The Bigotry of the Uninformed — The #BillMaher / #BenAffleck Debate

To anyone who has ever taken an intro course in Islam, Bill Maher sounds like a fanatic who promotes violence in the name of bigotry.

In his now-infamous conversation with actor Ben Affleck, among others, Bill Maher makes the mistake of the uninformed – he confuses religion with culture, and faith with politics.

To argue that it’s “just a fact” that “Islam at this moment is the motherlode of bad ideas” is not only simplistic, but also as incendiary as making sweeping statements about any group of people, a fact that would be clearly demonstrated by jeers if he were to replace the word “Islam” with “Jews” or “blacks” or “gays”.

The real motherlode of bad ideas is the geopolitical issues transpiring in the Middle East. The problem is that these political and economic issues are presented by the media through the lens of Islam.

But, the Muslim world of today is shaped more by post-colonial economics and petrodollar politics than by Islamic ethics or doctrines. In a landscape marred by a lack of money and education, political actors have been able to use the language of religion to stir up violence.

This has more to do with the culture of the region than the religion of Islam.

Case in point is Bill Maher’s incorrect statements about Islamic viewpoints on gender and apostasy. That he speaks so strongly about something about which he knows so little makes him less a sophisticated observer and more a demagogue, whipping people up with polarizing rhetoric, like a jihadist preying on the poor and uneducated to further his political agenda.

To say that Islam is a font of illiberalism truly misses the mark. Because – and here’s where Bill Maher’s lack of knowledge becomes stunningly clear – the Muslim world inspired John Locke’s vision for the liberal society.

For Locke, the 17th-century father of liberalism, the Muslim empires were the example for a tolerant and just society, because Christians and Muslims lived side-by-side, while Britain was full of Christian-on-Christian crime.

The Muslim societies of history were known by their contemporaries as places of pluralism, where people of different religions worked together on an unquenchable quest for knowledge, whatever the source.

Exemplary here is the establishment of the world’s first university in 10th-century Cairo, or the way in which the philosophical study and translation of Greek texts in Baghdad laid the foundation for the Renaissance hundreds of years later.

Just as exemplary is the way in which Spain under Muslim rule glittered during Europe’s dark ages. For centuries, in that “place of three religions and one bedroom,” Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived and worked together to create the most advanced society in Europe.

This is a past that is not too distant to be remembered. The most pernicious problem for us today is that we allow the uninformed to be our opinion-makers. It is our responsibility, in a liberal society, to make a shield from wisdom against bigotry.


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