06 October 2014

Ben Affleck, defender of the faith

It was an interesting way for Academy Award Winner and future Batman Ben Affleck to promote his current picture, but there he was on Bill Maher's talk show debating Maher and "militant atheist" Sam Harris (of The End of Faith fame) about Islam. Affleck questioned Harris's credentials as an expert on Islam and the menace the religion as a whole purportedly presents to the rest of the world, as well as Harris's contention that "Islamophobia" is used as a pejorative to discourage legitimate criticism of the religion. Basically, Harris and Maher were saying that one can criticize aspects of Islam without being a bigot, but Affleck wasn't buying it. He understood the other two to be saying that the threat of jihadist violence was inherent in Islam; to him that meant they were portraying one billion or so Muslims as potential jihadists, and to him that's bigotry. Maher and Harris stuck to their guns, citing surveys purporting to show that majorities of Muslims around the world believe, for instance that apostates from Islam (like atheist heroine Ayaan Hirsi Ali) should be killed.You can read what all these people actually said here.

If Affleck and his antagonists seemed to talk past each other, it's probably because both sides are right to different extents. Affleck is certainly right in his assumption that the majority of Muslims around the world have never had a jihadist thought in their lives, while Harris and Maher are just as right to argue that the doctrines of Islam, and their political implications in the secular world, are proper subjects for criticism. The atheists are right to reject the equation of reasoned criticism of religious beliefs or cultural values with a "phobia," but the actor is right to worry about the collective stigmatization of practitioners of the world's second-largest religion. Maher and Harris are really taking the same stand critics of Israel take when accused of anti-semitism. On that analogy, Affleck is wrong to equate their criticism of Islam with anti-semitism, but he's still right to warn against an implication of collective responsibility that's really no different from the self-styled Islamic State's rationale for beheading harmless reporters, aid workers, etc. in reprisal for their nation's acts of war.  Harris and Maher insist that "moderate" Muslims have a duty to intervene against their violent, radical co-religionists. Implicitly, they'll judge Muslims by how well they perform this duty, regardless of any other issues Muslims themselves may raise. But if collective responsibility is wrong when asserted by the IS or al-Qaeda to justify the murder of American civilians, it must be wrong even when Americans merely blame all Muslims for failing to suppress their radical elements. As Affleck himself noted, Americans would reject the idea that U.S. atrocities in Iraq are "a reflection of what we believe in." In that case, implicitly, we should look elsewhere besides in the Qur'an (the "mother lode of bad ideas" in Harris's term) to understand why Muslims are waging jihad. Religion may shape the attack, but it doesn't necessarily provide the impetus. Jihad in our time is a reaction against something, or several things, not merely some madman's dream of power and plunder. While neither Harris nor Maher is a neocon, and Maher's definitely no Republican, their antipathy toward Islam may blind them to other causes of jihad that come from outside the dar al-Islam. It probably doesn't make sense to ask why they don't criticize the Christian Right as vehemently as they criticize Islam, but they probably should ask why outsiders have been riling up the Muslim world for the last century or so, and whether there's a way of thinking to blame that ought to be reformed.

No comments: