Monday, October 06, 2014

Bill Maher vs. Islam

A couple of weeks ago, Bill Maher closed his show with a monologue that was primarily a critique of those on the political left who don't join him in an unequivocal condemnation of Islam.

The concept that appears to be at the root of Maher's rant is cultural relativism, not in the sense of trying to interpret actions and behaviors in light of a person's culture, but in the sense that you should not view one culture as better or superior to another, and that there is no objective measure of right and wrong that can be applied between cultures. It's a belief that few hold in theory and that is unworkable in practice, but it is associated with parts of the political left. If in fact somebody is arguing that it's awful that Mel Gibson made a sexist statement, but that Saudi Arabia's treatment of women is acceptable because we should not judge their culture, it's reasonable for Maher to argue that they're objectively wrong and that Saudi Arabia's misogynistic systems are a far greater problem than something Mel Gibson says while drunk. He could also point out that in condemning Mel Gibson they're not giving fair weight to his cultural background, and by their own unworkable standard they should refrain from judging him.

Maher also makes a valid point when he suggests that celebrities can become the victims of what amounts to a feeding frenzy, with a poorly thought-out comment, an unfortunate resort to a childish insult, or even the expression of reprehensible beliefs, resulting in opprobrium and consequence that may be disproportionate to the offense. Maher no doubt takes that type of reaction personally, given how quickly he lost his job after he made an impolitic comment on the relative courage of the U.S. in bombing foreign nations to the 9/11 bombers. However, such is the price of celebrity -- if you want to make tens or hundreds of millions of dollars as a celebrity, at least if your target demographic is not the same as Duck Dynasty's, you had best learn to guard your tongue or be prepared to apologize when you make a racist, sexist or homophobic comment.

From that foundation, Maher goes wrong: He attributes a fringe belief to liberals in general. He denies the obvious fact that it is possible to simultaneously oppose wrongs that occur both at home and abroad. He ignores that it is reasonable for people to focus on domestic issues and issues that they've actually heard about as opposed to foreign issues or problems that occur at the periphery of, or outside of, their awareness. And, in relation to his targeting of Islam, he paints with far too broad a brush, conflating offensive minority practices that have their origins in tribal society and pre-Islamic culture with Islam.

Maher opened his monologue with a criticism (and joke) about the President:
President Obama keeps insisting that's ISIS is not Islamic. Well, maybe they don't practice the Muslim faith the same way he does. But if vast numbers of Muslims across the world believe, and they do, that humans deserve to die for merely holding a different idea or 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.
Maher is going for a laugh, and his is a comedy show, so even if it weren't Maher it would be too much to expect that the Obama Administration's position would be framed in a fair context. The Administration is going through great pains to avoid any suggestion that its attacks on ISIS are based upon its religious beliefs, and to disclaim the notion that it is waging a war on Islam or intends to defeat the Islamic faith as opposed to an extremist group that it believes distorts the faith for its own ends. The comment about Obama's practice of Islam is a decent laugh line, and Maher's intended audience understands that Maher doesn't buy into the conspiracy theories that suggest that the President is secretly Muslim, but it is important to note in a non-comedic context that the Obama Administration's positions on ISIS have a basis in global politics that has nothing to do with being politically correct.

Maher's comparison of the Muslim world at large to ISIS is an example of the spotlight fallacy crossed with the hasty generalization. The principal actions of ISIS, along with the groups history of violence against Muslims, is ignored in favor of spotlighting some positions associated more generally with radical Islam, in order to conflate the general practice of Islam with the beliefs and actions of an organization that was once deemed too extreme for al Qaeda. That type of generalization is consistent with Maher's historic commentary on Islam, and his history of (at best) indifference to the rights of even secular Arab groups in relation to non-Arab actors.

There are vast numbers of Muslims in the world, many of whom live in despotic nations with extremist religious leadership, so it's no surprise that Maher can recite that there are "vast numbers" of Muslims who hold views that are offensive to a progressive western democracy. Maher is critical of religion across-the-board, and would no doubt acknowledge that people believe odious things in the names of other religions. To the extent that he is arguing that, due to the extraordinary levels of extremist belief within parts of the Muslim world, Maher is correct that a danger exists as a result of that extremism that does not presently exist in relation to extremism in other religions. It's not that you can't find people of any faith that hold odious views or commit hideous acts in the name of their faith, or that you cannot find pockets of extremism in which most members of the community hold those odious views, it's that the ratio of extremists to non-extremists is vastly lower.

With Maher, it seems that the analysis ends right there. He may acknowledge that extremism was higher in the past, and that much of what we see in the Muslim world is not dissimilar to medieval Christianity, but he shows little interest in examining why religious extremism has faded in the other major religions, even as it has expanded in parts of the Muslim world. That is, he refuses to address the historic, military, sociological and economic factors that contribute to extremism. Is there a problem inherent to Islam, or would similar levels and forms of extremism arise in others of the world's major religions in similar contexts -- such as occurred with the Tamil Tigers, a faction that grew out of a population that is largely Hindu.

Maher's next statement is simply an endorsement of progressive democracy,
There's so much talk -- you can applaud -- there's so much talk about wiping out ISIS. You can't, not with bombs. You can only expose that something is a bad idea like extended warranties. Cultures are different. It's okay to judge that rule of law isn't just different than theocracy, it's better. If you don't see that, you're either a religious fanatic or a masochist, but one thing you certainly are not is a liberal.
There seems to be some hollow manning going on in that argument -- the fabrication of a rhetorical opponent who does not actually exist, then swatting down an argument that nobody is actually making. I think it's more than fair to say that liberals should not be endorsing theocracy -- I'm simply not aware of any liberals who are endorsing theocracy. If in fact such a liberal exists, they deserve the rap across the knuckles that Maher delivers to them. But I'm not sure that any exist, and to the extent that they do they are so insignificant in number that they're unworthy of mention.

Maher is correct that ISIS won't be defeated with bombs. I've personally analogized ISIS to the liquid metal terminator from Terminator 2, and the scene in which the terminator is frozen with liquid nitrogen and shattered into millions of pieces. As soon as the pieces start to melt, they aggregate back into the terminator. The people who aggregate to form groups like ISIS are no different -- bomb them and degrade them, and you may well make ISIS less significant, but its adherents will immediately start aggregating into new groups that may turn out to be as bad or worse. That said, telling them that they're backward misogynists who have no place in a modern world, although correct, is going to be completely ineffectual.

Maher continued,
To count yourself as a liberal, you have to stand up for liberal principles. Free speech, separation of church and state, freedom to practice any religion or no religion without the threat of violence. Respect for minorities including homosexuals, equality for women. It amazes me how here in America we go nuts over the tiniest violations of these values while gross atrocities are ignored across the world.
The first response to that statement seems obvious: When you live in the United States, when you can participate in the U.S. political process, when it's your friends, neighbors and countrymen who are the targets of a wrong, when voicing your concerns could actually make a difference, you will likely be more inclined to act or speak out. Moreover, you have a greater duty to speak out when a wrong is occurring in your name. The second response to that is, seriously? This is Bill Maher, the guy whose weekly "New Rules" ridicule issues that are often among the most trivial facing society? This is Bill Maher, whose choice of a Congressman to target for defeat is based upon issues that are largely domestic, and was largely due to the Congressman's support for private colleges:
The comedian recited a litany of items that he said [Congressman John] Kline was wrong about, including voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act, his vote during the partial government shutdown, denying funding for climate change research, and failing to adequately address the rising student debt. Maher charged that Kline, chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, is ”the champion of for-profit colleges”
I'm not accusing Maher of hypocrisy, just of a bit of myopia, in that as a matter of routine he personally takes very strong stances on trivial issues. If you were to rank Maher's criticisms of Kline against his specified criticisms of Islam, it would be more than fair to ask, "Why are you obsessing about student debt when people are getting killed in other parts of the world for holding the wrong ideas?" Similarly, why does Maher spend so much time talking about how ridiculous U.S. marijuana laws are, when people are facing long prison terms and even being executed for possession of drugs in other nations, including decidedly non-Muslim nations like Singapore and Thailand? The quite obvious answer is that it is possible to oppose a domestic law or political agenda while also opposing worse practices overseas.

Why does Maher's show focus primarily on U.S. news and culture? Because he's speaking to his audience. Why did he make his $1 million dollar donation to the Democratic Party? Because he hopes to effect domestic political change. Nothing is wrong with any of that. It's okay for Maher to make jokes about Taylor Swift and Sarah Palin, to advocate marijuana legalization, and to close his show with a rant that in the greater scheme of things is trivial, while at the same time deploring the absence of democracy and human rights in parts of the Muslim world. It's okay for him to focus his time, attention, and political contributions on things he may be able to influence or change, rather than focusing on more serious issues upon which he can have no impact.

Maher complained,
Jonah Hill yells "suck my dick faggot" at the paparazzi and an entire nation goes into Twitter outrage until he is forced to perform that most debasing of acts -- the talk show apology tour. Meanwhile, in 10 countries actually sucking a dick can get you stoned, and not a good way.
This statement reflects one of the prices of celebrity -- if you say or do something stupid, you are apt to attract a lot of negative attention and you may have to apologize in order to protect your career. The reaction may well be disproportionate, but such is the life of a celebrity. Given the option of apologizing or retiring from an extraordinarily lucrative public life, celebrites tend to apologize. Further, as the Duck Dynasty clan has established, if you want to make anti-gay statements there is an audience that will be receptive both to your beliefs and that will applaud your refusal to apologize. Is that the audience that Maher prefers? Is that an audience he believes would be more apt to stand up for the values he hopes become established across the world?

And that brings us to something Maher fails to mention: The nation that has received the most attention in recent years for its anti-gay laws and policies is Uganda. Uganda is not a Muslim country. Uganda's ugly anti-gay laws are driven by a Christian movement that in turn is driven by U.S.-based anti-gay ministries. Russian hostility to homosexuality has also worsened in recent years. I suspect that Maher's list of "ten countries" is the same list offered here, which includes nations that make no distinction between forms of extramarital sex (all qualifying the participants for the death penalty) and nations that could theoretically execute somebody for engaging in homosexual acts even if they aren't in fact doing so. Should a U.S. citizen be more concerned about the U.S. activists who are agitating anti-homosexual sentiments in Africa, to the point that for a time homosexuality was a capital offense in Uganda and remains punishable by life in prison, or by puzzling over whether the UAE imposes the death penalty only for homosexual rape as opposed to all homosexual acts in the absence of any actual executions?

All of that is to point out the obvious: anti-gay bigotry exists across the world, is anything but unique to Islam, and some of the worst anti-gay actions are occurring in non-Islamic nations at the behest of U.S. Christians. There is absolutely nothing wrong with condemning anti-homosexual bigotry among any particular religious or cultural group, and there is also absolutely no reason you need to rank the acts from least to most offensive, or sort them by religion, before you condemn a bigoted law, act or statement. It may not seem fair to Maher that some who grew up in an era where "gay" was a common schoolyard taunt to learn, the hard way, that it's no longer an acceptable epithet, but that's the way our nation has evolved -- and surely Maher would concede that evolution toward full acceptance of gay Americans into society is a good thing.

Maher continued his complaint,
We hear a lot about the Republican war on women. It's not cool. Rush Limbaugh called somebody a slut. Okay. But Saudi women can't vote or drive or hold a job or leave the house without a man. Overwhelming majorities in every Muslim country say a wife is always obliged to obey her husband. That all seems like a bigger issue than an evangelical Christian bakery refusing to make gay wedding cakes.
That, of course, is more of the same. Contrary to what Maher suggests, it is possible to hold that Republican efforts to roll back reproductive rights and freedoms is "not cool", and that a prominent radio host should not be calling a woman a "slut" merely because she argues that health insurance should cover prescription contraceptives, while also believing that Saudi Arabia's treatment of women is abhorrent. On a global scale, certainly the oppression of women in many other societies around the world is a "bigger issue" than whether a local business discriminates against gay people, women, ethnic minorities, Jews, or any other citizen. But as I've already pointed out, that doesn't mean it's wrong to speak out against a small or local injustice -- and in fact, that's often the place where your voice is most likely to have an impact. Frankly, the entire issue is a red herring -- Maher offers no reason to believe that those who believe that businesses should not discriminate against their customers are accepting of Saudi Arabia's oppressive laws, let alone that, if asked, they would say that discrimination by a small business against a wedding cake customer is worse.

Maher next inadvertently highlighted one of the weaknesses of his criticisms of Islam:
Ninety-one percent of Egyptian women have had their clitorises removed; 98% of Somalian women have.
That's horrible, and it shouldn't happen, but here's the thing: Female genital mutilation is a practice that exists principally in parts of Africa, and is not a mainstream Islamic teaching. It is not surprising that the practice continued with the introduction of Islam or that some proponents of FGM believe it is a religious teaching, and we do need to address the reality that the practice has even spread to the west for the most part within Muslim communities. It is certainly no surprise that FGM, a fundamentally misogynist practice, exists largely within nations that hold misogynist views. But a billion Muslims live in South and Southeast Asia, where FGM is not part of the culture or religion.
Experts say the practice stems from social pressure to conform to traditions passed down for centuries -- one that predates not just Islam but also Judaism and Christianity. (The origins of the practice are subject to some dispute, but some scholars say it may correspond to areas of ancient civilizations, in which the cutting of females "signalled controlled fidelity and the certainty of paternity," the UNICEF report states.)

In areas of high prevalence today, "this is perceived to be the normal and correct way of bringing up a girl," Moneti said. "If a girl is not cut, she may be considered impure and not marriageable, and she and her entire family may be ostracized."

While it stems from neither Christianity nor Islam, some women in Chad, Guinea and Mauritania report a "religious requirement" as a benefit of cutting. Some communities consider a clitoridectomy -- one type of female genital mutilation -- as "sunna," which is Arabic for "tradition" or "duty," according to the UNICEF report. However, it is not a requirement of the Koran and has been specifically rejected by some Muslim leaders in Egypt.
We can certainly criticize FGM, and should do so, but we can do that without insulting the majority of the world's Muslims for whom FGM plays no role in their lives or religion.

Maher continued,
Ayaan Hirsi Ali grew up in Somalia and was one of them. She was scheduled to speak at Yale last week but the school's atheist organization, my people, complained that she "did no represent a totality of the ex-Muslim experience." Meaning what? That women like mutilation? You're atheists. You should be attacking religion, not siding with people who hold women down and violate them which apparently you will defend in the name of multiculturalism and then lose your shit when someone refers to Chaz Bono by the wrong pronoun.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali lost a considerable amount of support when she switched her target from FGM to Islam at large. While I can appreciate her anger, given her life story, her message was more effective when it was focused on actions that virtually all Americans agree are outrageous. The Atheists at Yale clearly don't agree with Maher's position that the role of an Atheist is to attack religion -- they appear to view religion as something that people should be free to exercise, or not exercise, consistent with their own beliefs. The Yale group penned a relatively innocuous statement,
As a diverse group of undergraduates with a membership that includes ex-Muslims and atheists from Islamic cultures, we do not believe Ayaan Hirsi Ali represents the totality of the ex-Muslim experience. Although we acknowledge the value of her story, we do not endorse her blanket statements on all Muslims and Islam. We believe Ayaan Hirsi Ali represents a sadly common voice in the atheist community that attacks and provokes, rather than contributes to constructive criticism or dialogue. We remind our fellow atheists, Humanists, and agnostics of the rich history of dissent within our community, and do not believe belonging to this community necessitates an endorsement of all community members and their beliefs.
Maher may prefer the type of atheist who "attacks and provokes", but there's room in this world for atheist who are tolerant of religious belief. Maher's appeal to ridicule being duly noted, nothing in the organization's statement suggests tolerance of FGM, or that they would not have welcomed Ali to speak to her personal experiences including her strong condemnation of FGM if she had not shifted her focus to condemning Islam in general.
Donald Sterling isn't allowed to own a team because he told his mistress not to post pictures with black guys. Okay.
With that statement, Maher took us back to the world of entertainment. The problem that caused Sterling to have to sell his team was not that he was a racist, a philanderer, or a crass individual. The problem was that with his personality and beliefs having come to light, he threatened the income stream of a multi-billion dollar sports entertainment enterprise. While it's fun to play rhetorical games about whether we should be more tolerant of intolerance, in that type of situation it comes down to money. It's not really any different that losing an endorsement deal or movie contract because your all-American image becomes tarnished by the discovery of a series of affairs, because it turns out you run dog fighting rings in your spare time, because you go on a drunken anti-Semitic rant, or anything else you should know better than to do if you want to maintain your public image and popularity.
But if we're giving no quarter to intolerance, shouldn't we be starting the mutilators and the honor killers or will that divert us from the real problem that when Mel Gibson drinks he calls women sugar tits?
It's not a question of where we start, nor is it the false dichotomy that Maher presents -- as I previously pointed out, it is possible to condemn somebody in this nation for making a racist, sexist or anti-gay comment while opposing and condemning greater evils in other nations. And here, again, Maher confuses culture and religion. Honor killings should be deplored wherever they occur, and they do occur in some Muslim nations and communities, but they're also a huge problem in India. Again we are speaking of a cultural practice that arose independently of Islam, and is not in fact part of Islamic (or Hindu) faith, even if its adherents believe there is a religious mandate. Would it not make more sense to argue that a practice should be ended not only because it is not required by religious belief, but is in fact an act that contravenes the actual teachings of a religion, than to attribute that act to a religion in defiance of the fact that most adherents to the faith already reject the practice?

As I've previously suggested, I support the condemnation of oppression, bigotry and misogyny -- but I have no illusion that my statements on one issue or another are going to change the world. My criticism of Saudi Arabia would be read by a handful of people, none of whom have any influence on the Saudi government. Even Maher's criticism, which reach millions, have no impact on Saudi Arabia. As a nation, we prioritize a cooperative relationship with the Saudi regime, one that allows us to have military bases in Saudi Arabia, one that helps to keep the world's oil flowing, over pressuring that nation to improve its treatment of women, step back from Wahhabism and the export of radical Islam, or even to step back from its support of groups that act against U.S. interests. When it comes to slowing the expansion of radical Islam, or rolling it back, I see the importance of addressing cultural, political and economic issues that provide a fertile breeding and recruitment ground for radicalism. The thirty-year transition through which Iran went from being at the extreme of Islamic radicalism to being the nation now viewed as a potential reasonable partner for the stabilization of Iraq and Syria is not a reflection of how much Iran has changed -- it's a reflection of how much worse things have become throughout much of the Middle East -- and that's certainly not a result of the recent arrival of Islam. A better approach than Maher's is to take a look at Islamic nations that are more politically inclusive and democratic, or periods of time in which the nations presently falling into civil war and increased radicalism were more secular and inclusive, and ask, "What is different? What has changed?"

When you look at the region in that light, you can see how oil wealth, the echoes of colonialism and the Cold War, the historic tolerance of oppressive dictatorship, and the ill-conceived plan to try to replace Iraq's oppressive government with a progressive democracy through the application of force, have all contributed to the present mess. Maher himself occasionally pulls out archival pictures of bin Laden's family, dressed in western garb. The question is not so much whether Islamic nations can become more western in nature, or more accepting of democracy and western values. The question is not whether Islamic nations can reject honor killing or the mistreatment of women. The question is, having seen considerable progress toward that goal, why we have since seen such profound backsliding toward fundamentalism.

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