For a chunk of last year, a lot of people came to the defense of religion under attack. What wasn’t too surprising was the religion in question was Islam; it was surprising that the attack came from the political left. It started with a statement on Bill Maher’s show Real Time with Bill Maher earlier in the summer by Sam Harris (the atheist author, not the Star Search singer) who said “Islam is the mother-lode of bad ideas,” which Maher agreed with. Maher and Harris got reamed by panelists Ben Affleck for that statement for being racist. Maher, staunchly in his fellow atheist’s corner, kept up the conversation about the “bad ideas” of Islam for a number of weeks and months afterwards. Having heard his arguments up through his winter break, I have to say he has a good point but the context in which he makes it muddies it.
Every religion has problems, differences of interpretation and practices, as well as tensions between the established religious governing body and their practitioners. These are always hotly contested within the religious communities and Islam is no exception. When Maher brings up such big picture conversations around Islam, it is often in the middle of a discussion on tensions in the Middle East or recent jihadi extremist terrorist attacks. The problem in doing that: people falsely equate terrorism with Islam; we falsely say the problem is with religion, not violence. As we know, this isn’t the case. While true that terrorist groups like Daesh (ISIS) and Al Qaeda base their extremist activities on the Koran and a very narrow minded interpretation of Islam, more often than not the impression is that Islam is about terrorism or condones it. And while we can get into a whole discussion about which is worse—Christian terrorists or jihadi terrorists—it really misses the big picture problems.
The larger issues of Islamic countries and how they abuse human rights—treatment of women, prisoners, criminals, dissenters of the faith, etc.—is absolutely an important discussion to have. The problem is not Islam itself, but when any religion or religious philosophy is the basis for the rule and governance of people and state. The context of this argument is not about terrorism or extremism; the context is theocracy.
Mixing politics and religion is the real mother-lode of bad ideas. Most of human history only knows that kind of rule and it is only in the last 200 years that we’ve been moving away from it. There are 30 countries today that have religious requirements for Heads of State, and not just Islamic countries—and this doesn’t even include the secular governments with bad human rights violations to their history. When we as activists fight for human rights globally, often you bump against the messy and volatile mix of religion and governance. While Sharia Law as practiced in Saudi Arabia and the Sudan is as bad as how the Catholic Church once ruled Europe and its colonies, it’s not fair to say that Islam is worse than any other religion because of it. However it is fair to say that Sharia Law is bad because theocratic rule is not how we live in the 21st century. This also includes how the undue influence of Muslim clerics/Imams/scholars and other Islamic sects have affected the practice of Islam and its interpretations today. Religion can be a guide to how people live their lives individually, but should never be the basis of laws dictating how people live and interact within society.
Discussions about mixing religion and rule of law and/or codes of conduct need to happen within Islam, but not within the context of how to deal with jihadi extremists. These should be an open forum by and for Islammic scholars, Imams, practitioners and reformers. This however ccan;t be hijacked for an agenda on foreign policy. Bill Maher is right to have Asra Nomani and Ishrad Manji on his show (and should have them return more often) to talk about problems within Islam and what can be done about it; but he’s been wrong to bring it up in a context that muddies the discussion. Maher should offer them and other moderate Muslim voices to be heard far and wide, just not try to lead the conversation.