Author and religious scholar Reza Aslan expanded upon the debate currently raging over the Islamic faith in an op-ed column published Thursday in the New York Times.
In the column, Aslan — author of Zealot, a scholarly biography of Jesus of Nazareth — decried what he called a “lack of sophistication on both sides” when discussing religion and violent extremism.
“On one hand,” he wrote, “people of faith are far too eager to distance themselves from extremists in their community” and deny religion’s sway over those who commit acts of violence in the name of faith.
However, he said, “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.”
The column is something of a continuation of a discussion that has been going on for months and which involves Real Time host Bill Maher.
During the summer’s violent Israeli raids on Palestinian-controlled territories in Gaza, Maher controversially opined on the social medium Twitter that the extremist group Hamas is largely to blame for Israel’s treatment of Palestine.
“Dealing w/ Hamas is like dealing w/ a crazy woman who’s trying to kill u,” Maher wrote. “u can only hold her wrists so long before you have to slap her.”
These were not Maher’s first anti-Islamic remarks. He has made it clear that he views the faith with the same jaundiced eye with which he views all other religious faiths. However, some of Maher’s critics have accused him of xenophobia with regards to Islam, and of making summary judgments on a faith he knows very little about.
In a combative discussion with actor Ben Affleck last week, Maher repeatedly asserted that anyone who considers themselves a liberal should consider themselves anti-Islam because of the faith’s repressive views of women, LGBT people and believers in other faiths.
“It’s gross,” said Affleck of Maher’s persistent attacks on Islam. “It’s racist.”
“It’s so not,” Maher retorted. “You’re not listening to what we’re saying.”
“It’s the only religion that acts like the mafia,” Maher said during the discussion. “They will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture, or write the wrong book.”
Last week, Aslan said in a CNN interview that he feels Maher’s attacks on Islam are “facile” and that his thinking on the issue is “not very sophisticated.”
In his New York Times op-ed piece, Aslan accused Maher and other anti-religionists of grossly oversimplifying what religious identity means — and just how diverse any faith’s adherents can be from each other.
“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,” he wrote. “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.”
He pointed out that for every violent or purblind section of Islam’s holy book the Koran one can name, there are equally violent and genocidal sections of the Christian Bible’s Old and New Testaments.
“How a worshiper treats these conflicting commandments depends on the believer,” he wrote. “If you are a violent misogynist, you will find plenty in your scriptures to justify your beliefs. If you are a peaceful, democratic feminist, you will also find justification in the scriptures for your point of view.”
People of faith, he said, need to not shy away from denouncing extremists in their own ranks. It’s not enough, he said, for Muslims to dismiss the violent Islamic State (ISIS) as not being proper Muslims.
“Members of the Islamic State are Muslims for the simple fact that they declare themselves to be so,” he said. “Dismissing their profession of belief prevents us from dealing honestly with the inherent problems of reconciling religious doctrine with the realities of the modern world.”
“Bill Maher is right to condemn religious practices that violate fundamental human rights,” concluded Aslan. “Religious communities must do more to counter extremist interpretations of their faith. But failing to recognize that religion is embedded in culture — and making a blanket judgment about the world’s second largest religion — is simply bigotry.”