EXCLUSIVE: Reza Aslan on Bill Maher's anti-Islam crusade: "Frank bigotry"

Author and scholar who's quarreled with comedian over Islam before tells Salon why this time is different

Published October 10, 2014 11:00AM (EDT)

  (AP Photo/HBO, Janet Van Ham)
(AP Photo/HBO, Janet Van Ham)

As I'd imagine anyone with an Internet connection and even a marginal interest in current events knows by now, HBO comedian and pundit Bill Maher has been engaged in an ongoing debate (through the media) over the nature of Islam. And while Maher's not lacked for volunteers willing to criticize his arguments and question his level of knowledge about one of the world's largest religions, Reza Aslan, the popular religious scholar and author of the best-selling "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth," has been Maher's most prominent and scathing foil.

After noticing him tweet out our recent interview with Maher, Salon decided to give Aslan a call and chat about Maher, Islam, media ignorance and why it is that American society is so comfortable making sweeping generalizations about a faith that counts more than a billion human beings among its members. Our conversation is below, and has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

So I saw you tweet out my earlier conversation with Bill Maher. And I know you guys have tussled on this issue before —

I've actually been on the show four times. It's funny, because a number of people have lambasted Bill Maher and said, "Why don't you have Reza on your show!?" and I always tweet back saying, "I've done it four times now!" [Laughs]

He's very open to having to having me on the show and, to his credit, he and I openly disagree with each other, and he knows that we come from completely different viewpoints on this, and yet every season he invites me back. So, that's the kind of guy that he is.

Well, was there anything that he said during his conversation with me that you felt was new?

I suppose I would say that what's different is that Bill Maher's usual critique of religion in general has morphed into a real crusade against one religion in particular -- Islam -- which he has on repeated occasions said is worse than the other religions [and] not like other religions; other religions are bad, but Islam is far, far worse.

And I would say that the other thing that's a little bit different is that the criticism of Islam has really crossed the line into what can only be described as frank bigotry. When he starts decrying how many babies born in Europe are named Mohammad, says things about Muslims in America "bringing that desert stuff into our world" — that is no longer just simple criticism of religious doctrine or practice. That's a very specifically targeted animosity towards a particular group of people. You don't see him saying things like that about other religious groups — though, again, in his defense, to him the problem is religion in general.

Do you feel like that shift — from being critical of all religions, including Islam, to being especially critical of Islam, specifically — is something we're seeing elsewhere in the media?

Oh, yes. This is not just a problem with Bill Maher, it's not just a problem with CNN or Fox News.

I think there is a general oversimplification [in American media] when it comes to the discourse about Islam and Muslims. And partly that has to do with the reality that in large parts of the Muslim world there are undeniable, unavoidable political/cultural/sectarian/religious conflicts that are saturating our television screens. So if you are just some average person watching the news on a regular basis, it's not that difficult to draw a line between the violence that's taking place in Syria and Iraq and the Muslim who lives across the street from you.

But Bill Maher isn't the average person! [Laughs] He is a media personality, he's intelligent, he's humorous, he has a cultural significance — and so it's surprising to see these kinds of unconsidered remarks from him; and more importantly, an inability to recognize how his rhetoric is coming across.

I want to be 100 percent clear about this: Bill Maher is not a bigot. I know him, I've hung out with him; he's not a bigot. But the way that he talks about Islam is undeniably bigoted, and for him to just simply excuse that by saying, "I'm a liberal! We can't be bigots!" is, I think, disingenuous. To put it in its simplest way, if you are constantly having to say, "I am not a bigot," you might want to rethink [what you're saying].

For understandable reasons, the focus in this debate has been on Bill Maher, but Sam Harris was there during that segment with Affleck, too. And while some people might not put a ton of stock into what Bill Maher says, figuring he's an entertainer and a provocateur and so on, Harris at least has the reputation of being an intellectual —

And, by the way, that's precisely why Bill Maher invited Sam Harris on the show: To add intellectual heft to his knee-jerk arguments about Islam. But it didn't exactly work out that way because I think that people have had enough of this kind of rhetoric, and they're just not going to put up with it anymore.

I cannot tell you how many times people tell me — because they see me on Bill Maher's show (and I love being on the show, it's so much fun) — "I love you on Bill Maher. His anti-religion and anti-Muslim stuff rubs me the wrong way, but I love him." That, I think, is starting to wane, and what I'm hearing more and more is, "I just can't put up with it any longer. My enjoyment of the other things that he stands for is being diminished because he has really, in a sense, jumped the shark when it comes to his criticisms of Islam."

But with Harris?

With Harris, we are confronted with a completely different issue, which is the idea that anyone can simply become a recognized expert in religion simply by spouting these overly simplistic criticisms of it.

Sam Harris, to me, gives atheism a bad name because he comes from a tradition of atheism that is really disconnected from the titans of intellectual, philosophical atheism who gave birth to the modern world. These were experts in religion who, from a position of expertise, criticized religion. Sam Harris is a neuroscientist; he knows as much about religion as I do about neuroscience. The difference is that I don't go around writing books about neuroscience.

What that makes me think of is the argument I've seen from Harris and others in that clique which is, more or less, that they have a better handle on what Islam actually mandates — and that the millions and millions of Muslims who would disagree with their interpretation are in reality shirking elements of their faith that make them uncomfortable.

Well, here's the thing: That statement is indicative of the extreme lack of sophistication that is exhibited by people like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher when it comes to religion in general and Islam, specifically.

There is a fundamental misunderstanding among these critics of religion in that they believe, first and foremost, that people get their values, their morals from their scripture, when in reality the exact opposite is true. You bring your morals and your values to the scriptures; you don't extract them from them. You learn that on day one of the study of religion — day one, that's the first thing that you learn!

And to a larger extent it indicates a real fallacy in the New Atheist movement, that is part and parcel of the lack of a religious education among these critics of religion, which is that they tend to read the scriptures more literally than any literalist I know. And when confronted by some particularly savage line in the scriptures, their conception forces an understanding [that says], "If you do not follow that little bit of savagery, then you're not really a Muslim, you're not really a Christian, you're not really a Jew."

You know who else makes that argument? Fundamentalists. And that's why this notion that what these guys represent is a new kind of fundamentalism, an atheist fundamentalism, is so real. Because that's precisely what's being exhibited here in their utter sense of certainty; in their literalist, simplistic, exoteric, absolutist interpretation of religion; in their inability to recognize the diverse ways in which religion is lived rather than what we would refer to as top-down religiosity.

Do you consider what Harris is doing to be more harmful than what Maher is doing? Because sometimes I worry that while people might shrug at Maher, a guy like Harris, who has more of an intellectual mien, is being listened to by people who are influential.

I don't think Sam Harris has purchase among people who are influential, but I do think there's a connection between [his rhetoric and Maher's].

Fox News bigotry is so obvious, so in-your-face — when you have Fox News personalities like Andrea Tantaros literally suggesting that all Muslims deserve a bullet to the head — every kind of criticism you have about Islam, no matter how bigoted, when compared to that, seems reasonable.

So Bill Maher or Sam Harris's equally bigoted comments about Islam come off as somewhat more rational, somewhat more reasonable — even perhaps more intellectual — because we have been prepped by the Fox Newses of the world to have a very high standard for what outrageous bigotry [against Muslims] actually sounds like.

Sam Harris has openly and repeatedly called for the profiling of Muslims. In fact, he said that not only should we profile Muslims, we should profile "anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be a Muslim," which I'm pretty sure is everybody on the planet...

That's a pretty revealing way to put it, in terms of the level of ignorance going on.

But here's the thing: We let that go. We let that statement go because compared to "We should put a bullet in the brain of every Muslim!" that's not so bad.

And, by the way, there's nothing liberal about that statement [from Harris]. There is nothing liberal about profiling. So I think this idea that, "Hey, all we are doing is standing up for basic human rights; we are the champions of liberalism in these comments that we make against Muslims as a whole" really falls flat when you begin to analyze what is actually being said here, what is actually being suggested. It's the opposite of liberalism.

In fact, if we're talking about liberalism in the Enlightenment sense rather than the partisan politics sense, there's a pretty persuasive argument that liberal thought was in many ways first generated as a criticism of religious intolerance.

That's right. Now, Bill Maher's response would be, "You cannot tolerate intolerance." And that's absolutely true. We should condemn and criticize any religious practice that violates fundamental human rights.

But there are two mistakes that Maher makes. Number 1, his assumption that liberals don't do such a thing is ridiculous and outrageous. I mean, liberals — whether they are feminists or democratic activists, whatever they may be — are at the forefront of criticizing extreme practices like stoning for adultery or female genital mutilation. It's just absolutely wrong and silly to say that liberals don't criticize extreme Islamic practices.

And number 2, there's a different between criticizing a practice and connecting that practice to an entire body. There's a difference between criticizing extreme religious beliefs and practices and ascribing those extreme beliefs and practices to an entire people. One is simple criticism; the other is flat-out bigotry.

At the risk of sounding overly dismissive, there's a part of me that doesn't understand how this debate keeps going on once someone mentions, as you have, that a lot of the negative practices being pinned on all of Islam aren't present among the millions and millions of Muslims who don't live in the Middle East. I've always felt like that should be the end of the debate, more or less, right there.

It is really the single most basic idea about religion, that it marries itself to whatever culture it comes into contact with. If you ask a Saudi Imam why women in Saudi Arabia can't drive, he'll say, "Because Islam demands it." But that's absurd because, first of all, Islam demands no such thing; and secondly, the only country in the world in which women can't drive is Saudi Arabia.

So the inability to understand the difference between a cultural practice and religious belief is shocking among self-described intellectuals.

I want to ask you about how you approach going on TV to talk about Islam. I assume that at this point you kind of know what you're getting into; so do you approach these by steeling yourself and thinking that the experience sucks but because the media has so few voices defending Islam, you gotta do it? Or do you kind of enjoy the chance to rebut dumb arguments that often go unchallenged?

I have to be perfectly honest with you: I am totally taken aback by it every time. Even in the Fox News interview, I assumed that they would go after me at first, because this is a network that spun anti-Muslim sentiment into ratings gold for more than a decade, but the thought that the entire 10 minute conversation would be about my insidious, hidden, secret Muslim agenda to destroy Christianity never crossed my mind.

When I went to go talk to CNN, I just simply assumed that we were going to have a conversation about the role of religion, and violence in Islam. It never occurred to me that that was what we were going to talk about or that that was where the conversation was going to go.

So I'd like to pretend that I have a well-formed plan about going and confronting media ignorance and defending religious tolerance — but I just simply don't. The way that I decide whether I do a news show or not is simply, does it fit in my schedule?

I suppose that to a significant degree it kind of doesn't matter whether or not you decide to confront that kind of ignorance since, sooner rather than later, it's going to confront you.

[Laughs] Right. And my friends and my wife always make fun of me because they say there's this thing that I do with my eyebrows where, if you watch the Fox interview or CNN interview, the eyebrows give way that moment in which I realize, "Oh! This is what we're doing!" So I wish I had some grand plan in mind, but I really don't.

Well, in an attempt to end on a positive note, I'll ask you if there's anything you think we could do to address this problem of bigotry toward and ignorance about Islam. Is this something that people just have to keep calling out when they see it, over and over, until the culture eventually changes? Or is there something we could do to address it at the root?

I always say that it's not enough to just know more about your neighbor's religion. We have to become a far more religious literate people. It's bizarre that we are the most religiously devout, developed country in the world, and yet our understanding of the historical, sociological, philosophical and cultural aspects of religion is so uninformed and basic.

Religion is a matter of identity much more so than it is a matter of beliefs and practices, and that is something that is very, very difficult for Americans to understand. So if it were up to me, I would try to remind people that religious literacy is as important in our world today as any other kind of literacy, and that if we had a better understanding — and I mean this especially for religious people — of what religion actually is, its malleability, its historical construction, then I think we would be in a better place to criticize those aspects of religion that deserve criticism.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

MORE FROM Elias Isquith