After two weeks of simmering, both on the air and off, the Great Islam Bash-Off was revived this weekend when Bill Maher took another shot at the religion on his HBO show, only to be slapped back by his guests' insistence on relating "facts" and "information." As Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) made the important case for Congress to debate military action against ISIS, Maher awkwardly segued to a high court decision in Pakistan that upheld a death sentence for a Christian woman accused of blaspheming the Prophet. When he tried to use this as proof of his premise that Islam is a horrible, death-dealing religion, guests David Miliband and David Frum pushed back hard.
Miliband, a former British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, pointed out the geopolitical origins of Pakistani Sharia Law, and cautioned that “it’s one thing to take on a religion, the other thing is to take on the people who are abusing the religion,” while Frum referred to this As "very much a Pakistan problem."
While those were great points, Miliband nailed Maher's problem elsewhere on the exchange. Listen to what Miliband asks Maher after Maher insists blasphemy laws are "popular with the people":
Miliband: "How many times have you been to Pakistan?"
Maher: "Never, and nor will I."
Miliband: "You should go to Pakistan."
The problem that people like Maher and Sam Harris have with Islam is that its unfamiliarity with it, at a root cultural level, leads them to conclusions they'd never reach about other religions with similarly violent texts. On the other hand, I'm with Maher in that I'd be waiting to book any travel to Pakistan until they at least stopped sentencing people to death for blasphemy and fining them. That seems excessive.
As Frum pointed out, Pakistan is just one country in a much larger context of Muslim-majority countries that don't have this problem, which suggests to some that the problem is not the religion itself, but other factors. The religion is just a tool, the reasoning goes. No one is arguing with the fact that extremists extract their insane justifications from religious texts, we just disagree on whether that's the fault of the texts, or the people interpreting them. I think it's the latter, Maher the former.There are an overwhelming majority of people who are Muslims, and a much smaller group who are Muslims and lunatics. I say fix the lunacy, Maher and co. say fix the religion.
On that score, it's important to note that the problem isn't so much the belief that blasphemy should be punished by death, but the fact that this belief is the law of the land in Pakistan. That's a condition that liberals consistently oppose, no matter where it occurs. When we defend Islam from attacks like Maher's, we are defending religious freedom and tolerance, neither of which entails support for Muslim docttine or theocracy. The Pew poll that Maher and Bill O'Reilly like to cite didn't ask about the blasphemy laws specifically, but Pakistani Muslims did overhwelmingly support Sharia Law as the law of the land.
On the other hand, a more recent poll shows that 68% of Pakistanis support repealing the blasphemy law, and while hundreds of blasphemy death sentences have been handed down over the years, no one has ever actually been executed for it in Pakistan. Even in the narrow slice of the Muslim population that Islam-bashers call "the Muslim World™," things are changing. The problem is that the people who support it are murdering assholes.
Whatever your feeling about the cause and effect relationship between extremist violence and religion, it seems to me that changing the politics of a given country or region, while itself a herculean task, is a lot easier than than autocorrecting an ancient religious text. That solution also has the added bonus of not alienating the very people you're trying to persuade by lumping them all into a "Muslim World" that's a construct of a non-Muslim's imagination.
There's one other thing I'd like to make clear, and that is that despite my frequent criticism of Maher and his show, I think there is tremendous value in it. I disagree with Maher on a great many things, but his point of view is a great canvas for political conversation, and his bluntness can be a real time-saver. When he's right, he's great, and even when he's wrong, especially when he's wrong, you learn something.
RELATED: See the segment that started it all here, Bob Cesca's rebuke of liberal hypocrisy on religion here, and Michael Luciano's defense of Maher, Harris, and Bill O'Reilly here, plus his coverage of the latest attacks on atheist thought-leader Sam Harris here and here.