As a Christian and a conservative, I don't often find myself in agreement with liberal comedian Bill Maher and atheist author Sam Harris. I found Maher's so called documentary, "Religulous," fatuous and intellectually dishonest. Harris, while perhaps less strident than his fellow New Atheists, is essentially a materialist, grounding his critique of religion in the claim that it is a "failed science." Not surprisingly, I find his work condescending and ontologically off the mark.
Recently, however, Harris and Maher found themselves at the center of controversy for criticizing the Liberal response, or lack thereof, to the atrocities being committed by ISIS in the name of Islam. The imbroglio initially erupted during a taping of Maher's HBO show, "Real Time," in which Harris was a guest along with actor Ben Affleck, columnist Nicholas Kristof, and former chairman of the Republican Party, Michael Steele. Maher and Harris were discussing what they see as the clear relationship between the teachings of Islam and the violent, extremist tactics being employed across the globe in the name of Allah. Affleck and Kristof took great offense at this, calling Maher and Harris racists and repeatedly insisting that the brutal thugs currently terrorizing the Middle East do not accurately represent the teachings of Islam. In a subsequent interview with PBS's Charlie Rose – who also appeared offended at the idea that violence and cruelty are inherent to the Muslim faith – Maher defended his assertion that Islam is unique in its intolerance and prescriptions of violence:
"Vast numbers of Christians do not believe that if you leave the Christian religion you should be killed for it. Vast numbers of Christians do not treat women as second class citizens. Vast numbers of Christians do not believe if you draw a picture of Jesus Christ you should get killed for it. So yes, does ISIS do Khmer Rouge-like activities where they just kill people indiscriminately who aren't just like them? Yes. And would most Muslim people in the world do that or condone that? No. But most Muslim people in the world do condone violence just for what you think. . . . There was a Pew poll in Egypt done a few years ago – 82% said, I think, stoning is the appropriate punishment for adultery. Over 80% thought death was the appropriate punishment for leaving the Muslim religion. I'm sure you know these things. . . . So to claim that this religion is like other religions is just naive and plain wrong. It is not like other religions. The New York Times pointed out in an op-ed a couple weeks ago that in Saudi Arabia just since August 4th, they think it was, they have beheaded 19 people. Most for non-violent crimes including homosexuality."
Sam Harris also spoke out after the incident, taking to his blog to clarify his position and expound upon his argument that there is an inherent link between the behavior of radical Islamists and their religious beliefs:
"After the show, Kristof, Affleck, Maher, and I continued our discussion. At one point, Kristof reiterated the claim that Maher and I had failed to acknowledge the existence of all the good Muslims who condemn ISIS, citing the popular hashtag #NotInOurName. In response, I said: 'Yes, I agree that all condemnation of ISIS is good. But what do you think would happen if we had burned a copy of the Koran on tonight’s show? There would be riots in scores of countries. Embassies would fall. In response to our mistreating a book, millions of Muslims would take to the streets, and we would spend the rest of our lives fending off credible threats of murder. But when ISIS crucifies people, buries children alive, and rapes and tortures women by the thousands – all in the name of Islam – the response is a few small demonstrations in Europe and a hashtag.' I don’t think I'm being uncharitable when I say that neither Affleck nor Kristof had an intelligent response to this. Nor did they pretend to doubt the truth of what I said.
I genuinely believe that both Affleck and Kristof mean well. They are very worried about American xenophobia and the prospects of future military adventures. But they are confused about Islam. Like many secular liberals, they refuse to accept the abundant evidence that vast numbers of Muslims believe dangerous things about infidels, apostasy, blasphemy, jihad, and martyrdom. And they do not realize that these doctrines are about as controversial under Islam as the resurrection of Jesus is under Christianity. . . .
As I tried to make clear on Maher's show, what we need is honest talk about the link between belief and behavior. And no one is suffering the consequences of what Muslim 'extremists' believe more than other Muslims are. The civil war between Sunni and Shia, the murder of apostates, the oppression of women – these evils have nothing to do with U.S. bombs or Israeli settlements. Yes, the war in Iraq was a catastrophe – just as Affleck and Kristof suggest. But take a moment to appreciate how bleak it is to admit that the world would be better off if we had left Saddam Hussein in power. Here was one of the most evil men who ever lived, holding an entire country hostage. And yet his tyranny was also preventing a religious war between Shia and Sunni, the massacre of Christians, and other sectarian horrors. To say that we should have left Saddam Hussein alone says some very depressing things about the Muslim world."
It is refreshing to see two prominent public figures like Maher and Harris stand against the tide of political correctness, particularly since they are both card carrying members of the secular progressive Left (or at least, they are perceived as such). Harris is being charitable, however, in subscribing noble or even naïve motives to Affleck and Kristof, concluding that they are merely confused or ignorant about the true nature of the Islamic faith. Maher has it right. He hit the nail on the head in his conversation with Charlie Rose, when he said that Liberals' reticence to criticize Islam is symptomatic of "the soft bigotry of low expectations." In other words, Liberals are willing to give Muslims a pass on behavior that they would otherwise find condemnable because Liberals view Muslims as a persecuted minority. When it comes to Islam, Liberals conflate faith with race. Both Affleck and Kristof exemplified this attitude by repeatedly implying that any critique of Islam is tantamount to racism and drawing ridiculous parallels between Maher's and Harris's remarks about Islam and racists' comments about black men and "shifty Jews."
Race and power. These are the lenses through which Liberals often view the world, and they are lenses that prevent people like Ben Affleck and Nicholas Kristof and Charlie Rose from discussing the issue of Islamic extremism honestly. Sure, part of the difficulty might lie, as Harris suggests, with these men drawing their understanding of Islam from the moderate or secularized Muslims with whom they've personally interacted. I would humbly submit, however, their unwillingness to critique the teachings of Islam stems from the inaccurate and ignorant belief that all Muslims are all poor, brown people, and that poor, brown people are by definition victims – victims of white imperialist aggression and subjugation. Because of this, any extremist beliefs or actions on the part of these persecuted minorities are attributable to the aforementioned imperialist aggression and subjugation, and therefore sort of justifiable... or at least understandable, and certainly not their fault.
So of course, according to the worldview of Affleck and Kristof and their ilk, the unspeakable acts of brutality being committed by ISIS could not possibly be derived from or legitimized or condoned by the teachings of Islam. Everyone knows that Islam is a religion of peace! Sure there are the Koran-sanctioned stonings and female genital mutilations and fatwas against apostates and offenders of the Prophet and unending sectarian conflicts and suicide bombers and religious police and public beheadings ... but Liberal orthodoxy demands that we not question these things, not condemn them for their barbarity and backwardness, for to do so would be to commit an act of cultural imperialism. It would be to imply that we westerners are better, what with our doctrines of basic human rights and equality before the law. It would be racist! Soft bigotry, indeed.
Ironically, the same Liberals who twist themselves into ridiculous knots to avoid criticizing Islam will take to the airwaves in the run-up to an election to warn women about the evil GOP and their "war on women." They will write books and host fundraisers and headline PR campaigns to raise awareness about the imminent ravages of climate change. They will decry the hatemongering of groups like the Westboro Baptist Church who – for all their ignorant offensiveness – have never done anything more than hold up ugly signs. They will take to college campuses to educate America's youth on the evils of Wall Street, and they will march to Free Palestine. It is not the suffering and oppression of Muslim women, the systematic genocide of Christians, the beheading of kidnapped journalists that keeps Liberals awake at night, but the prospect of Sandra Fluke having to pay for her own birth control or submit to an ultrasound before having an abortion, of life with the incandescent light bulb and the Keystone XL pipeline. If Secretary of State John Kerry is right, climate change is the greatest weapon of mass destruction menacing the earth, worse even than ISIS. I'm sure the families of the beheaded journalists, the enslaved women and children, and ISIS' other victims would agree.
Maher is right. The teachings of Islam are unlike the teachings of any other religion, and they go against everything that Liberals claim to stand for. There should be an outcry from the Left over the atrocities being committed by ISIS, and against the illiberal teachings of Islam in general. But there hasn't been and it appears there won't be. The silence is truly deafening. Then again, as the saying goes, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." Who knew that the self-loathing, privileged doyens of secular western culture could have so much in common with Muslim fundamentalists? I guess when you both believe that America is the Great Satan, the rest is just details.