Affleck, Maher battle over Islam
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Affleck, Maher battle over Islam

Opinionated celebrities get into profanity-laced spat on live television on spirited discussion about Muslim world

Ben Affleck was involved in a heated debate about Islamic extremism with political pundit Bill Maher and American author Sam Harris on the live HBO show “Real Time with Bill Maher” last Friday.

The Academy Award-winning actor and filmmaker was one of four guests on Maher’s panel and contended that much of Maher’s and Harris’s criticisms of Islam and its followers were inherently Islamophobic and rooted in racism.

Harris, a noted atheist intellectual who penned a widely publicized piece defending the State of Israel on the grounds of the democratic principles it embodies, slammed Western liberals for not being more vocally critical of perceived wrongdoings in the Muslim world and asserted that it was “intellectually ridiculous” to conflate condemnation with bigotry and Islamophobia.

“You’re saying that Islamophobia is not a real thing?” Affleck retorted. “It’s gross, it’s racist… it’s like saying ‘you’re a shifty Jew.'”

Bill Maher (L) and Sam Harris (R) having a debate on Islam on October 3, 2014. (YouTube screenshot)
Bill Maher (left) and Sam Harris having a debate on Islam, October 3, 2014. (YouTube screenshot)

Maher, an outspoken atheist who frequently denounces religion, clashed with Affleck over the pervasiveness of extremism within Islam and insisted that the Muslim world is awash with violent ideologues with “oppressive” beliefs towards non-Muslims, apostates, women and homosexuals, a notion Affleck strongly rejected.

“How about the more than billion people that aren’t fanatical, who don’t punch women, who just want to go to school, eat some sandwiches [and] pray five times a day,” Affleck stated. “You’re stereotyping… you’re taking all the bad things and you’re painting the whole religion with that same brush.”

Harris defended much of Maher’s contention and, according to data presented by Harris, claimed that 20 percent of Islam’s 1.6 billion worldwide adherents could be labeled as “jihadists” (those who actively use violence against others in the name of Islam and the pursuit of martyrdom) or “Islamists” (those who want to live under theocratic regimes but “are not willing to blow themselves up on a bus”).

The 20-percent figure, which Harris called a conservative estimate, was large enough for both Maher and Harris to maintain that extremism within Islam was more than a phenomenon on the “fringe” of the community.

Maher went on to lambaste Islam and claimed that moderate voices within the Muslim world are regularly silenced: “It’s the only religion that acts like the Mafia, that will f*cking kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book.”

Affleck, who was visibly upset and annoyed by these assertions, called into question Harris’s data and insisted that radical groups such as the Islamic State, which he called ISIS, represented a minority of Muslims globally and was being overblown in the media by talking heads like Maher: “ISIS couldn’t fill an AA ballpark in Charleston, West Virginia, and you make a career [talking about them].”

Journalist Nicholas Kristof discussing Islam on the HBO program Real Time with Bill Maher on October 3, 2014. (YouTube screenshot)
Journalist Nicholas Kristof discussing Islam on the HBO program ‘Real Time with Bill Maher,’ on October 3, 2014. (YouTube screenshot)

Journalist Nicholas Kristof, also a panelist, interjected on behalf of Affleck by arguing that Maher and Harris were painting an “incomplete” picture of Muslims and that they were not acknowledging moderate and self-critical elements of the Muslim world.

Kristof later accused Maher and Harris of pushing racist allegations, stating that their opinions “have a tinge, a little bit, of the way white racists define African-Americans and define blacks [by negative perceptions and individuals] that are not representative [of the larger African-American community].”

Michael Steele, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and an African-American himself, did not comment on Kristof’s comparison, but did say that reformers within Islam are often overlooked by the West.

Although Affleck and Maher spent a large portion of the episode jawing at each other over their disagreements on Muslims, they agreed that the United States could not act as the “world’s police” and combat the spread of jihadist groups like the Islamic State with military-based solutions.

Harris, however, opposed the idea of not confronting the Islamic State on “humanitarian” grounds.

“What you’re saying does not work out well for the Yazidis being starved on the side of a mountain,” Harris claimed. “If you’re going to say we can’t get our hands dirty because it is so inflammatory to have infidels encroach into this space… that only speaks to religious divisiveness.”

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