Bill Maher, Sam Harris, and Islam

Bill Maher and Sam Harris clash with Ben Affleck about Islam – this is my response. I actually agree with Maher on one point: liberals should stand up for liberalism. What that actually entails, though, is a different story.

Bill Maher and Sam Harris

(Updates 1 and 2 below.)

بسم الله الرحمٰن الرحيم، وصلوات الله وسلامه على أشرف المرسلين

In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.

It might seem like I’ve been writing a lot of responses and refutations of critics of Islam lately. My intention in creating this blog was not to make it only about refuting criticism; I want it to be more broad than that. However, I’ve noticed a surge in hatred of Islam and Muslims in the media (traditional media as well as social media), mostly caused by what ISIS is doing in the name of Islam. So I feel like I need to respond to that.

Anyway, here’s a clip of the October 3rd, 2014 segment of Real Time with Bill Maher from YouTube:

A Summary of The Video

In case the above clip doesn’t work, here’s a summary of what happened (not necessarily in chronological order): Bill Maher and Sam Harris agreed that most Muslims are against what ISIS is doing. However, they argued that because many Muslims hold illiberal and intolerant views, Islam itself is the problem. They cited statistics from surveys which show that a majority of Muslims in some countries support the death penalty for apostasy, as well as harsh treatment of women and homosexuals. Maher beseeched his fellow liberals to “stand up for liberalism” and condemn Islam. Harris complained that legitimate criticism of the doctrines of Islam was being conflated with bigotry against Islam and Muslims (which he acknowledges exists). Maher also stated that Muslims in the West were a problem, citing a poll which showed that 78% of British Muslims wanted the Danish cartoon drawer to be prosecuted.

Ben Affleck argued that Islam is a large, diverse religion, and just because some Muslims hold intolerant views that does not mean we should be intolerant towards Islam. He accused Maher and Harris of being motivated by bigotry rather than legitimate concern. Affleck also brought up the double standards of Islamophobia and antisemitism, saying how if someone characterizes Jews a certain way it’s seen as wrong but people do it all the time to Muslims.

Other panelists mentioned how there are many “moderate” voices in the Muslim world, but they don’t get the same media coverage as extremists. This tends to distort our understanding of Islam and the Muslim world.

My Thoughts

First of all, I’d like to say “Thank you” to Ben Affleck for his courage to stand up for what’s right in the face of increasing hatred of Islam and Muslims. Voices of reason are absolutely necessary in a time of confusion and hysteria. While some people have criticized Real Time for not including a Muslim voice in the debate, I thought Ben Affleck did a great job and should be commended for that.

Bill Maher said that many people in Muslim countries support the death penalty for apostasy from Islam. I don’t dispute his statistics, but I think we’re looking at a deeper problem than just Muslims’ perceived intolerance. The big issue for the Muslim world, in my opinion, is despotism. Whether it’s military dictators, presidents-for-life, or absolute monarchies, these regimes normalize oppression. They have made violence – specifically, violence by the state – an everyday occurrence in Muslim countries. When people are being arrested or killed for simply voicing opinions contrary to the regime, persecution of apostates just doesn’t seem as “bad” (as it does to us) anymore. When protesters are being shot on the streets, harsh penalties for trivial actions don’t seem as “wrong” as they should. Despotism has accustomed people to state violence.

Massacres and systematic torture of dissidents has, unfortunately, become very common in the Muslim world – and secular regimes are in fact more guilty than religious ones. So we have to view the polling data that Maher cited from that context. Case in point: there are 0 people in jail right now in Egypt for apostasy, but there are 22,000 people in jail for protesting or criticizing the regime. I’m not justifying persecution of people who change their personal religious beliefs; I’m just contextualizing the polling data Maher and Harris quoted.

Maher has a theme he keeps repeating, which is: “Why don’t liberals ‘stand up’ for liberal principles,” and by that he means condemn Islam. I agree with what he’s actually saying though: liberals should stand up for liberalism. But instead of denouncing Islam, which will lead to more hatred and bigotry, how about:

  • Stop allying with Saudi Arabia, the most “illiberal” state on the planet.
  • Stop supporting the Egyptian military which slaughters its own people.
  • Stop arming Israel as it massacres Palestinians and steals their land.

Aren’t these also liberal principles, as opposed to denouncing a religion? Promoting hatred of Islam will only fuel the flames of bigotry. In fact, one of the main arguments of extremist Muslims is that the West is “at war” with Islam. The Guardian reported that one ISIS recruitment blog stated: “This is a war against Islam and it is known that either ‘you’re with them or with us’. So pick a side.” We really don’t want to play into the hands of the extremists who are trying to portray this as a clash of civilizations, and people condemning Islam do just that.

Sam Harris used a very strange “concentric circle” analogy to characterize the political and religious opinions of Muslims. He stated that there are militant extremists such as ISIS, which most Muslims are against. But outside that circle, there is another circle of “Islamists” or “conservatives” who hold the intolerant views discussed earlier, but are against ISIS.

While most generalizations are bound to fail, this one is especially stupid. For example: I think we can all agree that the Muslim Brotherhood would classify as pretty conservative Islamists. But I know of two Islamic scholars affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood – Dr. Tareq al-Suwaidan and Shaykh Fadel Soliman – who have spoken out against any kind of penalty for apostasy (herehere and here). So that pretty much disproves Harris’s generalizations.

Sadly, it seems like hatred of Islam will continue to grow. Shaykh Hamza Yusuf made an excellent point in a recent sermon where he stated:

We’re going to have to deal with [ISIS] here, because it’s [Islamophobia’s] all started up again. It’s all started up again. And don’t think you [Muslims] can be comfortable in your homes… because we’re in a very precarious situation. Thank God we’ve got some social order here. Social order breaks down. People get fed up. The Arabs say: “Watch out for the haleem [gentle person] if he gets angry.” People that don’t get angry quickly, when they get angry: watch out… But Muslims, we need to wake up. We need advocacy groups, and people need to support the groups that are out there. Empower them. They need to be doing more work.

I’ve been doing [outreach to non-Muslims] for 10 years. I just think – I went to all those places, all those talks, all these things, and it’s just – we’re back to square one. Actually, we’re worse as far as I can tell. This is worse than before 9/11. Even my [non-Muslim] father – who knows Islam, I’ve been telling him about Islam for 30 years – he’s like: “Is this Islam? Cutting off heads, I guess it’s in the Qur’an?” So back to square one. Thirty years of da’wah [advocacy].

These people [non-Muslims who have been misled about Islam], I think they’re going to have an excuse on Yawm al-Qiyamah [the Day of Resurrection]. That’s according to Imam al-Ghazali. What’s our excuse?

Going back to the Real Time clip: the problem with people like Bill Maher and Sam Harris is that despite being well-educated, they are essentially simple-minded people. They can’t think in terms of nuance, or events having complex causes. Their brains can only think of one thing: “Islam is evil, Islam is the problem.” They probably know nothing about what happened in Iraq after US troops left but before ISIS became strong. If they did, they’d know that terrorism does not come out of a vacuum.

This simpleton worldview makes them no different from Muslim extremists, on an intellectual level at least. When Muslims wonder why the West continues to support dictators in the region, arm Israel to the teeth, and invade and bomb, Muslim extremists also fail to analyze the complexity and nuances surrounding these events. They have only one explanation: “The West is at war with Islam.” Nothing about the biased media, the pro-Israel lobby, or the military-industrial complex.

It reminds me of what Shaykh Hamza Yusuf once said: “We’re living in a world where ‘nuance’ is no longer in our vocabularies. We are in the cartoon world of black and white.” Extremists on both sides, Muslim and non-Muslim, are offering one-sentence explanations (“Islam is evil,” “It’s a war against Islam,” etc) of very complicated political events. This is quite dangerous, to say the least.

The double standards are quite obvious here, as Affleck pointed out. When the leader of one of the largest Jewish youth groups in the world called for “300 Palestinian foreskins” a few months ago, nobody’s reaction to that was that “Judaism is evil.” When an Israeli politician called for Palestinian mothers to be killed, nobody said Judaism was the problem. (For more on Israeli calls to genocide during the recent massacre, check out David Sheen’s powerful testimony.) So the fact that some people are coming to these conclusions about Islam is evidence of a double standard which needs to be corrected.

How To Get Out Of This Mess

I’m not claiming to have some magical solution for all of our political problems. I’m not claiming to have the answers to terrorism, extremism, or despotism. However, I have a few suggestions which I think can help us keep our sanity during these trying times.

  1. Liberals – yes, stand up for liberal values! While I disagree with what Bill Maher means by that statement, I do agree with the statement itself. Liberals in the West should pressure their governments to stop supporting dictators, monarchs and occupiers. Which brings me to my second point…
  2. Stand against all oppression. While a lot of the focus has been on ISIS and rightfully so, we must not forget that there are 22,000 political prisoners in Egypt, Palestine is still illegally occupied, Guantanamo still exists, and our drones are still dropping their bombs! Condemning one form of tyranny while condoning another – which Sam Harris routinely does – is hypocrisy, plain and simple.
  3. Promote voices of sanity. While Ben Affleck might not be the best of debaters and I think Harris and Maher won that exchange, Affleck ought to be commended for standing up for what’s right. In a time of fear-mongering and hysteria, we should promote voices of sanity and reason on all sides. Speaking of which…
  4. Don’t put wind in extremists’ sails. As I mentioned earlier, ISIS recruits people by claiming there is a clash of civilizations between the West and Islam. Unfortunately, people like Harris and Maher have started promoting that view as well. We must affirm that there is no war between the West and Islam, and it’s perfectly OK to be Western and Muslim too.

I hope and pray that the voices of sanity will win out in the end. Thank you for visiting my blog.



3 October 2014

UPDATE: I did some more research into the polling data about apostasy Bill Maher and Sam Harris cited, which you can view here. There definitely does seem to be a correlation between the amount of despotism a country has been under and stronger support for punishing apostates. In Egypt,  64% of the Muslim population* support killing “apostates” (how “apostate” is defined by these people was not included in the survey). In Indonesia on the other hand, the number is only 13%**. In Tunisia, it’s 8%, and in Bosnia and Turkey 2%***.

~ Yousuf

6 October 2014

* 74% in Egypt support Sharia as the law of the land, 86% of those say kill apostates, 74% * 86% = 64%

** 72% in Indonesia support Sharia as the law of the land, 18% of those say kill apostates, 72% * 18% = 13%

*** Similar math.

UPDATE 2: I was thinking more about what Sam Harris and Bill Maher really want. Most Americans already agree with them – polls have consistently shown that a large majority of Americans view Islam and Muslims in a very negative light. So why are they fighting so hard to make it even worse? It doesn’t make any sense.

This is what I think: they’re trying to use it as a justification for an unfair foreign policy. Their entire argument is that Muslims are “savages” or “uncivilized” people who are a “threat” to our modern world. So we should continue to support dictators in the Muslim world, continue to arm Israel as it massacres Muslims and steals their land, and continue to invade/bomb countries if the situation gets too unstable. Indeed, Harris complained that Muslims were “using democracy against itself” (whatever that means), so I guess what he’s trying to say is that these “savages” need dictators. I haven’t heard it put that explicitly from Maher or Harris themselves – they continue to use vague words and not describe what they’re actually advocating (like “we shouldn’t tolerate intolerance” – what does that mean? Should we become intolerant then?). However, I have heard it from their supporters and fans, and I’m not surprised.

Unfortunately, despotism is the main problem in the Middle East right now as I argued earlier, so if Harris and Maher got their way then it would only create more terrorism. And they’re getting their way right now.

~ Yousuf

10 October 2014

4 thoughts on “Bill Maher, Sam Harris, and Islam”

  1. This is an extremely well written article. Please consider sending it in to the opinion columns of majors news outlets such Guardian Comment.
    It deserves as wide a circulation as possible.
    Jaxakallah khayran, Yousuf


  2. I really appreciate your insight and thoughtful recourse. I am formerly a christian, now agnostic, but always a peaceful person hoping for a peaceful future. Thank you for your voice, lucidity and reason.


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