Bill Maher has been a refreshing voice of reason on the subject of Islam. He began by skewering Charlie Rose back in early September, and more recently blasted his fellow liberals with a more general wake-up call. Watch the two clips if you haven’t.
A few days ago Reza Aslan rebutted Maher on CNN, to astonishing nationwide approval. Most people seem to believe that Aslan scored embarrassing zingers against Maher when it’s the opposite: almost every thing Aslan said is laughably wrong. The following is a modification of what I posted under various Facebook threads when the video-clip went viral on October 1.
[Aslan] “Female genital mutilation is not an Islamic problem. It is an African problem.”
This is a lie mixed with half-truth. Some African countries do this, but most female circumcision occurs either in Islamic countries or close to them. Moreover, Islam is the only religion that officially mandates it: “Circumcision is obligatory, for every male and female, by cutting off the piece of skin on the glans of the penis of the male, but circumcision of the female is by cutting out the bazr clitoris.” (Umdat al-Salik e4.3)
But Aslan digs in deeper:
[Aslan] “[Female genital mutilation] is a Central African problem. Eritrea has almost 90 percent female genital mutilation. It’s a Christian country. Ethiopia has 75 percent female genital mutilation. It’s a Christian country. Nowhere else in the Muslim, Muslim-majority states is female genital mutilation an issue.”
To which Robert Spencer blasted every element of this statement: “Eritrea and Ethiopia aren’t in Central Africa; they’re in East Africa. And Aslan’s claim that ‘nowhere else in the Muslim, Muslim-majority states is female genital mutilation an issue’ is completely false. Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization declared female genital mutilation a ‘human right.’ A Muslim cleric in Australia has defended it. It is a huge problem in Britain, and a huge percentage of the Muslims in Britain are not from East Africa or Africa at all. It is common in Iraq. It is well established in the Maldives. 41 percent of Kurdish women have been victims of it.”
[Aslan] “Nobody seems to care that Saudi Arabia is doing the same thing [beheadings] that ISIS is doing.”
Aslan is making a non-rebuttal here. Not only would Maher agree with this statement, he explicitly did so in his interview with Charlie Rose (though not in the video to which Aslan is responding). Maher criticized Rose with Aslan’s very words — that “Saudi Arabia does what ISIS does, but they’re our friends [said in disgust], because they have oil”. So when Aslan says something right for a change (the only thing he gets right in this entire talk) he’s not even engaging his opposition.
In any case, Aslan is wrong about Islam having nothing to do with how women are treated in places like Saudi Arabia. And he’s ridiculous to say that women are treated equally in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Turkey where women hold political office. That’s no indication of gender equality; in these countries women face strong forces of gender discrimination, unequal power relations, child marriage, and lack of education.
But finally, worst of all:
[Aslan] “Islam doesn’t promote violence or peace. Islam is just a religion and like any religion in the world, it depends on what you bring to it.”
This is nonsense. Religion has verifiable impact on human behavior. There’s a half-truth here, of course; religion can be used to justify unexpected beliefs and behaviors against the grain of its own traditions, and it often does. But it’s just as true that human beings are galvanized by creeds and abstract thought, independently of what they might “bring to it”. And there is plenty of violence and supremacism in the creeds of Islam that moves people in such a way.
In today’s politically-correct climate, the need to play fair-ball to all religions trumps common sense. But there is also the specter of essentialism. We’ve become very sophisticated in our use of social and economic models to understand how religions evolve; and in our appreciation of the malleability of scriptures — how they can be bent and twisted to justify unlikely doctrines (for good or ill). But these should be supplements, not replacements. The idea that poverty and injustices breed terrorism is an overrated myth refuted by endless counterexamples (the ranks of terrorists and Islamic fundamentalists have middle-class and well-educated people). Social history and locale have to be taken in conjunction with abstract creeds and beliefs; homo sapiens are shaped by both, indeed often more by one than the other, depending.
In sum, for all the praise he’s getting, Aslan’s rebuttal of Maher is so weak as to constitute “the emperor has no clothes” variety. It’s a classic case of people being hesitant to call out absurdities because they simply want them to be true.