Reza Aslan vs. Bill Maher On Islam

Bill Maher and Reza Aslan are friends. In fact, Aslan, "a scholar of religions, a professor at University of California, Riverside, and the author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth" told CNN that he'd "been on [Maher's] show a bunch of times." But that doesn't mean that he'll mince any words — on Monday, Aslan demolished Maher on his unsophisticated take on Islam.

Bill Maher, who is famous for his on-air tirades, normally gears his anger towards conservatives and their ideals. But recently, his diatribes have instead been pointed as Islam, and Maher has made a series of rather all-encompassing blanket statements about the religion as a whole. He's a comedian, after all. And humor doesn't work as well when you account for specifics and make concessions for exceptions. But when it comes to a subject as vast and as undeniably complex as Islam, writing the whole religion off as inferior is a bit much, even for Bill Maher.

In his six-minute rant, during which he says, "Liberal western culture is not just different, it's better." Sounds a lot more like Rush Limbaugh than Bill Maher. He continues to list a number of offenses that are punishable by death for strict practitioners of the faith, and concludes that "not only does the Muslim world have something in common with ISIS, it has too much in common with ISIS."

This is problematic. The implication Maher makes, un-nuanced as it, sounds an awful lot like "All Muslims are in ISIS." And this is both blatantly false and extremely offensive, not only to Muslims, but to all people with the respect for the ideal of religious toleration. And for someone who says that a liberal must be someone who believes in the separation of church and state, and therefore, religious freedom, it doesn't seem as though Maher — poster liberal that he is — practices what he preaches.

Maher makes sure to cite evidence from Muslim countries to reinforce his point that Islam, as a whole, is a backwards religion that deserves liberal criticism. And his particular point of contention is that of female genital mutilation.

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"91 percent of Egyptian women have had their clitorises forcibly removed," Maher says, "98 percent of Somalian women have." And this, Maher asserts, is a Muslim problem. A problem that would, ostensibly, be solved if Islam were just done away with. Without Islam, women would see increased levels of equality, freedom, and agency. And if this sounds a bit absurd, that might be because it is.

Reza Aslan, for one, noted that it was very absurd. "When it comes to the topic of religion he's not very sophisticated in the way that he thinks," Aslan said of the comedian. The problem, Aslan notes, is that Islam is one of the largest religions in the world. In fact, with 20 states in the US alone practicing the faith, it is the largest non-Christian religion in the country. It is also the second most practiced religion worldwide. And it is precisely the immensity of its following that makes generalizations like Maher's so dangerous. Said Aslan,

The problem is that you’re talking about a religion of one and a half billion people, and certainly it becomes very easy to just simply paint them all with a single brush.

And Maher did just that, and he did it both unfairly and inaccurately. As Aslan pointed out, when it comes to genital mutilation, it isn't a Muslim problem. Of course, regardless of what kind of problem it is, it should be unilaterally condemned, but assigning blame strictly to Islam won't solve the issue. In response to Maher's statistics on female genital mutilation in Muslim African countries, Aslan responded,

It's a Central African problem. Eritrea has almost 90 percent female genital mutilation. It's a Christian country. Ethiopia has 75 percent female genital mutilation. It's a Christian country. Nowhere else in the Muslim, Muslim-majority states is female genital mutilation an issue.

Of course, Aslan is by no means defending certain Muslim-majority nations, like Saudi Arabia and Iran. In fact, when it comes to these indisputably backwards countries, Aslan says, "The actions of individuals and societies and countries like Iran, like Pakistan, like Saudi Arabia must be condemned, because they don't belong in the 21st century." But there are other Muslim-majority states that do not fit the mold that Maher has created. After all, some of these nations are actually more progressive in terms of women's rights than the United States.

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"Do you know that Muslims have elected seven women as their heads of state in those Muslim-majority countries?" Aslan asks, "How many women do we have as states in the United States?"

And this is the crux of the problem with Maher's thoughtless segment. Sweeping generalizations neither identify nor address the real problems at hand. As Aslan says,

These kinds of conversations that we're having aren't really being had in any kind of legitimate way. We're not talking about women in the Muslim world. We're using two or three examples to justify a generalization. That's actually the definition of bigotry.

If the United States wishes to combat the bigotry, racism, sexism, and violence of the rest of the world, there has to be a sense of respect and understanding here at home for what we're dealing with. Aslan puts it best when he says,

But to say Muslim countries, as though Pakistan and Turkey are the same, as though Indonesia and Saudi Arabia are the same, as though somehow what is happening in the most extreme forms of these repressive countries, these autocratic countries, is representative of what's happening in every other Muslim country, is, frankly -- and I use this word seriously -- stupid. So let's stop doing that.

Hear, hear.

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