Cuomo, Lemon and Camerota halfheartedly defended their benign attempt to get straight answers from Aslan.  Camerota noted that Aslan had apologized via Twitter for using the word “stupid.”  Cuomo commented, justifiably, that Aslan’s “tone was very angry, so he wound up kind of demonstrating what people are fearful of when they think of the faith in the first place.”  And a couple of nights later, Bill Maher, with celebrity New Atheist Sam Harris at his side, brought up the topic again on his show, which provoked guest Ben Affleck to conflate race with faith and call Maher’s (and Harris’s) criticism of Islam “gross” and racist.”

What lessons are we to draw from all this televised shouting, name-calling, and unprofessional journalistic capitulation to PC scare tactics meant to deflect attention from what Maher was originally trying to highlight – liberals’ failure to stand up for the superiority of law-based societies over theocracy?  CNN set itself up to fail by deploying hosts insufficiently knowledgeable about the Muslim world to deal with Aslan and his rhetorical ruses.  They were also clearly too fearful of being labeled “bigoted” – specifically, racist or Islamophobic – to break through his obfuscation, if they indeed even perceived it as such.

As for Maher, he remains unrepentant.

Can President Obama be pardoned for denying the obvious link between Islam and ISIS’s atrocities?  After all, if he told the truth, he would ignite a media firestorm, give terrorist recruiters material, and potentially endanger Americans at home and overseas.  He would also cast himself into even deeper disfavor with his progressive electorate, where resentment of “Islamophobia” runs high.  It would indeed be useful, though, in the interests of honest public debate, if Obama acknowledged that Islam had at least something to do with what ISIS has been up to; after all, hundreds of Westerners (including some Americans) have set off to join the terrorists in the killing fields of Iraq and Syria, motivated, one can justifiably assume, by religion.  In the battle for ideas against Islamic extremism, frank talk from the president would be a big help.

The rest of us – I have in mind atheists of all political persuasions -- must yield nothing to those advocating faith-based solutions for our ills.  As Maher said, we should not be afraid to judge.  We must never cede to misguided notions of civility and refrain from criticizing religion, which is, after all, nothing more than hallowed ideology expressed through fantastic fables.  People deserve respect; ideologies do not.  Doctrines deriving from allegedly divine revelation demand the closest scrutiny.  The very concept of religious revelation – from which Islam, Christianity, and Judaism draw their validity -- is an affront to rationalism and reasoned discussion.  To further the latter, the word “Islamophobia” should be excised from the lexicon of every thinking individual as pernicious to free speech.  It equates racism with criticism of religion, as though Islam, a universalist faith, had only adherents of a single skin color, and provides casuistic cover for those believers who would shield their words from judgment.

Moreover, we need to turn our critical irreligious gaze to what has been going wrong in the United States since the Reagan era as well.  We herald the humanism allegedly inherent in the secular nature of our republic, while much of our Congress is in thrall to the religious right, with a House Science Committee that denies the reality of climate change, and, more broadly, a growing number of Republicans disbelieving the theory of evolution – 48 percent, according to recent data, up from 39 percent in 2009.  Women are still paid less than men in the workplace, and the freedom to do as they chose with their bodies – as evidenced by, in some states, the offensive underway against abortion rights and compensation for birth control – is ever more under threat.  Sexual assault against women remains a serious problem, with faith-based biases still imbuing, whether obviously or not, both the victims’ responses to the crime and the way our courts deal with the issue.

In talking about religion, Bill Maher has essentially been making some of these same points.  Strange that it has fallen to a comedian to do so.  But the more thoughtful controversy he provokes, the greater aid he provides to atheists.  In the end, that will help the progressive cause domestically and abroad and hurt ISIS – with no shots fired.


By Jeffrey Tayler

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His seventh book, "Topless Jihadis -- Inside Femen, the World's Most Provocative Activist Group," is out now as an Atlantic ebook. Follow @JeffreyTayler1 on Twitter.

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