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What Bill Maher and ISIS Have in Common

Unfortunately, this is all pretty routine by now: Islam’s critics accuse Muslims of not being liberal enough while Muslims bend over backwards to prove just how liberal and, hence, acceptable they are.


A few weeks ago, Bill Maher joined forces with Sam Harris to go on one of their typical rants about how evil Islam is and how dangerous Muslims are, or, at least, those Muslims who “take their faith seriously.” Nothing surprising or newsworthy there; Maher and Harris’ prejudice against Muslims has been well documented.

What was surprising, however, was the way that many Muslims reacted to the whole incident. Obviously, Muslims rejected the Maher/Harris diatribe against Islam but for all the wrong reasons.

The Good, The Bad …

Despite Ben Affleck’s best efforts, I was uncomfortable watching the segment because ultimately the discussion boiled down to another iteration of the “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim” dichotomy. Both sides agreed that, on one side, there are “good Muslims” that we — the “civilized” world — should support and, on the other side, “bad Muslims” that we should denounce. Both Affleck and Maher implicitly agreed that the good Muslims are those who accept and live by “liberal principles” while bad Muslims reject those same principles.

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Right on cue, Muslim commentators obediently raised their voices in unison, “Don’t worry, we’re the good kind!”


Missed Opportunities

Unfortunately, this is all pretty routine by now: Islam’s critics accuse Muslims of not being liberal enough while Muslims bend over backwards to prove just how liberal and, hence, acceptable they are.

To be perfectly clear, to be “liberal” in this sense means to be committed to liberty as a moral and political value as embodied in ideals such as “freedom for all,” “equal rights,” “universal human rights,” and “democratic representation.” This usage of “liberal” should not be confused with the liberal/conservative, left/right divide in American politics, since, when it comes to freedom, equality, democracy, etc., all politicians — whether left- or right-leaning — subscribe to these values.

Instead of answering to the Bill Mahers of the world, you would think more Muslims would recognize the irony of all this.

Here are my three takeaways from the incident:

1. Must All Peoples of the World Conform to Liberal Dictates?

According to Maher and even Affleck, “good Muslims” abide by the “liberal principles” the rest of the civilized world accepts. As it turns out, Islam does not align 100% with “liberal principles,” which would mean that most Muslims in the world are not “good Muslims.” My question is: So what?

Liberalism is just one isolated moral/political theory originating in seventeenth century Anglo-European political philosophy. Should it not be painfully obvious that a fourteen hundred year old world religion is not going to perfectly coincide with the philosophical musings of a handful of British and French thinkers in the seventeenth century?

So, why is Bill Maher, Sam Harris, or anyone else surprised and indignant about any illiberal-ness inherent to Islam and Islamic Law?

Islam, of course, is not the only illiberal thought system on the market. How about classical Confucianism, historical Jainism, traditional Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Sub-Saharan Fulani Tribal code, or any of the other countless non-liberal, non-modernist moral philosophical outlooks?

Should we expect all these thought systems, philosophies, and religious teachings, spanning billions of people across space and time, to agree with one idiosyncratic vision of moral good known as liberalism? Ought we shun people in the present and vilify people of the past who do not and did not conform to the “liberal principles” the Bill Mahers of the world so passionately preach?

Or, perhaps, the illiberal need to be forcefully “saved” through constant war and occupation, as we have seen and continue to see throughout the Muslim world?

Which leads me to…

2. Why Not Blame Liberalism?

If it is acceptable to blame Islam for the misdeeds of ISIS, why shouldn’t we blame liberalism for all the death and destruction caused by the West’s attempts to “spread freedom and democracy” in the Middle East?

When we consider the history of war, occupation, and state-sponsored repression in the Muslim world over the past two centuries, a significant proportion of it was predicated on “spreading freedom and democracy” to the Muslim peoples, who knew nothing of enlightenment ideals and religious reformation. In other words, Western powers seem to have taken it upon themselves to “educate” and “liberate” Muslim society.

As is exhaustively documented by academics such as Edward Said, historically orientalism provided crude, sensationalized, and, ultimately, racist caricatures of Muslim society that ultimately dehumanized Muslims and, in effect, stoked public support in the West for continued colonization of Muslim lands.

In the past this dehumanization was based on the fact that Muslims were not aligned with “Christian values.” Today the same kind of dehumanization takes place, but instead of misalignment with Christian values, it is non-compliance with liberal values that is the problem.

So, when George W. Bush or Barack Obama talk about the importance of promoting freedom, democracy, and human rights in the Middle East, and the need to dismantle and discredit “Islamists,” they are using the same kind of narrative used by past imperialists wanting to spread Christianity and salvation to “heathen” lands. This is also the narrative used to justify the West’s support of oppressive military dictators in many Arab countries, dictators deemed sufficiently secular and liberal, willing to brutally suppress any kind of populist dissent, especially from Islamist (i.e., non-liberal) quarters. It is also the narrative often used to bolster Western support for Israel, the “only democracy in the Middle East,” against the illiberal Palestinian faction.

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  1. John Howard

    November 3, 2014 at 2:49 AM

    Liberalism is what sets the west up to be what it is. A dynamic group of nations which many of you from the 3rd world have come to. Liberalism has given us the freedoms to do as we want within normal dictates of decency without the rigid morality that most if not all religions demand. Under liberalism our sciences, industry and standards of living have grown in leaps and bounds. Why do tens of millions from the 3 rd world and other areas all flock here? From the arts to the technology we have expanded humanities horizons and at the same time allowed because of this liberalism the right for people to have their religions and beliefs The only proviso I see that is demanded is tolerance of ALL sections of society. That tolerance has often been tested but for all its too human failings it has withstood the attacks from Fascism Communism and now Islamism is trying to do the same. I am not calling all Muslims Islamists but Muslims have to realise that if you want to live here in the west and enjoy we offer then you have to accept Liberalism as the structure of our states. You may say that Muslims are treated badly by western standards but look at what many of your own countries have done to their minorities and ask have you been treated the same?

    • Hyde

      November 3, 2014 at 5:00 PM

      Excuse me Mr. Howard. Allow me to be vulgar for a moment:
      Concerning your “freedoms to do as we want within normal dictates of decency”, a man of 25 could get in trouble for marrying a 17 year old girl, but at 18 she is legally allowed to be become a hardcore porn star ? Absolute freedom is hubris and corruption of the heart.

      • John Howard

        November 16, 2014 at 2:25 AM

        Yes that is totally true but if that is what she wants to do then that is her legal right. I would not be happy if one of my family chose to do so but I and no one else have the right to tell her what too do. We can advise plead what ever but it is her right. Regarding age many muslims marry under age girls not even out of puberty Yemen has one of the highest rates of maternal death and mainly from under age girls. What kind of hubris and corruption is that? Cultural or religious perhaps?

    • Rami Sivan

      January 11, 2015 at 4:02 PM

      A great article. As a proud polytheist I must say I prefer the liberals to the Muslims. Hindus have lived with other religions in peace for thousands of years – the problem is the Abrahamics hate us _ the Quran calls us “the worst of creatures.”. At least the Christian and Jewish liberals and orthodox do not openly declare their hatred for us or activate any verses from their scriptures that call for our massacre. (Quran 9:29 inter alia) As long as both Muslims and Christians leave us alone to worship our gods and nurture our idols we don’t care what they do or believe. Please just be polite to us in public.

  2. Daniel Haqiqatjou

    November 3, 2014 at 3:50 AM

    @John Howard. First of all, I am not from the “3rd world.” I’m from Texas. Second, who made you in charge of deciding on what basis Muslims or anyone else gets to “live here”? How do you know I am not a 10th generation native american with familial origins in North America predating the arrival of European settlers? Maybe *you* have to realize that if *you* want to live here, you have to accept a few native american beliefs. Btw, how well did the Founding Fathers, i.e., the importers of European liberalism to the Americas, treat the natives they “discovered”? Was there a lot of liberal tolerance there, John?

    • John Howard

      November 3, 2014 at 4:00 AM

      First of all I am British and not American and secondly I will NOT apologise as your “argument” applies to me an umpteenth generation Briton whose family goes back as far yours dos in my own land. I don’t want to live in the US I am very content to live in my own country thank you very much. I too have reason to resent others coming who have been here literally 5 minutes by my family origins I have had to accept and tolerate them and their to me some very extrem views. So sunshine put up and shut up like I have had to

      • Daniel Haqiqatjou

        November 3, 2014 at 12:48 PM

        @ John Howard. You missed the point. Non-white, non-liberal cultures and peoples are very much a part of the history of the West. To deny these other cultures and value systems and require that whoever lives in the West abides by whatever you decide, e.g., liberalism, is paternalistic, racist, and, frankly, stupid. Btw, your anglo ancestors 500 years ago had as much inkling as to liberal values as my living room couch. Maybe they should have been deported to the “3rd world.”

        • John Howard

          November 3, 2014 at 7:39 PM

          Paternalistic, racist, and stupid are they? Amazing how in the societies that are liberal is where the most freedoms lie, Paternalistic ? I would have thought that was more with very straight laced societies where the state or powers that be and you can include religion in that sphere would be far more paternalistic after all isn’t that the claim that they know what is best for all? Or as we say here in the UK the common herd. As for racism as I have said many times before under liberal societies minorities are far more protected. As has often been quoted on this web site racism occurs not only in liberal societies but in religious ones as well. Question an Iranian of what he thinks about Arabs as I did recently and see what their reactions are. Liberal societies makes no demand on how you live your life whether you prosletise your faith or how you dress. Can you say the same. Non white and non liberal cultures have existed in liberal societies How much they have contributed to our societies is debatable especially from a closed attitudes to their hosts. The fact that they have survived in our societies says how strong our values are and how confident we are in our values. Yes we have exported them to the 3rd world because they actually work. in civilised societies . Don’t you export your religion to our societies ? Or is your way the only way.
          Finally let’s get back to that favourite of yours – racism ! It always amuses me that when it comes to the nitty gritty racism is the bogey brought up. I have said before and I will say it again Islam is a religion not a race You use racism because frankly you can’t fight the argument and that’s the cowards way.
          With regard to my ancestors from 500 years ago they may have been as you state but their descendants have evolved it would appear yours haven’t

      • Daniel Haqiqatjou

        November 4, 2014 at 12:22 AM

        @John Howard. So the fact that you’ve met some racist Iranians justifies your racist attitude? Brilliant point.

        I’m amused by your claim that you can’t be a racist because Islam is not a race. Yet, you keep mentioning how Muslims are coming into “your country” from the “3rd world” and how it is “debatable” how much “non white and non liberal cultures have contributed to our societies especially from a [sic] closed attitudes to their hosts.” You keep conflating Muslims with the 3rd world, with minorities, as non white, as foreign, etc., and, in the same breath, insist that “Islam is not a race.” It’s hard to tell if you’re a troll or just dense.

        Also, you keep using the word “liberal” and “liberal society” as if you have any idea what those terms mean. If you had actually read the article, you would realize that it’s an academically contested concept. Even fascist revolutions throughout history claimed to be liberal in their pursuit of freedom and equality for all. Even Western governments of 50-70 years ago claimed to be liberal while simultaneously denying blacks basic civil rights. I could go on and on, point you to references, some of which appear in the article itself, but I have a feeling all that will be lost on an exceptionally sharp mind such as yours.

        So, by all means, continue beating your chest about how “liberalism has given us great progress and advancement and you 3rd world Muslims are backwards and better ship up or ship out blah blah blah.”

    • Hyde

      November 3, 2014 at 5:08 PM

      Excellent response and once again this article perfectly captures the essence of the debate itself; something I have been saying since I was in high school WHY do we have to measure up to Western Liberal Ideals anyway ? Why is Reza Aslan Cenk Ugyur and now Affleck consider some sort of heroes because they can differentiate (who gave them the authority)between “good Muslims” and “bad Muslims” ?

      Imagine if you or I were to differentiate between good jew and bad jew ?

      You are quite right right: 150 years ago “we” were too liberal, relaxed and unchristian like, and now we are too fundamentalist, too rigid…either way the baton is swinged by the West ? If it is not this pseudo plight of women or homosexuals now i.e. if they are not gay bars in Gaza, it is worth bombing, then the system is not up to date ? Geneva convention ? How many Pashtuns were present when that was being formed ? Human rights…what about God Given Rights ?

    • M. Mahmud

      November 15, 2014 at 1:41 AM

      Alhamdululah you dished it out like a boss. Good job.

      • John Howard

        November 15, 2014 at 5:44 PM

        It would seem that I can’t repy to the diatribe of Haqiqatjou who I see is a religious fundamentalist which in my mind makes him a fanatic.
        So I will answer him through you as you are on his side it seems.
        He is very quick to try and smear me as a troll or racist but now I see that concern on the part of non Muslims is not to be tolerated in any way and if we don’t aquiensce your demands then woe betide them.
        You keep dwelling on the past as do most fanatics but that is the point of our liberal societies what we were 150 years ago is totally different to what we are today. We have PROGRESSED. We are not stuck in the past with our prejudices to gays coloured people or any other minority we have made laws to protect these groups just as we have to protect religious minorities. After 9/11 and 7/7 in the UK there were no round up of thousands of muslims to be jailed deported or executed in fact our leaders went out of our way to reassure your safety. It appears that has only increased yor beliefs that we liberal societies are weak and deserve what we are being subjected to by the rabid followers of your faith.
        You berate me about 3rd worl muslims and my “racist” attitude towards them How many muslims from the 3rd world have come to the west 50 million 60 million 70 million? Many of these are uneducated and are very intolerant of the liberal attitudes of our cultures Witnes the rise of “honour murders” here in the UK and the USA
        The sarcasm about my mind can used on your fanatical attitude far more than to me. I want to learn about your faith but it appears unless I accept blindingly in total acceptance of your belefs I am a racist and a troll.
        If to continue to keep questionning your religion and its followers including fanatics I am labelled a racist and a troll then so be it I will keep at it. I will not allow my nations values and liberalism to be destroyed by fanatics like you mr Haqiqatjou I love my country warts and all It would appear that many from your faith like wht it has to offer as well

  3. Razan

    November 10, 2014 at 6:01 PM


    Thanks for the great article. However, and I’m hoping that perhaps you can address this in your future writing, there is definitely an increase in non-liberal atheists, who also disagree with this neo-con paradigm and yet still disagree with Islam. One of the points they make is that whilst they disagree with Western imperialism as much as the next person, they don’t belive in replacing it with ‘religious fundamentalism’ as that has its own forms of imperialism. This draws a finer line in our arguments.

    • Daniel Haqiqatjou

      November 18, 2014 at 10:07 AM

      @Razan – From my experience, there are very few non-liberal atheists, especially among the “new atheist” school. Are you seeing this increase in academia or just in public generally? In any case, thanks for the suggestion; inshaAllah I do have posts critiquing atheism in general and secularism coming up.

      • Sandeep

        July 22, 2015 at 4:41 PM

        Just one question Daniel – what is your ideal world?

  4. akash

    January 11, 2015 at 8:46 AM

    “jainism” – i wonder how many jains pick up machine guns and kill people for their faith? very few i doubt.

  5. Pingback: Congress Doesn't Applaud Muslim Tolerance at State of the Union

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  9. RP1

    March 3, 2015 at 4:49 AM

    Liberalism won the moral argument. The article gives the ‘balanced’ view that this still up for debate, which is a huge stretch. If there is any intellectual support for less liberal ideologies, it is at the extreme fringe. There isn’t one Muslim society on this planet that is anywhere near that limit in terms of liberal freedoms. And you’d be hard pressed to name a single society that has transitioned from more to less liberal and made society better off. In fact a number of countries have regressed on this front (Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are prime examples) and are clearly worse off. Nothing you said would cause any moraly sane person to look positively on illiberal attitudes towards homosexuals, women, non-Muslim minorities. So what’s the point?

    Might liberalism have it’s limits? Possibly, but most would disagree. Is there any Muslim country anywhere near that limit? Emphatically, no!

  10. Sandra

    April 11, 2015 at 10:19 AM

    The wests’spreading of freedom and democracy has always been and continues to be a ruse to justify imperialism. a ruse that distracts from the greed of a few that profit from the suffering of the many .

  11. Stephanie

    October 13, 2015 at 1:51 PM

    There is a HUGE ELEPHANT in the room you are ignoring, which explains a fundamental difference between liberalism and Islam. Although there are some ideological, non-rational aspects of liberalism, there are not holy books of liberalism that say what liberalism is and that claim to be the direct word of the god of liberalism and that taking the word of the god of liberalism metaphorically renders one an evil apostate. In fact, the wars you refer to were opposed by every liberal I know, so claiming that liberalism supports those wars is just crazy talk…that was George Bush and the neocons, not liberals AT ALL. I can’t name one liberal I know in real life who was for the Iraq war.

    I am reading the Quran and it literally says to go to war for Islam, that it is the word of god, that taking it anything but literally makes one an evil apostate, that sex slavery of nonbelievers is just fine and dandy, that war and killing in the cause of Islam and dying for Islam is holy and will take one directly to heaven. If liberalism had a written ideology like Islam, I would completely agree with you. But it doesn’t. So you’re being dishonest and unintellectual. Hopefully you’re not doing it to practice Taqiyya (, to cause the spread of the Islam mind virus so that my great grandchildren can be forced to convert or die or become sex slaves, which is pretty much all the options Mohammed would have for an agnostic like me. If that offends you, and I hope it does, then you aren’t a good Muslim because that’s what your holy books say so why be offended by the truth about Islam? You guys get mad when we point out the truth of your religion! Well, if you don’t like the true beliefs put forward in your holy books, why are you Muslim? We who have educated ourselves on Islam are afraid for damn good reasons and when your own holy text say to lie about the beliefs in your religion in order to spread it, and then we see how ignorant most liberals are about Islam due to the misinformation being spread, then of COURSE we get MORE AFRAID. Duh!

    I get that most humans have a need for a religious ideology to help them feel like their life has meaning in the face of the terror of death, having just read “The Denial of Death” by Ernest Becker, GREAT BOOK. But Islam is not a good choice for civilized society to continue to prosper and evolve in a direction that I find at all positive. If I could I would make a vaccine against religion for humans, all religions. I don’t believe I have access to any fundamental truths beyond my ability to observe and interpret the world and I doubt that my evolved human brain is even capable of understanding the fundamental truths of the universe, but human religions all seem so obviously made up by humans to me that I have trouble understanding how anyone can actually really really believe them. But Islam thinks it has the truth and that anyone who doesn’t believe the truth is evil and not really human. There is no golden rule in Islam. For your religion that is clearly made up to control human beings in large societies, spread itself and subjugate the entire world to take over would be a terrible thing for the future of humanity. And those of us who are opening our eyes to this fact will not shut up and let it happen. Sorry. I don’t want my grandchildren to be sex slaves because they won’t subjugate themselves to your made up sky god. And I don’t want any more people to be killed for expressing their free speech rights to criticize your religion in countries founded on the principles of freedom of religion.

    • Ben

      May 9, 2019 at 7:21 PM

      Slavery: A Past and Present Tragedy with Sheikh Omar Suleiman:

      Slavery & Rape in Islamic Law Q&A with Omar Suleiman:

      How Islam abolished pre-Islamic & Western colonial chattel slavery [Abdullah al Andalusi]:


      What is taqiyyah, and who are the people who practise it? In fatwa no. 101272, you said that it is a term that is particular to the Shi‘ah, and that they are the only ones who practise it. But I discussed with some people who said that Ahl as-Sunnah also practise it. Is this true?

      Taqiyyah, in the usual and well-known sense, is one of the basic principles of the Ithna-Ash‘ari Raafidis; Ahl as-Sunnah wa’l-Jamaa‘ah differ from them concerning it and it is something that takes them beyond the boundaries of the straight path of Allah.

      Taqiyyah in their religion means presenting outwardly something that is different from what one believes inwardly, as an act of religious devotion. Thus they attributed lying and deceit to the religion of Allah, wrongfully and out of enmity.

      This corrupt belief has nothing to do with the beliefs (‘aqeedah) of Ahl as-Sunnah. According to Ahl as-Sunnah, lying is one of the attributes of the hypocrites. A person may keep on lying and persist in lying until he is recorded with Allah as a liar. These people tell lies and persist in lying in all things, then they regard that as part of their beliefs and religion.

      The way of Ahl as-Sunnah wa’l-Jamaa‘ah is based on truthfulness and justice; lying is not part of their religion, praise be to Allah.

      The view of the majority of Sunni scholars is that the basic principle concerning taqiyyah is that it is disallowed; it is only permissible in the case of necessity, and is permitted only to the extent that is necessary. Al-Qurtubi said: The basic principle concerning taqiyyah is that it is not permissible unless there is the fear of death, severing of a limb or extreme harm.

  12. Anon

    October 22, 2017 at 7:27 PM

    Beautiful Article! I have read what most of these commentators say and they are all non-sense. Islam is much more a spiritual ideology than it is materialistic which sets the line for desires, wants to needs, and discipline. Thus, creating a line which distincts Islam and liberalism. These “freedoms”, “rights”, “Desires” are all just major issues towards corruption, misery and Depression. We don’t need western culturalism forced upon our throats. If we muslims pay the kuffar these taxes unless we are guaranteed protection from the state, that is all that matters. But in general view, I suggest to travel to an islamic country to really be in faithful-peace. Block off all corruption and follow your faith openly.
    Liberalism is just a step closer to hell. There is only one absolute truth and secularism and Liberalism with all its sins are just two ideologies of the same face.

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