Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Pontifi-can't



First things first: there are few things I enjoy as much as my weekly dose of Bill Maher.

Real Time, Bill Maher's politics/celebrity chat/comedy hour, appears every Friday on HBO. Maher has been playing this game for two decades, putting together panels of pundits, politicians, and celebrities to discuss whatever current events are of interest to him, mingling them with comedy bits, and closing out the hour with a commentary that is always thoughtful, often hilarious, and occasionally moving. When it aired on ABC, the show was called Politically Incorrect. Then Maher took things too far, insisting that the 9/11 terrorists may have been many things, but cowards they were not. Soon after that, he moved to HBO, where he was given much freer rein not just to say unpopular things, but to sprinkle them with four-letter words. There are times when the show devolves into a shouting match, as liberal and conservative voices try to talk over each other, and I find those moments frustrating and not particularly interesting. The rest of the time, it works for me.

Last Friday, Real Time touched on a topic that is a sore spot for me and for many people I know: Bill Maher's tendency to attack Islam as a religion that fosters ideas and practices that should be antithetical to the liberal values of Western civilization. Maher is probably the best-known atheist in America, and has never been shy about attacking any of the religions. When he takes on Islam, though, his own vaunted liberalism takes a back seat to what can seem at times almost like bigotry. The discussion on Friday's show started off like so many others, as Maher and his last guest, atheist author Sam Harris, launched into the usual laundry list of things that are wrong with Islam.

Until Ben Affleck stepped in. The actor/director leaped into the conversation with the accusation that these charges were racist, that it was no different from calling all Jews greedy or all persons of color criminals. Affleck is no debater--though that has never been a disqualification for appearing on Real Time--but he was passionate and so intense I wondered at times if he'd hopped himself up on a stimulant before coming on the show that night. What Affleck lacked in finesse, the other members of the panel--former Republican chairman Michael Steele and newspaper columnist Nicholas Kristof--made up for, as all three joined in loudly, placing Maher in an uncomfortable spot he's not used to having: being the object of his entire panel's scorn.

Kristof made the best point, that Maher was associating the bad behavior of specific Muslim groups and countries with the entire religion. It's a colossal logical error, like saying "I was robbed by a black man, therefore all black men are robbers"; or, "my boyfriend cheated on me, therefore all men are sluts." It's not a conclusion that can be rationally arrived at.

Maher likes to spin out statistics when he goes on one of his anti-Islam tirades, but really, it all comes down to guilt by association. ISIS is Islamic, therefore all Muslims are terrorists. Okay, he'll admit, maybe that's taking it too far; but there are lots of Muslim countries that tolerate this behavior. Hmmm--but isn't ISIS being opposed by Muslim governments throughout the Middle East? Maybe so, but there are plenty of horrible things done by those same governments, policies that would never fly in the West, and yet the people stand for it.

And here's where I come into the picture. In my study group in Ghana there was an Iranian woman who talked quite freely about politics in her country, in particular about former president Ahmadinejad, who, she said, everyone had hated. Why, then, did he stay in power for so long? The answer is clear to anyone who's followed Iranian politics in the last 35 years: Iran is not a democracy. It's a theocracy that permits much of its governing to be performed by a nominally elected legislature and president, but the real power lies with the imams.

Not all Muslim countries are theocracies, but many of them are far from true democracies. We of the liberal first world forget that democracy depends to a large extent on prosperity: dissent is far less threatening when everyone has a home, a car, and a pension. In the absence of such comforts, it takes a strong dictator to maintain order. Opposing authoritarianism, whether it is secular or religious, means opposing armed security forces who are not afraid of opening fire on protesters. Bringing about change in such places takes a mass effort--an Arab Spring, a Green Revolution--and the results, which typically come at the cost of considerable bloodshed, are never guaranteed. Assad still rules Syria, Libya is descending into chaos, Egypt has become a fully militarized state, and ISIS, a product of the Syrian revolution, threatens to tear what remains of Iraq asunder.

It really is asking a lot of third world Muslims, then, to call on them to overthrow their governments. If change is to come in these places, it will come gradually, as Western ideas percolate down through the internet.

But what about those atrocities? Female genital mutilation, homophobia, the full-scale oppression of women, beheadings for relatively minor felonies, shame-killing of rape victims, and there's much more that Maher brings up. All these things are horrendous, and there are certainly Muslim countries in which they take place. What Maher fails to mention, though, is that Muslims have not cornered the atrocity market. Africa is a homophobic continent, and this is true far beyond the Muslim belt. It wasn't Muslims who criminalized homosexuality in Uganda. In fact, the root of this homophobic trend, which has been worsening in recent years, is most likely Christian missionaries. FGM, on the other hand, has cultural roots that probably pre-date Islam.

At its heart, Bill Maher is committing a religious error, ascribing a particular collection of sins to an entire group of people because his Bible tells him to. It may seem strange to accuse America's most popular atheist of such a mistake, but if you've listened to any of his anti-religious rants, you know that the first commandment of Maherism is blame religion for everything.

For me, it's a chicken-and-egg problem. Yes, many religious people are homophobes, sexists, racists, and worse, and most of them can quote chapter and verse of their holy book to justify their prejudices and the crimes against humanity that result from them; but there are also plenty of irreligious people who cling to these ideas. It's not a religious thing, you see; it's a human thing. It becomes a religious thing when people create religion in their own image. If that image is hateful, so to will their religion be.

That should be where Bill Maher and I come together. Like him, I'm a skeptic of all things religious. Unlike him, though, I don't blame religion for ruining people. I blame people for ruining religion.

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