Bill Maher Is Right: Ben Affleck’s Muddy View Of Islam Highlights America’s Religious Relativism

Dustin Siggins Contributor
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Where do most Muslims stand on the most horrific practices of their faith? The answer is more complicated than often portrayed, but barely less disturbing.

As most people know, earlier this week Bill Maher and Ben Affleck engaged in a rather heated discussion (language warning) over Islam and whether the excesses of Muslim fundamentalism are at the core of the religion’s tenets. Maher said “yes,” Affleck said “no,” and the disagreement escalated from there.

Among the innumerable responses to the debate is this post from the Wonkblog’s Christopher Ingraham. According to Ingraham, a 2013 poll of 38,000 Muslims in 39 nations by Pew Research shows that “the picture that emerges of fundamentalism among the world’s Muslims is considerably more complicated than either Affleck or Maher seem to realize.”

On the one hand, Ingraham is right — for example, no Muslims in Kazakhstan told Pew that they support the death penalty for leaving Islam, while 80 percent of Afghani Muslims believe the death penalty is appropriate for leaving the faith.

However, a deeper look at the Pew surveys shows that rather than a complex picture of Muslim beliefs that fall equally between the positions of Maher and Affleck, reality is far closer to Maher’s perspective than Affleck’s.

First, while Muslim support for various horrific practices may be split by nation, as noted by Pew and Ingraham, national origin is only part of the equation. Far more disturbing is support for practices in terms of overall numbers of Muslims.

Consider, for example, that according to Pew, Afghanistan and Egypt — which are two of the most fundamentalist nations surveyed — had 29 million and over 80 million Muslims in 2010, respectively, while relatively benign Belarus had 19,000. Pakistan, with over 178 million Muslims, also saw enormous support for appalling customs, with over 60 percent of Muslims in support of the death penalty for apostates.

Even nations that are benign compared to Pakistan and Afghanistan are problematic. “Only” 18 percent of Indonesia’s 205 million Muslims thought honor killings were justified, with 15 percent in favor of death for leaving the faith and about one-third in favor of stoning for adultery.

And no nation polled by Pew had zero supporters for the stoning of adulterers, while 10 of 21 nations had at least 20 percent support for the death penalty for apostates.

Again, by nation, support for certain customs varies. But the national perspective belies the overall large numbers of Muslims who support deadly Islamic practices.

Some might argue, rightly, that in many nations support for the practices highlighted by Pew and Ingraham is in the minority. But while Muslim apologists in U.S. media willingly shut their eyes to the large support for deadly customs by Muslims, how do they react to another powerful religion, Christianity?

According to Maher guest Sam Harris, not very well. Harris noted that U.S. liberals easily criticize “white theocracy” and “Christians,” but too often fail to stand up to Islam’s fundamentalists. And Harris is right — while Catholic leaders are regularly chastised for not supporting same-sex “marriage,” it is Muslims who believe in killing for adultery who get a free pass.

And it is disturbing that this religious relativism pervades mainstream U.S. press. Consider the attention given to small groups like Westboro Baptist, and individuals like Terry Jones, who are treated as public threats who represent Christianity. Yet this same media generally refuses to criticize the faith that produced death threats over a cartoon image of Muhammad in Europe.

Likewise, regular denunciation from mainstream Christian denominations against Westboro, Jones, and their ilk are often ignored by the media. Yet the relatively sparse pushback against extreme Muslim practices by fellow Muslims is often exaggerated in order to improve the public image of so-called “moderate Muslims.”

It’s not that there aren’t Muslims standing against extremists. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof named several individuals in the Affleck/Maher segment who stand against extremist Muslims. Additionally, groups of Muslims in Pakistan and Egypt have bravely protected Christians against terrorist attacks, and many Muslim leaders have denounced ISIS. But there seems to be a dearth of Muslims standing against the practices that Pew examined.

For example, in 2007, Pew’s survey of U.S. and world Muslims found that “just 40% of Muslim Americans say groups of Arabs carried out those attacks,” and while small numbers of America’s three million or so Muslims were sympathetic to terrorists, “younger Muslims in the U.S. are much more likely than older Muslim Americans to say that suicide bombing in the defense of Islam can be at least sometimes justified.”

In Spain and Germany, only 29 percent of Muslims in 2007 were “very concerned about Islamic extremism in the world today,” compared with over half of U.S. and British Muslims. And the 2013 Pew survey shows that many Muslims who are not part of terrorist or fundamentalist groups are clearly in favor of horrific practices that violate the rights of every human being.

Since the attacks on 9/11, the U.S. public has been subject to widely differing views on what the world’s Muslims think of terrorism, attacks on innocents, and practices within the faith. The 2013 poll from Pew shows that while neither Affleck nor Maher is completely right on what Muslims believe, reality is far closer to Maher’s perspective than Affleck’s — and to deny that, as Affleck does, relies on religious relativism that is almost as destructive as radical Islam.