Debate on Islam between Ben Affleck and Bill Maher sparks firestorm

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An argument on Islam between renouned liberal actor Ben Affleck and famous athiests Bill Maher and Sam Harris, which aired on Maher’s show Real Time last week, has provoked a firestorm online and on US television over the nature of Islam as a religion and whether criticising it constitutes Islamophobia.

During Maher’s show, Sam Harris, a well known critic of all religions – and of Islam in particular – cited polls taken in predominantly Muslim countries which he says proves that the majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims ascribe to a backwards ideology, and that “Islam is the motherload of bad ideas”.

Maher insisted that “liberals need to stand up for liberal principles”, which he says come in direct conflict with Islamic doctrine. Maher said that Islam presents a roadblock to many of these principles, including freedom of speech, freedom to practice any religion or to leave a religion “without fear of violence”, and equality for women, minorities, and homosexuals.

Affleck fired back by calling the comments by Maher and Harris “gross” and “racist”, and by saying that the majority of Muslims “are not fanatical”.

Shortly following the debate on Maher’s show, professor of religious studies Reza Aslan appeared in a CNN interview, saying that “when it comes to the topic of religion, [Maher] is not very sophisticated in the way that he thinks.”

Aslan responded to a claim made by Maher that female circumcision is an Islamic problem, saying that, in fact, the practice of circumcising girls is a largely African tradition, and that many countries in Africa, both Christian and Muslim, conduct the practice which has nothing to do with Islam.

Regarding the claim that women are treated unfairly in the Islamic world, Aslan acknowledged that some countries do not have gender equality, but that elsewhere in the Muslim world countries have elected seven different women as their heads of state.

Aslan insisted that practices in certain parts of the Muslim world are not representative of all, or even most, of the over 1 billion Muslims in the world.