It was a long and meaty debate by talk-show standards, which is to say it was short and stupid.
Ben Affleck, Bill Maher, Sam Harris, Nicholas Kristof and Michael Steele spent several minutes debating Islam on Maher’s HBO show last week, and the debate among the liberals in the bunch got pretty heated. (Steele didn’t contribute much.)
I don’t subscribe to the old rule that you should never argue about religion, but watching this exchange you begin to see the point of it. Both sides illustrated how these arguments often go wrong.
Maher and Harris were saying that their fellow liberals don’t criticize Islamic radicalism and illiberalism enough. Harris, an author of atheistic polemics, said that criticism of “the doctrine of Islam” shouldn’t be “conflated with bigotry against Muslims as people.”
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These comments led to some predictable offense-taking. Affleck jumped in to say that criticism of the Muslim world was “gross,” “racist” and “stereotyping.” Kristof, a New York Times columnist, said that there was “a tinge” of “how white racists talk” in the criticism, and that it amounted to “caricaturing” places like Malaysia.
Islam is not, of course, a race, and Harris wasn’t claiming that all Muslims held the views he was criticizing – such as the beliefs that adulterers should be stoned and apostates from Islam killed, which appear to be held by small majorities of Malaysian Muslims.
Maher overstated his point: It isn’t true, as he asserted, that 90 percent of Egyptians support the death penalty for leaving Islam. But the true number, 64 percent according to a Pew Research Center poll, is bad enough. That these views are much more widely held among Muslims than among Christians, Jews or Buddhists is simply a fact, and it isn’t bigotry to say so.
But Harris and Maher went off track themselves: At no point did either distinguish between criticizing beliefs common among Muslims and criticizing Islam itself. Harris started things off, recall, by attributing these pernicious beliefs to “the doctrine of Islam.” Later on, he defended himself by saying, “We have to be able to criticize bad ideas, and Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas.” Maher, absurdly, chimed in: “That’s just a fact.”
I don’t find it offensive when people criticize Islam (or, for that matter, Christianity) as a font of bad ideas. But I think it’s more likely to be counterproductive than useful in countering illiberalism and radicalism among Muslims. And it’s not a stretch to treat an attack on the Islamic religion as a criticism of all or most Muslims.
Liberals, and others, need to be able to keep in their minds two things simultaneously: Much of the Muslim world is in need of reformation, and any reforms are most likely to come from people who are Muslims themselves – not from people who dismiss their religion as the “mother lode of bad ideas.”
Ramesh Ponnuru, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a senior editor for National Review, where he has covered national politics for 18 years, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a resident fellow at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics.