By Nicholas Kristof
Oct. 8, 2014
A few days ago, I was on a panel on Bill
Maher’s television show on HBO that became a religious war.
Whether or not Islam itself inspires
conflict, debates about it certainly do. Our conversation degenerated into
something close to a shouting match and went viral on the web. Maher and a
guest, Sam Harris, argued that Islam is dangerous yet gets a pass from
politically correct liberals, while the actor Ben Affleck denounced their
comments as “gross” and “racist.” I sided with Affleck.
After the show ended, we panellists
continued to wrangle on the topic for another hour with the cameras off. Maher
ignited a debate that is rippling onward, so let me offer three points of
First, historically, Islam was not
particularly intolerant, and it initially elevated the status of women. Anybody
looking at the history even of the 20th century would not single out Islam as
the bloodthirsty religion; it was Christian/Nazi/Communist Europe and
Buddhist/Taoist/Hindu/atheist Asia that set records for mass slaughter.
Likewise, it is true that the Quran has
passages hailing violence, but so does the Bible, which recounts God ordering
genocides, such as the one against the Amalekites.
Second, today the Islamic world includes a
strain that truly is disproportionately intolerant and oppressive. Barbarians
in the Islamic State cite their faith as the reason for their monstrous
behaviour — most recently beheading a British aid worker devoted to saving
Muslim lives — and give all Islam a bad name. Moreover, of the 10
bottom-ranking countries in the World Economic Forum’s report on women’s
rights, nine are majority Muslim. In Afghanistan, Jordan and Egypt, more than
three-quarters of Muslims favour the death penalty for Muslims who renounce
their faith, according to a Pew survey.
The persecution of Christians, Ahmadis,
Yazidis, Bahai — and Shiites — is far too common in the Islamic world. We
should speak up about it.
Third, the Islamic world contains
multitudes: It is vast and varied. Yes, almost four out of five Afghans favor
the death penalty for apostasy, but most Muslims say that that is nuts. In
Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, only 16 percent of
Muslims favor such a penalty. In Albania, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan, only 2
percent or fewer Muslims favor it, according to the Pew survey.
Beware of generalizations about any faith
because they sometimes amount to the religious equivalent of racial profiling.
Hinduism contained both Gandhi and the fanatic who assassinated him. The Dalai
Lama today is an extraordinary humanitarian, but the fifth Dalai Lama in 1660
ordered children massacred “like eggs smashed against rocks.”
Christianity encompassed the Rev. Dr.
Martin Luther King Jr. and also the 13th century papal legate who in France
ordered the massacre of 20,000 Cathar men, women and children for heresy,
reportedly saying: Kill them all; God will know his own.
One of my scariest encounters was with mobs
of Javanese Muslims who were beheading people they accused of sorcery and
carrying their heads on pikes. But equally repugnant was the Congo warlord who
styled himself a Pentecostal pastor; while facing charges of war crimes, he invited
me to dinner and said a most pious grace.
The caricature of Islam as a violent and
intolerant religion is horrendously incomplete. Remember that those standing up
to Muslim fanatics are mostly Muslims. In Pakistan, a gang of Muslim men raped
a young Muslim woman named Mukhtar Mai as punishment for a case involving her
brother; after testifying against her attackers and winning in the courts, she
selflessly used the compensation money she received from the government to
start a school for girls in her village. The Taliban gunmen who shot Malala
Yousafzai for advocating for education were Muslims; so was Malala.
Iran has persecuted Christians and Bahais,
but a Muslim lawyer, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, showed enormous courage by
challenging the repression and winning release of a pastor. Dadkhah is now
serving a nine-year prison sentence.
A lawyer friend of mine in Pakistan, Rashid
Rehman, was a great champion of human rights and religious tolerance — and was
assassinated this year by fundamentalists who stormed his office.
Sure, denounce the brutality, sexism and
intolerance that animate the Islamic State and constitute a significant strain
within Islam. But don’t confuse that with all Islam: Heroes like Mukhtar,
Malala, Dadkhah and Rehman also represent an important element.
Let’s not feed Islamophobic bigotry by
highlighting only the horrors while neglecting the diversity of a religion with
1.6 billion adherents — including many who are champions of tolerance,
modernity and human rights. The great divide is not between faiths, but one
between intolerant zealots of any tradition and the large numbers of decent,
peaceful believers likewise found in each tradition.
Maybe that is too complicated to convey in
a TV brawl. But it’s the reality.