The “Islamophobic” Triumvirate: Maher, Harris, Spencer

On the face of it, Bill Maher, Sam Harris, and Robert Spencer would seem unlikely allies. The first is a left-wing comedian, the second a moderate neuroscientist, the last a right-wing political commentator. But on the subject of Islam they are as one, and I count myself in their company. None is a scholar of Islam, but each is better equipped to address the subject than the likes of Reza Aslan and Karen Armstrong.

I’m voicing my support for these men because virtually no one else will. The abuse they get has been astonishing to me, and I’ve even experienced a mild version of it myself. It’s brought home how difficult the Islam issue is, and how we manufacture bigotry to kill honest discussion in advance.

Salon and Bill Maher


Bill Maher (Video)

Salon’s writers aren’t the brightest, but the recent article by Heather Parton sets a record level of absurdity that unfortunately speaks for many. So let’s wade through her points before turning to the deeper problems.

“Critics of Islam like Bill Maher and Sam Harris have been strongly challenged by those who believe that one shouldn’t hold an entire religion responsible for the actions of a fringe that interprets their sacred book in a way that encourages violence.”

Right off the bat she blows it. Islamic fundamentalists aren’t the fringe, and in some places they’re the mainstream. Their numbers are hugely significant. They’re not analogous to Christian abortion-clinic bombers, members of the Westboro Baptist Church, lone rogues like Timothy McVeigh — or any of the few-and-far-between extremists who receive no support from any mainstream Christian group. Islamic fundamentalists are daily active, and they are precisely the ones whose beliefs are grounded in official Islamic doctrine. This is the #1 misstep I see in almost every discussion of Islam: equating jihadis and sharia-advocates with fringe extremists.

“There are, after all, nearly 2 billion Muslims in the world and while it’s true that there are passages in the Qur’an that can be interpreted as condoning violence the mere fact that the vast, vast majority of its adherents do not interpret it as a literal call to arms argues that Maher’s and Harris’ critics are right.”

It suggests no such thing. No one — least of all Maher, Harris, and Spencer — denies that a small percentage of Muslims are jihadists. That small percentage is still way too huge (again, not fringe). Moreover, there is a larger percentage of Muslims who share identical beliefs with jihadists even if they wouldn’t participate in war or terrorism themselves. Still further are conservative Muslims who would not endorse jihad or sharia, yet they hold to intolerant views that make conservatives of other religious faiths look liberal. Whether we speak of “connecting tissue” between these groups (Maher), or the overlap between concentric circles (Harris) — jihadists at the center, Islamists around them, and then Muslim conservatives — this is the accurate portrait of global Islam, and to deny the reality is irresponsible. Thus the second misstep: the failure to acknowledge Islam’s texture which pervades large portions of the world’s Muslim population.

“But one has to wonder if a person who thinks that a book, however sacred and meaningful, can induce people to commit acts of violence, is equally concerned about other forms of influence? Does Bill Maher think that because television and movies glorify violence they should also be held responsible for many of the violent acts perpetrated here and around the world? After all, if Islam is responsible for the violence of a handful out of nearly 2 billion adherents you’d think Hollywood should be held responsible for the violence of a handful out of the billions of people who watch their violent programs, wouldn’t you?”

I couldn’t believe I was reading this. It’s absurd to compare violence in entertainment and the violence mandated in religious doctrine. Religious ideas galvanize people; entertainment provides a harmless outlet for our violent impulses. (We should applaud artists like Quentin Tarantino for precisely this reason. Critics who suggest that his films could be responsible for real-life violence know nothing. The Japanese film industry cranks out films which make Tarantino’s look like Disney, yet Japan’s crime rate is lower than America’s.) Films may desensitize people to violence. Holy books like the Qur’an incite people to violence.

“There is a history of trying to hold the entertainment business liable for inspiring the criminal activities of its customers… The only reason to bring all this moldy history up is simply to point out that people often seek to blame an outside influence for violent and destructive actions of individuals. And when it comes to our entertainment industry, which is clearly very violent, we have always found that individuals themselves are responsible.”


Sam Harris (Video)

For good reason. Individuals are responsible for their actions, in any context, religious or otherwise. That doesn’t mean we pretend that religion can’t have anything to do with inspiring them. Parton goes on with an example of a college student who was (possibly) planning to use ricin to poison someone, (possibly) influenced by the character of Walter White on Breaking Bad. This lone-rogue example is so facile it doesn’t constitute an analogy, for the reasons above.

“Bill Maher seems to think that the Muslim religion is at fault for acts of terrorism committed in the name of Islam. But, in fact, it’s the radical imams who are cajoling, pressuring and bribing young disaffected men to commit violence in the name of Islam — which is not all that different from what the FBI is doing, is it? It’s not the idea or the book or the religion that’s encouraging them to make these bad decisions; it’s older men in authority manipulating younger men to carry out their plans. There’s nothing new or unusual about that.”

A red herring. No one denies that authority figures manipulate people. Just as no one denies the litany of other factors — western imperialism, poverty, lack of education. But religion is by far the biggest factor. Many other places (Swaziland, Costa Rica, the Philippines, you name it) are plagued by colonialism, poverty, and/or lack of education, and have their authority figures, yet they aren’t combustible like Islamic cultures. What China has done to the Tibetans is just as bad as what Israel and western powers have done in the Muslim world, but suicide-bombing has not been the Tibetan-Buddhist response. Jihad violence may be exacerbated by the Israeli occupation and our meddling in Iraq, but it’s certainly not born of it. And that’s the third blunder: bending over backwards to find cause for religious violence in all but the most obvious place: religion itself.

Root Issues: The Difficulty with Liberals

It’s especially my crowd that has difficulty being honest about Islam. As liberals we want religions to be equivalent for sake of multiculturalism and to make interfaith dialogue easier. But interfaith dialogue should be like free speech, and raise discomfort as it empowers. The “no gains without pains” proverb may sound trite, but that’s the only way we improve. Islam is a religion of violence. We need to get comfortable saying that. That most Muslims are peaceful doesn’t effect this conclusion. Jainism is a religion of peace. Fanatical Jains are like fanatical Amish: harmless beyond dispute. Buddhism hangs toward the peaceful end. I would put Judaism and Christianity on the peaceful side too, though a bit closer to the middle: they have violent and intolerant elements but carry the seeds of their transformation because of their many positive supplements. Such assessments arouse unease, if not outrage, among liberals, but this is how interfaith dialogue should proceed.

There’s something else at work. I think it’s hard for us (again, liberals especially) to accept that religious zealots can be motivated by beliefs simply on the “purity” of those beliefs; that these zealots are attracted, in the abstract, by martyrdom and promises of paradise; that such ideas can be in and of themselves psychologically rewarding. Sam Harris and Robert Spencer are right: Not all jihadists are “lone wolves”, maladjusted, poor, or politically angry. Even those who are can be inspired by abstract ideas irrespective of that baggage. Many of them — we see example after example — come from well-integrated families and are as normal as we consider normal to be.

Scholarship of the medieval crusades sheds a fascinating light on this. I explained why the crusades are in most ways a weak analogy to the jihad, but there is one way in which they are completely analogous: the zealous mindset they fostered. Christian knights were motivated by sincere piety. It took a long time for scholars to accept this, but giants like Jonathan Riley-Smith, Thomas Asbridge, and Christopher Tyerman have put to bed the myth that crusaders were mostly land-hungry boors motivated by greed, or second-born sons looking to improve their lot in life. All the evidence counts against it. Crusaders really believed that spilling Muslim blood would remit their sins and enable them to bypass purgatory (just as jihadists believe in the virgins waiting for them in paradise); these knights had been drowning in guilt, taught that their profession was evil (if a necessary evil) and contrary to Christ’s teachings; the crusades came as a papal godsend. For the first time ever, and completely against the grain of Christian scripture and tradition, violence could now be sacred. To the medieval knight this idea was precious in and of itself. But for a long time scholars projected their rationality onto the knights and explained the holy wars in primarily social and economic frameworks. That’s what we do today with the jihad. We’re uncomfortable with “craziness” that cannot be rationally or tangibly accounted for.


Robert Spencer (Video)

There is an even third reason for liberal-minded folks to deny truths about Islam. As Michael Moore recently noted, we’re tired of our drone strikes in the Middle-East. Speaking plainly about Islam may come across as justification for more war-mongering. (I happen to agree with Maher over Harris: we need to get out of the Middle-East and let others, and Muslim neighbors, sort out the mess for a change.) Not to mention fear-mongering: it may sound like we’re seeing terrorists under every rock and giving tacit approval for the NSA to spy on us. I share these concerns (4th Amendment rights are particularly sacred to me), but lying about Islam isn’t the answer to war and paranoia. We can’t fix a problem that’s falsely diagnosed.

Nor, especially, can liberal Muslims. Removing the violence and intolerance out of Islam kills the patient. It mutates the religion into a different species. When Christian reformers attempt to “look forward by going back” — to recover the early teachings of Jesus and the apostles — they can be successful because, for all of early Christianity’s archaisms (hopes for the apocalypse, etc.), there are enough elements in the New Testament that facilitate progressive moves. There has never been anything equivalent to the Catholic or Protestant Reformations in the Islamic world, because harking back to the example of Muhammad is drastically counter-productive. What little benevolence can be found in the Qur’an is trumped in any case by Muhammad’s later revelations. The 18th-century reform of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, accordingly, produced one of the nastiest strains of Islam ever. Indeed, on the usual understanding of reform (“recovering earliest roots”), it is jihadists and sharia-advocates who are Islam’s true reformers. Only on the other understanding of reform (realigning beliefs in progressive directions) can liberal Muslims be construed as the torch-bearers.

There, in my opinion, is the rub. In most religions, the two understandings of reform can usually work as one; in Islam that’s virtually impossible. To make Muhammad benign, you’d have to rely on the revisionist fantasies of Karen Armstrong.

One of my co-workers has a plaque hanging over her desk. The words of Jo Godwin beam down: “A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.” So does a great society. The offense of bigotry is excluded, of course, but Bill Maher, Sam Harris, and Robert Spencer aren’t bigots. They are not the Phil-Robertson demagogues implied by our mainstream media. They stand for an intellectual integrity that’s rare in discussing Islam, and they indeed offend. That offending integrity is something for which I’m thankful this holiday.

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