I swear this is the last time I’m going to reference this idiotic Bill Maher-Sam Harris-Ben Affleck dust-up. But Ramesh Ponnuru makes a pretty good point, one that I’ve kind of made also, and let me just say that if the guy who wrote a book titled The Party of Death tells you that your argument is simplistic and hyperbolic, you should probably listen:
But Harris and Maher went off track themselves: At no point did either distinguish between criticizing beliefs common among Muslims and criticizing Islam itself. Harris started things off, recall, by attributing these pernicious beliefs to “the doctrine of Islam.” Later on, he defended himself by saying, “We have to be able to criticize bad ideas, and Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas.” Maher, absurdly, chimed in: “That’s just a fact.”
I don’t find it offensive when people criticize Islam (or, for that matter, Christianity) as a font of bad ideas. But I think it’s more likely to be counterproductive than useful in countering illiberalism and radicalism among Muslims. And it’s not a stretch to treat an attack on the Islamic religion as a criticism of all or most Muslims.
The beef that Maher and Harris have is with liberals who are, in their view, insufficiently critical of the more illiberal and/or dangerous aspects of Islam. My response to that would be that most U.S. liberals who have a real interest in the Islamic World have spent the better part of the last 13 years (did I say 13? because it’s really more like 25, or 35) trying to get our own government to stop bombing and/or starving the people who live there, so there’s maybe not a whole lot of room left for a great Western liberal critique of Islam just now. I’ll concede that there’s some cultural relativism involved here as well, but not, as Maher and Harris would characterize it, in the “we’re all special snowflakes and every culture is good in its own way” sense.
On the contrary, to the extent that relativism plays a role in this discussion it’s far more likely to be in the “only Muslims can fix what’s broken about Islamic society” sense. And look, there’s a lot that’s broken. Believing that apostasy from the majority faith is a crime worthy of execution is a sign that something’s broken. The practice of female genital mutilation in some parts of the Islamic world (which is a regional and cultural problem far more than it’s a “Muslim” problem, but still) is a sign that something’s broken. Honor killings are a sign that something’s broken. The prevalence of slavery or near-slavery is a sign that something’s broken. Mistreatment of religious and ethnic minorities is a sign that something’s broken. The abundance of authoritarian regimes and violent extremist opposition is a sign that something’s broken, in this case with plenty of help from the liberal West along the way. Lots of these things are still broken in the West, too, but the point that people like Maher and Harris need to understand is there is no great American thinker who’s going to solve these problems for the Islamic World. Much as they might wish it to be so, Bill Maher and Sam Harris are never going to lead Muslims to a universal embrace of Western liberal values, but they sure can drive a lot of Muslims in the other direction if they keep at it.
What Ponnuru calls “counterproductive” I would put to the Bill Mahers and Sam Harrises (and the Andrew Sullivans, though he’s much more careful than they are to say that groups like Daesh are but one troubling manifestation of the religion, and not fully representative of the religion as a whole) of the world in a different way. Say we all wake up tomorrow and decide that you’re right; “Islam,” whatever you mean by that in this context, is in fact the problem. Not religious extremism or social and political stagnation or corrupt oppression or misogyny in general, but Islam. What now? We wait for every Muslim on the planet to convert or to embrace atheism? We march off to war and force them to convert? What? If “Islam” is the problem, then there really is no way forward that doesn’t involve some kind of “Clash of Civilizations”-type massive war, is there? Because Muslims aren’t going to leave the faith we’ve now categorized as uniquely problematic just because we really want them to. This is basically the same question I’d ask of anybody who is hell-bent on proving that Daesh, the “Islamic State,” really is “Islamic”; I mean, OK, so what? Does that mean we’re at war with “Islam” now? That’s not a fight we’re going to win, sorry.
On the other hand, acknowledging that Islamic society, like every other society on the planet, is a work in progress and that such progress is never going to really be finished, that opens up possibilities. Maher and Harris seem to have this vision of Western liberalism that met the problem of regressive Christianity head on and can do the same to regressive Islam, but that’s a fundamentally ahistorical view. Western liberalism has worked within the framework of Judeo-Christian society to change its orientation, not to defeat it (which it would not have been able to do had it tried). Similarly, those aspects of what we would call “liberal values” that have taken root in the Islamic World have done so by working with and within Islamic society, not against it. Social transformation doesn’t work any other way; it can’t be imposed by the Great Thinkers of a neighboring society and it certainly can’t be imposed on the tip of a Hellfire missile. If the problem is misogyny within Islamic society, then Muslims who are not misogynists can convince those who are to change their thinking, or else marginalize them. If the problem is a streak of political dysfunction within the Islamic World, then movements like the Arab Spring, which work in fits and starts and are going to fail over and over again until they succeed, can end that dysfunction and create representative governments that work for, rather than against, their citizens. But if the problem is “Islam,” then that means all Muslims are part of the problem, and I’m afraid there’s no real answer for that.