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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.


Double Standards

Now, it could be argued that American or European foreign policy is not really about spreading freedom and sunshine throughout the world. It could be argued that all the American and European politicians in favor of the 2003 War in Iraq — which extinguished over 500,000 innocent lives and disfigured hundreds of thousands of children — did not really have noble liberal or humanist intentions. It could be argued that when Obama renewed his commitment to drone operations in Afghanistan/Pakistan — a policy that has resulted in the death of hundreds of civilians to date — he is not really concerned about making the Taliban more liberal or making sure little Aminah or Malala gets to go to school and learn how to read.

It could be argued, rather, that the hawkish, war-mongering foreign policies of the US, UK, and others are driven, not by liberal ideology, but by a complex set of geopolitical and corporate interests. That’s fine.

But, that’s not fair.

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When it comes to ISIS, politicians and pundits do not focus on geopolitical or economic factors that could decidedly explain that group’s politics. Rather, commentators do not hesitate to associate ISIS’s actions with the religion of Islam, calling them “Islamic militants,” “Islamic terrorists,” etc., and requiring non-affiliated Muslims around the world to nonetheless denounce and apologize for the existence and actions of ISIS.

Well, if that is fair game, why shouldn’t all the slaughter and destruction due to the continued occupation and attack on Muslim countries be attributed to liberalism? If ISIS acts “in the name of Islam,” why can we not say that Western nations have unleashed all manner of carnage and death in the name of freedom, democracy, human rights, etc.? Why shouldn’t believers of the liberal humanist tradition issue statements and open letters denouncing the brutality committed in their name?

In fact, we would be more than justified in attributing war, occupation, and the propping up of military dictatorships to liberalism because, as various commentators have pointed out, the dominant strains of liberal thought are inherently interventionist and universalizing. The liberal humanist envisions a world where all societies universally live according to Western norms of human rights and freedoms. If bringing about such liberal democratic utopias requires putting sanctions on a nation that results in the deaths of 500,000 of their children, or leveling an entire country with “shock and awe” bombing tactics, or propping up pro-Western, anti-Islamist dictators, etc., then so be it. All that death and destruction are simply the “birth pangs” of democracy.

To be fair, religions like Christianity and Islam are also universalizing, to some extent, in that they strive for universal human salvation. As far as Islam is concerned, however, modern Muslim religious scholars have written at length against offensive wars, as modern warfare inevitably results in the death of innocents and the destruction of property. Groups like ISIS, of course, ignore this scholarly consensus and have no qualms with mass killings and senseless pillaging. But, if history proves anything, neither do liberal Western powers.

3. Muslims Should not Feel Self-Conscious

The fact that Islam does not conform to liberal principles is okay, because liberalism has many well-known conceptual deficiencies.

Over the course of this post, I have claimed that Islam and Islamic Law are not in accord with liberal values of freedom, equality, human rights, etc. Some Muslims might strongly object to this. This is understandable because, given present conditions, it is politically incorrect in the extreme to eschew liberal principles, e.g., freedom, equality, democracy, etc.

But this anxiety is misplaced. As it turns out, liberalism is ripe for critique and deconstruction and this has been happening in academia for quite some time. As numerous Western academics continue to point out, liberal principles are riddled with conceptual ambiguities and contradictions. These insights — truisms, even — that have been percolating in highly specialized academic discussions have yet to trickle down to public discourse.

This is a tragedy.

As far as the Muslim community is concerned, the limitations of liberalism should be well publicized and incessantly reiterated in order to, among other reasons, give Muslims some relief on certain faith-threatening questions. And here we see the hypocrisy of “free thinkers” like Maher and Harris, who wield all manner of academic weapon to critique Islam and Muslims but remain shamefully silent on all the known intellectual and moral shortcomings of their own worldview, in effect taking advantage of the public’s ignorance.

What are these shortcomings? I begin to discuss some of the relevant issues in this article, and, inshaAllah, will go into greater depth in future posts in “The Muslim Skeptic” column. But, if I could give a quick summary, I would say that the central problem of liberalism is that it is ultimately contentless. Ideals like “freedom,” “equality,” and even “human rights” are extremely subjective in that they depend on how one conceptualizes human nature.

For example, many Islamist parties in the Middle East have historically argued that their political platforms proceed from a concern for freedom, equality, and democracy. Fascist, communist, even anarchist political groups in the Americas, Europe, and Asia have always argued that their political commitments are most concordant with the best ideals of human liberty, despite the seemingly significant substantive differences differentiating each group. Even consider different political parties in the US who argue bitterly on a number of topics, yet nonetheless equally claim to be ardent devotees of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

How could all these different groups — each with its own set of political priorities and distinct visions for society and law, priorities and visions that sometimes are mutually exclusive — all legitimately claim to be liberal? The answer that is gaining popularity day-by-day in academic discussions is: freedom, equality, liberty, and human rights are radically subjective and functionally meaningless insofar as they can characterize a sociopolitical system and its laws.

So, of course Muslims should not fret about Islamic Law not being in accord with freedom, equality, human rights, etc., not because Muslims ought to be anti-freedom, anti-equality, anti-happiness freaks, but because, as far as anyone can tell, these ideals are empty, without substantive content, and, hence, unprincipled. So much for Maher’s “liberal principles.”


Despite what Bill Maher may think, liberalism does not have a monopoly on human morality and goodness. In fact, there is much evil that has been committed in the name of liberal humanitarianism.

Ben Affleck touched on this point when he said that America has “killed more Muslims than they’ve killed us by an awful lot […] and somehow we’re exempt from these things because they’re not really a reflection of what we believe in. We did it by accident.” Affleck was being sarcastic, of course, because the West’s historical and continued aggression toward the Middle East is a direct reflection of what many Western leaders and their people believe: That Muslims are hopelessly backwards and desperately need the guiding hand of Western liberators to get their house in order.

If that is what people truly believe, with all the gruesome consequences of war and occupation plain as day, fine. But then don’t turn around and criticize ISIS for its ruthlessness and intolerance. That would be embarrassingly hypocritical.

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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

  6. Pingback: Western verses Islamic Values: So what if they clash? | I Can Haz Khilafah?

  7. Pingback: What is “Islamic”? A Muslim Response to ISIS and The Atlantic -


  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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