The video is being passed around the internet and written about everywhere. Everyone seems to have an opinion and a side to take about Ben Affleck’s emotional response to Bill Maher’s casual xenophobia on Maher’s show last Friday. Affleck was trying to make a nuanced point that was difficult to accurately discuss on a TV show that’s more about Maher producing smug soundbites than it really is about delving into issues in any amount of depth. (I’m a fan of the show and watch it weekly. Maher delivers great monologues, offers a much-needed liberal perspective that’s more combative than Jon Stewart or Rachel Maddow, and assembles solid guests for his roundtables. But when it comes to discussing Islam, Maher tends to veer towards a view that accepts and even encourages stereotyping and bigotry.) Unfortunately, Affleck let his emotions dictate how he approached the conversation, and did not appear to offer a solid, well-thought-out theoretical analysis of the situation, instead becoming accusatory and acting kind of rude; meanwhile, Maher and Sam Harris, who often come across as gruff and blunt, were able to maintain the appearance of calm and collected.
Harris and Maher consider themselves crusaders against all religions, so their characterization of Muslims as violent primitives is justified, because they think Christians and Hindus are full of shit, too. However, their description of the “Muslim World” is not only disrespectful and xenophobic, it is also dangerous. We are once again engaged in military operations in the Middle East and the willingness of public intellectuals like Harris and Maher to categorize and belittle the people we are bombing helps the public accept the idea that “these people” deserve to be bombed. And invaded. And bombed. And invaded. Ad infinitum.
Here is the argument Affleck should have made:
The Middle East tried having liberal democracy. 50-60 years ago, in fact. But the West prevented it from succeeding. From Britain colonizing much of the Middle East in the first part of the last century, after the Ottoman Empire collapsed in WWI, to their meddling in Iran, to the CIA overthrowing progressive leaders in Afghanistan and propping up dictators in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, the Middle East hasn’t been able to bring itself out of the stone age, because we literally keep bombing them back into it. Afghanistan isn’t a bunch of people living in caves and disrespecting women because that’s what the people’s religion dictates. It’s because whenever third world countries attempt to progress and do anything to support their own people above the interests of neocolonial states (in this case, primarily the US, Russia and Britain), they are violently punished, whether by a coup, a civil war funded by foreign powers, an economic embargo, or a variety of other tools that are meant to keep parts of the world chaotic, so that their resources are easier to plunder. Theocracies are all the rage across the Middle East because they are often the only form of government Washington will support in that region. A liberal democracy is likely to vote to control their own resources, especially oil. That’s dangerous to US interests. A dictatorship, however, can funnel resources out of the country effectively, without much bureaucracy, and gladly skim the majority of the profits from that transaction, while allowing their people to starve. Like Saudi Arabia. Not a country where the majority of the Muslim population even necessarily supports their psychotic leadership, but where Washington money and weapons have kept them in power for decades. These guys are easily as bad as ISIS, but since they play by the correct economic rules, we aren’t invading them.
People will kill and die for their God, and often do. When it comes to things like war, though, religion is rarely, if ever, the deciding factor. Economics is almost always the driving force behind invasions, religion is just a convenient way to rally the public around the idea, once economic elites of one country decide it is imperative that they invade another country. The average soldier may, personally, be fighting for his God and his way of life, but that isn’t why he was sent to fight.
And that’s just it. The bottom line is always economics, and the politics involved there. Religions are complicated things, and I, myself, am not a religious person. I liked Religulus a lot, and do think that an evolution past organized religion would do the world good. This game of playing “my culture is better than yours,” however, is childish and simple-minded. Christians have, indeed, killed a lot more Muslims than vice versa, many times in fact, since the Crusades (which were instigated by Catholics.) That should settle the question of which religion “encourages violence” more, if that were even a valid question in the first place. (And if you’re still not sure which religion encourages more violence, ask yourself which religion committed the Crusades, the Holocaust, the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, the Oklahoma City Bombing, and so much more?)
Politics are why people identify so strongly with Islam in much of the Middle East.
Britain, the United States, and to some degree, France, have all spent the last century engaged in colonial and neocolonial endeavors in the Middle East. The sense that foreign powers with foreign cultures want to destroy their culture is why so many people in this region identify so strongly with Islam. As the world is foisted, mostly unwillingly, into global capitalism and Americanization, Islam is one of the few things people feel they can hold onto. Part of what makes them who they are. Our constant incursions into these countries only strengthens the idea that we are trying to destroy the culture there, which means people are only going to cling to their religion and traditions even more strongly. The mega-churches in the United States and all the born-agains that gave us eight years of Bush are part of the same worldwide trend of people seeing their traditional ways of life evaporate into thin air, as the market consumes everything around us, communication advances put us all into instant contact with each other, and advertising finds ever-more perverse ways to invade our private lives and mental space.
The Middle East is a volatile part of the world that has literally been at war since the Ottoman Empire collapsed a hundred years ago, largely due to foreign intervention. The only hope for that region is for us to leave it alone. If the threat of Climate Change isn’t enough on its own, this is a perfectly good reason for us to be working toward kicking our dependency on fossil fuels. Then we will have less stake in keeping that part of the world unstable. If we want democracy and liberal thought to take a foothold in the Middle East, then we need to step back and allow those things to develop. Supplying weapons to the military dictatorship in Egypt is another example of our government’s policies insuring that North Africa and the Middle East won’t be able to advance politically and economically. Turning Israel into a regional nuclear power while supplying them with weapons to continue their varied human rights abuses, so that a country full of European Jews can continue living in a desert stolen from Palestinians, when London and Washington decided they needed a strong military ally in the Middle East after WWII, is yet another example of political and economic problems caused by the United States and Europe keeping that region unstable. (Maher tends to gloss over Israel’s atrocities, supporting their apartheid state, despite the fact that they are a government founded on a particular religion, that actively oppresses dissent and free speech within their own borders, and operates on a religious caste system.)
Dictatorships often use religion as a form of PR, regardless of the religion. Maher likes to hammer the “Muslim World” for supporting “theocracy.” Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany, and Franco’s Spain were all notorious dictatorships that used Catholic rhetoric to gain the support of the population, just like many of the genocidal (and US-supported) dictatorships in Latin America during the 70s and 80s. Was this because the people in these countries were Catholic, or was it because dictators will use whatever they can to maintain power, and religion happens to be an effective tool for doing just that?
Finally, only 20% of the world’s Muslims live in the Middle East. That’s right, way less than half. When people like Maher talk about the “Muslim World,” they tend to omit this fact. Most Muslims are not Arab or Persian. Equating a volatile political situation with a religion is bigoted and stupid, as Reza Aslan points out in the video below. The ignorance of the people interviewing him is astounding and, unfortunately, represents the way a lot of Americans see the Middle East and the larger “Muslim World.” You hear the interviewers suggest that violence against women in Pakistan is somehow related to Islam, when violence against women in India is just as much of an epidemic, yet they are a largely Hindu country. Maybe there’s a cultural issue that those two countries (which used to be the same country) have to solve, but it is unlikely that Pakistanis do it because of Islam, because then what would lead Indian Hindus to do the same things?
Putting people into categories, and declaring that certain groups are more “evolved” than others, is risky territory and it allows us to continue to kill thousands upon thousands of people without a second thought. Because all those people we are bombing are just lunatics anyway, since they’re Muslim, and not cool-minded Christians, Jews and atheists, like us. Maher likes to talk about polls of the Muslim world, where people supposedly support violence against the West. Well, how often do our polls show us perfectly willing to bomb their countries? And the difference is, we actually do it. All the time. It is rare for a Muslim to actually go through with attacking Westerners, but the West murders Muslims with a frightening consistency.