That Thing Between Ben Affleck and Bill Maher

I have written before about my admiration for Bill Maher. I think he is generally one of the funniest and most insightful commentators on American culture and politics, and I rarely miss his show on Friday night. Sometimes he goes south, as with his views on vaccination, and sometimes he goes for cheap jokes based on crude stereotypes, but I don't require perfection out of the people I admire.

On last week's show Maher got into it with Ben Affleck on the subject of Islam. Click here to see the video of the segment. Now, as much as I like Maher's show, and as much as I think he does a good job of assembling interesting panels, I would also note that his show is not the place for deep, nuanced discussion. That was certainly on display last week. In the midst of all the shouting and crosstalk, and the loose (and completely unfair) charges of bigotry directed at Maher (and Sam Harris, who was also a guest on the show) there was an important point in dispute. Everyone agreed that there are a lot of bad, illiberal ideas being expressed in the Muslim world today. The question was whether those ideas represent the views of a tiny fringe minority (Affleck's view), or whether they are mainstream to the point of being dominant (Maher's view).

Since the segment aired, liberal pundits in particular have been harrumphing about it. On last night's show, Chris Hayes tossed off the following:

Second of all, put me down on the Ben Affleck camp on this strongly.
I think to suggest that what is happening in the Muslim extreme form, some
of Muslim countries is representative of the views of all Muslim is gross
and racist. Or to obsess over what the particular problem with Islam is.

What`s also a bit gross is that these are five non-Muslim guys
sitting around talking about what the Muslims think. And from that
standpoint, it's just a very weird conversation to have. If you just
changed the faith, everyone would immediately recognize it as bizarre or

So, if you're going to have this conversation about the Muslims are
this or the Muslims are that, or the Muslims believe X, Y and Z, then have
it with someone who actually practices the faith you`re talking about.
Like this conversation which I found a bit more enlightening.

I'm generally a fan of Chris Hayes, too, but on this one I must demur. There are two minor criticisms to be made here, and then a major one. The first minor one is that Maher and Harris were so unambiguous that they were not claiming that the most extreme forms of Islam are representative of Muslims generally, that it is rather unfair to portray them as though they had. The second minor point is that talking in broad generalizations about groups of people not represented in the discussion is pretty much what MSNBC, Hayes' network, does all day. Perhaps Hayes should watch Chris Matthews' show, for example, which comes on immediately before his. There he will find people speculating freely about what various American demographic groups are thinking, sometimes backed up by public opinion polls, but more often simply invented from whole cloth.

Now for the major point. Talking to Muslims about what they actually believe is precisely what public opinion pollsters have been doing for many years. The numbers that they have collected are not encouraging. At one point in the discussion Harris mentioned a poll showing that 78% of British Muslims believed that the publishers of the Danish cartoons should have been prosecuted. Affleck had no answer for that, and the conversation quickly moved on. Am I wrong to be worried by that number? Seventy-eight percent is a huge number, but apparently that's the percentage, in England, that think it's a crime to offend their religion.

As it happens, I have not been able to find that poll. So, if it turns out that Harris was remembering his numbers wrong I'll be happy for the correction. I did, however, come across this massive study from Pew, in which tens of thousands of interviews were conducted in numerous Muslim countries over several years.

Among their findings is that support for sharia law is overwhelming in most Muslim countries. This includes 86% of Malaysia and 72% of Indonesia. I mention those two countries because Nicholas Kristof, also a guest on the show, pointed to those two as sparkling examples of progressive Muslim countries. Now, significant percentages of those majorities think sharia law should only apply to Muslims, and many reject the most draconian aspects of sharia law. Well and good. The fact remains that separation of church and state, which most liberals would consider an essential component of a free society, has little support in the Muslim world.

Very large percentages in all regions believe that women must always be obedient to their husbands. Opinions are more mixed on questions like whether a woman should be forced to wear a veil, whether a woman can initiate a divorce, and whether a daughter should be able to receive an inheritance as large as a son's, but in no case are the percentages even close to where someone supportive of gender equality would want them to be.

Happily, support for suicide bombing is relatively low. A mere 40% of Muslims in the Palestinian territories say it is often or sometimes justified. The numbers in Afghanistan, Egypt, and Bangladesh are 39%, 29% and 26%. Significant majorities in all countries say it is never or rarely justified, though that “rarely” is still a cause for concern. Along these lines, be sure to have a look at the high percentages who favor stoning as the penalty for adultery, or execution as the penalty for apostasy.

There are also more encouraging numbers in the report, and it is worth wading through the whole thing. In most of the countries surveyed, for example, support for evolution is actually higher than it is among American Muslims. High percentages proclaim their respect for religious diversity and democracy.

But I wonder what that means in practice. Does it include the right to be critical of religion? Apparently not, to judge from the rather draconian blasphemy laws that prevail in much of the Muslim world. In how many Muslim countries could you have a discussion, on television, of the sort that Bill Maher and Ben Affleck engaged in?

One critical liberal value is that of freedom of expression. In how many Muslim countries does that exist? In how many Muslim countries would Ben Affleck be free to make the movies he wants to make, free of government restrictions and censorship? Yesterday I went to the gym wearing a t-shirt I bought at the American Atheists National Convention. No one cared. In which Muslim countries would that be my experience, and in which ones would wearing such a shirt be considered blasphemy? Or consider the response to the Danish cartoons. They led to riots all over the world, eventually claiming more than two hundred lives. Not angry letters to the editor, or peaceful protests, or boycotts of the paper. Riots. Leading to hundreds of deaths.

Or consider another simple example. There is currently a hit musical on Broadway called The Book of Mormon. It is about as scathing and vicious an attack on Mormonism as you could imagine. The Mormon Church responded to this by shrugging its shoulders and advertising in the playbill. Does anyone think prominent Muslim organizations would respond with such equanimity to far lesser slights?

On the show, Sam Harris described Islam as “the mother lode of bad ideas.” That was inartful. Sometimes Harris and Maher make life too easy for their opponents.

So how about this: The public opinion polls, and concrete events like the response to the Danish cartoons, make it clear that many bad ideas, including repressive treatment of women and homosexuals, severe restrictions on the freedom of expression and blasphemy, and the use of violence to resolve political disputes, have distressingly high levels of support in the Muslim world. These levels of support are sufficiently high that they cannot be dismissed as the ravings of a fringe minority. Indeed, in some cases support for these distinctly illiberal ideas is in a clear majority. Perhaps we should be worried about this.

Is that better? To me that all seems just unambiguously true. It also seems to me to be equivalent to what Maher and Harris were saying. I base that on having listened to what they actually did say, and on not listening solely to find excuses for labeling them as bigots and racists.

None of this implies in even the slightest way that all Muslims are culpable for the acts of a few, or that all Muslim countries are the same, or that Iran and Saudi Arabia should be taken as representative of Islam generally, or that unwise American interventions in the Middle East do not bear some responsibility for anti-Western attitudes in that region, or any of the other silly charges that get levelled against people who dare to criticize Islam. It's just that it's pretty hard to miss the very widespread tyranny and despotism among Muslim countries today, and it does not make you a bigot to notice it.

More like this

Lots of responses to the terrorist attack against the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Some of it reasonable, some of it not. Matthew Yglesias said almost the same thing I did: Viewed in a vacuum, the Charlie Hebdo cartoons (or the Danish ones that preceded it) are hardly worthy of a…
It seems like everyone's losing their minds about Islam these days. On the one hand there are many on the left who will accuse you of bigotry or Islamophobia if you criticize anything at all about Islam. Apparently we're not allowed to notice that there are fifty-some Muslim countries in the world…
Gallup has released a cross-national polling analysis that challenges the conclusion that Muslim extremism is at the heart of support for terrorism, that terrorism derives from a rejection of Western values and modernity, and that the solution is to replace Muslim faith with a Western secular view…
In Britain there's a story circulating about a young woman of Pakistani ethnicity who converted to Christianity and was persecuted by her family. Specifically: Last week, it was reported that the daughter of a British imam was living under police protection, after receiving death threats from her…

Here's the breakdown on 78 percent Muslims, as PDF or a
Web-based slide show. It's on lside 20, "Attitudes to freedom of speech". Also, 68% think British who insult Islam should be arrested.

What is puzzling is that the Left side of politics, normally so voluble on the issue of civil rights and societal freedoms, is not merely silent on Islam, but actively represses the kind of discussion held in this blog.

Good article.

A wake up call for the lefties.

By Craig Thomas (not verified) on 08 Oct 2014 #permalink

I appreciate the general point you're making. But I still think you're being too kind to Maher and Harris. You say that "many bad ideas have....high levels of support in the Muslim for these a clear MAJORITY." But that's not strictly equivalent to what they said. Here are some quotes:

Harris: "Islam is the mother load of bad ideas."
Maher: "That's just a fact."

Affleck: "You are painting with a broad brush here."
Maher: "Let's get down to who has the right answer here. A billion people, you say. ALL these billion people don't hold any of these.....pernicious beliefs."
Affleck: "No"
Maher: "That's just not true, Ben."

It seems to get sorted out later in the discussion, though.

What I'm saying is that I agree with you that by the end of the discussion things have been sorted out a little, in the earlier parts that's not quite how Maher/Harris represent their view.

just read your article and a few things come to my mind.
I'm in no way expertised in American culture and have a mere outside look on the whole liberal-neocon-bashing that seems to take place in the US. I can only talk from experiences I made on a few short trips to Southern and East-Coast US and my German POV.
In Germany many muslims originate from rather rural, poor and traditional areas of Turkey or Middle-East countries. They (or their parents) came to Germany to find jobs and raise their standard of living, so to me it would be no surprise, if German muslims turned out to be rather more conservative on the issues on discussion than their fellows elsewhere.
Another point is: I don't question the statistics you cite and I surely find them freightening. But how about christians? I think the bigottery-issue is more about christians condemning muslims. I have no polls at hand, but my expression is, that you find a lot of the same views on religion, blasphemy and traditional religious laws as in muslim countries. The only difference is: in Western countries we happen to have more secular governments (albeit in some cases I really doubt to what degree).

Nonetheless, I think we should watch all those religious nutheads very closely and try to bring enlightment (not bombs and war) to countries, where 70% of the population don't "believe" in evolution...sorry US :)

By Gregor Euler (not verified) on 08 Oct 2014 #permalink

As much as I want to agree, I'm not sure it's our conversation to have. Not only are there many, many moderate Muslims, but I think a significant subset of that group recognizes themselves to be a minority. Which is to say, they know the problem, just as liberal Christians are aware of how "Christianity" is frequently synonymous with intolerance and sex-policing, and are working to change that. I do think that new-Atheist criticism of Christianity-qua-Christianity can actually help those liberal Christians in their quest, because it shames the others into being a little less extreme. However, unless one lives in the Muslim world, one's voice won't have that Overton-window-shifting impact. Instead, you see pushback and heel-digging.

A sad and strange possibility right now is that the war with ISIL, which is in part a Sunni-vs-Shiite war, could eventually precipitate an Islamic Enlightenment. After all, part of what it took for the Christian world to be willing to consider rational principles in place of theistic ones (and to implement these principles with secular governments) was the previous centuries of Protestant-vs-Catholic bloodshed.

Plus, while Christianity may have been neutered somewhat, you still can still find plenty of distressing equivalent polls even in secular realms. For example, how many Americans today believe flag-burning should be illegal? I recently learned that in 1989, the Supreme Court found flag-burning to be Constitutionally protected, by a 5-4 margin. In other words, our top-level highly-vetted expert arbiters of justice where a single vote away from what I would consider the no-brainer litmus test for whether a country has free speech. And that was probably a more liberal court than today's, although I assume today's would stand by the precedent if the issue is raised again.

(When I learned about the First Amendment in middle school, the first thing teachers always said was that the Founders put it there because they couldn't legally criticize the King, and they felt that people should be allowed to express criticism of their leaders or country. It's hard to even articulate what free speech is "for" once you take away the strongest form of criticizing one's country.)

What confuses me in all of this is the notion that Islam is supposed to be two dichotomous belief sets, according to what one reads. On one hand, we have those who see Turkey providing incredibly neat and generous installations for refugees from the Syrian conflict (to predominantly Muslim recipients...of different stripes...although they stood by when Kurds were in battles with ISIL) while at the same time, we see their co-religionists in Saudi Arabia and name two Muslim countries as completely intolerant with Sharia law in full force. So, there is a filter and there are various interpretations. Unfortunately, the Koran, as I've read portions of it, is very brutal, particularly when it concerns "the infidel". Then again, so is the Old Testament.

By BobFromLI (not verified) on 08 Oct 2014 #permalink

Um, despotism in Muslim countries. Might want to be careful when it comes to making glib inferences about causation and correlation. Long, complex, and messy history there. Very complicated socially and politically.

Religious violence:
"...We now take the secular state so much for granted that it is hard for us to appreciate its novelty, since before the modern period, there were no “secular” institutions and no “secular” states in our sense of the word. Their creation required the development of an entirely different understanding of religion, one that was unique to the modern west. No other culture has had anything remotely like it, and before the 18th century, it would have been incomprehensible even to European Catholics...

"...After a bumpy beginning, secularism has undoubtedly been valuable to the west, but we would be wrong to regard it as a universal law. It emerged as a particular and unique feature of the historical process in Europe; it was an evolutionary adaptation to a very specific set of circumstances. In a different environment, modernity may well take other forms. Many secular thinkers now regard “religion” as inherently belligerent and intolerant, and an irrational, backward and violent “other” to the peaceable and humane liberal state – an attitude with an unfortunate echo of the colonialist view of indigenous peoples as hopelessly “primitive”, mired in their benighted religious beliefs. There are consequences to our failure to understand that our secularism, and its understanding of the role of religion, is exceptional. When secularisation has been applied by force, it has provoked a fundamentalist reaction – and history shows that fundamentalist movements which come under attack invariably grow even more extreme. The fruits of this error are on display across the Middle East: when we look with horror upon the travesty of Isis, we would be wise to acknowledge that its barbaric violence may be, at least in part, the offspring of policies guided by our disdain."…

Juan Cole's take, most of which you've probably heard, but he some interesting points:

And just as an aside, isn't Maher some kind of anti-vaxer? Anyway he says some things I like, but overall he's just too smug by half for me to sit through.

By Obstreperous A… (not verified) on 08 Oct 2014 #permalink

As much as I want to agree, I’m not sure it’s our conversation to have.

The question of what comprises "true Islam" may not be a conversation for non-muslims to have (the point is arguable, but for sake of this argument, I'll agree with you). However, the question of whether a majority or minority of muslims surveyed answered pro-censorship or anti-censorship is certainly a conversation non-muslims can and should have. Because first, its about facts. Because second, it is just a good idea to stay informed about what your fellow citizens are thinking. And because third, its about social policy trends that can affect all citizens, not just the group polled.

@8 - Karen Armstrong says a lot of things that are so obviously historically wrong that I must assume she is completly biased on the subject. To pick just one example, the people in pre-18th century Europe both had secular institutions and understood the difference (between secular and religious institutions). This should be obvious to anyone who can google, because they had separate systems for common law disputes (overseen by judges) and ecclesiatical law disputes (overseen by the church). Written common law systems in Europe date back to the 800s AD, so Armstrong has somehow either forgotton or remained ignorant of about, oh, only a thousand years of Europeans comprehending the difference between religion and non-religion.


Thanks. Maybe so. There are similar, though perhaps more limited, arguments that military sultanates were once loyal to the caliphate in name only and were effectively secular.

Whether this really speaks to our modern understanding of secularism, which clearly didn't happen overnight, is perhaps putting too fine a point on it. But you really seem to be aiming for more...

With respect to bias, please expand on that. There are many ways a person can be biased. Her statement:

"The popular belief that religion is the cause of the world’s bloodiest conflicts is central to our modern conviction that faith and politics should never mix. But the messy history of their separation suggests it was never so simple"

sounds like the beginning of an argument that mixing state and religion is an OK idea, something I strongly disagree with. So if that's what you're referring to, you might convince me. But if you're suggesting that there's no question about politics and religion; that is to say that Islam is always a big evil dog that always wags a whimpy political tail, then I think you're missing the point-- at least the one I'm trying to make.

Religion is just a cultural artifact. However weird and dogmatic people may be about it in one place and day, elsewhere it can be shaped differently. You want to be careful about how you bash cultural artifacts as opposed to dealing with behavior that is, say, simply criminal for instance.

By Obstreperous A… (not verified) on 08 Oct 2014 #permalink

I think most Muslims have views I do not share, and rather strongly dislike. However, I am not sure that it makes sense to say that Islam is a problem. In practice religions are infinitely malleable and it is not clear that any religion will makes its believers better persons than any other.

Gregor says, "But how about christians?"

How I hate it when people do this.

We are not discussing Christians here, we are discussing a religious group that holds strong views that are in opposition to our society's values.

If you want to talk about christians, you might want to remember hundreds of years of struggle in the Western world against christianity and the gradual emergence of secular governance.
The results of this long and bloody process are *precisely* what Islam is right now rejecting.

By Craig Thomas (not verified) on 08 Oct 2014 #permalink

Jr, in 1917 the membership of the Communist Party of Russia was a mere few thousand individuals.
The strength of their beliefs allowed them to impose those beliefs on their millions of countrymen, creating a vast and deadly prison that lasted 70 years.
If a political group in our society (for religion *is* politics) holds views that are both strongly held and are in conflict with society's values, then there is by definition a "problem" which should be addressed sooner rather than later.

By Craig Thomas (not verified) on 08 Oct 2014 #permalink

One of the notions that bedevils the US Government is the idea that the problems in the Middle East would go away if only a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians could be negotiated. This has resulted in several US presidents spending an inordinate amount of time trying to achieve it, to the neglect of more serious problems. The problem is that the Israel/Palestinian issue is a side show, irrelevant to what's going on in Syria and Iraq right now. Messrs Netanyahu, Abbas, and Haniyeh could sign a peace treaty tomorrow morning and it would not have the slightest effect on the wars in Iraq and Syria, which, as the good professor has noted, is a religious war between Sunni and Shiite Muslims which has been going on for centuries and will, in all probability go on for further centuries.

By colnago80 (not verified) on 08 Oct 2014 #permalink

I think there is little doubt that decades of obstinate injustice on the part of the Israeli government has done much to fan the flames of fundamentalist ideology in the region.

By Craig Thomas (not verified) on 08 Oct 2014 #permalink

Jason!, I can't believe you're saying, on Scienceblogs, that you support Bill Maher. YES he is an anti-vaxer, a complete conspiracy nut when it comes to vaccinations.

I don't care if people believe that Dick Cheney flew the planes into the buildings by remote control, or if they "medicate" themselves with homeopathic "remedies." That kind of nuttery and quackery is either harmless or only hurts the person doing it.

But anti-vaccine CT is causally responsible for outbreaks of measles and whooping cough all over the US and the UK: babies gasping for breath, children ending up in the hospital, some having long-term complications. That is NOT harmless, that is dangerous as hell, it's eroding one of the most important gains that civilization has made against disease, and it's making thousands of children horribly sick.

For which reason we should all be completely ignoring Maher, boycotting him like he's Rush Limbaugh, and making clear to anyone around us that he has jumped the shark on that issue and should be shunned.

And the last thing we should be doing is promoting him in blogs dedicated to science.

You may as well be promoting cigarettes.

Polls show that consistently, a much larger proportion of people in Muslim countries than in the U.S. say it is "always wrong" to kill civilians for political purposes. Maybe it is we who have a problem with an inherent tendency to violence. "Suicide bombing" - which is not committed only by Muslims - is a tactic, which can be directed against anything from legitimate military targets to nursery schools. Of course we, in a rich nation, tend to say the asymmetrical warfare tactics used by poor people are unacceptable - especially when they're used against us! But a majority of our population thinks drone bombing is fine. I bet you would get much lower numbers to agree with that in Muslim countries.

As for the proportion of British Muslims who felt that publication of a set of dehumanizing cartoons should have been a criminal offense: You need to be aware that European law generally does not treat unfettered free speech as the highest value. An African-French comic called Dieudonne has been repeatedly harassed and prosecuted under French law for comments that were considered to be anti-Semitic. Publish a few pages of cartoons that depict Jews as subhuman animated bombs and so forth - something not even the most aggressive gnu ever seems inclined to do - and you could well hear from the police. In some countries, you could have future public speech suppressed and even go to prison. The feeling - among an almost exclusively white governing class, in a continent that was torn apart by the Holocaust within living memory - was that people should not be free to publish speech that is likely to inspire persecution of minorities, rage by the persecuted, and social schisms that endanger the fabric of civil society. Muslims merely wish that this frequently accepted legal principle was more consistently applied when they are the people targeted.

Separation of religion and state may have little support in "the Muslim world", but I think you'd find equally little support for it in "the Christian world" if you look at "less developed" nations that have a huge majority who are true-believers in one church. There are places in Central America that have outlawed abortion even to save a woman's life. (It is legal in the Muslim nation of Tunisia.) Majorities of voters in those countries would happily tell you that they expected laws to reflect "Christian values." Certainly Israel as "the Jewish world" is hardly secular.

Since the poor and dispossessed tend to seek comfort in traditional religion, while the wealthy and powerful settle for paying lip service to it, it's a lttle disingenuous to compare nice liberal Us to the Them in impoverished countries that we're often working to further impoverish. Instead, how about asking what percentage of American Muslims vs. American Christians believe in equal legal rights for women, equal inheritance laws, etc.? I think that would return numbers that were harder to spin as "see how bad Muslims are."

@Craig, I mean that it is not clear that there is such a thing as "Islam" that can be a problem. Rather there are many versions of Islam, some of which are problematic.

Craig seems to be confused about who suppresses free speach...

"but actively represses the kind of discussion held in this blog."

and then "We are not discussing Christians here, we are discussing a religious group that holds strong views that are in opposition to our society’s values." while trying to shut people up.... and anyway...some.Christians DO hold strong views that are in opposition to our society’s values...

righties better wake up and smell the theocracy...