Ben Affleck versus Sam Harris

Last night Ben Affleck and Sam Harris appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher. You can watch the clip and read part of the relevant transcript here. Affleck became visibly agitated when Harris proposed that there is a double standard when it comes to the manner in which so-called liberals respond to Islam versus other religions. You can view my most recent THE SAAD TRUTH video clip as well as read an earlier one of my Psychology Today articles wherein I tackle this exact issue. Affleck’s position is that since the majority of Muslims do not go around beheading people, to draw links between this ideology and illiberal values is racist, gross, bigoted, and Islamophobic. This oft-repeated position is usually followed by some variant of this personal observation: “My friend Hakeem is a practicing Muslim and he is the loveliest person in the world.” Ah, it’s settled then. There is nothing to worry about. Move along everyone. Only racist Nazis would be concerned with Islamic tenets that might otherwise be incongruent with Western liberal values.

Let me first address the “racist” charge. In criticizing an ideology, one cannot be racist, hateful, or bigoted. These descriptors apply to positions held against people and not ideologies. It is perfectly acceptable in a free and liberal society to criticize, debate, mock, and reject any ideology. The contents of an ideology are not sacrosanct simply because they are couched in the cloak of a religion. If we were to refrain from criticizing religion, this would constitute adherence to blasphemy laws (see my earlier Psychology Today article on this matter). I was recently angered by a story regarding the refusal of Orthodox Jewish men to sit next to women on an El Al flight. Their position was rooted in otherwise deeply misogynistic religious beliefs. Given my disdain toward the behaviors and attitudes of these Orthodox Jews, does this make me a hateful, bigoted, Nazi-card carrying anti-Semite? What about individuals who might otherwise object to the Catholic Church’s position regarding abortion? Does this make them KKK Grand Wizards or are they allowed to criticize religious views that they consider sexist? Could they state that the Catholic Church is profoundly sexist even though they know innumerable Catholics who are not sexist and who have themselves had an abortion? Notwithstanding personal anecdotes to the contrary, an ideology is judged by its specific contents and by the real-world consequences that are engendered by it, when practiced in a particular way by hundreds of millions of people around the world. That Hakeem is the loveliest human being on earth says nothing about Islam.

Let us move to the “but 1.5 billion people are not violent” claim. Let me draw an analogy. Most men have never committed a rape nor will they ever commit such a reprehensible and evil act. Yet most rapists are men. Rape is a very serious issue that requires that we understand its root causes even though it is a very small minority of men who should be of concern to us. That we can all point to men who do not rape does not suggest that we should not worry about this phenomenon. Pointing to the empirical fact that rape is a largely male crime is not hateful, sexist, bigoted, or man-phobic. It is a manifestation of the fact that clear-thinking people can extract statistical regularities from the world and arrive to otherwise valid conclusions. Returning to the issue at hand, several global and reputable surveys (e.g., Pew Research Center) have offered a glimpse to the positions held by Muslims when it comes to a wide range of foundational liberal values (freedom of speech, rights of religious minorities, gay rights, women’s rights, apostasy, freedom of conscience). The picture is not pretty and it suggests that a sizeable portion (totaling in the hundreds of millions) hold views that are perfectly antithetical to the fundamental tenets along which Western values are based. So what should we do with this information? Should we refrain from having an open discussion on the matter since the majority of Muslims are indeed kind and peaceful? Should we ignore the daily carnages that are carried around the world in the name of the faith even though most people of that faith are not actively engaging in violence? How should we go about tackling this issue if we are increasingly being told that the mere hint of a criticism of that faith is unacceptable as it is “racist and gross” (to use Ben Affleck’s words)?

I should add that during Affleck’s incoherent rant he dismissed the current terror group du jour (ISIS) as a small and insignificant group that is otherwise irrelevant to the discussion given that they constitute a “minority” of extremists. Think about how diabolically smug and callous this statement is. There are thousands of people who are being beheaded, crucified, and raped by this group (rightly or wrongly in the name of their religion) yet in his infinite and blind desire to appear high-brow in his tolerance, he sees no reason to examine whether their positions might be religiously-inspired (they certainly seem to think so as do countless other similar groups around the world). The only thing that matters to Affleck is to signal to the world his bona fide progressive membership card of infinite tolerance built on the back of empty, ignorant, and childish platitudes.

Finally, by virtue of my ethnic origins, I can attest that I have known and been friends with countless people of the Muslim faith who are indeed lovely human beings. Ben Affleck lives in Southern California. I grew up in Lebanon and Arabic is my mother tongue so I do not need Ben Affleck to confirm this reality for me. That said this has absolutely nothing to do with people’s fundamental right to point to aspects of that faith that necessitate scrutiny. Sam Harris and countless other true liberals are at the forefront of that discussion. This hardly makes them hateful bigots. Rather, they are courageous defenders of Western liberal values. Those who disagree with them are free to rebut their positions in an open and free exchange. However, to repeatedly seek to stifle their voice by accusing them of the vilest descriptors is dishonest and shameful.

Update (October 14, 2014):  Earlier today, I appeared on The David Pakman Show to discuss the matter.  

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