The recent televised dust up over the essential character of the Islamic religion and its place in the modern world has probably garnered more attention than it deserves because of its venue, the Bill Maher show on HBO. Nonetheless, Maher and his guest, author, neuroscientist and atheist philosopher, Sam Harris, voiced the feelings and concerns of many Americans whose opinions of the Islamic religion are heavily influenced by the 9/11 attacks and chaotic violence which has occurred in the Middle East for decades. The more recent abhorrent brutality of the Islamic State, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan ,and the terrorist acts of Al Qaeda have dominated the news and overwhelmed any public perception that there is indeed a “moderate Muslim” majority.
Maher, in his usual boorish style, said the following: Islam is “the only religion that acts like the Mafia, that will [expletive] kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book.” and “the Muslim world . . . has too much in common with ISIS. Guest Sam Harris added that Islam is “the mother lode of bad ideas,”
While it is difficult to understand why anyone would care what Bill Maher or Ben Affleck think about anything , the debate struck a collective nerve in the liberal media establishment probably because both Maher and Affleck are creatures of the political Left. But since Maher seemed to speak for so many ordinary Americans (the un-rich and un-famous), his comments are worth some analysis.
To this end, there has been a multitude of condemnation from the expected sources on the Left. A less excited examination however has been offered by Fareed Zakaria, well known expert on international relations, and known for his political eclecticism although in general a resident of the moderate Left.
Zakaria first makes the most common argument against characterizing the religion of Islam as violent, intolerant and anti-modern by pointing out that world -wide there are 1.6 billion Muslims. However, he then goes on to weaken the importance of this fact himself.
“In 2013, of the top 10 groups that perpetrated terrorist attacks, seven were Muslim.”
“Of the top 10 countries where terrorist attacks took place, seven were Muslim-majority.”
“The Pew Research Center rates countries on the level of restrictions that governments impose on the free exercise of religion. Of the 24 most restrictive countries, 19 are Muslim-majority. Of the 21 countries that have laws against apostasy, all have Muslim majorities. “
There are; “Places such as Indonesia and India “which “have hundreds of millions of Muslims who don’t fit these caricatures.”
“It is fashionable these days for Western leaders to praise Indonesia as a model Muslim democracy. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has declared, ‘If you want to know whether Islam, democracy, modernity and women’s rights can coexist, go to Indonesia.’ And last month Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, lauded Indonesia as showing that ‘religion and democracy need not be in conflict.”
However the facts tell a different story. Also from Harsono:
“The rights of religious and ethnic minorities are routinely trampled. While Indonesia’s Constitution protects freedom of religion, regulations against blasphemy and proselytizing are routinely used to prosecute atheists, Bahais, Christians, Shiites, Sufis and members of the Ahmadiyya faith — a Muslim sect declared to be deviant in many Islamic countries. By 2010, Indonesia had over 150 religiously motivated regulations restricting minorities’ rights.”
“In August 2011, for example, Muslim militants burned down three Christian churches on Sumatra. No one was charged and officials have prevented the congregations from rebuilding their churches.”
“Christians are not the only targets. In June 2008, the Yudhoyono administration issued a decree requiring the Ahmadiyya sect to “stop spreading interpretations and activities that deviate from the principal teachings of Islam,” including its fundamental belief that there was a prophet after Muhammad.”
“Mr. Yudhoyono is not simply turning a blind eye; he has actively courted conservative Islamist elements and relies on them to maintain his majority in Parliament, even granting them key cabinet positions. These appointments send a message to Indonesia’s population and embolden Islamist extremists to use violence against minorities.”
“A small minority of Muslims celebrates violence and intolerance and harbors deeply reactionary attitudes toward women and minorities.” Says Zacharia.
Of course when using 1.6 billion as a base it is easy to describe large groups as “”small” based on percentages. This is a valid argument if one is responding to a lazy claim like Maher’s that all practitioners of Islam behave in similar ways. However, no matter the percentage level of extremists and terrorists who justify their barbarism with their religion, if the real number of such individuals is very large, then as Zarkaria admits, “But let’s be honest. Islam has a problem today.”
In fact, the “small percentage”, “tiny minority” etc. argument becomes irrelevant. Islamic extremists are operating throughout much of the world. Current estimates of the number of fighters in the Islamic State alone are in the range of 40,000. Then of course there is a plethora of other armed militias operating in the battle against the Assad regime in Syria and the search among them for “moderate” Muslims is approaching futility. Add to this the Hezbollah Shi’ite terrorist organization in Lebanon, the various Sunni extremist groups in Gaza, Libya, and Somalia, the infamous Boka Haram group in Nigeria, and of course al Qaeda and its numerous affiliates across the Middle East, and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Extremists Imams openly preach violence in mosques in Britain, France and even in the United States while “politically correct” apologists led by President Obama continue the “tiny minority” trope. If only one percent of the world’s Muslims ‘participate in or support the anti-west, fundamentalist’s jihad, their real number would amount to sixteen million and Zakariai’s admission that “Islam has a problem” becomes a serious understatement. But the problem is in no way exclusively internal to Islam. Islam’s “problem’ becomes everyone else’s problem. The existence of disparate violent groups united by a common interpretation of their religious teachings promise permanent conflict, international political and economic instability, and the continuous threat of senseless violence perpetrated against the world’s private citizens .
The jihadists are Muslims. They exist in large numbers. They justify their horrific acts with the same religious texts that the larger Islamic population uses as a basis for their faith:
Zakaria says that “reform” from within coupled with “respect” from outside “will work with Islam over time.” But who will lead the “reform” from within? If such an international movement currently exists it is invisible and ineffective and there is no “time”.