Maher’s Islam Comments Divisive, Misguided

Machmud Makhmudov, Columnist

The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria over the summer has drawn global attention to the world’s Muslim population and, in some cases, resulted in flagrant displays of Islamophobia. Currently, no nation recognizes the group as a legitimate and autonomous entity because of the far-reaching spiritual and political implications of doing so. Barbaric murders by ISIS, including the beheading of several journalists and humanitarian workers from various countries, have triggered visceral reactions against Muslims worldwide in much the same manner as did the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Several moments during a recent episode of Real Time with Bill Maher clearly displayed this trend of fear-driven prejudice.

In the episode, featuring a debate that included actor Ben Affleck and writer Sam Harris, comedian Bill Maher discussed the value of criticizing radical Islamist groups such as ISIS individually versus that of critiquing Islam generally. Affleck argued that generalizations about Islam and its adherents amounted to bigotry, while Harris and Maher argued that he was mistaken about Muslims’ true beliefs. Harris cited a statistic stating that 78 percent of British Muslims would support the persecution of a Danish cartoonist who penned a controversial image of the prophet Muhammad. In doing so, he attempted to make the case that while the majority of Muslims are not violent, they do hold — in Maher’s words — “pernicious beliefs.”

No matter what percentage of Muslims do or do not support a particular political position or group, casting the debate in these terms is a fundamental mistake. Islam is simply a religion, and its adherents represent a wide variety of individuals and personalities. Accordingly, it is impossible to make an objective and rigid claim about any religious group’s beliefs without falling into troubling and potentially dangerous generalizations.

Though many violent groups like ISIS commit atrocious acts in the name of Islam, groups in recent history have committed comparable actions while claiming to represent various other religions and ideologies.

In the mid-19th century, the Ku Klux Klan terrorized AfricanAmericans, Jews and Catholics, among other groups, in the name of Christianity. During the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Eric Rudolph detonated explosives in the name of a crusade against socialism. Even in light of these attacks, it’s still ridiculous to claim that all Christians or all individuals who oppose socialism are violent and barbaric.

Similarly, it’s inappropriate and discriminatory to make judgments about all Muslims based only on ISIS’s actions. In fact, Indonesia — the nation with the largest Muslim population, accounting for approximately 10 percent of Muslims worldwide — has banned support for ISIS in response to the group’s international recruiting efforts. Turkey, a mostly Islamic country, is more progressive than even the United States in terms of the number of female heads of state that it has elected.

Instead of using fear as a catalyst to spew hateful and divisive rhetoric, we should use this opportunity to highlight peaceful Muslim voices — which represent, in fact, the majority of Muslims — as a counter to the misleading image put forth by ISIS. Doing so is the only way that we can ensure true freedom of religious expression and combat fears of backlash, persecution and discrimination.