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What Ben Affleck missed in the Islamophobia debate with Bill Maher and Sam Harris

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There’s an interesting video making the viral rounds. Bill Maher on his excellent show, Real Time, had on author Sam Harris, actor Ben Affleck, writer Nicholas Kristof, and political operative Michael Steele as guests. The discussion, debate is a better term, was about Islamophobia.

Maher and Harris argued that criticizing Islam is necessary and is not bigotry or discrimination. As is the tendency when accusations of racism and intolerance are flying, the debate got a bit heated.

Affleck said that Harris’s “argument is, ‘You know, black people, they shoot each other'” and “gross and racist.” Kristof said that Maher’s criticism of Islam has “a tinge of how white racists talk about African-Americans and define blacks.”

It is a bit frustrating to watch because the two sides are talking past each other. Maher and Harris are clearly correct. Affleck, Kristal and Steele are making valid points, but not against the arguments Maher and Harris raised.

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Affleck, Maher, and Harris via Real Time’s YouTube page

The missing piece of this puzzle is a basic assumption about religion Ben et. al. are mistakenly making. Their analogy of religion to race fails. Religion is not like race. Religion is an idea—a faith-based idea lacking any evidence—or a set of ideas to which one willingly adheres. Race can’t be changed; religion can. All you have to do is change your mind. Think for yourself and you can be free from religion.

To say that someone is Catholic or that they self-identify as Catholic means that they believe in a certain set of ideas. (For a more in-depth discussion of this, please see my article “Bill O’Reilly is not a catholic and neither are you”). To say that someone is Catholic tells you something about their beliefs and therefore about their actions. To say that someone is a certain race or from a certain country tells you nothing about what that person thinks.

To say someone is Muslim is to say that they adhere to a certain set of beliefs as laid out by their prophet and their holy book. This was the disconnect in the Real Time conversation: Religion does tell us something about a person’s mindset; race does not. And our mindset often dictates our action. In short, religion is a far better predictor of belief, and therefore behavior, than race.

Affleck might not agree with this point, but, if so, it should have been the target of his argument. Maher and Harris touched on it. This is why they cited statistics on Egyptian Muslims: in 2013, 81% of Egyptian Muslims favor stoning women for adultery, in 2010 that number was 82%. The command to stone adulterers appears regularly in the hadithMuhammad himself orders the stoning of two adulterers.

Ideas dictate behavior, skin color does not. And religion is a set of common ideas to which one willingly subscribes. The caveat to this, and perhaps the hang up for Affleck, was noted by Maher and has been noted by Harris many times in the past. Religion is often an accident of birth and, in the case of Islam, leaving that religion can be lethal. Maher correctly observed that some Muslims are afraid to leave their religion and are even “afraid to speak out because [Islam]’s the only religion that acts like the mafia, that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book.” This spiritual blackmail is disgusting, but it belies the simplicity of treating religion only as a set of ideas. In other words, leaving Islam and saying that you are no longer a Muslim—that you no longer adhere to that set of ideas—is not easy for that religion. However, this caveat is not enough to substantiate Affleck, Kristal, and Steele’s claims of bigotry against Maher and Harris.

Affleck himself admitted that we must criticize bad ideas, “of course we do!” Harris and Maher see Islam, as Harris put it, as “the mother lode of bad ideas” and criticize those ideas. But Affleck sees Harris and Maher as attacking Muslims. Harris and Maher are attacking Islam, the set of ideas which Muslims self-identify as subscribing to. Without doubt, there are internecine conflicts within Islam—arguments about which is the true Islam. But both sides recognized this. Harris laid out concentric circles of people who consider themselves Muslims with the ISIS–like extremists at the middle. And Kristal and Steele noted people and friends they know who are in Harris’s outer circles. But again, Kristal and Steele’s anecdotal evidence does not invalidate Maher and Harris’s criticism of ideas: such as the idea that apostasy should be a capital crime. An idea that more than 3/4 of Egyptian Muslims agree with (that statistic actually embodies the differences among Muslims and the anecdotes raised).

Of course Islamophobia exists. A self-appointed vigilante killing a Sikh after mistaking him for a Muslim—he wanted to go out and “shoot some towelheads”—is an example of that fear running wild after 9/11. But criticizing the religion itself, pointing out its barbaric tenets, and explaining the penalties for apostasy are not examples of Islamophobia. What Maher and Harris were saying was not Islamophobic, they were simply speaking critical truths about a set of cruel, misogynistic ideas.

I love Ben Affleck. He’s more talented, more intelligent, and clearly cares a lot more about important issues than the average Hollywood celebrity. Good Will HuntingThe Town and Argo are some of my favorite movies. He’s the kind of guy I’d like to have a beer with. But here, while his heart was in the right place, he was wrong.

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