Sunday, October 12, 2014

Defeating Bigotry

A 17-year-old Pakistani, along with a 60-year-old Indian activist named Kailash Satyarthi, has just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Malala Yousafzai was honored for her death-defying stand against the regressive and fanatical Taliban and for demanding her rights to modern education and a life of freedom from fear. Her story has given hope to millions of girls like her, not just in Pakistan but around the world. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said of her: “The terrorists showed what frightens them most: a girl with a book.”

Malali’s Nobel should gladden the hearts of most Muslims, particularly in the wake of the fierce debate on Islam and Muslims viewers witnessed on Bill Maher’s "Last Word" TV show on HBO on October 6. Prominent Islamophobes Maher and Sam Harris attacked Islam, essentially declaring that Islam and its adherents were the root of all evil in our times. “Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas,” asserted Mr. Harris. An unbelieving Ben Affleck could only exclaim, “Jesus, it’s an ugly thing to say!”

Thank God for Ben Affleck, the protagonist and director of Argo, the 2012 political thriller about the 1979-1981 Iran hostage crisis. Affleck provided the most spark in the debate with his logic and clarity and for challenging bigotry. He called the views of Maher and Harris on Islam and Muslims “gross” and “racist.” As Harris nonchalantly continued his attack on Islam, Affleck challenged Harris: “Are you the person who understands the officially-codified document of Islam?” Mr. Harris replied, “I am actually well-educated in Islam.”

Well, let’s see. In an interview with Pat Morrison of Los Angeles Times on September 24, Harris was asked what he thought about the “the latest, distressing religion-related headlines … by Islamic State, posing as believers.”
Harris replied, “They're not posing as believers; they are true believers. They truly believe in the letter of the scripture. Everything we see ISIS doing is spelled out in the Koran and the Hadith. The problem is not how to correct the lies of religious extremists; we have to figure out how to divorce Islam from its actual doctrines. Cutting off people's heads is there in the Koran. If it said, "Cut off their legs," we would see ISIS cutting off legs. This is paint-by-number Islam.”
The “well-educated in Islam” neurosurgeon and in-your-face atheist has concluded that the solution to the world’s problems lies in “divorcing Islam from its actual doctrines.” In other words, a good Muslim is, according to Harris, an atheist Muslim, whatever that means.

Forget the breathtaking arrogance of that statement for a moment. But for Harris to claim that he understands Islam, while ignoring the fact that ISIS victims are mostly Muslims, that Muslim nations have joined America in the fight against the terrorists, and that ordinary Muslims and scholars have condemned these killers, is prejudice of the worst sort.
Incidentally, the reason for the interview with LA Times was the publication of Harris’s book, “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.” The title is certainly intriguing, until the reader realizes that Harris found his special brand of spirituality through the drug Ecstasy.

Why, this expert on Islam wants to know, would anyone seek morality and spirituality based on a religion when she or he can so easily get it with just a few tablets of Ecstasy a day? Hence his anger at the government: “The idea that something like Ecstasy is illegal is a travesty.”
Sam Harris probably considers himself the Samuel Taylor Coleridge of our times, a ‘poet’ who discovered his very own Xanadu through a newer edition of opium.
The religious scholar Reza Aslan, a professor at the University of California, Riverside, has had his share of dealing with ignoramuses and bigots on TV. His interviews with FOX News, CNN and Bill Maher, all of which went viral on the Web, have been revealing. His take on Harris is incisive: “With Harris, we are confronted with a completely different issue, which is the idea that anyone can simply become a recognized expert in religion simply by spouting these overly simplistic criticisms of it. Sam Harris, to me, gives atheism a bad name because he comes from a tradition of atheism that is really disconnected from the titans of intellectual, philosophical atheism who gave birth to the modern world. These were experts in religion who, from a position of expertise, criticized religion. Sam Harris is a neuroscientist; he knows as much about religion as I do about neuroscience. The difference is that I don’t go around writing books about neuroscience.”
Equally apt is Reza's conclusion about Maher: “Bill Maher’s usual critique of religion in general has morphed into a real crusade against one religion in particular, Islam, which he has on repeated occasion said is worse than the other religions and not like other religions; other religions are bad, but Islam is far, far worse. And I would say that the other thing that’s a little bit different is that the criticism of Islam has really crossed the line into what can only be described as frank bigotry.”
Coming back to Malala’s Nobel: If Islam is the source of violence, one has to wonder how the Mahers and the Harrises of the world reacted when they heard that a Muslim was recognized with the highest peace award in the world for standing up to the Taliban and blazing a new trail for oppressed adolescent girls everywhere. They probably denounced the award, or rationalized it away by saying the Nobel peace prize was, after all, a political award, or that there were probably a few good Muslims (you can count them on your fingers!) among the 1.6 billion of them, and she just happened to be one who succeeded in divorcing her faith “from its actual doctrines.”
For those of us rejoicing at Malala’s Nobel Peace Prize, which must surely include most of the world’s population, we need to remember that Malala did not happen in a vacuum. Before her, there was a young woman named Mukhtar Mai, also of Pakistan, who was brutally gang-raped by Muslim men in 2002. In the face of death threats, she testified against her attackers, won in the courts and used her settlement money to start schools for girls in remote Pakistani villages. The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, also a guest with Ben Affleck on Bill Maher's HBO show, has been a tireless champion of Mukhtar Mai and did much to bring her inspiring story to the rest of the world.
In towns and villages across the world, there are brave souls, most of them girls, who break free of the cruel practices of patriarchal societies and point the way to a life of freedom and dignity. They are Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, and yes, Muslims, who often have to make the ultimate sacrifice to open the door for others. A few celebrities like Angelina Jolie take up their causes and succeed in shining the spotlight on the plight of the oppressed and the vulnerable. We wouldn’t know it by listening to the Mahers and the Harrises of the world, people who only know how to deal with the currency of bigotry. Far better it would be to join ranks with those who are making a difference in the lives of others and support them in whatever way we can.
No matter how you look at it, it is clear that in terms of benefiting humanity, one Malala is worth more than a million pairs of Bill Maher and Sam Harris.

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