On a recent episode of “Real Time with Bill Maher,” the controversial remarks of Bill Maher and Sam Harris proved once again that Islamophobia runs rampant in the United States due to willful ignorance and failure to contextualize religious extremism. Maher infamously compared Islam to the “mafia,” and Harris blankly defined the religion as “the motherlode of bad ideas.” Maher and Harris insist that human rights violations in the Middle East derive directly from Islamic doctrine, ignoring the cultural, socioeconomic and geopolitical factors contributing to violence and repression.
While Maher may think repressive practices like religious intolerance, stoning and female genital mutilation have roots in the Quran, historical records demonstrate that Islam originally had progressive leanings. In terms of women’s rights, women were considered spiritual and intellectual equals of men; under Islamic law, women could own property, run businesses, control their own finances, choose their own husband and obtain an education. The same code advocates love for all neighbors, including those of non-Islamic faith. Maher and Harris ignored the more progressive parts of Islam in favor of generalizing a complex and varied faith. Although parts of Islamic law, like all other religious codes, are problematic in the 21st century, providing only a partial understanding of Islam distorts reality and further propagates Islamophobia.
In the segment, Harris presented some statistics that supposedly demonstrate that the majority of Muslims, not just a small subset, exhibit extremist attitudes. For example, according to Harris’s evidence, a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 84 percent in South Asia and 74 percent in Middle East and North Africa of Muslim respondents wished that their governments would impose the sharia law. However, the same survey revealed that in Turkey, Tajikistan and Azerbaijan, where Muslims make up 90 percent of the population, only a small percentage wish to impose sharia law, a fact Harris either forgot or conveniently ignored. Furthermore, the research discovered that extremist attitudes were far more frequent in countries where the legal framework derived from Sharia law, demonstrating that legal policies and government shape people’s preferences, not religion.
Maher and Harris also argued that Muslims wish death on anyone who “draws a picture” or “writes the wrong book”; accordingly, 78 percent of British Muslims believe that Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard should have been persecuted for his controversial cartoons concerning the prophet Muhammed. Again, they fail to consider socioeconomic factors that contribute to religious extremism: According to a Guardian census, over two-thirds of British Muslims straddle or live under the poverty line, and unemployment is highest amongst British Muslims. Although the correlation between religious extremism and poverty remains muddled, the 2012 Fata Research Report demonstrated a clear correlation between poverty and radicalization of youth. In comparison, a recent Pew survey revealed that nearly 70 percent of devout Muslim Americans easily reconciled liberal values and their faith and displayed a more liberal attitude than their British counterparts.
Maher and Harris conflate cultural issues with religious ideology. As Nicholas Kristof indicates, it is silly to suggest that Buddhism is inherently violent because Buddhist monks in Myanmar motivated attacks against the Rohingya minority, or that Christianity is misogynistic because a few Christians attacked an abortion clinic in 1984. Similarly, Islam is not necessarily the root of repression and violence. Blanket statements about Islam not only encourage institutional discrimination and physical attacks on Muslims, but also erase the contributions of many Muslim activists who fight for change by working within the Islamic framework. Malala Yousafzai, for example, upholds the Islamic principles of learning to advocate for girls’ education.
This is not to say, of course, that religious ideas cannot be challenged. But let us step away from hasty generalizations and learn to analyze religion in its cultural and socioeconomic context. Only then can we further dialogue on how to reconcile religion with liberal values.