On his HBO show, Bill Maher recently reiterated a point he's been trying to make for years: that Islam is inherently violent and that "Western liberal culture is better." This prompted responses from Reza Aslan on CNN and Ben Affleck on Maher's own HBO show. Every few months, the pattern repeats itself: Maher produces some variation on this theme, thereby confirming his "edgy" credentials. Sometimes people like Aslan and Affleck respond.
I've never felt compelled to write anything about Bill Maher's views on Islam. I'm sure he read parts of a Karen Armstrong book while making "Religulous." Maybe he even saw a Muslim in the crowd while waiting to go on at Zanies in Nashville. But I've just never been able to take him seriously. At the end of the day, the guy is a comedian. Sure, his shtick is prejudiced and uninformed, but ultimately it's just shtick.
When I listened to the responses to Maher, however, I felt that there were a couple of points nobody tried to make. Aslan made a valid point when he argued that concepts like "Islam" and "Muslim countries" aren't monolithic or clearly defined. Affleck went on Real Time with Bill Maher, and was part of a panel that included author Sam Harris and journalist Nicholas Kristof. When Sam Harris said that "every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry towards Muslims as people," Affleck asked, "Are you the person who understands the officially codified doctrine of Islam?” Harris responded, "I'm actually well educated on this topic."
First, let me just say that both Aslan and Affleck appear to accept Maher's assumption that "Western liberal culture" is indeed superior. Aslan, for example, argues that Turkey is, in essence, more liberal than the United States because the country has had several female heads of state. Aslan also opines that practices like female genital mutilation should be condemned because "they don't belong in the twenty-first century." While I find female genital mutilation reprehensible, I don't accept the premise that the 21st century is somehow more "enlightened" than other epochs. It's not my intention to expand my argument into a refutation of the theory of progress, so I'll just note my deviation from that position and move on to the next point.
The aforementioned exchange between Affleck and Harris intrigued me, especially the terms "officially codified" and "doctrine." To ask, as the CNN anchors who interviewed Aslan did, "Does Islam promote violence?" is to to assume that there is a reified Islam with an "officially codified," clearly defined "doctrine." I don't think we can talk about such an "Islam" as an object of analysis. But neither do I wish to take the argument to the other extreme by claiming that there are a million little "islams" that people practice, in which the meaning of "Islam" becomes subsumed in relativity to the point of incoherence.
Instead, I'll merely echo Talal Asad's argument that Islam is a "discursive tradition," which Ovamir Anjum defines as a "historically evolving set of discourses, embodied in the practices and institutions of Islamic societies and hence deeply imbricated in the material life of those inhabiting them.” Islam has a set of foundational texts and a history of interpretive arguments relating to those texts. A Muslim-- any Muslim, not necessarily a "cleric"-- can participate in that discursive tradition via interpretation of those foundational texts.
For example, Bill Maher repeatedly affirmed that Islam is a "mafia" that kills apostates. Let's set aside the fact that Saudi Arabia, which Reza Aslan called "the most extremist Muslim country," has never put any apostates to death (as far as I know). Concerning the theoretical debate, there is no person or institution that can declare with ultimate authority (a la a Church or Pope, presumably) whether or not killing apostates is "official doctrine." There are indeed Muslims who believe that apostates should be put to death. Since there is nothing in the Qur'an that supports this, proponents of this position rely on two or three "hadiths," sayings attributed to Muhammad to support their argument (The corpus of Hadith is secondary in the Islamic discursive process to the Qur'an). Muslims who disagree with them would posit that the "hadiths" in question are either unreliable (i.e. it is not clear that Muhammad actually said x or y) or that their opponents' interpretation of what Muhammad said is inaccurate. The same discursive process plays out vis a vis countless questions of varying importance: Whether interest constitutes usury; whether eating food cooked with wine is permissible; whether it should be prohibited to demonstrate against the government (!); whether enlisting in the US armed forces is permissible, etc.
The point I'm trying to make is that there is an element of anarchy in Islam, in that there is no centralized person or institution that can codify official Islamic doctrine, in spite of Sam Harris's exemplary education. It is true that there are nation-states whose governments utilize religion as a source of legitimacy, and that power is centralized in those nation-states, but that changes the conversation. If we want to discuss what nation-states ("Islamic" or otherwise) do, the question reverts to Western-European modernity and liberal values, since the nation-state is one of the manifestations of a certain type of modernity. In following Maher's initial tirade and the subsequent reactions (including Chris Cuomo's on CNN), I wasn't surprised to come across certain words: "primitive," "backward," "barbaric." I've posited that Maher and his interlocutors assume--implicitly or explicitly--the superiority of Western-European liberal values. So I'll conclude by quoting the granddaddy of Western-European liberalism, John Stuart Mill, who excludes "barbarians" from his conception of self-determination: "...we may leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage....Despotism is a legitmate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement."