Article Op-Ed

What Bill Maher Can Learn About Islam

What Bill Maher Can Learn About Islam

Author Edward Ahmed Mitchell by

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Source: Bill Maher Facebook

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Watching critics of Islam discuss the faith among themselves on national television is sometimes frustrating but always amusing. I laugh. I cringe. I roll my eyes.

I did all three when comedian Bill Maher and neuroscientist Sam Harris, both atheists, assailed Islam on HBO's Real Time last week.

Harris declared Islam the "motherload of bad ideas,” among other eloquent critiques. Maher, who had previously criticized Muslims for honor killing and female genital mutilation, derided the faith itself as "the only religion that acts like the mafia that will f**king kill you if you say the wrong thing...".

Seated nearby was actor/director Ben Affleck, who--visibly aghast--declared their views "gross and racist.”

“How about more than a billion people who aren’t fanatical, who don’t punch women, who just want to go to school, have some sandwiches, pray five times a day, and don’t do any of the things you’re saying of all Muslims? It’s stereotyping,”
said Ben Affleck.

Footage of their debate grabbed national attention, leading critics of Islam—particularly right-wingers—to praise Maher and Harris for speaking out. Others—particularly liberals—have hailed Affleck for condemning bigotry.

This debate is nothing new. Islam goes under the American media microscope every few years. This time, the rise of ISIS sparked the public dissection.

But this latest flare-up has two unique aspects.

Instead of simply attacking Islam, Maher and others like him are turning their ire on the non-Muslims who dare to hold a nuanced and tolerant view of Islam, including political leaders like President Obama, liberal media outlets, and, now, Ben Affleck.

The other element is the tendency of non-Muslims like Maher and Harris to opine about Islam among themselves as if they were experts on a complex faith that they have never practiced, much less formally studied.

Here's a crazy thought: when criticizing Islam, why not include and interview an actual Muslim? How about an Islamic scholar or an imam or a Muslim community leader or even a non-Muslim religious academic?

By interview, I do not mean attack your guest for daring to write a history book. Nor do I mean interrogate your Muslim guest as if he were the defendant in an episode of Law & Order. And I certainly do not mean giving a platform to someone without any formal religious training simply because he will justify your preexisting Islamophobia.

If you instead calmly interview an educated Muslim, you might finally get some insight into the faith you condemn.

Bill Maher may learn that female genital mutilation is an African cultural practice that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Islam, nor does honor killing.

Maher may learn that Islam is not to blame for the other mistreatment of women that occurs in parts of the Middle East. After all, Islam granted women rights in the 7th century that they would not receive in some western countries until the 20th century. Muslim women also played an instrumental and vocal role in Islamic history.

This perhaps explains why Muslim-majority nations have already elected female heads of state while my own country has yet to do so. Although the Arab world must improve its treatment of women, Islam is not the problem.

Maher may learn that forcing people to convert to Islam actually violates Islamic law. The Quran firmly declares, "There shall be no compulsion in matters of religion," and even encourages Christians and Jews to follow their own scriptural laws, hence why religious minorities survived and sometimes thrived during centuries of Muslim rule.

Maher may learn that his so-called Muslim “mafia” also disobeys Islamic teachings when it threatens people, like himself, who criticize the faith. The Quran merely advises, “…when you hear the signs of God being denied and mocked, do not sit with those doing so until they engage in talk other than that…” It also warns Muslims against overreacting: “Let not a people’s enmity (toward you) incite you to act unjustly. Be just; that is nearer to righteousness.”

Maher may learn that, despite his claim to the contrary, the Muslim world has disavowed extremism publicly and privately, outwardly and inwardly, loudly and quietly, including Muslim governments, political movements, organizations, scholars, houses of worship, and individuals.

Maher may learn that even terrorists--from the 9/11 hijackers to the London and Madrid train bombers to the would-be Times Square bomber to the Boston marathon bomber--do not actually point to some religiously-inspired hatred of “infidels” as the reason for their horrific violence. Rather, they point to political grievances with western foreign policy.

Maher may learn that Islam, like every other major faith, is interpreted differently by different people, some of whom are indeed violent and intolerant. But the vast majority of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims interpret their faith in a way that is peaceful and tolerant.

Maher may learn this and more, if only he is willing to criticize Islam in the presence of those who actually practice or study the faith.

Although I appreciated Ben Affleck's defense of mainstream Muslims, the actor is not equipped to mount a proper defense of Islam itself.

Therefore, the next time Bill Maher and Sam Harris decide to opine on Islam on national television, I hope they’ll invite a Muslim to join.

They might just learn something.

Edward Ahmed Mitchell is an attorney and former journalist who serves on the Board of Trustees of the Islamic Community Center of Atlanta. The views expressed in this piece are solely his own.

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