Bill Maher Isn’t the Only One Who Misunderstands Religion: Reza Aslan

Mr. Maher, who has argued that Islam is unlike other religions (he thinks it’s more “like the Mafia”), recently took umbrage with President Obama’s assertion that the terrorist group known as the Islamic State, or ISIS, does not represent Islam. In Mr. Maher’s view, Islam has “too much in common with ISIS.”

His comments have led to a flurry of responses, perhaps none so passionate as that of the actor Ben Affleck, who lambasted Mr. Maher, on Mr. Maher’s own HBO show, for “gross” and “racist” generalizations about Muslims.

Yet there is a real lack of sophistication on both sides of the argument when it comes to discussing religion and violence.

On the other, critics of religion tend to exhibit an inability to understand religion outside of its absolutist connotations. They scour holy texts for bits of savagery and point to extreme examples of religious bigotry, of which there are too many, to generalize about the causes of oppression throughout the world.

What both the believers and the critics often miss is that religion is often far more a matter of identity than it is a matter of beliefs and practices. The phrase “I am a Muslim,” “I am a Christian,” “I am a Jew” and the like is, often, not so much a description of what a person believes or what rituals he or she follows, as a simple statement of identity, of how the speaker views her or his place in the world.

As a form of identity, religion is inextricable from all the other factors that make up a person’s self-understanding, like culture, ethnicity, nationality, gender and sexual orientation. What a member of a suburban megachurch in Texas calls Christianity may be radically different from what an impoverished coffee picker in the hills of Guatemala calls Christianity. The cultural practices of a Saudi Muslim, when it comes to the role of women in society, are largely irrelevant to a Muslim in a more secular society like Turkey or Indonesia. The differences between Tibetan Buddhists living in exile in India and militant Buddhist monks persecuting the Muslim minority known as the Rohingya, in neighboring Myanmar, has everything to do with the political cultures of those countries and almost nothing to do with Buddhism itself.

5 replies

  1. Where are the headlines demanding that anyone remotely connected to protestant or catholic Christianity formally and publicly denounce those old stalwarts, the “men of violence” in Norn Ireland?

    Only Muslims are asked to justify their existence, although ironically extremist, religiously-inspired violence by Christians (including, but not limited to the violence of the last 100 years in Ireland) still tops the all-time, all-UK murder and atrocity charts. Surely the rise in extreme right-wing ideology is a greater threat to UK society than radical Islam?

    There’s an awful lot of people on this site who babble about Sharia Law without having the fist clue about it and what is ‘Britishness’? I certainly don’t know of a uniform trait that is markedly British, can you tell me one? I would never assume either that being British somehow makes me intrinsically like other people from these isles.

    Is Peter Sutcliffe a good example of ‘Britishness’? Or Jimmy Seville? How about Fred and Rose West?

    I can only comment from my own experience, but as a white man born in Britain to white British parents, the only people who’ve ever caused me physical harm or threatened me in any way, were other white British males. Are they more British? Or am I more British? British nationalism is ugly, crude and ignorant. Should we ban that?

    I agree somewhat. We seem to be suffering from Islam overload. There’s not one single day, even before the ISIS issue, that Islam and Muslims aren’t in the news in some form or another, demanding this and demanding that, offensive this and offensive that. Quite frankly it’s wearing very thin.

    I can remember when Salman Rushdie was peddling “Satanic Verses” and the Danish cartoon debacle, Muslims were on the streets in almost every country in the world protesting against it. But people from their own faith cut someone’s head off, and not a thing!

    Are you British? If yes, your country:

    Invaded Iraq on false pretences.

    Helped to destabilise Libya by bombing Gaddafi under the pretence of a No-Fly-Zone.

    Is currently involved in trying to topple Assad while expecting British Muslims to show their opposition to group of murderous terrorists that gained prominence because the UK government aided their ascent to power in Syria by turning a blind eye to the arms and cash flowing their way from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

    If you are British, when will you be renouncing your nationality seeing as it is too easily hijacked by blood-thirsty, amoral, dishonest politicians happy to set fire to other countries and watch them burn to further regional interests?

    Your nationality is a personal choice after all and nothing stops you from renouncing it.

    Since what were considered normal Muslims from Britain, France, the US etc. have joined IS, is it not a bit understandable that people in those countries distrust all Muslims to a certain degree? Reminds me of the situation of Japanese-Americans in the US during the war. Americans did not trust them and doubted their loyalty in a conflict where there only were two sides, either with or against them.

    Just what do you think Britain and the US have been doing in the Middle East for the last so many years? Has it all just jumped up and bit you in the face? Where’ve you been? Don’t see that there are any reasons for all this?

    The average Briton inevitably reacts to the stories they read on the net, in papers or see on TV. For the last fifteen years they’ve faced an endless series of stories that associate Islam with terrorism and oppression. Just telling them not to worry about Islam isn’t really enough and increasingly doesn’t seem to be working. If the Guardian really wants to address the problem, maybe it needs to take a less negative approach. How about a series of articles on ‘I Love Islam because…’ I’d be generally interested to read them, because like a lot of Brits I’m currently slightly wondering what’s so special about Islam. After what just happened in Gaza, if I were Muslim, I’d be wanting to fight somebody. To be honest with you.

    Note to every Muslim: Refuse to condemn any action carried out by so call Muslims/organization. Until westerns general public hold their leaders accountable for their involvement in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan etc or their unconditional support of Israel and daily drones in Pakistan, Yemen etc. Why should the Muslims burden the ill of world when they are merely the victims.

    I would like to know what would happen if Muslims said : “enough is enough, we are not condemning any terror organization or their criminal activities” because we are sick and tired of been bullied by bigots.

    What then? I think Muslims are easily manipulated and demonised and they seem to give into these people. Time to stop appeasing the prejudices, the bigots and the out right racists. The Muslims should be holding the non of Muslims responsible for isis and to their raise to power.
    IA
    http://www.londonschoolofislamics.org.uk

  2. A brief reply to Maher:
    Remember:
    The Crusades.
    Spanish Inquisition.
    Hitler.
    Serbs in Bosnia.
    Case Closed.

  3. Reza Aslan’s article was appealing for tolerance and understanding from all sides. That seems to have been lost in some of the responses above. To the simplistic chap who seems to be connecting Christianity with Hitler, the Bosnian Serbs, give me a break. The predominantly Christian Allies lost more than a million lives fighting against and defeating Nazi Germany in WWII. The United States and other predominantly Christian countries came to the defence of the Bosnian people against the Serbs. The same countries continue to prosecute the Serbian leaders in the ICC in The Hague.

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