Bill Maher / Sam Harris vs. Ben Affleck / Reza Aslan: I Choose Neither

As he is rather fond of racial and gender stereotypes masquerading as “humor”, I am not exactly the biggest fan of Bill Maher. I couldn’t seem to avoid mentions of him this weekend, when he, along with Sam Harris, disagreed with Ben Affleck about Muslims and Islam (I’m with my fellow FtBer Avicenna on what Maher said).

There was also what happened last week with Maher on his show, Real Time. My EXMNA colleagues Sarah and Muhammad debunked Reza Aslan’s response to him in defense of Muslims over at The Friendly Atheist.

I would be remiss if I were to continue without a reminder that more nuanced discussions and arguments about this very topic have happened and will continue to happen among people far more qualified to talk about the issue. As the participants aren’t famous white men making soundbite-ready generalizations on network television, you probably won’t hear about them and most people will continue to not care about them.

Nuance and expertise were definitely the missing pieces when both the Maher/Harris and the Affleck side chose to discuss the world’s one-and-a-half billion Muslims (as in nearly a quarter of the world’s population). Maher and Harris would have you believe that violent “jihadists” à la ISIS / ISIL / IS / [insert other initialism permutation of your choice here] represent all Muslims, while Affleck would have you believe that most Muslims are far more liberal than the data shows.

I disagree with both the racialized criticism of the Maher/Harris types and the gloves-on “Not All Muslims” tactics of the Aslan/Affleck types. The former reinforce the kind of generalizations that make my life as a non-white person of Muslim background more difficult in the Western world, since racist bigots who target me hardly pause to ask me if I’m an apostate before they harm me. The latter overemphasize the “nicer” Muslims and parts of Islam in a misguided attempt to respect collective beliefs in a way that harms individuals.

Racism that calls itself criticism of religion or racism that hobbles efforts to extend human rights to all people in all cultures? I pick neither.

Bill Maher / Sam Harris vs. Ben Affleck / Reza Aslan: I Choose Neither

36 thoughts on “Bill Maher / Sam Harris vs. Ben Affleck / Reza Aslan: I Choose Neither

  1. 1


    I think we’re probably mostly in agreement here, because I don’t believe in letting Islam off the hook entirely for their irrational beliefs or for their toxic fundamentalism. I do, however, think that Islamophobia is most certain a real thing, and that when practiced by Harris and Maher, it does often resemble racism, or at least overhyped xenophobia. Contrary to what Sam Harris is saying, I feel perfectly capable of separating criticisms of Islam from the kind of blanket statements that he makes on a regular basis.

  2. 2

    I’m pretty solidly anti-theist. There’s a middle ground between being irrationally racist/xenophobic, and being unwilling to level the criticism due. And at least from where I’m sitting, I’d rather people err on the latter side than the former. Being too weak on the issue doesn’t lead to drone strikes and endless American wars that mostly harm the civilian populations of Middle Eastern countries.

    A point that is often missed is that American Christianity(mixed with toxic nationalism) is a couple of orders of magnitude more militant and militarized than Islam can ever hope to be.

    1. 2.1

      While I agree with Heina Dadabhoy that the Maher discussion had very little nuance, the discussion was not without merit. One key to having a deeper discussion is actually listening to what others have to say, which is something that Affleck is clearly not doing, and on one point Dadabhoy is not either. Sam Harris was clearly saying that not all Muslims hold jihadist views and yet Affleck and so many writers have put the opposite words in Harris’ mouth. If we cannot listen and react to what a person is actually saying, what hope do we have of a having meaningful discussion?

      1. Harris said that, sure, yet he brings up jihadists every time Islam comes up. That he made that statement yet consistently writes pieces like the kind that you can find under the Islam tag on his site ( doesn’t magically render everything else he says a-okay. That is akin to racists saying “I’m not racist, I don’t hate anyone” to excuse their racist actions.

        It may be that he is coming to understand the importance of reform and how it’s more important and meaningful to the world than anti-Muslim rhetoric, but that reflects a change in his thinking, not a continuation of his past statements on Islam.

  3. 3

    I could be wrong, but do Harris and Maher ever interview people in or from the Middle East who are actually trying to change Islam, or their country, or the region? It seems, at least to me, that the only reasonable, constructive attitude is that of engagement with the region’s reformers, watching their governments’ actions, and using international pressure to keep governments from imprisoning and/or executing people. It’s great that we can all agree that theocratic governments are awful. But, eventually, we’re going to have to translate that into action, and we know invading and occupying doesn’t work.

    1. 3.2

      Sam Harris is currently corresponding (and planning to release an e-book with) Majid Nawaz. Majid is a reformer based in the UK (not the Middle East). He also corresponds with Faisal Saeed Al Matar (Iraqi, ex Muslim living in the US for the past year or so) and Ali Rizvi (ex Muslim living in Canada). The thing about Muslim reformers is they tend to run into problems in Muslim majority countries. If they openly advocate reform, they typically end up dead, in prison or in exile in the West.

    2. 3.3

      It seems, at least to me, that the only reasonable, constructive attitude is that of engagement with the region’s reformers, watching their governments’ actions, and using international pressure to keep governments from imprisoning and/or executing people.

      I’d love to see that also. I imagine, though, that a severe difficulty in doing that – and one which might explain why we don’t hear much from those people – would seem to be that in Islamic regimes where this is most needed, the people whom we want to hear from must be extremely cautious about drawing attention to themselves.

    3. 3.4

      The active Islamist terror groups that the US, Nato, and allies in the region are having problems with, ISIS, the Taliban, al Qaeda and their many affiliates, don’t respond to diplomacy or international pressure, unless you include paying ransom to free a hostage.

  4. 4

    “Maher and Harris would have you believe that violent “jihadists” à la ISIS / ISIL / IS / [insert other initialism permutation of your choice here] represent all Muslims…”

    That is not accurate.

      1. I think you’re awesome and love pretty much everything you write, but I think you have to concede that you misspoke there. Harris quite clearly stated that jihadists represent a small minority of adherent Muslims.

        The reason he always brings up jihadists in discussion of Islam is because he stresses a causal link between Islam and jihadist practice, which he views as the most pressing issue arising from the Islamic faith.

        That said, I don’t agree with Harris in his apparent reliance on US foreign policy as an antidote to the problem of radical Islam. He may view it as a necessary evil, but I see it as curing cancer with HIV.

  5. 5

    Indeed it is not. It is disappointing that Heina misrepresented Harris’ argument. Perhaps, it is not her fault because the video (and the line of argumentation) was difficult to follow owing to Affleck’s constant interruptions. The agreed format for the show is that Harris was supposed to get a 5 to 7 minute one-on-one interview before anyone else chimes in. Affleck ignored that and started interrupting (loudly and rudely) almost immediately.

    Sam has an article posted on his website today worth reading regarding the Affleck debacle. This quote sums it up pretty well “Whatever the prospects are for moving Islam out of the Middle Ages, hope lies not with obscurantists like Reza Aslan but with reformers like Maajid Nawaz. The litmus test for intellectual honesty on this point—which so many liberals fail—is to admit that one can draw a straight line from specific doctrines in Islam to the intolerance and violence we see in the Muslim world.”

    Doctrines affect behavior. There is a causal connection between religion and religious extremism. Is it really so difficult to grasp?

  6. 6

    I really appreciate what you wrote about how all of these responses were terrible. I had the same thoughts, especially with regard to Affleck and Aslan’s “Not All Muslims” response. I was thinking along those lines too, but couldn’t articulate my critique as well you did here!

    Also, thanks for linking to my post in your other posting. 🙂

  7. 9

    What Maher and and Harris don’t acknowledge in their critique of “Islamic terrorism,” is that ISIS and other terrorist groups have a long way to catch up to the terrorism of the U.S.. This country has no moral standing when it comes human atrocities, starting with the genocide of American Indians, the enslavement of African people, on through the atomic bombing of Japan, which initiated the nuclear arms race, to the 8+ years imperialist attack and death of innocent people in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is just the short list. So please, if Maher and Harris are really concerned about injustice and wrong doing, then they must also acknowledge and speak out against the war criminals in this country, starting with Chaney and Bush, and their entire war machine.

  8. Ani

    Thanks for writing this (and the two follow-up posts). Feeling caught between two bad options when it comes to discussions about Islam had made me feel, for along time, like there was nowhere to turn. But finding others who disagree with those two bad options as well has been one of the things that gives me hope in all of this.

  9. 12

    Please seek a personal relationship with our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the Son of God. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

  10. 13

    The problem with Islam is a document that was written during the dark ages by a slave owning warlord. This was a time when values such as freedom of speech, equality, respect for the rights of others were as alien as our chaotic society may appear to an enlightened alien species. Since the Quran is clearly a conquest manifesto disguised as a directive from God it has no relevance to our time and liberals that refuse to fight for freedom speech for fear of offending Muslims are betraying the rights of future citizens that will be victims of this conquest manifesto.

  11. 14

    “Racism that calls itself criticism of religion or racism that hobbles efforts to extend human rights to all people in all cultures? I pick neither.”
    I prefer to describe the kind of anti-Islam rhetoric dribbled from talking heads like Sam Harris and Bill Maher as “cultural chauvinism,” though if the War on Drugs should be considered racist for the racist effects it has, then high profile Islam-bashing fits that bill too.
    As for whether Affleck’s stance on things interferes with more legitimate critiques of Islam (especially culturally internal ones), I guess that’s possible too, and would be an undesirable outcome. The best part of his critique though, was his call to not judge Islam by the behavior of its self-proclaimed representatives–drawing attention to the Iraq War as an example of something not very appetizing about American culture that Americans would prefer not to be judged by. I think if people follow the advice of “fix your own culture first”, that would likely advance the extension of human rights to all people much faster than if they followed a dictum like, “feel free to use military means to fix other people’s cultures.”

  12. 15

    Let’s face it — more benevolent muslims are being killed by malicious muslims, than any one else. But more importantly, the reason anyone falls victim to the malicious muslims’ violence, is because they are alien/foreign/apart/different to the infected minds of the extreme Islamists, and that seems to be enough ridiculous reason, to why they justify their atrocious acts of terror. The only thing less sensical to me, is why the good tolerate the bad. Why are peaceful muslims, who _are_ the vast majority, not more outspoken against their extremist kin?

    Where is the Gandhi of Islam in all this? It seems that not even Reza Aslan is rallying a sane voice in the muslim community, in order to alleviate things internally — he’s too busy making sure people understand the difference between the majority of muslims, from the malevolent ones, instead of trying to stop the injustice…. Why..? Or am I wrong?

        1. Lots of Indians these days blame Gandhi for the partition of India as well as the suffering we endured on account of vacillating, conciliatory policies towards the British. There’s a view that India owes its independence more to the Axis weakening the British and the multiple mutinies by the Indian Armed Forces in the 40s & the INA’s (failed) campaigns in SE Asia than to the Congress’ moral pontificating. In recent years, a lot of previously suppressed data about the Freedom struggle has been released- & well, let’s say our past ‘heroes’ weren’t all that ‘heroic’ at all.

          To tell you the truth, most Middle Class Indians absolutely loathe Gandhi & his congress cohorts these days. They’ll praise him while in public- but rail against him in private.

    1. 15.2

      It’s always pathetic when non-Muslims try to speak for Muslims, or speak as if we don’t have a voice of our own. What your comments do are nothing but feed into the dangerous narratives that (1) all Muslims are responsible for the actions of other people, (2) the majority of Muslims must be treated with suspicion since, according to you, the “peaceful Muslims” are “tolerating the bad,” and (3) Muslims are a monolithic group with no complexity and diversity. Judging by your comment, it doesn’t seem like you know any Muslims personally, otherwise I doubt you would be asking about the whereabouts of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world.

      You should head on over to my blog and read about why your questions regarding the supposed “silence” of Muslims is not only inaccurate, but also accusatory and proof of the racist double standards that exist in society. In other words, we do not see the same expectation and demands place on white non-Muslims when other white non-Muslims carry out heinous acts of violence, whether they are committed in the name of religion or not. Western societies, however, have no problem with stigmatizing communities of color and Muslims – who, while not a race, are discussed and treated in a heavily racialized manner.

      Also, Gandhi was an anti-black, casteist, misogynist. I’ve noticed how non-South Asians who praise Gandhi often cannot name any other Indian revolutionary during the struggle for independence.

        1. Usually, I refrain from replying to ad-hominem attacks such as yours, but you’re too deliciously wrong, for me not to indulge in the pleasure of correcting you.

          First, a bit about myself:

          I have had muslim friends all of my life. When I was a young kid, my best friend Nilkumar, was an Indian muslim. You see, I grew up in Leicester, UK (till I was 8, when I moved to Denmark). Leicester is the first city in England, that I know of, where the muslim minority, in fact became the majority population.
          During my MBA-studies, I spent six months in Mumbai — also meeting many muslims — some of whom I still consider close friends. So there’s that.

          I do not entirely recognise your perception of Gandhi, and suspect you’ve been subject to slandering propaganda/rumors. He might have been a bit of a womanizer, but he was definitely not a casteist. If he was anti-black, then please explain why he was so popular in South Africa (among the colored, both Indians and blacks) during the Boer Wars.

          It may surprise you however, that Gandhi is not my favorite Indian Revolutionary. My favorite, is in fact also more popular in Mumbai (as there are 3 times as many streets and parks named after him, than after Gandhi) — Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar — an outspoken atheist and so-called “Casteless/Untouchable” of birth, that ended up writing most of the Indian Constitution… Quite an achievement.

          The main point of my OP however, was that I’m frustrated that I do not know of any movement within the muslim community, that is outspokenly anti-IS/ISIL/ISIS. I recall a muslim guy I only knew as a acquaintance at Copenhagen Business School, once telling me that it is not okay for muslims to speak against violent actions, if they are carried out in the name of Allah…. And that troubles me. Especially because it fits with the apparent lack of freedom of speech that is very common in the middle-east. My secondary point, was to enquire whether my experience of things was wrong, indeed out of hope that there actually was/is an outspoken, non-violent, muslim movement — one that I simply hadn’t heard of. Because if there is such a movement, I’d offer support — that’s all.

          1. You wrote: “I’m frustrated that I do not know of any movement within the muslim community, that is outspokenly anti-IS/ISIL/ISIS.”

            I literally laughed out at this. The rest of your comment doesn’t deserve a response because it is clear you don’t know any Muslims personally. There are so many articles, sermons, videos, status messages, and blog posts condemning ISIS from individual Muslims and Muslim organizations that I find it laughable when a non-Muslim person comes along to accuse Muslims of “not saying anything.” That just shows your prejudice and attitudes are already set and you are resisting to challenge them. The non-superficial relationships and acquaintances you mentioned don’t count as you knowing Muslims on a deeper and personal level. And stop universalizing one experience with a Muslim acquaintance to represent the entire Muslim community. That’s what we call stereotyping.

            That’s my last comment here. I hope you take some time to reflect and do your research. If you are *genuinely* interested in building positive relations with Muslims, then put your ego, prejudices, assumptions, and stereotypes aside for some time and really get to know us.

          2. MQ’s post is the usual apologist Islamic tripe his tribe peddle when caught on the back-foot.

            Gandhi may have been a womanizer- but few worked harder than him to remove casteist & racist feelings among Indians. Of course, MQ might be referring to Gandhi’s less than charitable views about Blacks when he first came to South Africa in his 20s- but everyone is an a**ehole when they’re young.

            Gandhi’s current unpopularity among Indians- at least non-Muslim Indians- have more to do with Nationalism & real politik than any fictitious blame-games about racism.

  13. 16

    […] As in other cases where Islam is the matter at hand, as a politically-progressive Western born-and-raised ex-Muslim of color, I don’t strongly identify with or endorse any side here. Geller and the others at the event, including Geert Wilders and the former-Muslim now-Ayn Randist who won the contest, aren’t exactly the types of people I want to have lots of power and influence in my country for many, many reasons. […]

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