There are six words that sum up Bill Maher’s basic case against Islam: “I'm the liberal in this debate.”
No, unfortunately, Maher was not the liberal in that debate. The most obvious reason is the condescending attitude that Maher and fellow pundit Sam Harris displayed by disparaging the views of more than 1.5 billion people (one doesn’t have to be a cultural pluralist to be put off by such presumption). On a deeper level, however, Maher and Harris revealed themselves to be disturbingly oblivious to the complex historical and geopolitical realities that inform how liberals understand the world. As a result, the pair allowed their militant atheism (and possible subconscious First World paternalism) to focus on the wrong culprit, Islam, instead of the deeper one – namely, the lack of socioeconomic mobility in most Muslim countries today.
This isn’t to say that the Maher/Harris argument is entirely devoid of merit. The statistics they cited are sobering to anyone who believes in even rudimentary humanitarian principles – 78 percent of British Muslims believe the Danish cartoonist who drew Mohammed should have been prosecuted, 84 percent of Egyptian Muslims believing death was an appropriate response to leaving the religion (Maher erroneously pegged it at 90 percent), and so on (a comprehensive compilation of opinion polls from Muslim countries can be found here). They’re not even wrong in accusing many progressives of holding Western nations to a stricter standard than their Muslim counterparts – such as seen by reactions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the oppression of women, homosexuals, and religious minorities in a large portion of the Muslim world – and wrongly depicting Muslims as a minority even though they’re anything but. Insofar as they’re drawing attention to serious and widespread violations of basic human rights throughout the world, they stand on solid ground.
Their assertion becomes problematic when they identify the Islamic faith as the cause of these problems. As Maher and Harris already know, the Western world was swept by an intellectual revolution known as the Enlightenment from the 17th through the early 19th century. Through the influence of philosophers like Rene Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, John Locke and Voltaire, the leading thinkers in the Western world began to hold that individualism, empirical observation, and reason should determine how we view the world instead of religious faith and default deference to authority. No similar movement ever transformed the Muslim world; centuries have passed since the Golden Age which President Obama so eloquently described in his landmark 2009 speech at the University of Cairo:
“It was Islam that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment. It was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed.”
There is a reason Enlightenment values became dominant in the West, to the point that even religious Westerners are usually far less fundamentalist than their pre-Enlightenment antecedents. While Muslim countries were being conquered and economically exploited by Western imperialist powers, affluence spread in North America and Europe thanks to the twin economic engines of the Industrial Revolution (as well as subsequent scientific revolutions) and free market capitalism. This same unregulated capitalism, of course, has also done more than its fair share to create massive inequalities of wealth in Muslim countries; when combined with a widespread awareness of colonialist abuses committed by the United States, Great Britain, France, Israel, and other Western nations, it creates a hotbed for ideas very different from the ones preferred by Enlightenment thinkers.
When militant Islamism is viewed not as a primarily religious movement but rather as an intensely emotional response to the legacy of Western colonialism, its character makes a great deal more sense. As the philosopher Eric Hoffer pointed out in The True Believer, the classic monograph published in 1951 about mass movements, large groups of people who face social, economic, and/or political hardship have an instinctive need to rally behind a cause – and the most effective causes are those based on hate. “Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents,” Hoffer wrote, “Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.”
This mentality can even spread to the affluent classes (which is disproportionately active in militant Islam) which, though not always sympathetic to the plight of the poor, certainly share what Frantz Fanon once dubbed the “psychology of oppression” in regard to the various Western powers that have controlled or taken advantage of Muslim nations. For militant Islamists, the devils can either be these direct adversaries or more abstract concepts, such as the feeling that Western ideals are supplanting the heritage and culture of their various faiths and countries… hence the fervent embrace of Islam as a unifying agent.
Indeed, once you strip away Islam as the specific ideology (political or religious) being used, you find that militant Islamism isn’t that much different from other illiberal philosophies that have spread through former colonial nations. Latin American countries over the past two centuries or so have been notorious for producing both leftist and rightist dictatorships that use everything from politicized Catholicism and promises of wealth redistribution to strident nationalism as the grounds for implementing repressive state policies. A similar point could be made regarding the nations in sub-Saharan Africa that have only begun to achieve autonomy within the last few decades. And let’s not forget the spread of Communism in both those continents and Asia during the Cold War (for a clue as to why Communism often had a greater appeal than America’s economic model, we can again turn to an observation by Hoffer: “If free enterprise becomes a proselytizing holy cause, it will be a sign that its workability and advantages have ceased to be self-evident.”)
By comparison, based solely on the actions of those professing their faith throughout history, there is no indication that Islam is any more likely to produce oppressive societies than Christianity. For proof that those claiming to act in the name of Christianity can be as terrible as those who do so in the name of Islam, one need only quickly review the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the pogroms. To demonstrate the same about Jews and Judaism, one could look at the military excesses committed by Israel against Palestinian civilians (although mainstream Zionism, tellingly, is rooted more in 19th century nationalism than Jewish theology). It isn’t hard to find quotes from the major texts of the Abrahamic faiths that justify actions liberals rightly find repulsive, from subordinating women and persecuting homosexuals to arbitrary rules stifling freedom of thought.
In short, the closest any participant in the debate came to a true liberal understanding of the deeper forces at play in the Muslim world was Ben Affleck when he observed: “We’ve killed more Muslims than they’ve killed us by an awful lot. We’ve invaded more – and somehow we’re exempt from these things because they’re not really a reflection of what we believe in.”
Whether it’s the anti-Islamic policies implemented by government leaders in France and Germany, America’s preemptive war in Iraq, or Israel’s bombardment in Gaza, the point here is not that there is an inherent problem in Judeo-Christian theology that needs to be viewed as a threat; after all, those conflicts were motivated not by the Jewish or Christian faiths but by nationalist ideologies (usually backed by powerful business interests). While the average Westerner may not agree with these measures, they are nevertheless genuine reflections of the mentality of First World privilege that continues to be a dominant factor in world politics today. The spread of the ideals of militant Islamism is a dangerously popular response in large parts of the Muslim world to these issues – but it must not be forgotten that the fundamental power struggle between the West and postcolonial countries is the underlying issue here, not the tenets of the religion through which the hatreds of the one side has manifested itself.
None of this, of course, is meant as an excuse for Muslims who support repressive measures toward women, homosexuals, or non-Muslims. Liberals do have a responsibility to condemn these injustices wherever they exist and work to eliminate them, even if it involves criticizing a group that falls beyond the bounds of political correctness. Historically, however, liberals have also been the West’s most outspoken opponents of imperialism and cultural prejudices, from Woodrow Wilson’s peacemaking efforts after World War I to the left’s opposition to the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. By blaming the Islamic faith instead of grappling with this phenomenon’s more complex origins, however, Maher and Harris revealed themselves to be misinformed (at best) and/or bigoted (at worst) - and, just as notably, have shown a poor understanding of the liberal ideology they claim to profess.