Bill Maher has never quite been a bastion of rationality, especially in his views on women and minorities. It’s a convenient cop-out to profess liberal views and assume that automatically inoculates you from being bigoted.
A recent segment from his show featuring actor Ben Affleck sparring with author Sam Harris has raised a lot of interesting discussions surrounding the connotations of post 9/11 Islamophobia.
During the segment, Harris claimed criticism of Islam shouldn’t be “conflated with bigotry against Muslims as people,” a point he goes on to contradict with gross oversimplifications that Maher gleefully confirms as “just fact.” At no point can either distinguish between beliefs commonly held among Muslims and what they seem to have coined “the doctrine of Islam.”
While Affleck’s well-meaning indignation about this (backed up by a rather feeble Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist who seems only to support arguments with anecdotal evidence) was fairly understandable, it also ignores the fact that brutality and intolerance make an appearance in the cultural values of many theocratic countries that use religious law as their justification for these, Islamic or otherwise.
Never mind that discussing Islamic views in a panel strangely bereft of Muslims makes about as much sense as letting a committee of old men make decisions about contraception. The conversation about Islam – or any ideology, for that matter – suffers from a divide that cannot be encompassed within a 10-minute smackdown between a comedian and an actor.
Jihadists are, unfortunately, Muslim by virtue of identifying themselves as such. Being unable to critically analyze an extremist mindset is frankly counterproductive to battling it.
The fault in these polemics lies not in their content but in their very flawed basis. The Muslim community is just as quick to dismiss the Jihadist worldview as un-Islamic as their critics are to judge them by it. Jihadists are, unfortunately, Muslim by virtue of identifying themselves as such. Being unable to critically analyze an extremist mindset is frankly counterproductive to battling it.
On the other side of the coin, to call moderate Muslims an exception to the rule is a gross oversimplification, blatantly ignoring the fact that Islam is only part of an adherent’s identity. Not a cultural cornerstone. Not a political system. Not even really a comprehensive legislative body. It is a religion interpreted differently among the many races contained within its multitudes. To conflate doctrine with its implementation is a gross misunderstanding of how modern human systems work.
Critics of Islam are quick to present the examples of Somalia, Syria, Saudi Arabia or Iran, perpetuating the disturbing assumption that these are the norm and, as a result, all other Muslims are guilty of sympathizing until proven otherwise. Scholar Reza Aslan correctly identified this tendency as “the very definition of bigotry.”
It doesn’t help that these Islamophobic tropes go up against positive highlights ensconced in stereotype – the bar for what constitutes progress in the Islamic world is so low that any celebration of women’s rights will be co-opted specifically as an embarrassing affront to a certain subset of Muslim men.
When all is said and done, what’s clear is that Islamophobia among media pundits isn’t going away any time soon. None of the men in the limelight for discussing much-needed reform in the Muslim world will be the ones behind it.
Moreover, it’s going to take a lot more than a new Batman to save ideological discourse in the 21st century.