Maher and Harris Kick the Politically Correct Hornet’s Nest in Debate over Islam

© Josh Sager – November 2014

Over the past few weeks, Bill Maher has been raked across the coals by many in the media for supposedly anti-Muslim comments made during his October 6th show. During this show, Maher and Sam Harris engaged Ben Affleck in a debate over the regressive and anti-liberal nature of Islam, as practiced by many Muslims.

APphoto_Real Time With Bill Maher

In response of Harris and Maher, Affleck and others have called them bigoted and accused them of generalizing Muslims, reducing all of them to the level of the extremists.

Put simply, Maher and Harris are objectively correct in their statements made in this segment and are not being bigots, xenophobes, or racists. Both of them clearly state that their objections to Islam are based around the dogma and religiously-based actions of Muslims, not the simple fact that they believe in Allah and revere Mohammad—this distinction means that Maher and Harris are judgmental, not prejudiced.

A Statistical Look at Islam

While it is clearly unfair to make any generalizations that apply to all Muslims or reduce the statistically prevalent beliefs of a group to any specific Muslim individual, the statistics surrounding the beliefs of Muslims worldwide confirm Harris’s accusation that Islam is currently the “mother-load of bad ideas.” This isn’t to say that Islam cannot change or that it has always been this way (ex. in the middle ages, Islam was far more enlightened than Christian Europe), nor that every Muslim should be considered guilty by association; merely that Islam has become a breeding ground for extremely regressive policies.

The policies supported by a statistically significant portion of Muslims are simple wrong and often highly immoral.

Polls indicate that 74% of Middle Eastern Muslims, 84% of South Asian Muslims and 77% of Southeast Asian Muslims support Sharia law as the law of the land. Sharia is inherently anti-democratic, treats women as inferior to men (ex. giving their testimony only a fraction of the weight of a man), and imposes frankly barbaric punishments on many convicts (ex. amputating the limbs of thieves, executing people who convert from Islam, etc.). When presented with this, many will argue that this support for sharia is misleading because the law means different things to different people, but a further breakdown of the data dispels this deflection.


According to Pew polling, approximately 84% of Afghani Muslims, 75% of Pakistani Muslims, 60% of Egyptian Muslims, 53% of Iraq Muslims, 45% of Bangladeshi Muslims and 35% of Indonesian Muslims support stoning individuals accused of adultery—these nations make up nearly 42% of the world’s entire Muslim population.

Similarly, 86% of Egyptian Muslims, 79% of Afghani Muslims, 76% of Pakistani Muslims, 44% of Bangladeshi Muslims, 42% of Iraqi Muslims, and 18% of Indonesian Muslims support the death penalty for any Muslim who leaves the religion.

Pakistan Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan execute dozens of people a year for the crimes of “blasphemy against Islam” or “sorcery.” For example, a Pakistani Christian woman named Asia Babi is currently awaiting execution for “insulting Mohammad” in 2010. The only nations on earth that legally execute people charged with blasphemy—Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Sudan, Mauritania and the Maldives—are Muslim nations. In addition to these nations which execute blasphemers, virtually every Islam-dominated nation has legislated consequences for insulting Islam (ranging from fines to imprisonment and lashes).

On the issue of “honor killings” (when a family tortures and murders a family member, most often a gay male or woman who has “shamed” her family by having sex/getting raped or being seen with a non-family male, to regain the “family honor”), 88% of Iraqi Muslims, 76% of Afghani and Jordanian Muslims, 69% of Egyptian Muslims, 66% of Bangladeshi Muslims, 55% of Lebanese and Pakistani Muslims, 43% of Tunisian Muslims, 32% of Turkish Muslims, and 18% of Indonesian Muslims support the practice. This support for honor killings is not simply hyperbolic, as over 1,000 women are murdered in such killings every year, in Pakistan alone.


According to polls, over 80% of Muslims in Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Thailand, and over 90% of Muslims in Indonesia, Afghanistan, Tunisia, Morocco, Iraq, and Malaysia believe that “a woman must always obey her husband”

In regard to homosexuality, polling indicates that over 90% Muslims in majority-Muslim nations (with the exceptions of Bangladesh and Mozambique) believe that homosexuality is immoral. Of these nations, most have legal consequences for homosexuality and seven—Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the UEA, Yemen, Nigeria, and Mauritania—put people to death for homosexuality. Additionally, Muslim-majority nations have a long history of anti-homosexual lynchings/honor killings by the local religious populations and Islamic militias (although this is also a pattern in African Christian populations).

In addition to these statistics, there are also anecdotal patterns that demonstrate problems with Islam. As pointed out by Maher, Islam is the only major religion that “acts like the mafia” and will actually come and kill you if you dare offend it.

For example, Christians may have been pissed off when Andre Serrano revealed his controversial “Piss Christ” but there were no attempts to harm him personally. Put simply, if Serrano had made a “Piss Mohammad” he would have to hire a round the clock set of bodyguards, as artists who offend Islam face regular assassination attempts (ex. Kurt Westergaard, Salman Rushdie, Theo Van Goh, etc.).

When Kurt Westergaard published the following cartoon…


this was the result…


Islamophobia or a Rational Critique of Islam?

At the end of the day, Islamophobia is a problem, but it is simply disingenuous to classify all criticisms of Islam as bigotry. The objective evidence reveals that significant percentages of the world’s Muslim population, including large majorities in some areas, support extremely regressive policies. Even relatively moderate Muslim populations in countries like Indonesia hold destructive opinions (ex. the 90% of Indonesian Muslims who say that women should obey their husband and that gays are immoral).

It is not Islamophobic to say that Islam, as it is perceived by a very large percentage of adherents, has a problem with human rights, free speech, women’s equality, and sexual freedom—the polls and results on the ground back those assertions up and, if people like Affleck don’t like those accusations, they can take it up with reality. Islamophobia is a type of prejudice that generalizes based upon unrealistic criteria, not objectively true observations (ex. it is Islamophobic to say that a significant percentage of Muslims are terrorists and should be treated with suspicion because that is not based in reality).

Progressives support secular government, free speech, women’s rights, LGBT rights, religious freedom, and a host of other ideals that are the antithesis of the opinions of the “average” Muslim opinion. Because of this, Maher and Harris are 100% correct when they argue that liberals must stop making excuses for Islam and begin criticizing Muslim ideologues with the same intensity that we criticize Christian extremists (ex. the Christian “kill the gays” bill in Uganda provoked international liberal outrage, while the Muslim countries that are actually executing gays rarely face a fraction of this attention).

Ironically, the attitudes of many apologists for regressive Islam are, in reality, representative of a type of anti-Muslim bigotry. Rather than hold Muslims abroad to the same standard of conduct that they expect from other individuals, these people are applying what Michael Gerson called “the soft bigotry of low expectations” when they decide to give Islam a pass. By holding Islam to a lower standard, these people are suggesting that they have an unconscious bias which makes them see Muslims as less able to conform to modern morality.

We should treat everybody equally, and that means treating all bad ideas the same, regardless of whether the person pushing them is doing so to promote their interpretation of Jesus, Allah, or Yahweh.

6 thoughts on “Maher and Harris Kick the Politically Correct Hornet’s Nest in Debate over Islam

  1. It’s good to finally see people of a left wing political persuasion finally talking about this issue, and I hope this can encourage others to do so, as the threat of Islamic Extremism is a worldwide issue that faces everyone. Certain political expressions of Islam have included elements such as brutal capital punishment, inequality of rights between men and women, laws which restrict the rights of minorities, and so on. All of these things are issues which liberals campaign passionately about in the West and yet too many are silent when the same issues or concerns are raised about various peoples expressions of Islam.


  2. I would not look to Bill Maher and other public figures for an in-depth discussion of Islam. Islam, like Christianity, Hinduism and Judaism has fundamentalists, moderates and liberals. To try to paint Islam with a broad brush only leads to even more ignorance about it. Very often fundamentalist USE religious ideas to push their own brand of orthodoxy. Islam is no different from any other religion in that sense. The real division is one of fundamentalism vs. modernism in each religion. The differences in practices , as expected, differ depending on the nation . For example, while Moslem women in fundamentalist societies, like Iran , are certainly oppressed they are not oppressed in modern European or American societies. Fundamentalism is tied directly to a lack of education. A narrowness, no matter what the religion.
    I certainly oppose Islamic fundamentalism, as well as Christian and Jewish fundamentalism. It is unfortunate that religious fundamentalists have gained power in some Middle Eastern nations. (To some extent US and European colonialism has actually been a factor in that). Education of women is a threat to all fundamentalist religions, for obvious reasons. And a liberal, scientific education for anyone is also a threat.
    What this article fails to include, sadly, is that moderate and liberal Moslems have been condemning the actions of these fundamentalist from day one. The US press, however, does not see fit to cover these moderate Moslem critics. Why? it does not fit the “All Moslems are Bad” talking points. (Just ONE example of what I am talking about:
    We should be grateful we live in a secular nation. And we should fear those fundamentalist among us, mainly Christian fundamentalists, who are trying to turn us into a Christian version of Iran. that is the real lesson. Support secular states, not religious ones. Unfortunately simplistic discussions like those of Bill Maher only add to the general ignorance about Islam.


    • You fail to address the polls. While you are correct that most Muslims don’t support violence in the form of terrorism, it is demonstrably true that a huge proportion DO support extremely regressive things. The polls show that these beliefs are not merely extremists or outliers, but a real majority of the population–this is a problem.

      As to your other points, I actually agree. There is no reason for anybody to expect all Muslims to apologize for the bad acts of a minority, nor is there a reason to focus on Islam to the exclusion of other religions. I think that you would like this article of mine where I go over this further:


  3. Thank you. My own relative, ( my mother’s niece ) worked as a front desk receptionist at a 5 star hotel in the Middle east. She was brutally raped, and when she went to the authorities, they said she herself could be charged with violating the law of having sex with a man not her spouse. She went back home to the Philippines, blue and black still visible on her skin… and 9 months after she gave birth to a son.


  4. Jsager. I will respond to the polls you cited. You notice that the polls vary greatly from nation to nation. While the most fundamentalist nations (Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc.) are certainly repressive in their attitudes, that is not the case for many other nations NOT mentioned. If you read the actual Pew Polling data on all the Moslem countries you will see that there is a very wide divergence of beliefs from nation to nation (or culture to culture, I suppose).. For example, while the Qu’ran supposedly allows a man to have four households or wives, only a very few Moslem nations accept and approve of that. Most do not. And while the polls do show that in many Moslem countries they majority believe that females should be executed for having extramarital affairs, the same poll also has almost identical statistics concerning executing MEN for having extramarital affairs.
    I am not going to try to justify any of these ignorant, fundamentalist beliefs. Not at all. But when you see the entire Pew Poll (not just selecting out the worst nations) you see that there is a very wide divergence of opinion in these nations or between these nations.
    That is why lumping Moslems together as intolerant or violent or whatever (which I think is what Maher is doing) is no more accurate than lumping together liberal Christians with fundamentalist Christians. By broadly brushing the participants in Islam it does prevent us from understanding and dealing with the real issue: fundamentalism.
    (By the way, the question about whether terror is acceptable was overwhelmingly rejected by Moslems, even in the most fundamentalist countries).
    ps..I look forward to reading your linked essay and invite you to visit my once-in-while blog as well.


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