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11/06/2014 02:51 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2015

Mythbusters: Bill Maher Edition

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Bill Maher is at it again. On the latest episode of his show, Real Time with Bill Maher, he took the opportunity to lecture his younger critics at UC Berkeley on the value of modern liberalism and free speech, which, in his view, they're too immature to appreciate. Since his highly controversial exchange with Ben Affleck and Nicholas Kristof on October 3rd, Maher--and celebrated New Atheists like Sam Harris--have insisted that they're simply stating the unpleasant facts about the Muslim world. Among the various myths about Islam and Muslims which they promote, two are particularly noxious and need to be debunked.

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Myth #1: Poll results show that 20% or more of the world's Muslims are "Islamists" who want to impose Islam on all of humanity

Both Maher and Harris make a big deal of polls which supposedly show that an unnervingly large number of Muslims around the world are either jihadis who want to kill innocents or "Islamists" who cherish religious martyrdom and seek to force their religion on everybody. They're especially fond of one example--Muslim acceptance of the death penalty for apostasy. According to Maher, this kind of thinking is "mainstream belief" and "vast numbers" of Muslims believe that anybody who leaves the fold of Islam deserves to die. Harris maintains that some 300 million Muslims are either crazy jihadis or Islamists who pose no violent threat to the West but are prepared to compel the whole world to submit to the will of Allah.

These are provocative claims, to say the least, but what is the evidence for them? While jousting with Affleck, Maher cited the Pew Research Center's 2013 The World's Muslims report, declaring that 90% of Egyptians believe that apostasy should be punishable by death. In fact, the report shows that 88% of Egypt's Muslims hold this view.* That number is still alarmingly high, and CNN anchor Fareed Zakaria is right to warn that the prevalence of such views is symptomatic of "a cancer of extremism within Islam today." Even so, it wouldn't be right to label the Egyptians who hold these views as "Islamists." To be able to determine whether a Muslim's politics counts as "Islamist," we need much more information about his political and religious commitments than is revealed by a single survey.

The same report suggests that the majority of Egyptian Muslims prefer democracy to autocracy, support freedom of religious practice, worry about extremist groups, and reject suicide bombing against civilians in defense of religion, all positions that are congruent with modern liberal values. The real question here is what conclusions can be drawn from the 88% figure.* All it tells us is that an individual who accepts death for apostasy holds a disturbing illiberal view, and it would provide grounds for recommending that progressive Muslims who share that person's value economy persuade him to renounce his view. But it wouldn't warrant a judgment of the individual as a danger to civilization, of his countrymen as backward, or of his religion as fundamentally violent. Nor would it corroborate the notion that the person is a proponent of "Islamism," a deeply complicated theology of modernity obsessed with the nation-state. We would need more information about the Muslim's stance on the relationship between religion and government to make that call. It's a good rule of thumb to give people the benefit of the doubt, so we should be inclined to think that the ordinary Muslim's respectable views outnumber his illiberal views.

Consider a poll conducted two years ago by the Anti-Defamation League on levels of anti-Semitism in Europe. This report found that 73% of Hungarians said it was "probably true" that "Jews have too much power in the business world" and 75% of Hungarians said it was "probably true" that "Jews have too much power in international financial markets." Needless to say, this kind of anti-Semitic garbage isn't nearly as repulsive as the view that apostates should be killed. But the point is that these numbers show only that a majority of Hungarians hold a disturbing illiberal view of a persecuted minority, a view that they should be encouraged to reject. Without knowing more about the average Hungarian's other political convictions we can't judge her to be anti-liberal, her country as uncivilized, or her nationalism as fundamentally intolerant.

So much for Maher's argument. What does Harris contribute to the debate? On what basis can he say that 20% of Muslims are jihadis and Islamists? In a recent conversation with Zakaria, Harris explained that he arrived at this number as a "conservative estimate" after examining, among other things, a UNC Chapel Hill study conducted by Charles Kurzman and Ijlal Naqvi, which shows that between 1969 and 2009, Islamists won 15% of the vote in parliamentary elections throughout the Islamic world. As it turns out, the story Harris tells is astonishingly simplistic and incomplete and thus throws the 20% figure into doubt.

It's true that the UNC Chapel Hill study shows that the median Islamic-party performance over forty years came out to 15% of seats in parliamentary elections. But Harris leaves out all the other key findings of the study which explode the idea that supporters of Islamist parties are essentially hostile to human rights. For example, Kurzman and Naqvi argue that in the Muslim-majority countries where these parliamentary elections took place, voters had little enthusiasm for Islamic parties, and increased voter participation didn't increase the share of seats those parties secured.

Further, the majority of these parties captured less than 8% of the vote, and even where they rose to power as a promising alternative to secular tyranny, they were seldom able to hold on to that power. So Islamic parties that ran for elections in Yemen in 1993, Indonesia in 1999, and Tajikistan in 2000 achieved a short-lived breakthrough before declining in popularity. The authors assure us that "the more routine elections become, the worse Islamic parties do in them." Put another way, the freer the elections the worse the Islamists' performance.

Finally, Kurzman and Naqvi suggest, religiously oriented political parties in predominantly Muslim countries have gradually taken more and more liberal positions on democracy and human rights. And just because a Muslim has voted for an Islamic party, that doesn't mean she embraces the things which Harris associates with Islamism--martyrdom for Paradise, forcing the world to surrender to the authority of an Islamic state, or turning democracy against itself. For instance, in the 2005 parliamentary elections in Iraq, in which a majority of Shias voted for an alliance composed of Islamic parties, less than 25% of Shias said they favored a theocracy.

Why should a neutral observer of Muslim voters conclude that 20% of them are against human rights when so many of them have refused to give Islamist parties more than a small fraction of their vote, pushed them to the margins as their societies became more open, and resisted their illiberal policies even when they did vote Islamist? Harris' analysis of this study is rather disingenuous.

He also tries to buttress the claim that 20% of Muslims are Islamists by referencing irrelevant data. At one point during the Maher-Affleck showdown, he says that the 20% figure is conservative because a whopping 78% of British Muslims think that the Danish cartoonists should have been prosecuted. It's fine to note that this is an illiberal stance, but Harris doesn't stop at that. He uses the statistic to try to diagnose a frightening strain of Islamism in seemingly well-integrated Muslims. If 15% of them were already skating on thin ice by voting for Islamic parties or giving the wrong reply to a survey question, he suggests, Muslims with supposedly Islamist tendencies have become enemies of civilization by favoring consequences for those who insult religious sentiment.

But this brings us right back to the task of obtaining a complete picture of a person's political and religious convictions. In India, the world's largest secular democracy, it's a violation of the penal code to deliberately "outrage the religious feelings" of any group of citizens. It goes without saying that this law is incompatible with the principle of free speech.

But consider, as an example, a devout Hindu in India who loves democracy, applauds religious freedom, and abhors violence in the name of religion. Suppose he also believes that anybody who outrages the religious feelings of his particular Hindu community should be prosecuted under the law. Given that most of his political and religious convictions are likely to be admirable, we can't label him a right-wing Hindu nationalist, or judge him to be anti-liberal or averse to human rights just because some of his views are unpalatable. The same treatment should be applied to British Muslims, the majority of whom also see Britain as their country, oppose living apart from non-Muslims, prefer living under British law to living under shari'a, advocate the removal of religious leaders who support terrorism, and adore the Queen.

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Myth #2: Violence perpetrated by Muslims around the world should be attributed primarily to Islam

Harris fails to engage with some of the most respected scholarship on what makes militant groups acting in the name of Islam tick. Instead he replicates the familiar stereotype of Muslims--be they jihadis, Islamists, or conservatives--as emerging seamlessly from their religious texts and narratives, fixating on how "the doctrines of Islam ... produce" reprehensible actions. He's right that there is a moral, religious logic to what many militants do in the name of Islam and that they often openly confess to having a religious motive for their militancy. But it hardly follows from this that their violence "has its origins in religion" or that religion is "the true source of [their] bad behavior." To assert this is to make a category mistake by conflating motive with cause.

A suicide bomber might have eternal bliss in heaven as a motive for his action, but that doesn't mean that heavenly bliss is "the true source" of his action. The search for this true source requires us to distinguish between causes, which are the social, biological, and material conditions that "push" people to engage in certain behaviors, and motives, which are the imperatives, desires, and objectives that "pull" people to do certain things. Causes include things like one's psychological profile and evolutionary predispositions, as well as institutional power, political marginalization, economic circumstances, and the structural violence of occupation. Motives, by contrast, include things like entry into Paradise, avenging the death of one's friend, acquiring fame, or securing financial support for one's family.

Now, it's possible for religion to be a cause in the sense that it sometimes thoroughly saturates a particular social or political environment and thus informs a group of people's perceptions, habits, and moral psychology. But all of that is much thicker than the kinds of things Harris wants to describe as the real causes of militancy--the "central doctrine" of jihad (an imperative), the ideal of martyrdom (an objective), or the reward of Paradise (a desire). These things belong properly to the category of motives, not causes. It's in the latter that we must begin to search for the multiple origins of militancy in the name of God. And even if we found that religion formed a big part of the cluster of causes giving rise to jihadi militancy in a certain society, we'd still need a good reason to think that religion is "the most important [causal] variable" for explaining jihadi violence, that religious doctrines are "especially conducive to fanaticism," or that religious texts wield the greatest causal power above and beyond all other causes in generating that violence.

Has Harris given us any such reason? He hasn't. He just asserts that jihadi ideology is the "most plausible version of [Islam] ... according to an honest reading of the scriptures" and assumes that there's a basic one-way arrow from religious text to jihadi violence. The brilliant anthropologist, Talal Asad, has exposed the fallacies in this line of reasoning. Harris would have us believe that the Qur'an has a single, fixed meaning (the one "fundamentalists" say it has) and that its doctrines are "contagious." For him, there is neither any diversity of plausible scriptural meanings nor any difference between the Qur'an and its interpretation. And if a militant says he's going to blow up a bus full of passengers because God told him to, Harris would simply assume that Islamic doctrine is the "true source" of his behavior. Indeed, Harris complains that secular academics are inconsistent in their study of militant violence in the name of religion. Because although they refuse to believe a militant when he divulges a religious motive, which is generally thought to have deeper non-religious roots, they happily take his professed political and economic motives at face value.

But motives for extraordinary acts of violence are very often complex and multilayered, and they fluctuate from one case to the next (even within one group of militants). Intuition and observation confirm that there is almost always an assemblage of motives and causes at work, and that even a killer's most loudly proclaimed motive isn't necessarily the single most important one.

Consider the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting. The killer, Seung-Hui Cho, left an incoherent, obscenity-laden note in which he claimed to be poor and downtrodden, and said that he wanted to "get even" with rich people. Revenge seemed to be the most important motive for his murdering 32 people. Yet despite the shrillness of Cho's broadside against the wealthy, investigators still didn't think it explained Cho's actions sufficiently--precisely because motives in these cases usually come in a bundle that needs to be parsed out. It would be unreasonable to conclude based on his stated pursuit of revenge that it was the single most important motive for what he did, especially since his behavior was complicated by extreme social isolation, psychological disturbance, and a preoccupation with state-of-the-art firearms.

Likewise, it's lazy to conclude from the bus bomber's stentorian rhetoric about executing God's will that martyrdom is the single most powerful motive for his crime. The point is that we can't automatically give religion pride of place when talking about the causes of and motives for a militant's actions purely because he proclaims a godly motive or appeals to his holy book in spectacular fashion. To pinpoint a religious motive for militancy, we need a theory of motives that integrates our inner predispositions and thoughts with our outward statements and actions. Unfortunately, Harris never bothers with this.

Moreover, Maher and Harris err in assuming that what groups like ISIS are doing demonstrates the incontrovertible Islamic teachings on jihad and thus epitomizes the true, ugly face of Islam. In fact, ISIS' promotional literature shows that it departs significantly from the position of most Muslim jurists by interpreting jihad as fard al-'ayn (individual religious duty). Most jurists have maintained that militant jihad is not an individual's personal commitment, but rather a collective political obligation which can only be pursued when there is a genuine threat to Islam and when it's likely that the threat can be effectively countered. Whatever the self-assurances of ISIS leaders, they have no way of showing it's likely that the threat posed by the American military can be successfully opposed. So the notion that ISIS and other jihadi militants are always acting on the basis of established Islamic doctrine is plainly false.

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Now that we've discovered the weaknesses of these two oft-repeated arguments, we might reflect on Maher's upcoming commencement address at Berkeley amidst accusations of racism and bigotry. His defenders dismiss these charges out of hand--it's because he's telling the truth which liberals don't want to hear that they've gotten dramatically bent out of shape.

But is it dramatic to point out that saying all Muslims "bring that desert stuff to our world" is racist, especially since the majority of Muslims live outside the Arab world and don't come from the desert? Not for nothing is Maher accused of tarring all Muslims with the same brush.

What about bigotry? On his show, he referred to a New York Times article which shows that Tunisia has sent more fighters than any other country to join ISIS, and that dozens of unemployed and working-class male youths in a Tunis neighborhood expressed support for ISIS. Maher said that "they talked to all these people" who wouldn't fight with ISIS but were still avid fans of the movement. "All these people" seems like a rather exaggerated description of dozens of misguided male youths out of more than 5 million Muslim men living in Tunisia. Hardly the stuff of mainstream belief.

So what was Maher trying to prove in mentioning Tunisia? His point was that even in one of the most educated, cosmopolitan countries in the region, all these people interviewed are dangerous jihadi sympathizers. And that's scary because it means that we can't even trust the urbane Muslims. Is it unfair to ask whether making a hasty, contemptuous generalization about Muslims based on a tiny sample of them amounts to bigotry?

If Maher is the genuine liberal he claims to be, he should live up to the ideals of compassion, fairness, and toleration by reassessing his superficial view of Islam and the Muslim world.

*Correction: This article previously used an incorrect statistic pertaining to the number of Egyptians who favor the death penalty for leaving the Islamic religion. According to the Pew Research Center's 2013 report, it was not 64% of Egyptians surveyed who favor the death penalty for leaving Islam. Rather, 88% of Egyptians surveyed said that they favor the death penalty for leaving the religion.