by Matt Sheedy
The term firestorm would not be overstating the media reaction to the recent debate between Ben Affleck, Sam Harris, and Bill Maher on Maher’s HBO program, Real Time.
In part one of this series of posts, I will attempt to deconstruct the logic that was at work in this debate, including Maher’s statement about Islam on his program from the week before, followed by a taxonomy of the responses it has provoked in part two in an effort to categorize these re-presentations, and to determine the ideological boundaries in which this discourse resides.
While both Maher and Harris have been criticizing Islam for many years now, the recent uproar was initially sparked by Maher’s comments on the September 26th episode of Real Time when he stated:
If vast numbers of Muslims across the world believe, and they do, that humans’ deserve to die for merely holding a different idea or a drawing a cartoon or writing a book or eloping with the wrong person, not only does the Muslim world have something in common with ISIS, it has too much in common with ISIS.
At least four common tropes are at work in this narrative:
1) Being Muslim is contingent upon adhering to a particular set of beliefs;
2) Some of these “Muslim” beliefs promote violence;
3) A majority of Muslims support these violent beliefs, even if they’re unwilling to carry them out themselves; and, by implication;
4) It is therefore Muslims and “Islam” that bear the brunt of responsibility for on-going violence and intolerance in Middle East (as well as for spreading such ideas in the Euro-Western world).
The following week’s episode, featuring Ben Affleck and Sam Harris, along with guests Michael Steele and Nicolas Kristof, echoed these tropes in variety of ways. For example, Maher began the discussion by stating that, “Liberals need to stand up for liberal principles,” such as freedom of speech and belief, freedom to leave a religion, equality for women, and equality for minorities, including homosexuals, and claimed that most liberals hold a double-standard when it comes to critiquing the “Muslim world.” This opened up the conversation to a variety of points and counter-points, which I’ve summarized in point-form below.
- Liberalism has been unable to combat theocracy (Harris)
- The charge of Islamophobia conflates criticism of the “doctrine of Islam” with bigotry toward Muslims (Harris)
- “Islam at this moment is the mother-load of bad ideas” (Harris)
- This position is racist (Affleck)
- No it isn’t. It is not (Muslim) people we are condemning, but their ideas (Harris)
- “And people who believe in those ideas” (Maher)
- A basic liberal principle is tolerance (Kristof)
- “But not for intolerance!” (Maher)
- There are many Muslim’s who aren’t fanatics or jihadis, such as Malala Yousafzai (Kristof)
- You (Maher and Harris) focus on a few bad things and generalize to the “whole religion” (Affleck)
- Jihadists are motivated by killing apostates and represent the center of Islam; Islamists believe this too, but they work within the system; conservative Muslims are illiberal (Harris)
- 78% of British Muslims think that the Danish cartoonists should have been prosecuted (Harris)
- 90% of Egyptians say that death is the appropriate response to leaving the religion (Maher)
- The real divide is between fundamentalists and moderates in each faith (Kristof)
- Moderate Muslim voices that speak out are rarely heard (Steele)
- “There are 100s of millions of nominal Muslims who don’t take the faith seriously” and they should be propped-up as reformers of the faith (Harris)
- Muslims are not a minority, it’s the second biggest religion in the world (Affleck)
- Criticism should be levelled at individual actions, not the religion as a whole (Affleck)
One of the most interesting and overlooked aspects of this debate is that it takes place within a conceptual framework of (neo-) liberal ideology, where conflicts involving multicultural identity are framed around a select set of principles, which are drawn upon as the primary tool for interpreting and evaluating generalized “others” who are alleged to undermine these principles in some way. As is common in such cases, the “other” is narrowly classified by certain essential qualities, such as shared beliefs, which are represented in terms of their compatibility (or lack thereof) with liberal principles.
In this way, the debate was crippled from the start since it assumes that vast groups of people can be effectively described and encapsulated by their alleged “Muslim-ness,” which is never defined, but rather circulates around a symbolic economy of ideas and images that have been produced, for the most part, within the Euro-Western imagination.
For this reason, I would argue that most public discourses about Islam within the Euro-West tend to function not as debates about the varieties of Muslim identities—as confessional traditions, as complex theological positions produced within cultures, and as imbricated within various socio-political constellations that are constantly shaped and re-shape by internal and external forces—but rather as sign-symbols that are filled with a few, select tropes about “Islam” and “Islamic beliefs” that are made to stand-in for the whole. Some of these tropes include, as Nabil Echchaibi points out in a recent post, “Islamic terrorism, veiling and women’s rights, [and] sharia law versus democracy.”
One challenge for scholars of religion, then, is to avoid the temptation to play into the logic of this framework, which sets up a dichotomy between “good” and “bad” Muslims (see Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim 2005) and describes complex identities through the prism of better and worse expressions of “Islamic belief,” and focus instead on the ways in which “Islam” is taken up and re-produced differently in the material world and in contexts of human interaction. While this type of scholarly work is likely too complex to be represented in public discourse, it may have the effect of encouraging such debates to move away from talk of some essentialized “Islam” toward a discussion of how inherited beliefs and practices are never stable, but always re-produced in the environments in which they reside.
Matt Sheedy is a PhD. candidate in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, ritual, myth, and social formations. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere. He is also conducting research on myths, rituals and symbols in the Occupy movement and discourses on ‘Nativeness’ and ‘Native Spirituality’ in the Aboriginal-led Idle No More movement.