An exchange about Islam that took place recently on Real Time with Bill Maher helps to crystallize what’s wrong with many discussions about Islam and terrorism. Maher and fellow atheist Sam Harris took one side of the debate. Actor Ben Affleck, columnist Nicholas Kristof, and former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele took the other.
I don’t usually find myself in agreement with Maher and Harris, but this time, it was the atheists who made sense.
Maher made the point that liberals, if they are to be consistent, must criticize Islam’s illiberal principles. Harris said, “We have to be able to criticize bad ideas. And Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas.”
Affleck did not respond in kind. His remarks were along the lines of “It’s gross! It’s racist,” and “Jesus! It’s an ugly thing to say.” For his part, Kristof suggested that what Maher and Harris said had a “tinge … of how white racists talk about African-Americans.”
In defense of their criticism of Islam, Maher and Harris produced a number of statistics, including polls showing that a majority of Muslims in various countries supported the harsher aspects of sharia law. And Affleck and Kristof? They produced the race card, the emotion card, and the moral superiority card. They didn’t have any arguments, but they did have feelings and fashionable attitudes.
For example, it’s fashionable to call people racists when you disagree with them, but in this case race was completely irrelevant to the topic at hand. What race is Islam? Muslims are not a race. They can be Caucasians, Chinese, black Africans, or Filipinos. In fact, the vast majority of Muslims are not Arabs. The largest Muslim populations are in Indonesia, Pakistan, and India. Maher and Harris were talking about ideas, not races. At one point, Harris explained, “It’s not condemning people, it’s ideas.” Nevertheless, Affleck was determined that it must be about people. To much audience applause, he asserted:
How about the more than a billion people [Muslims] who aren’t fanatical, who don’t punish women, who want to go to school … and don’t do any of the things you’re saying of all Muslims. It’s stereotyping.
Liberals like Affleck don’t usually worry about stereotyping when it comes to Catholicism. During the priest abuse scandals, the liberal media took every opportunity to implicate the whole Catholic faith because of the crimes of a few. None of the guilty priests claimed that what they did was done for the sake of the Church, but somehow their actions were deemed to be the result of Catholic teachings about sex, or women priests, or celibate clergy, or … something. On the other hand, when a Muslim beheads someone in the name of Allah, the same liberal media is quick to absolve Islam and its teachings from any connection to the crime.
In any event, Affleck was once again missing the point. Maher and Harris weren’t saying that all Muslims were bad people; they were saying that Islam contained a lot of bad ideas—ideas which have inspired many to commit acts of terror. It would have made sense for Affleck to try and make the case that Islam doesn’t condone violence and that terrorists are misunderstanders, but he chose instead to take the easy route of leveling emotion-laden charges against his host.
As Jeffrey Lord points out in The American Spectator, Affleck and Kristof were framing the debate as a racial-civil rights issue and thus playing on all the emotions that the civil rights struggle still evokes. But the analogy doesn’t hold up, says Lord. Maher and Harris were criticizing Islamists and the ideology that motivates them. And the Islamists of today, says Lord, should not be compared to the black victims of lynchings and church bombings, but rather to the segregationists who committed these crimes:
What is the difference between all those Klan lynchings and the horrendous murder of “non-believers” in Islam committed by jihadists? One group committed its crimes in the name of racial superiority, and the other today commits its savage acts in the name of religious superiority.
Yet Affleck and company preferred to think of Muslims as victims of discrimination. What kind of discrimination? Maher and Harris said nothing disparaging about Muslims per se, and they weren’t denying the right of Muslims to vote or sit at lunch counters. What then? By conflating all Muslims with Islamic beliefs, Affleck was, in effect, positing a new civil right—the right not to have your beliefs criticized.
It’s not actually a new idea. This new civil right—freedom from criticism—has been on the drawing boards for a long while. For more than a decade, the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation has been pushing the UN to create laws that would criminalize the defamation of a prophet. The campaign seems to be bearing fruit. Just recently, a street preacher in Taunton, England was charged with “religious aggravation” for comparing Muhammad unfavorably with Jesus. In a similar case in Austria two years ago, Elizabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff was found guilty and fined for having pointed out in a seminar that Muhammad led a less-than-perfect life. She was charged with “denigration of an officially recognized religion.”
What the UK preacher and Sabaditsch-Wolff had to say about Muhammad was entirely factual, but in the brave new age of emotional sensitivity, truth is no defense against charges of bigotry. Ironically, Sabaditsch-Wolff is one of the true civil rights champions of our time. Like other prominent critics of sharia law, she has fought for the civil rights of women in Islamic societies who—as all but the most obtuse know—are treated in much the same way as blacks in the Jim Crow era.
That we want to arrest such people rather than hail them attests to the low level of discourse about Islam in Western societies. The big civil rights story of our time is the unjust treatment accorded to women, children, and minorities in Muslim societies. But to point to it is to court charges of bigotry, racism, and Islamophobia. For too many progressives, it’s too much trouble to make the mental adjustment and realize that the world has a new civil rights crisis on its hands. They prefer to think that we are still fighting the battles of the sixties—battles that were won a long time ago.
This nostalgia for past struggles seems to characterize a good many Catholic leaders as well. Times have changed, but many bishops seem to live mentally in the days when Christian clerics marched arm-in-arm with civil rights leaders. Consequently, they tend to be suckers for any kind of civil rights pitch. Islamic leaders understand this mindset, and it’s no coincidence that Muslim activist groups in America frame their own causes as civil rights issues. Considering that their main goal is the imposition of sharia law, that’s no mean feat. But the American Islamists seem to have pulled it off. To read the literature of CAIR, ISNA, and similar groups, you would get the impression that their only goal is to ensure the full participation of Muslims in American society. There is a lot of boilerplate on their websites about the threat of discrimination against Muslims in the U.S., but nothing about the actual discrimination against women and minorities in Muslim lands (although the ISNA website has a pro forma statement condemning “terrorism” and “extremism” and praising “moderation,” “inclusiveness,” and “diversity”).
The idea of being part of the latest civil rights movement has great appeal to the many Christians who see the pursuit of social justice as their main mission. Only, in line with Islamic priorities, they seem most concerned with those justice issues that are deemed important by Muslim activists. Nowadays, the main issue of concern to the Muslim “civil rights” groups is Islamophobia. Technically, that term means an irrational fear of Islam but in reality, any criticism of Islam, whether rational or irrational, will put you on the Islamophobe list. In effect, the campaign against Islamophobia is really a demand that Islam be free from criticism.
Some Christian leaders seem happy to take up the cause. Thus, when Archbishop Daniel Madden, the Chairman of the Interreligious Affairs Committee of the USCCB, issued a statement on the Islamist State’s persecution of Christians and Yazidis, his main takeaway was that we must be extra-vigilant to guard against Islamophobia. The bishop didn’t say so in as many words, but the clear implication of his message was that if we don’t stop with the Islamophobia, we will become just like ISIS, and the next thing you know we’ll be beheading Muslims in the streets of New York: “The one lesson we should take away from these recent horrors [of the Islamic State] is the danger posed to the whole human family whenever any minority, religious or otherwise, is perceived as an evil or threat.” Consequently, he writes, Christians should be careful not to use “our religion as an excuse for slander, bigotry, or other inhospitable acts.”
That’s the one lesson? That we have to guard against bigotry? How about guarding against Islamist groups that are inspired by Islamic theology? But, as Bishop Madden assures his readers, Islamic violence has nothing to do with Islam—“the religion many people automatically (and wrongly) blame for this violence.”
In the wake of major terror attacks, groups like CAIR and ISNA reliably issue perfunctory statements condemning terrorism along with more strongly worded warnings about the threat of Islamophobia and the danger of backlash against the Muslim community. That a Catholic bishop responds in the exact same way indicates a certain lack of independent thought on his part.
This is about par for statements issued by the USCCB’s Interreligious Affairs Committee, and it suggests that its members are looking at Islam through the lens of Civil Rights Era issues that have very little to do with current problems. Casting a critical eye on Islamic ideas should not be equated with “bigotry” or “slander.” In fact, looking critically at Islam ought to be part of the committee’s job description. It’s one thing for Ben Affleck to cry “racist” against critics of Islam on an infotainment talk show. It’s another thing altogether when bishops resort to the same tactics. We have a right to expect more—especially from those who are involved in the very serious business of understanding and accurately explaining other religions.