It’s Not About Islam. Just ask ISIS.

Two separate news items regarding Islam came out this week, and though they are not specifically related, there is definitely an important link as far as how Islam is used by terrorists and how it is viewed by Americans.

The first item was a survey from Fox News:

And, while it is not surprising that a conservative news source that has a history of demonizing Muslims and their religion would find that Americans are fearful, it is interesting how the question is phrased.  This is not a question about whether Americans are scared of terrorists, or even specifically of “radical Islamic” terrorists.  Rather, it is a question of whether Americans feel that their “personal way of life” is threatened.

The threat presented by terrorists in general has been greatly exaggerated, at least in terms of attacks on American soil.  And, whether “radical Islamic” terrorism is any greater of a threat than that posed by regular old violent Americans is highly doubtful.  Yet, not only do most Americans fear an attack, they fear that their very way of life is being threatened.

Fear is an often irrational emotion.  People fear things that are very unlikely to harm them—spiders, snakes, enclosed spaces, even speaking in public.  And, while the fear created by these things is very real, that does not mean that the actual danger they pose is.  The same is true of Americans and Islam.  Repeated claims by conservative media, Fox News included, have created a perception that not only should Americans be frightened of “radical Islamic terrorism,” but they should be scared of Islam itself.  They do this by conflating “radical Islam” with the religion as a whole.  But, they are not the same thing.

Quite simply, Islam poses no threat to the American way of life, whatever that is.  Even if we ignore for the moment that Americans, and their respective ways of life, differ greatly based on any number of factors—geography, economic status, race, gender, sexual preference or identity, and, yes, religion—it is easily provable that Islam does not infringe on this in the slightest.  How?  Easy.  Islam is already here.  There are currently over 3 million Muslims in the United States, and that number is growing rapidly.  And, that has not done a thing to threaten the right of all Americans to live however they please.  In fact, it could be argued that Christianity, at least in its more extreme interpretations, is a far greater threat to individual freedoms than Islam is, not because it is any more restrictive, but simply because it is so much more common.  This threat can be seen in the repeated attempts to legislate against abortion or LGBT rights, things that are protected by law but condemned by some Christians (and, to be fair, some Muslims, too).  It could be argued that Christianity and its values are the very “American way of life” that is under threat.  But, this too is incorrect.  The American way of life, at least as laid out by the Constitution, is one in which all citizens are able to choose for themselves how they would like to live.  And, again, Muslims are doing nothing to change this.

Yet, the media has created an atmosphere of fear in which Islam has been determined to be “un-American.”  And, this somehow makes it a threat to whatever is “American.”  However, 3 million Muslims would argue that they, and their way of life, are just as American as anyone else.   But, it is not about Islam, it is about fear.  A fabricated threat of Islam is merely something to be afraid of.  And, this fear, like most others, is completely irrational.

This brings up the second news item about Islam that came out this week, an AP report that ISIS deliberately recruits fighters with little knowledge of Islam.  It found that those with less knowledge of Islam or Shariah (the system of law based on the Quran and Islamic teachings) were much more likely to be radicalized than those with greater knowledge of the religion.

This shows that while terrorism is indeed a threat, there is little correlation between terrorists and Islam.  This is why the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” is a red herring, one that President Obama, among others, has tried to avoid using.  These terrorists are not really Muslims, radical or otherwise.  They are simply violent people using a false interpretation of a religion to justify committing violent acts.

The AP story gives several examples of ISIS-linked terrorists who have little or no knowledge of Islam.  It even quotes a CIA official as saying, “Religion is an afterthought,” and that most of these terrorists are instead, “reaching for a sense of belonging, a sense of notoriety, a sense of excitement.”  Further, the piece cites an Islamic scholar in its determination that ISIS propaganda is “counter to Islamic laws that forbid terrorism, the murder of non-combatants in war, the imposition of Islam on non-Muslims and other criminal activity.”

Again, it is not about Islam, it is about fear.  Terrorism is scary.  ISIS is scary, too.  But, ISIS is not really an Islamic group, and their beliefs do not represent those of all Muslims, any more than the beliefs of the Ku Klux Klan or the Westboro Baptist Church represent those of all Christians.  Fear is a powerful thing.  Religion can be powerful, too.  ISIS has perverted Islam to inspire people to do terrible things.  It is this same perverted view of the religion that Americans are scared of.  But, that is not Islam.  ISIS knows that.  Americans need to know that, too.

 

I Do Not Think That Means What He Thinks It Means – Bill Maher and Free Speech

This is almost old news at this point, but it still bears commenting on.  Bill Maher has no idea what “Freedom of Speech” means.  Like many of the pundits he criticizes, he thinks that anyone choosing not to listen to him is impinging upon his rights, rather than exercising their own.

First, some background:  Bill Maher made some comments on his show, “Real Time with Bill Maher,” disparaging Muslims.  He was joined by fellow atheist and Muslim-basher Sam Harris, and the two proceeded to claim that all Muslims believe the same things that extremist terrorist groups do, and therefore, all Muslims are evil and violent.  His panel (other than Harris) disagreed, with actor Ben Affleck most vocally objecting:

This exchange naturally garnered a lot of media attention, largely due to Affleck’s celebrity, as Maher himself later noted.  But, in reality, this particular argument differed little from Maher’s usual opinions of Islam as a religion and of the Muslims who practice it.  He has regularly demonized them as being violent, ignoring the fact that the terrorist groups he cites as his example represent a minuscule fraction of the entire Muslim population of well over a billion people worldwide.

But, this additional attention to Maher’s views on Muslims led some students at the University of California to petition to cancel a planned appearance by Maher at their winter commencement ceremony.  Of course, Maher was outraged, arguing that this constituted a violation of his freedom of speech:

To defend himself, Maher referenced comments made during a HuffPost Live interview with Reza Aslan, a religious scholar and author.

 “Bill Maher’s not a bigot. I know him,” Aslan said on HuffPost Live.

“If even my most respectable critic who’s a Muslim says this, what leg does this protest have to stand on?” Maher asked during Friday’s episode of “Real Time” on HBO. “He and I disagree on stuff but he’s always welcome on the show. That’s how it’s done, kids!”

Ignoring the ridiculousness of his defense and its similarity to the “some of my best friends are black” defense offered by many accused racists, Maher is missing the larger point.  It doesn’t matter if he’s a bigot or not (though I would argue he is), and it doesn’t matter if his argument is correct or not (though I would argue it isn’t).  What matters is that he is not entitled to speak at a commencement ceremony and the possible retraction of an invitation for him to do so is not a violation of his freedom of speech.

Journalist Rula Jebreal offered a detailed takedown of Maher’s position regarding Muslims on the same episode of his show in which he called out the Berkeley students (and later in an interview with Salon):

But, as convincing as she was, Maher was unfazed.  He continued to argue that the facts were in his favor.  His belief is based largely on a single poll reporting that a majority of Muslims in Arab countries said that execution is a proper punishment for those choosing to leave the religion.  Aside from the flaws in basing an argument on a single poll, it must be recognized that any poll like this is inherently flawed itself.  Just like polling in this country says that most people go to church every week despite evidence to the contrary, it is only natural that a poll about religious belief in countries ruled by extremist Muslim governments would show respondents agreeing with even the most extreme tenets of that religion, whether they actually believe them or not.  Of course, it is entirely possible that most Muslims do in fact think all heathens should be executed, but it’s not very likely.

However, this argument over the validity of Maher’s position misses the larger point.  No one is limiting his freedom of speech.  He has not been silenced or arrested or punished.  On the contrary, he has a television show which allows him to say whatever he would like to an audience of millions.  His opinion is not being muted, it is being amplified.  And, the students at Berkeley have no obligation to offer him yet another venue for disseminating his beliefs.  In fact, they are free to voice their disagreement with him and tell him that he is not welcome.  To paraphrase Maher, that’s how it’s done.

Maher likes to argue in regards to another section of the First Amendment that freedom of religion is also freedom from religion.  The same applies to speech.  Maher is free to say whatever he likes, and everyone else is free not to listen.  I can’t stop him from voicing his opinion, but I don’t have to invite him into my house.  That is how the First Amendment actually works.  But, Maher disagrees:

Maher noted the irony students at Cal wanted to uninvite someone based on comments they made, given that this year is the 50th anniversary of the start of the Free Speech Movement on the Berkeley campus.

“I guess they don’t teach irony in college anymore,” Maher said.

And, apparently, they didn’t teach the First Amendment at Cornell, where Maher studied.