Last Friday, controversy-generator Bill Maher made some remarks on his HBO show that suggested that liberals needs to stand up for liberal principles and that on so many issues (LGBT rights, freedom of speech and religion, etc.) the Islamic faith is “lacking.” First his views on Muslims were called “racist” and “gross” by current Box Office champ Ben Affleck, then noted religious scholar Reza Aslan told CNN's Don Lemon that Maher “is not very sophisticated in the way that he thinks” on religion, and that opinions conflating extremist Muslim countries with all Muslim countries are “frankly stupid.” Several outlets joined in to decry Maher, saying his attack on Islam “comes from the same shallow thinking he generally accuses the average American population of engaging in.”
It's true that Maher, who is notoriously opposed to organized religion, often condemns with broad brushstrokes. His statements on Islam in particular are crude and overly simplistic, crafted to antagonize or get an easy laugh rather than enlighten. And yet, it seems a bit facile to dismiss his central points simply by claiming he's stereotyping or generalizing. Sure, Maher's a loudmouth who seems to take particular glee in riling up liberals who might otherwise agree with him. But his lack of nuance should not be met by an equal lack of nuance.
Maher's three main points, as I understood them, were:
1) Liberals who advocate equal rights for women and LGBT people at home are often too reluctant to condemn cultures that oppress those groups.
2) Criticism of Islam should be allowed, and should not be conflated with bigotry toward Muslims.
3) “Extremist” views are not held by a small minority of Muslims, but rather by a plurality of citizens in many, if not most, Muslim countries. (Likely Maher states this as “fact” based on studies such as this one from Pew Research.)
The question of a double standard on equal rights has much to do with the left's longstanding devotion to multiculturalism and cultural relativism: that we must respect the value systems of cultures different from our own, and that, since we are all morally compromised, we shouldn't cast stones. As Aslan points out in his CNN interview, Saudi Arabia may be the most extreme Muslim country in the Middle East, and still it's the United States' closest Arab ally. Too often we have funded extremist regimes in the region at the expense of fostering democracy, creating an environment for radical Islam to thrive.
But this doesn't negate the argument that there is a double standard. Even if we admit complicity in the rise of militant Islam, we have every right to condemn the values of Islamic fundamentalists. Fears of cultural imperiousness cannot allow us to ignore or, worse, justify beliefs and behavior in other cultures that we would never accept here at home. What's more, the closer we keep to countries whose values we abhor, the better chance we have of influencing those values for the better.
As for criticizing Islam, it is certainly true that, given the post-9/11 demonization of Muslims by many Americans, we must be careful about choosing our targets. Moderate Muslims exist the world over—Muslims who oppose extremism, who hate the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, who oppose sharia law. There are even Muslims who agree with liberals on issues such as abortion and gay rights.
But the fact is, Islam includes troubling teachings—just as many other religions, including Christianity, do. While certainly subject to interpretation, the Q'uran does refer to many regressive-sounding ideas, including a husband's right to discipline his wife by striking her, and, as Maher mentioned on his show, proscribing the death penalty for apostasy.
But if you make this point in America, knee-jerk liberals will call you Islamophobic. If you slight Allah, either unintentionally (Katy Perry) or for comedy (“South Park”), you'll be hounded until you remove the offending material. And if you're Somali-born writer and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has said “violence is inherent in Islam” and “Islam is the new facism,” a university will refuse to confer an honorary degree to you. I cannot defend Ali's statements, but they don't discredit her wholesale. She has done important work exposing "honor violence" against women and genital mutilation, issues which most liberals would agree with her on.
Maher's final point—that many Muslims do hold extremist views—proved the most incendiary. Affleck equated Maher's remarks with those who describe “shifty Jews” and “black people shooting each other.” Aslan cited statistics about how female genital mutilation is not a Muslim-country problem but a Central African problem. Aslan also noted that seven Muslim countries have elected women as their leaders, emphatically holding up Malaysia, Indonesia, and Turkey as prime examples of countries where women are treated equally to men.
But recent reports from Human Rights Watch suggest a “significant rollback” of rights for women in Indonesia. Malaysia is proof that female genital mutilation is indeed a problem outside of Africa. And Turkey is a misleading example, as the advances in women's rights there occurred under the secularist regime of its first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and those who followed in his footsteps. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey's current Islamist president, has come under fire from Human Rights Watch for “a series of human rights violations including the weakening of the rule of law, pressure on the media, crackdowns on peaceful protests and the rolling back of democratic gains the country has achieved in previous years.”
Most telling: Azlan made no mention whatsoever of LGBT rights in any Muslim nation. Polls show that the majority of people in Muslim nations think homosexuality is morally wrong, with the numbers hovering near 90 percent in most countries. The punishment for homosexual activity in the majority of these countries involve prison sentences, while some include hard labor, forced psychiatric treatment, whippings, and death by public stoning.
It should not be considered “generalizing” to cite these statistics. But neither should pointing them out—or labeling Islam “the mother lode of bad ideas,” as one of Maher's other guests, Sam Harris, did—convince us that we are somehow solving the problem. Maher's boorishness succeeded in bringing these issues back into the spotlight, but if we are to approach a criticism of Islam in a thoughtful way, we must be judicious while remaining honest. It's just as easy to say that Islam itself is the problem as it is to say that criticizing Islam is tantamount to bigotry. Neither are true, and neither advance the liberal cause in any way. If we're going to have the courage—or the gall, depending on your perspective—to demand that other cultures be more progressive, our domestic debates ought to reflect the best of our own progressive culture. We must show them something worthy of emulation.
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Reza Aslan's last name.