In a viral video that just about everyone has seen by now, movie star Ben Affleck butted heads with Bill Maher about radical Islam on the latter’s HBO show. The subject was about those calling attention to the not inconsiderable support that radical Islamists like the terrorists of ISIS get from mainstream Muslims around the world. But what’s interesting about this controversy is not so much the specifics of the conversation but the way it resonated with the public. The uproar seems to show that more than 13 years after 9/11, Americans are now willing to start talking about what’s motivating terrorists.
The crux of the argument was about whether, as Affleck passionately argued, it is racist to say that ISIS’s ideology is backed by a vast number of Muslims. The actor believes this is just prejudice. He believes that instead of calling out the Muslim world for the actions of the terrorists, we should be merely condemning the individuals involved. Like many others on the left who have promoted the myth that America responded to 9/11 with a backlash against Muslims, Affleck seems to imply that the bigger threat to the country comes from the demonization of the faith of 1.5 billion people.
In reply, Maher, ably assisted by author Sam Harris, pointed out that while there are many Muslims who oppose terrorism, the truth is that ISIS’s Islamist beliefs are shared by at least 20 percent of adherents of Islam around the world and many more than that share the same mindset even if they are not eager to don a suicide vest.
Who won? It was not so much that Maher, who is a bitter opponent of all religions, had the better argument as that Affleck had none at all. Used to operating in the liberal echo chamber of Hollywood—which shares many of Maher’s positions on most other issues—he was out of his league when forced to defend an indefensible position. His was an expression of an attitude in which facts that do not conform to leftist prejudices are ignored, not disputed. When confronted with a position that asserted the reality of contemporary Muslim political culture, he simply yelled racism, the ultimate argument decider on the left, and declared the facts unacceptable if not irrelevant.
Yet the point of interest here is not so much that Affleck, who was applauded by liberals for his stance, spoke nonsense or that Mahr had a rare moment of total clarity, but that this sort of discussion struck a nerve throughout the country.
In the aftermath of 9/11 Americans were told ad nauseam that Islam was a religion of peace, a line that has been said as much by Barack Obama as it has by George W. Bush. Indeed, Obama doubled down on this by repeatedly declaring that ISIS is not Islamic, an odd and rather debatable point of theology for an avowed Christian to make.
But in the wake of the latest ISIS murders and the years of atrocities by other Islamist groups such as al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Boko Haram that followed 9/11 many Americans have awakened to the fact that tracing the roots of terror requires us to confront the faith for which these killers fight. It is true that not all Muslims are terrorists and that all people should be judged for their actions not as a member of a group. But the willingness of vast numbers of Muslims to subscribe to a version of Islam that is rooted in hatred of the West, America, and Israel cannot be wished away or edited out of the movie as a politically incorrect fact. Vast numbers, especially in the Third World, not only subscribe to 9/11 truther myths but also support the terrorists’ war on the West. Others are leery about the war but share the religious beliefs that are its underpinning.
To confront these facts is not an act of prejudice or Islamophobia. Nor does it serve to foment hate. Rather, it is part of an effort to support and empower those Muslims who believe that the Islamist approach is abhorrent to them but who are often silenced or intimidated by radicals and their supposedly more moderate fellow travelers. A Muslim world in which radical beliefs are part of the mainstream needs to be reformed from within. This is necessary precisely because it is the not the desire of the West or of sane people anywhere to be at war with all Muslims.
While the shouting that is part of such cable scream fests does not make for an edifying spectacle, it says something about how far we’ve come in our thinking about this subject that a prominent liberal—even a professional provocateur like Maher—is willing to publicly enunciate obvious truths even if it means being called a racist by a popular actor. It can only be hoped that this can be the start of a more rational discussion of Islam and those who use it to justify terror. If not, we will remain locked in the same state of denial about the cause of the problem in which Obama, Affleck, and much of the nation remain trapped.