If there’s one issue these days that unites self-identifying liberal and conservative political pundits who otherwise can never seem to agree on anything, it’s bashing Islam.
Last week, stand-up comedian and political commentator Bill Maher invited a scholar on religion, Reza Aslan, as a guest on his HBO talk show “Real Time” and proceeded to lambast him with inaccurate generalizations regarding the status and treatment of women in Islam.
Specifically, Maher wrongly painted female genital mutilation (FGM) as “an Islamic problem” and alleged that Islam does not respect the rights of women.
Had Maher researched and familiarized himself with the origins of FGM, he would know that this barbaric practice predates the birth of Islam and, in fact, stems from cultural practices rooted in certain segments of religiously diverse populations in Africa.
One of the most common reasons why Islam is so often misunderstood in the West is because people like Maher continuously fail to distinguish between cultural mores and traditions and religious mandates.
Reza Aslan did a commendable job responding to Maher’s irresponsible remarks, pointing out that FGM is not a “Muslim problem,” but rather a Central African problem that plagues many Christian majority countries like Eritrea and Ethiopia.
Maher either ignores or is ignorant to the fact that Islam is the first religion that granted specific rights to women at a time in history when the notion was a foreign concept. When the Quran was revealed, it mandated that women have the right to inherit wealth and land during a period when women themselves were treated as property.
Islam delineated the distribution of assets in event of divorce so that women were not forced to rely on men for sustenance. During a time when men were taking advantage of their wives for financial gain, Islam stipulated that a woman’s earnings are hers alone, whereas her husband is obligated to provide for the family. The Prophet Muhammad’s wife Khadija was herself a successful businesswoman who was independently wealthy prior to marrying him.
Muslim women were among the first to be encouraged to keep their fathers’ names upon marriage, instead of adhering to the Western tradition of taking on the husband’s last name as is customary in patriarchal societies throughout the world. This allowed them to establish and maintain an identity independent of their husbands.
Before Maher publicly alleges on his cable television talk show that Islam denies women their rights, he should do his due diligence and educate himself on the facts, or at the very least invite as a guest a Muslim woman who can rebut his fallacies with facts and convey the pivotal role Islam has played in shaping the true identity of women in Islam.
Recently, Maher again invited onto his show four guests – including actor Ben Affleck and author Sam Harris – to discuss radical Islam and Islamophobia, particularly in the context of extremist groups like ISIS. Interestingly considering the topic of the show, not one guest was Muslim.
During this segment, Maher claimed that Islam is the “only religion that acts like the f—- mafia” that would “f—- kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book.”
He went on to claim that liberals who should champion liberal values like freedom of speech and gender equality are accused of being Islamophobes when they point out that these values are lacking in the Muslim world.
Ben Affleck rebutted soundly, accusing Maher of stereotyping Islam unfairly and pointing out that he and fellow guest panelist Sam Harris were “painting the whole religion with a broad brush.” Ironically, during this same segment, Maher questioned whether Islamophobia was even real, all while exemplifying it in full force on his own cable talk show.
As a public personality with a platform to influence and sway popular opinion, Maher has an added responsibility to communicate in an educated and informed way that does not distort or misrepresent facts.
Thank you, Mr. Maher, for exemplifying that Islamophobia is very much real. It is characterized by the tired generalizations and stereotyping recycled by folks like yourself who are determined to define the faith of billions by the reprehensible actions of a small minority.
You can attempt to smear and tarnish Islamic principles that promote peace and tolerance by choosing to focus on acts of terrorism committed by Muslim extremists. But we cannot defeat those who wish to harm us until we step back and recognize that terrorism is waged by groups of all faiths who twist religion for political gain; until we understand that religion is often manipulated and leveraged by minority extremist factions to gain power and favor with an oppressed population; And perhaps most importantly, until we acknowledge the role U.S. and European policies have played in creating a ripe breeding ground for such barbaric groups.
Until we acknowledge these facts, people like you who propel your harmful, inaccurate rhetoric succeed only in undermining efforts of the overwhelming majority of mainstream Muslims attempting to reclaim Islam from groups who use it to spread fear and hatred, and in providing more ammunition for terrorists groups like ISIS to continue advancing their malicious, self-serving agendas.
Zainab Chaudry is the Maryland Outreach Manager of the Council on American Islamic Relations. CAIR is the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization.