Islam has been the subject of recent debate, and even Hollywood heavyweights have started to partake in the discussion. Last Friday, Gone Girl star Ben Affleck appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher alongside author Sam Harris, The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and politician and MSNBC political analyst Michael Steele, during which Affleck blasted Maher for his “gross” and “racist” characterizations of Islam.
The debate was sparked when Maher began discussing the need for liberals to start defending liberal principles such as freedom of speech and equality for women and minorities, qualities he deemed directly contrary to Islam. Maher went on to characterize Islam as “the only religion that acts like the mafia — that will f–king kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book.” In response, Affleck pointed out Maher’s ignorance toward the religion as a whole in minimizing an entire religious belief to “the mother lode of bad ideas.”
Though Affleck’s defense of Islam against Maher’s offensive tirade was laudable, it prompts an important question: Where, in this conversation on the codified doctrine of Islam, were the Muslims?
It’s hard to imagine that those coordinating Maher’s show couldn’t manage to find a single Muslim or Islamic scholar willing to speak at length on the complex theological issues discussed on the program. There are plenty of esteemed Islamic scholars who easily could have joined the conversation. But rather than prepare for the event in which Islam would be discussed on the program, the program chose instead to forego bringing in any sort of religious scholar at all, inviting actors, authors and political pundits; individuals who, despite their credibility within their own respective fields, were ultimately ill-equipped to handle the conversation in an informed way.
This isn’t the first time that Muslims or Islamic scholars have been left out of key discussions of the faith. On Monday, Fox News host Bill Hemmer discussed Maher’s characterizations of Islam, bringing onto the show Republican pollster Tyler Harber and former pollster for President Bill Clinton, Bernard Whitman. Like Maher’s show, the Fox News conversation ultimately resulted in the three men shouting over one another despite the fact that none of the three have the theological education to truly understand the faith they are discussing. This habit of inviting guests ill-equipped to discuss sensitive subjects such as a major world religion isn’t just limited to comedic shows like Maher’s. It’s now becoming more commonplace on major news networks. Not only is this fundamentally irresponsible on the part of the shows airing such content, but it allows facile arguments like Maher’s to be taken as legitimate analysis — something that is not only problematic, but also grossly inappropriate.
Programs like Maher’s show, which are often geared towards providing infotainment in a satirical way, should always be taken with a grain of salt. But that doesn’t excuse talk shows or news outlets from neglecting to bring credible sources to the discussion table. As religious scholar Reza Aslan, someone with the credibility and education capable of discussing this subject, noted of Maher’s comments on a segment of CNN, “Frankly when it comes to the topic of religion, [Maher is] not very sophisticated in the way that he thinks.”
Perhaps next time, the rest of the news media will heed Aslan’s remark.
Yasmeen Serhan is a junior majoring in international relations. She is also the special projects editor of the Daily Trojan. “Point/Counterpoint” runs Tuesdays.