Bill Maher has come into quite a bit of flak lately – even among ostensible progressives and leftists -- for his criticism of Islam as a belief system, and even more so as a political ideology. As I understand it as a regular and even religious – as it were – Maher fan and viewer, Maher says that, of all the religious systems in the world today, only Islam may be relied upon to oppose, even by means up to and including violence, the principles that have become the defining hallmarks of liberal (in the classical sense), latitudinarian (personal-liberty-respecting), secular (though not religion-hostile) societies: a commitment to equal rights for everyone, in particular, for women and sexual-orientation minorities; rigorous separation of religion and the state and a consequent commitment to personal religious liberty; and freedom of speech, press, and assembly. Liberal (in the classical sense), secular democracies are far from perfect. But when these rights are violated in such societies, argues Maher, such violations are regarded as intolerable, usually even criminal, aberrations. Here’s my take on the situation: Maher's critics are no doubt aware of nuances and subtleties that Maher glosses over, but at the end of the day, Bill Maher has the better of the argument.
This is obviously a subject that is simultaneously fraught and complex, all the more so in light of recent events like the Charlie Hebdo shooting and the subsequent hostage situations in Paris, which are still unfolding as I write this (9 January). Perhaps the best way to tackle it is to deal with what is perhaps the briefest, yet most coherent, critique of Maher’s own attitude: Nicholas Kristof’s response to Maher’s argument, “The Diversity of Islam” in the October 8, 2014 issue of the New York Times. I will address Kristof’s points one by one, and, I hope defend Maher and vindicate his critique:
o First, historically, Islam was not particularly intolerant, and it initially elevated the status of women.
It is important to concentrate on two words in this starting paragraph: “historically” and “initially”. Kristof’s general point is well taken: historically and initially, Islamic society did indeed “elevate the status,” not only of women, but also of Jews. Historically. Initially. But historically, the United States was a slave Nation that initially did not extend anything like full rights -- in fact, no rights at all -- to black people. Historically. Initially. But the question we are dealing with, even as the blood and smoke of the latest atrocities are still in the process of dissipating, is not “What has been the case historically and initially?” but “What is the case now and at this point?” The United States changed, and is still in the process of changing, from what it was historically and initially, not only with respect to women’s rights, but also with respect to other rights: African-Americans, gay / lesbian / LGBTQ people, immigrants, etc., etc. This is, and always has been, a two-steps-forward-one-step-back process. But it is happening. By contrast, Islamic societies, irrespective of their undisputed liberality in previous centuries, have remained largely static, in some cases like Jews and women's rights even backslidden, with respect to exactly these issues – and with respect to issues like freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion, all of which are universally recognized in the West. (What does it say about Western attitudes toward Islam when western liberals and progressives rejoice when they read accounts of Saudi Arabia oh-so-tentatively finally considering allowing women to drive?) That is why, the past being however it was, slandering the Prophet on any streetcorner in, say, Islamabad may very well get you killed, whereas if you slander Jesus Christ on any street corner in Seattle you will most likely incur, at most, a frown less serious than you would earn for using the wrong fork while dining at Downton Abbey. Kristof would do well to reflect on the reason for this difference.
o Anybody looking at the history even of the 20th century would not single out Islam as the bloodthirsty religion; it was Christian / Nazi / Communist Europe and Buddhist / Taoist / Hindu / atheist Asia that set records for mass slaughter.
If we are going to use Naziism and Communism to calibrate our moral compass, that will still leave enormous room for atrocities like that of Paris … and Sydney … and Mumbai … and London … and Madrid … and New York … and Shanksville, PA. Saying that jihadism has slain its thousands and fascism its tens of thousands hardly suffices to make either a moral preceptor for the rest of us. To shift the metaphor, I think we need to lift the bar a tad higher than Stalin's purges.
o Likewise, it is true that the Quran has passages hailing violence, but so does the Bible …
Right … and I have commented on this at length elsewhere. That Christians continue to insist that God is "pro-life" is not justified by reference to their own Book, quite the contrary. But that the Christians’ God is as bloodthirsty as That of militant jihadist Islam – one more time – does not justify a claim to the moral high ground on the part of either. (See preceding bullet point.) "A plague on both Their houses" would, I should think, be the most appropriate response.
o … today the Islamic world includes a strain that truly is disproportionately intolerant and oppressive … (boldface added)
True, and that boldfaced word is the tiny acorn that should grow into a mighty oak of searching cultural critique, and yet which people of meticulous good will like Kristof avoid watering and nurturing. So, since no one else -- except Bill Maher and Sam Harris -- volunteer to do so, I will ask the un-ask-able: what is it about the Islamic world that enables ideologies and ideologues, that people in the Western world would immediately repudiate as deranged and pathological, to grow to such stature as to seize control of entire governments – and the militaries thereof? As I have argued elsewhere, the answer lies in the fact that the Muslim world has never … yet? … undergone the wrenching process that Europe endured in the Enlightenment from the late 1600s through the middle 1800s. Church and State have been separated in Europe for roughly 300 years; separation of Mosque and State in the Muslim world is still pending. Separation of religion and the state, and the accompanying secularization of the latter, enables the existence of a secular, rationalist voice to counterbalance, to compete with -- and consequently to draw the fangs of -- militantly radical religious passion. Think of a nuclear reactor: the control rods prevent a runaway fission reaction that would lead to a catastrophic meltdown. The "godless secular humanism" conservatives are ever caterwauling about makes up the ideological "control rods" that prevent a runaway cultural and political reaction that would consume any society with a dominant theistic, especially monotheistic, religious culture. Europe had no such set of "control rods", and, over roughly two millennia, nearly melted down from waves of successive religious wars. The Islamic world still has no analogous set of "control rods". We see the results in the Islamic world today, and, like all such meltdowns (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, etc,), the damage does not respect national or cultural boundaries. Remember: it was under the influence of such religious passion, untempered by secularity and rationality, that England beheaded its Sovereign … in 1649. Similarly intense religious passion, similarly unmoderated by secularity and rationality, now has a realistic prospect of in the near future combining with 21st-century weapons technology to perhaps decapitate whole countries.
o Christianity encompassed the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and also the 13th century papal legate who in France ordered the massacre of 20,000 Cathar men, women and children … (boldface added)
Again, Kristof has to turn to ancient history to find examples – which … yes … indisputably do exist – of religiously motivated obscenities perpetrated in the West. But Kristof's comparison is specious. For the real question to ask, in the interest of citing a valid comparison, was when in modern times, say, since the middle 1800s, a religious believer in the West, for similarly religious reasons, ordered the slaughter of 20,000 people – or shot up a magazine office … or bombed a subway … I suppose you could cite ethnic cleansing, Slobodan Milosevic, and the Balkan War. But even with such aberrations, the important point to note is that western / European civilization itself repudiated and opposed that practice, even through the use of massive and protracted military force. One can only wish that the Pakistani government had acted similarly against Usama bin-Laden – and for the same reasons. I suppose we could fudge the middle-1800s window and find a more formidable example in the French Revolution of 1789. But the "take-away" there is that, while the French (arguably) succeeded in "removing God from office", they did not succeed in substituting reason in God's place. (In that respect, the American Revolution succeeded where the French Revolution failed. How and why? Long story ... ) The result was a personality cult known as the Terror ... i.e., just one more theistic religion with Robespierre instead of Yahweh -- or Allah -- as its god. A monotheism by any other name ... etc. ...
o … the Islamic world contains multitudes: It is vast and varied. Yes, almost four out of five Afghans favor the death penalty for apostasy …
Yes … and 86 percent in Egypt, 82 percent in Jordan, 66 percent in the Palestinian territories, 76 percent in Pakistan, 62 percent in Malaysia, 46 percent in Lebanon, and 42 percent in Bangladesh. Bottom line: in an enormous swath of the Muslim world encompassing about 6.5 percent of the world's population and comprising over 451 million people (including Afghanistan), and only counting Muslims, roughly between half and three-quarters of that population, depending on the particular country, believe that death is the appropriate penalty for leaving Islam. If we combine the above-cited Muslim populations with the respective percentages, for each country, of Muslims favoring the death penalty for renouncing Islam, we arrive at an aggregate total of 300 million people who favor the death penalty for "apostasy" among the above countries, i.e., a population only slightly smaller than that of the United States. No wonder Kristof only cited the single example of Afghanistan: the other numbers would have been embarrassing to his argument. In any case, the point is not that Islam is necessarily and inevitably a uniquely murderous religion. (However, I would not hesitate to argue that all god-centered religions are such, at least potentially, especially all monotheistic religions. Any monotheism, like Chernobyl, is exceptionally susceptible to meltdowns.) The point, rather, is that when you combine Islam with a national culture that has no pre-existing tradition of a secular, (classical) liberal, rationalistic, libertarian, latitudinarian political culture -- in other words, no "control rods" in its dominant religious ideology -- you end up with a 21st-century equivalent of Christian Europe in the 1500s: a monopoly of religious passion with no moderating competition from secularity. Dangerous then. Dangerous now.
Certainly Kristof is right that we should not tar all individuals with the same brush. It is not right – in fact, it is nothing less than slanderous and irresponsible – to infer from the mere solitary datum of a person’s Muslim faith that that person as an individual is a slavering bloodshot-eyed jihadist. Individuals are individuals. Ideologies are ideologies. The two are not equivalent. In fact, it is worth pointing out that, according to an article in Mic.Com, a Muslim, Ahmed Merabet, one of the policemen stationed near the Charlie Hebdo offices, was killed by a fellow Muslim: Officer Merabet died defending the liberty of the very people who satirized his religion. The Huffington Post also recently carried an account of a young man from Mali, Lassana Bathily, a Muslim, who saved the lives of several people when a kosher delicatessen Hyper Cacher was invaded by the Paris terrorists. (According to some accounts, at least some of the people M. Bathily hid in the freezer were Jews.) These acts of heroism do not surprise me, because my wife and I have Muslim friends that we consider adopted family – and who are as revolted as we by the violence in Paris, London, Madrid, Sydney, and Mumbai – if anything, even more revolted because such violence was perpetrated by professing and ostensible fellow Muslims. But critiquing the ideology, and examining the question of why the ideology is susceptible to fostering such violence, is not only morally permissible but morally obligatory. We only make the problem worse when, like Kristof, we mumble platitudes like “Well, gee, we are really all the same" ...
... which is not strictly false ... but just true enough to be misleading ...
James R. Cowles