Bill Maher’s call for liberals to stand by principles has value

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.

Grace Wang | Daily Trojan

Grace Wang | Daily Trojan

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.


4 replies
  1. William Buttrey
    William Buttrey says:

    As liberals we should always be in support of universal justice, applied equally. As an atheist myself, I’d hate to weigh in the argument over what someone’s particular ‘sacred text’ espouses as it would like arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. In the history of Christianity, both sides used bible verses to support their positions on slavery.

    While Maher and Harris made defensible points on acts that are rightly condemned, Affleck was right in asserting that such a broad brush defames the peaceful practitioners of a given faith.

    Maher used poll numbers to supposedly establish that because a percentage of adherents felt a certain way, that it therefore condemned the entire faith. In all of these cases, regardless of the religious tradition, it is the proxies claiming to be acting in the name of their God(s)/faith that is the problem.

    When people of the old world used the appeal to Manifest Destiny to justify their theft of the land of the indigenous people in the Americas, would you try to arbitrate the issue based on whose god-view had more veracity?

    Ann Coulter has spoken on this campus before. She is on record as saying with regard to our own foreign adventures, “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.”

    Would anyone care to suggest that Coulter speaks for Christianity?

    • Arafat
      Arafat says:

      You prove that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing and your insinuation that Christianity and Islam are similar proves this.
      Christ turned the other cheek, embraced his neighbors, taught loving-kindness, etc…
      Mohammed did the opposite (not that matters to you in your thinking about these men and the religions they spawned). Mohammed killed, raped, had intercourse with a nine year old girl, stole and pillaged, tortured and enslaved.
      Christians have committed untold horrors in the name of Christ and doing so committed sins. Christ practiced and preached compassion and love for others.
      When Muslims commit violent Jihad in the name of Allah they are promised great gifts.
      Your relativistic mumbo-jumbo says more about your superficiality than it says about what it is you are pretending to have knowledge about.

  2. Arafat
    Arafat says:

    Calling a hateful religion hateful is not hate speech. It’s a statement of fact.

    Read the Quran, hadiths and Sunna if you want to know what a hateful religion is.

  3. Arafat
    Arafat says:

    A beheading in Woolwich, a suicide bomb in Beijing, a blown-up marathon in
    Boston, a shooting in the head of a young Pakistani girl seeking education, a
    destroyed shopping mall in Nairobi – and so it continues, in the name of Islam,
    from south London to Timbuktu. It is time to take stock, especially on the
    left, since these things are part of the world’s daily round.

    Leave aside the parrot-cry of “Islamophobia” for a moment. I will return to
    it. Leave aside, too, the pretences that it is all beyond comprehension.
    “Progressives” might ask instead: what do Kabul, Karachi, Kashmir, Kunming and
    a Kansas airport have in common? Is it that they all begin with “K”? Yes. But
    all of them have been sites of recent Islamist or, in the case of Kansas, of
    wannabe-Islamist, attacks; at Wichita Airport planned by a Muslim convert ready
    to blow himself up, and others, “in support of al-Qaeda in the Arabian
    Peninsula”. “We cannot stop lone wolves,” a British counterterrorism expert
    told us after Woolwich. Are they “lone”? Of course not.

    A gas facility in southern Algeria, a hospital in Yemen, an Egyptian police convoy
    in the Sinai – it’s complex all right – a New Year’s party in the southern
    Philippines, a railway station in the Caucasus, a bus terminal in Nigeria’s
    capital, and on and on, have all been hit by jihadis, with hostages taken,
    suicide belts detonated, cars and trucks exploded, and bodies blown to bits.
    And Flight MH370? Perhaps. In other places – in Red Square and Times Square, in
    Jakarta and New Delhi, in Amman and who-knows-where in Britain – attacks have
    been thwarted. But in 2013 some 18 countries got it in the neck (so to
    speak) from Islam’s holy warriors….

Comments are closed.