Bill Maher Ben Affleck

Last week, actor Ben Affleck took issue with Bill Maher’s remarks about Islam during an appearance on Maher’s show, Real Time.

The interesting development from this latest string of rants against religion is the solidarity being shown Maher from conservatives, notably the religious right.

Maher’s current theme of “Islamophobia” is just the latest in a career of inflammatory opinions that vault his name to the top of the news stories, so a balanced viewer might remember that controversial statements are his currency. Yet while many agree with Affleck’s calling Maher’s remarks “gross and racist,” social opinion across the political spectrum also seems to be reinforcing Maher’s contention that “every criticism of Islam gets confused with bigotry toward Muslims as people.”

But what if, as Affleck objected, those criticisms are delivered by lumping all Muslims together with the militant group ISIS, as Maher did? Reza Aslan, noted author and commentator, feels both religious people and religious critics have an incomplete understanding of religion and religious freedoms. He reflects that religious people tend to discount the actions of extreme members of their own religion, while religious critics tend to look for the most extreme examples of bigotry and expose them as reasons to discount the entire religion.

Yet even taking the extreme groups out of the equation, what many support Maher for is his assessment that as a whole, the remaining Muslims tend to demonstrate that despite the religion’s assertion that all people are equal, somehow women and gays are still struggling with basic human rights today. In addition, leaving the faith involves a hazard to one’s health. According to a recent Pew Study of Muslims worldwide, as many as 80% of Muslims in certain Muslim countries seem to hold a fundamentalist view of Sharia law that disturbs Western sensibilities. Some concerning practices of Sharia law include honor killings, stoning for adultery, and the death penalty for apostates. So conservative voices, already concerned that Islam hides a lot of uncomfortable beliefs, have begun to speak in favor of Maher.

On the face of it, Islam sounds about as radical as Christianity–meaning that sometimes it is, and sometimes it is not. Like Muslims, Christians believe in one true God. Both religions believe in angels; in a holy Scripture, given by prophets; in a final judgment day; and that God is in charge of every detail of Creation. Christians believe that all who do not follow their beliefs will end up in Hell, and that anyone who leaves the faith loses their salvation. Muslims believe the same, and work to make sure this does not happen.

The amount of extremism in a group’s interpretation of how to practically implement these beliefs varies among Christians just as it does among Muslims. In his criticism of both sides in the Affleck-Maher exchange, Mr. Aslan points out that religion is “far more a matter of identity than it is beliefs and practices.” For people that identify as Muslim, their understanding of politics, culture and even gender are all informed by what they understand about their place in the world. Both Maher’s and anyone else’s attempt to discredit “what Muslims believe as a whole” based on the actions of a group within that religion seems, as Aslan concluded, unsophisticated.

Affleck contributed to a valuable national conversation by calling out Maher’s remarks about Muslims as racism. But perhaps all Maher is trying to point out through this “Islamophobia” diatribe, in his usual intentionally offensive style, is that it should be okay to criticize certain aspects of a religion without being called racist or bigoted. And somehow this effort got the support of religious conservatives, which makes for interesting possibilities as the national conversation continues.

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