It’s been one week since the epic brawl between Bill Maher and Ben Affleck on HBO’s “Real Time.” This fight was like something we typically see in reality shows, complete with name calling and screaming. But as opposed to the donnybrooks we’ve seen on “The Kardishians” over issues like “why are you looking at my man?!”, this battle was about a faith of approximately 1.5 billion people.
So now that tempers have calmed somewhat on both sides of this skirmish, the question that must be asked is: Can we have an honest and reasonable discussion about Islam?
As a Muslim, I not only say yes, but I say we need to. There’s simply too much misinformation – some intentionally distributed (I’m looking at you Fox News and certain GOP officials), and some by people simply repeating half-truths or lies they have picked up along the way.
Regardless of the reason, it’s time to discuss Islam, the good and the bad, in a responsible and respectful way. This applies to both those on Team Maher and Team Affleck as well as those in between. (Full disclosure: I’m definitely on Team Affleck.)
First, to my fellow Team Affleck peeps, we can’t react in a knee-jerk fashion to every criticism of Islam by calling people bigots or racists. Believe me, I understand the impulse. In fact, I’ve done just that many times, but only after I thought long and hard and decided the person really deserved the term. But it’s clearly not helping in the bigger picture of fostering understanding and countering misconceptions.
Rather, we must acknowledge that some criticisms are totally valid, such as questions about laws in certain (not all) Muslim-majority countries that codify discrimination against women or call for the death penalty for gays. And we must distinguish between those wanting to have an honest discussion that includes real criticism of Islam/Muslims with those who are truly anti-Muslim bigots, like the Pam Gellers and Frank Gaffneys of this country who profit off peddling Muslim hate through book sales and lectures. There’s nothing we can say to change the views of those people. Instead we can only marginalize them to the fringes of society like we have collectively done with racists, anti-Semites and homophobes.
To the Team Maher people, I respectfully ask that you please be specific in your criticism. What I mean is if you want to have a productive conversation, avoid phrases like, “The Muslim world all thinks…" or “They hate us for our freedoms.” And please leave out the truly bigoted comments like the one Maher made in 2011 on CNN when criticizing Muslims: “They bring that desert stuff to our world.”
And by the way, “the Muslim world,” as the media loves to call it, doesn’t exist. At least not in the sense that there's universal agreement on Islam or how it should be followed. A Pew study in 2013 made that very point revealing that Muslims around the world disagree in big numbers on almost everything connected to Islam.
For example, on the issue of whether a women must wear a veil or not, 90 percent of the Muslims in Turkey and Tunisia believe it’s the women’s choice. In contrast, only 30 percent in Afghanistan feel the same.
On issue of whether there should be a death penalty for leaving Islam, 64 percent of Egyptians said yes while less than 5 percent of Muslims in Turkey held that belief. Big difference, yet both nations are home to almost 80 million Muslims.
So a responsible discussion about Islam is not cherry-picking poll results from one Muslim country, or even from a few of the 49 Muslim-majority nations, and saying “Well, that’s what Islam is all about.” That would be like taking poll results from very conservative portions of the United States and saying that represents all, or most, of the 300 million-plus Americans’ views on issues. So be specific, and then we can address why the laws or views in that country are the way they are. Yes, I know it’s more work this way, but it’s also more accurate.
And if you want to have a discussion criticizing laws in certain Muslim-majority countries that discriminate against women, minority faiths, or gays, I’m with you. However, some of the laws, like Saudi's ban on women driving, are not based on Islam but on rulers wanting to control people. We need to make those distinctions.
But there’s one big thing I truly hope you will keep in mind when making statements in the U.S. media about Islam and the views of Muslims in other nations. The leaders and people in the Muslim majority countries you want to influence are probably not listening.
But do you know who is? Millions of Americans. Consequently, the ones who suffer the brunt of your bluster are not Muslims in other nations that you may want to influence. Rather it’s American Muslims who are then defined in negative terms by your words. And while Islam may be the second biggest world religion, in the United States we are one of the smallest minority groups, clocking in about 2 percent.
So yes, we should very much discuss Islam and the laws enacted and opinions held by people in certain Muslim majority nations. But let’s do it responsibly. And I know this might sound outlandish to some, let’s also include some real live Muslims in that conversation. I’m looking at you, Bill Maher and Fox News.