Last Friday night on his HBO program, Real Time, Bill Maher bickered with Ben Affleck in a heated argument about the nature of Islam. Once the two — along with Sam Harris, the author of Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion — succeeded in turning the debate into a yelling match, the whole discussion shifted from liberalism and its reticence on issues in the Muslim world to a cyclical argument over whether or not Islam is inherently “the only religion that acts like the mafia,” as Maher said.
Affleck’s defense of Islam against Maher’s seemingly bigoted characterizations of the religion was certainly well-intentioned, but he made it a matter of the West versus Islam rather than a fight against fundamentalism that both people of Muslim heritage and Westerners face. The interview opened with this statement from Maher:
“Liberals need to stand up for liberal principles … freedom of speech, freedom to practice any religion you want without fear of violence, freedom to leave a religion, equality for women, equality for minorities,” Maher said. “But then when you say in the Muslim world, ‘This is what’s lacking,’ then they get upset.” Following that, Harris added, “The crucial point of confusion is that we have been sold this meme of Islamophobia where every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry toward Muslims as people. That is intellectually ridiculous.”
“Islamophobia” seems to be the term that triggered Affleck’s outburst, suggesting that his main agenda had been to counter Maher’s critique on liberalism more than his attack on jihadism. It’s true that Maher shouldn’t have overgeneralized and said that Islam is a “mafia” that kills, but looking past the generalizations made, there’s some truth to Maher’s points.
To play the defender of the religion is one thing, but in doing so, Affleck seems to have trivialized the gravity of the state of fundamentalism. Liberals face a battle against the ideology of fundamentalism — it’s not about stereotypical generalizations or, as Affleck’s response suggested, minimizing responses to that ideology.
Within modern liberalism, there’s a strong reluctance to criticize other cultures. Liberals, a group whose mission is to stand up for free speech and gender equality, aren’t as vocal when it comes to the issues of the Muslim world — and they need to be for the sake of the many innocent people slaughtered by that minority of fundamentalists. Critiquing Muslim fundamental ideas against jihadism is key, and it needs to be done in a way that distinguishes Islam from Islamism. Affleck’s defense, though made in good faith, downplayed the scope of the challenge that people of Muslim heritage themselves face today. Many Westerners in the liberal camp haven’t been outspoken enough in critiquing that extremist wing of Islam, and as exhibited by Affleck’s comments, fail to see the urgency to defeat that radical part of the religion.
The dissent that Maher stirred up, whether people agree with his points or not, is healthy for a community that needs to continually challenge and test its principles in different contexts. He summed it up well when he told Salon, “There’s a knee-jerk reaction sometimes among liberals — ‘Oh, we need to be protective of a group that certainly does face prejudice and bigotry in America’ (and I’m certainly against that) — but we need to understand that it’s a wider issue.”
Valerie Yu is a junior majoring in English. She is also the editorial director of the Daily Trojan. “Point/Counterpoint” runs Tuesdays.