THE BLOG
10/06/2014 10:18 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2014

Why Bill Maher and Ben Affleck Are Both Wrong

When I watched Bill Maher -- with whom I agree about many other issues -- talk about Islam on his show "Real Time" last Friday night, I felt as though my father's life story was being erased.

According to Maher, no one in Muslim majority countries openly denounces fundamentalism. "They are afraid to speak out." Such claims deny heroic battles waged by many people of Muslim heritage against extremism. For example, Mahfoud Bennoune, my dad, was an Algerian anthropologist who risked his life throughout the 1990s jihadist violence in his country. He taught evolution despite a classroom visit from the head of the so-called Islamic Salvation Front (dad threw the guy out!).

Though later forced to flee his apartment, Mahfoud Bennoune remained in his country despite death threats. He went on to repeatedly denounce terror and the extremist ideas that underlie it. For four years, every time he went out, he did not know whether he would come home again. But he never, ever shut up because of that.

My father believed the jihadists "trample Islam underfoot in the name of jihad." A free-thinker and secularist, he remained proud of the positive aspects of his religious heritage, such as Muslim historical contributions to science, even while being honest about the dangers both radical and conservative interpretations pose. Armed only with pen and voice, he fought back. He was just one of thousands of Algerian democrats to do so then, and today thousands of others from Afghanistan to Somalia continue the same fight.

As Michael Steele -- not someone I often agree with -- correctly noted on Maher's Friday show, people like these do not get significant Western media coverage. Have you heard much about the stalwart Iraqi human rights advocate Samira Saleh Al Naimi recently killed by ISIS in her hometown Mosul after publicly excoriating their brutality? Even when they pay with their lives, people like her are often forgotten by the world.

So, I want to challenge Bill Maher -- who is right about the need to ardently defend liberal principles -- to start supporting those who do, but whose stories are untold. Suggesting the fundamentalists somehow represent Islam, as Maher did, overlooks people like Al Naimi, but also acquiesces to the claims of the repulsive ISIS would-be "Caliph" Baghdadi who wants that to be true.

In fact, many liberals and progressives in Muslim majority contexts are fighting back. While writing my book, "Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism," I interviewed nearly 300 of them from 30 countries -- traveling from Pakistan to Mali -- to hear how they continue to resist.

I think of Raif Badawi who faces 1000 lashes in a Saudi jail for running the Saudi Arabian Liberals website. Or those I saw protesting on the streets of Lahore against blasphemy death sentences, despite being told suicide bombers would turn up. Or the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq that runs a shelter for women fleeing ISIS, while simultaneously denouncing the group's misogynist atrocities (like its reported "concubine market" in Mosul).

These people deserve better than for Muslims to be painted as mainly being a bunch of fundamentalists or Islam seen as inherently extreme. For example, on Friday's show atheist writer Sam Harris opined shockingly that "Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas." How does one begin to respond to such an anti-humanist assertion?

On the same HBO program, Ben Affleck passionately defended Islam and accused both Harris and Maher of bigotry. "It's gross, it's racist... You are painting the whole religion with the same brush," he insisted. I am sincerely grateful to him for expressing the outrage many of us feel over such negative stereotypes.

However, Western liberals also make me nervous when they downplay the gravity and the scope of the challenge posed to people of Muslim heritage themselves by fundamentalism and jihadism, even as a rejoinder to discriminatory portrayals of the faith. I do agree with Maher that many Westerners in the liberal camp have been reticent to openly critique Muslim fundamentalism and have failed to grasp the desperate need to defeat it.

"ISIS couldn't fill a double-A ballpark in Charleston," Affleck suggested. Sadly, this is not true. Despite denunciations by countless laudable Muslim groups and individuals, ISIS could pack Madison Square Garden with a well-armed, and small but significant minority -- including young recruits from the West. The Pakistani Taliban have pledged allegiance to ISIS as have some jihadist groups across North Africa. Gulf governments -- that have long been supported by the U.S. -- have for years poured money into some of these same groups.

While Affleck was right to note that the U.S. has wrongfully waged wars against Muslim majority countries like Iraq, killing many more than the Westerners who have been killed by Muslim extremists, the real issue in the debate about Muslim fundamentalism is not the West vs. Islam. It is the huge number of people on the ground being slaughtered by the fundamentalists, from Afghanistan to Nigeria.

Liberals and progressives of Muslim heritage face a very grave crisis indeed, both in terms of violence and the ideology that promotes it. We need both Bill and Ben to rethink. We do not need either stereotypical generalizations, or minimizing responses to fundamentalism, however well-intentioned. What we need is a principled, anti-racist critique of Muslim fundamentalism that pulls no punches, but that also distinguishes between Islam (the diverse religious tradition) and Islamism (an extreme right wing political ideology.) We need support, understanding and to have our existence recognized.

One final notable feature of the Maher v. Affleck debate is that no women and no Muslims were on the show. New rule -- when debating what Muslims supposedly think about fundamentalism, you ought to have some people of Muslim heritage at the table.