Oct 5, 2014

That Time Reza Aslan Smacked Down Bill Maher

I've never much cared for Bill Maher's commentary on religion. I think his views on the issue are shallow and reasoned backwards from the most extreme examples. So I very much enjoyed Reza Aslan's recent take-down of Maher's thoroughly ignorant, Islamaphobic rant. In the process he schooled the equally simplistic Don Lemon and Alisyn Camerota.

Comedian Bill Maher recently made some comments about Islamic countries that characterized them as more prone to violence, misogyny and bigotry, and now religious scholar Reza Aslan has called Maher out on his own “bigotry.” Aslan, who became famous when he skewered Fox News, appeared on CNN to pick apart Maher’s “not very sophisticated” and “facile arguments” that characterize Muslim nations as all the same. As is evident from the CNN bit, these arguments are not unique to Maher, making Aslan’s nuanced argument an essential one to keep in mind as we increase military action in the Middle East.

Here’s Aslan’s point: “To say Muslim countries, as though Pakistan and Turkey are the same… it’s frankly, and I use this word seriously, stupid!”

“The problem is that you’re talking about a religion of one and a half billion people,” he explained, “and certainly it becomes very easy to just simply paint them all with a single brush by saying, ‘Well in Saudi Arabia [women] can’t drive,’ and saying that’s representative of Islam. That’s representative of Saudi Arabia.”

In particular, Aslan took on Maher's misrepresentation of female genital mutilation as a Muslim practice.

CNN Tonight hosts Don Lemon and Alisyn Camerota picked up this thread the following day in an interview with Reza Aslan, an author and University of California-Riverside professor of religious studies.

Aslan criticized Maher for making "facile arguments" when he generalized about Muslims and mislabeled female genital mutilation an Islamic problem.

"It's a central African problem," Aslan said. "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."

Politifact rates Aslan's position as "mostly true." I would say it's as true as anyone could be given the constraints of soundbite journalism in a five minute interview. FGM is not an Islamic practice. It's an ancient tribal practice in some parts of Africa that found its way into other religions including some Islamic sects.

"It is extremely clear that in many countries that have a very high population of Muslims, female genital mutilation/cutting is not practiced," said Francesca Moneti, the UNICEF senior child protection specialist who co-authored the report.

Experts say the practice stems from social pressure to conform to traditions passed down for centuries -- one that predates not just Islam but also Judaism and Christianity. (The origins of the practice are subject to some dispute, but some scholars say it may correspond to areas of ancient civilizations, in which the cutting of females "signalled controlled fidelity and the certainty of paternity," the UNICEF report states.)

. . .

While it stems from neither Christianity nor Islam, some women in Chad, Guinea and Mauritania report a "religious requirement" as a benefit of cutting. Some communities consider a clitoridectomy -- one type of female genital mutilation -- as "sunna," which is Arabic for "tradition" or "duty," according to the UNICEF report. However, it is not a requirement of the Koran and has been specifically rejected by some Muslim leaders in Egypt.

Aslan also tweeted this helpful infographic:

Maher's comments were strikingly similar to those of his pal Richard Dawkins's "Muslima" comments, aka., "Elevatorgate." As discussed here, the object of Dawkins's criticism was Skepchick Rebecca Watson. Similarly Dawkins trivialized her discomfort at being sexually objectified and being put in an uncomfortable, intimidating situation, by comparing her white girl problems to the plight of Muslim women. And also like Maher, he got the issue of FGM completely wrong. Watson, also an atheist, and far more knowledgeable and active on the issue, had to set him straight as well. This is not to say that he doesn't remain self-satisfied in his continuing and willful ignorance.

Like Dawkins, Maher thinks molly-coddled America liberals should shut up about injustices here until we can express the appropriate outrage at the real problem: Islam. Apparently he didn't get Dawkins's memo about how lesser offenses are not exonerated by the existence of greater offenses. Perhaps because Dawkins so completely bungled the delivery.

Maher continued this theme on this week's Real Time, attempting to bolster his argument by including another New Atheist Islamaphobe Sam Harris. The result was a very angry Ben Affleck.

Notably, Reza Aslan was not on this week's panel. No doubt because he would have shredded the New Atheist argument more ably than either New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof or a Hollywood actor.

Harris is treated as an expert on the subject of religion because he's a neuroscientist and despite the fact that he's been demonstrably wrong so many times -- like when he tried to claim a passionate Muslim girl as an icon of his anti-Muslim views.

Not surprisingly he has been taken to task for his Islamaphobia, though probably not as much he should be. He's responded with multiple versions of this bit of tripe. He's not a racist, he says in a tedious semantic argument, nor is he an Islamaphobe. He's just a rationalist who sees the threat Islam poses to the globe. He rejects the notion of peaceful Muslims because there are violent ones and on the basis that the Koran contains so much violent scripture.

Unfortunately, many of my most voluble critics cannot clear this bar—and no amount of quotation from the Koran, the hadith, the ravings of modern Islamists, or from the plaints of their victims, makes a bit of difference.

. . .

What, for instance, is the penalty for apostasy? It isn’t spelled out clearly in the Koran—though verses 2:217 and 4:89 suggest that those who seek to lead others away from the faith must be killed. However, the general sanction is made abundantly clear in the hadith, and in the opinions of Muslim jurists and Muslim mobs everywhere.

It's a good argument... unless you've ever read the Bible. The violence called for by the God of the Old Testament is epic. Former nun Karen Armstrong says the Bible is the more violent of the two books. Yet Jews and Christians get a pass from Harris. He avoids the issue neatly in his post by comparing Islam to Jainism rather than the other two major Abrahamic faiths.

You can't really judge a religious practice by all of its scriptures because few religious people even try to follow them all. It's impossible to follow all the tenets of religious texts that contradict themselves. Only fundamentalists try and radical fundamentalism is born of social strife, economic injustice, and other cultural factors.

While it is certainly true that radical Muslims use some scriptures to justify atrocities, so do Christians killing accused witches and fueling gay persecution in Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, and other countries. Even some Americans think the Old Testament justifies killing gay people. They are fairly seen as backwards extremists by most Christians and Jews.

So what does the erroneously termed "Muslim World" think of its extremists? Gallup tried to take the pulse of a diverse, billion plus Muslims on a range of issues. Unlike Maher and Harris, they didn't cherry-pick the most grotesque practices from the most regressive Muslim majority countries. They cast the net quite a bit wider.

The result is Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, based on six years of research and more than 50,000 interviews representing 1.3 billion Muslims who reside in more than 35 nations that are predominantly Muslim or have sizable Muslim populations. Representing more than 90% of the world's Muslim community, it makes this poll the largest, most comprehensive study of its kind.
What the data reveal and the authors illuminate may surprise you:
  • Muslims and Americans are equally likely to reject attacks on civilians as morally unjustifiable.
  • Large majorities of Muslims would guarantee free speech if it were up to them to write a new constitution AND they say religious leaders should have no direct role in drafting that constitution.
  • Muslims around the world say that what they LEAST admire about the West is its perceived moral decay and breakdown of traditional values -- the same answers that Americans themselves give when asked this question.
  • When asked about their dreams for the future, Muslims say they want better jobs and security, not conflict and violence.
  • Muslims say the most important thing Westerners can do to improve relations with their societies is to change their negative views toward Muslims and respect Islam.
The research suggests that conflict between Muslims and the West is NOT inevitable and, in fact, is more about policy than principles. "However," caution Esposito and Mogahed, "until and unless decision makers listen directly to the people and gain an accurate understanding of this conflict, extremists on all sides will continue to gain ground."

A book by Karen Armstrong, due out at the end of this month, challenges not only the assumption that Islam is driving terrorism but that religion is the prime mover in war. Writing in The Guardian, Armstrong explains that historically, religion was not separate from culture or political life. If war were driven by religion, our more recent innovation of secular governance should have significantly reduced warfare. Yet some of the worst and most devastating wars have been carried out by secular states. In notable cases secular powers targeted religious groups -- the Armenian genocide at the hands of the anti-religious Young Turks and the extermination of six million Jews by the National Socialist Party in Germany, for instance.

Throughout history, religion may have been an ingredient in warfare and a unifying force, but has rarely been the major cause. Indeed, the War Audit conducted for the BBC in 2010, found that wars driven by primarily religious motives make up a tiny slice of mankind's martial history.

Brace yourselves, those for whom religion equals war. The majority of all wars (44/73 or 60 percent) had no religious motivation whatsoever -- a zero rating. Only three wars -- the Arab conquests of 632-732, the much ballyhooed Crusades, and the Reformation Wars of the 16th and 17th centuries - earned a 5, and were thus considered to be truly religious wars. Only seven wars earned a rating of 3 or more -- less than 10 percent. Thus, the vast majority of all wars involved either no religious motivation or only a modest one. The authors concluded by noting that "there have been few genuinely religious wars in the last 100 years. The Israel/Arab wars were wars of nationalism and liberation of territory" (p. 16).  

As per Armstrong, it is not religion that moves communities and nations to war, but the other way 'round. As religions have become institutional forces, enmeshed with government, they have been absorbed into the war-making apparatus.

The sad truth is that religions are corrupted by success. The more popular they become, the closer they are drawn into the ambit of state power, the more their practice and doctrine have to be remodelled to suit their new overlords. Armstrong reflects gloomily:
Every major faith tradition has tracked the political entity in which it arose; none has become a ‘world religion’ without the patronage of a militarily powerful empire and every tradition would have to develop an imperial ideology.
You can keep the old faith, as do the Sufis and the Quakers, but that means staying out of the loop. The conversion of Constantine also meant the conscription of Christianity. It was not long before Augustine of Hippo was developing the convenient theory of the ‘just war’. Similarly the ahadith, the later reports of the Prophet’s sayings, confer a spiritual dimension on warfare which it doesn’t have in the Koran. Militant Sikhs today prefer to quote the martial teachings of the Tenth Guru rather than those of their founder Guru Nanak, who taught that only ‘he who regards all men as equals is religious’.

Ironically, according to Armstrong, it's the aggressive movement towards secularism that is spurring extremist, fundamentalist backlash. Even so, the idea of terrorism as a distinctly Muslim, or even religious practice, is belied by the facts.

All terrorism is now routinely attributed to religious intoxication. Richard Dawkins tells us that ‘only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness in otherwise sane and decent people’. But Armstrong points out that suicide bombing was more or less invented by the Tamil Tigers, ‘a nationalist separatist group with no time for religion’. A Chicago University study of suicide attacks worldwide over 25 years found ‘little connection between suicide and terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any religion for that matter’. Out of 38 suicide bombings in the Lebanon during the 1980s, 27 were perpetrated by secularists and socialists, three by Christians and only eight by Muslims.

Also ironic are the fulminations of these New Atheist rationalists, such the late Christopher Hitchins.

Ever since, the ferocity of liberal nationalists has matched anything the bigots in armour can do. Hitch himself, though infinitely amiable in personal relations, was no slouch as a secular Saladin. His reveilles after 9/11 were scorchers:
I think the enemies of civilisation should be beaten and killed and defeated, and I don’t make any apology for it… We can’t live on the same planet as them, and I’m glad because I don’t want to. I don’t want to breathe the same air as these psychopaths and murderers… It’s them or me. I’m very happy about this because I know it will be them.

Yes. Death to the extremists!!!

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