Just a short while ago I put up a post and video about Bill Maher going after Islam on his show. Maher’s words were prompted by the Pennsylvania kid who was arrested for “desecrating” a statue of Jesus; Maher’s point was that in a Muslim country (if they even allowed statues of Muhammad, which they don’t), the kid would have been killed. The video on that post has now been removed from YouTube, but another one has sprung up here.
On Monday, Reza Aslan, the Great Muslim Apologist, went on CNN to attack Maher and defend Islam, and a reader sent me the link along with a critique of Aslan’s critique. Usually readers just send me links and a few words, but when a reader gives me a longer take, I always worry about unconscious theft of ideas if I post the link with my own commentary. If my take is similar to the reader’s, how do I know I would have had those ideas on my own? Therefore, when I got this reader’s commentary, I avoided all unconscious plagiarism by simply asking him/her to allow me to post the commentary. It is given below, along with a video of Aslan’s performance. You can judge whether Aslan pwned Maher or not; the reader (whose own website is given below), clearly thinks not. (By the way, you should go over and have a look at that website, which deals with issues dear to our hearts.)
First, the CNN video of Aslan’s lucubrations on the benign nature of Islam:
The guest post:
Reza Aslan’s “Takedown” of Bill Maher
By the reader who hosts The Uncertainty Blog
Last night Reza Aslan, unofficial spokesperson for liberal Islam and best-selling author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazarath, took to CNN to respond to Bill Maher’s recent “islamophobic rant” (Aslan’s words in a tweet). The rant in question was part of last Friday’s episode of Real Time, and you can watch it here. You’ll find at least part of Aslan’s appearance on CNN, accompanied by a predictably terrible headline from Salon, here: Reza Aslan Takes Down Bill Maher’s Facile Arguments on Islam in Just 5 Minutes.
Despite the hyperbole of Salon, most of what Aslan says in the excerpt doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, at least not if it was meant as a direct “takedown” of Maher. For example, right off the bat, it simply isn’t “empirically, factually incorrect” to suggest that female genital mutilation (FGM) is an Islamic problem. While some central African countries, like Niger and the others Aslan mentions, have Christians practicing FGM, it is empirically and factually true (to the best that I could find) that most recorded FGM happens in or near Islamic communities (see Mackie, 2006, American Sociological Review) and the justification is often religious in nature.
And when Aslan does make a good point in this appearance, it’s generally a rebuttal of something that was never actually claimed. For example, he spends a lot of energy making sure we understand that not all Muslim-dominated countries are like Saudi Arabia and that therefore it is “stupid” to generalize Saudi Arabia’s practices as being emblematic of Islam as a whole. While Maher does say that “the Muslim world” has too much in common with ISIS (perhaps over-generalizing a bit), his reference to Saudi Arabia was specifically about Saudi Arabia, not the Islamic world as a whole, and the point was not that all Muslims agree with the extremism of that country, it was that Saudi Arabia’s practices are in part influenced by Islam. It is obviously true that there are Muslim-majority states where women are not treated like they are in Saudi Arabia, but it also true that Saudi Arabia treats women the way they do, at least in part, because of Islam. But Aslan willfully denies that Islam has anything to do with extremism in every public appearance I’ve seen him make.
Case in point: Perhaps the most inane thing Aslan said during the interview (and one I still can’t get my head around) was the following, “Islam doesn’t promote violence or peace. Islam is just a religion, and like every religion in the world, it depends on what you bring to it. If you’re a violent person, your Islam, your Judaism, your Christianity, your Hinduism, is going to be violent.” What exactly is he saying here? That religion has no impact on one’s behavior? Even a positive impact? What could that even mean? A fun thought experiment: If I were to offer Aslan $10,000,000 (or whatever sum necessary) to desecrate a holy book of his choice in front of a group of randomly assembled devotees of that particular holy book, is he honestly suggesting he wouldn’t feel more nervous about desecrating the Koran rather than the Bible or Torah?
Finally (and maybe this is a cheap shot) it always bothers me that Aslan is touted as a “scholar” of religion during media appearances. That’s not to say he doesn’t have an expertise in the subject, but I don’t know that he’s contributed to the literature at all outside his popular books, which tend to summarize other peoples’ actual scholarship. He’s currently a professor of creative writing (according, at least, to Wikipedia) and has a Ph.D. in sociology, apparently focused on religion. He’s a terrific writer, but I think of him more as a religious journalist or author than a “scholar of religion”. You can read the opinion of an actual scholar of religion, Bart Ehrman, on Aslan’s credentials here.
There. Simple. In Salon speak, I just “UTTERY DEMOLISHED REZA ASLAN’S APOLOGETICS FOR ISLAM IN UNDER 700 WORDS!”
[Disclaimer: Obviously this wasn’t actually meant to be a takedown. While Aslan might not be a “scholar” in my opinion, he’s worlds closer to that title than I am. These are just slightly revised comments I sent to Jerry after watching the video and needing to vent. So if I’ve mischaracterized or misstated anything, please correct me, and apologies in advance.]