The value of actor Ben Affleck's recent outbursts in defense of Islam on HBO's Real Time is that here, in one 10-minute segment, we have all the leftist/liberal bromides used whenever Islam is criticized.
In what follows, Affleck's main arguments are presented and then discredited.
Relativism and the Islamic Heterogeneity Myth
At the start, when author Sam Harris began making some critical remarks concerning Islam, a visibly agitated Affleck interrupted him by somewhat sarcastically asking, "Are you the person who understands the officially codified doctrine of Islam? You're the interpreter of that?"
Affleck was essentially arguing that really no one is qualified to say what is or is not Islamic, since all Muslims are free to interpret Islam anyway they want. This notion has less to do with how Islam is practiced and more to do with Western relativism, specifically the postmodern belief that there are no "truths," that everything is open to individual expression. Thus even if an Islamic sheikh from Al Azhar University were to tell Affleck that the criticism leveled against Islam were true, the actor would no doubt reply, "Fine, that's your opinion, but I know that most other Muslims disagree."
The fundamental mistake in this position is that it places Muslims on a higher pedestal of authority than Islam itself (even though muslims are by definition "ones who submit" to islam, which is "submission" to Allah's laws). Islam is based on the law, or Sharia — "the way" prescribed by Allah and his prophet. And Sharia most certainly does call for any number of things — subjugation of women and religious minorities, war on "infidels" and the enslavement of their women and children, bans on free speech and apostasy — that even Affleck would normally condemn.
In short, Sunni Islam, which approximately 90% of all Muslims follow, is far from heterogeneous. It has only four recognized schools of jurisprudence, and these agree over the basics, with only minor differences over detail. Even in the other 10% of Islamic sects, most of which are Shia or Shia offshoots, one finds that when it comes to intolerant aspects, they too are in agreement. For example, while all Islamic schools of law prescribe the death penalty for leaving Islam, some argue that female apostates should "only" be imprisoned and beat until they embrace Islam again.
The 'Racism' Card
When Bill Maher, the host of Real Time, asked, "But why can't we talk about this [Islamic issues]?" Affleck shot back with, "Because it's gross, it's racist."
This meme is as common as it is absurd and does not deserve much rebuttal. Suffice to say that Muslims are not a race. There are Muslims of all nations, races, and ethnicities — from sub-Saharan Africans to blonde haired, blue-eyed Europeans. Yet many apologists for Islam, including congressmen and congresswomen, habitually rely on this lie — I won't even deign to call it an "apologetic" — simply because accusing someone of being "racist," in this case, critics of Islam, is one of the surest way of shutting them up.
Conflating Muslim Teachings with Muslim People
At one point, after the other speakers made certain statistical points, Affleck made the following outburst, to much applause: "How about the more than a billion people [Muslims], who aren't fanatical, who don't punish women, who wanna go to school, have some sandwiches, pray five times a day, and don't do any of the things you're saying of all Muslims. It's stereotyping."
Again, Affleck conflates the actions of people — Muslims — with the teachings of a religion — Islam. Going back to the apostasy example, Islamic law clearly teaches that those who abandon Islam — including as the world recently saw, one pregnant Christian woman, Meriam Ibrahim — are to be executed. One can therefore say that Sharia calls for the death of apostates.
But can one say with similar certainty that every single Muslim alive today believes that the apostasy penalty should be upheld? Obviously not. Yet this is not a reflection of Islam; it is a reflection of individual human freedom — a freedom that ironically goes against Islamic teaching.
Nonetheless, this conflation of Islam with Muslims is an all too common approach used to shield the former from criticism. (See this 2007 video where I respond more fully to this question from a concerned reporter.)
Next Affleck argued: "We've killed more Muslims than they've killed us by an awful lot, and we've invaded more Islamic nations."
Aside from essentially suggesting that "two wrongs make a right," his assertions reflect an appalling acquaintance with true history — thanks of course to the ingrained lies emanating from academia, followed by Hollywood and the media.
Reality records a much different story. From its inception, Islam has been a religion hostile to all others. Jihad was its primary tool of expansion.
Consider: A mere decade after the birth of Islam in the seventh century, the jihad burst out of Arabia. Leaving aside all the thousands of miles of ancient lands and civilizations that were permanently conquered, today casually called the "Islamic world" — including Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and parts of India and China — much of Europe was also, at one time or another, conquered by the sword of Islam.
Among other nations and territories that were attacked and/or came under Muslim domination are (to give them their modern names in no particular order): Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Sicily, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Greece, Russia, Poland, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Lithuania, Romania, Albania, Serbia, Armenia, Georgia, Crete, Cyprus, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Belarus, Malta, Sardinia, Moldova, Slovakia, and Montenegro.
In 846 Rome was sacked and the Vatican defiled by Muslim Arab raiders; some 600 years later, in 1453, Christendom's other great basilica, Holy Wisdom (or Hagia Sophia), was conquered by Muslim Turks.
The few European regions that escaped direct Islamic occupation due to their northwest remoteness include Great Britain, Scandinavia, and Germany. That, of course, does not mean that they were not attacked by Islam. Indeed, in the furthest northwest of Europe, in Iceland, Christians used to pray that God save them from the "terror of the Turk." These fears were not unfounded since as late as 1627 Muslim corsairs raided the Christian island seizing four hundred captives, selling them in the slave markets of Algiers.
Nor did America escape. A few years after the formation of the United States, in 1800, American trading ships in the Mediterranean were plundered and their sailors enslaved by Muslim corsairs. The ambassador of Tripoli explained to Thomas Jefferson that it was a Muslim's right and duty to make war upon non-Muslims wherever they could be found, and to enslave as many as they could take as prisoners.
In short, for roughly one millennium — punctuated by a Crusader-rebuttal that people like Affleck are obsessed with demonizing — Islam daily posed an existential threat to Christian Europe and by extension Western civilization.
Yet today, whether as taught in high school or graduate school, whether as portrayed by Hollywood or the news media, the predominant historic narrative is that Muslims are the historic "victims" of "intolerant" Western Christians. That's exactly what a TV personality once told me live on Fox News.
Final Recourse: Justifying the Apologetics
Towards the end, a frustrated Affleck, unable to respond, exclaimed, "What is your solution? To condemn Islam? To do what?"
These are interesting questions in that they reveal the true position of the apologist. I have encountered this phenomenon often, most memorably in a public debate with Columbia professor Hamid Dabashi. Towards the end of the debate, he declared, "You can sit here and talk about jihad from here to doomsday, what will it do? Suppose you prove beyond any shadow of doubt that Islam is constitutionally violent, where do you go from there?"
What this line of reasoning suggests is that the apologist believes there is no other recourse than to be an apologist; that the best policy is to ignore Islam's violence and intolerance, since the alternative — open acknowledgement — will lead to something worse, a clash of civilizations. War. And that must be avoided at all costs — so let us pretend.
What such apologists fail to recognize is that the clash of civilizations is already upon us; and it is not a product of Western "bigotry" but Islamic teaching. Whether we acknowledge it or not, here it is.
The reason apologists can get away (for now) with their reasoning is because the U.S. is ostensibly immune from Islam — so they can spin and pass off feel-good fables about Islam all they want.
Yet all the while, time progresses, Islam keeps marching and gaining ground, until the clash begins anew in earnest, as it did for centuries until Islam was beaten on the battlefield by the West in the modern era. And when the Islamic world is finally in a position to unleash an earnest global jihad, when the "Islamic State" phenomenon appears all around the world — already people are being beheaded by Muslims in America and Europe — posterity will look back with great bitterness at the inaction and naivety of their Western predecessors who might have nipped the problem in the bud if they had only spoken truth — and implemented policies based on truth.
* * * *
And there it is. Whether projecting Western intellectual maladies such as relativism onto Muslim teachings and persons; whether mindlessly crying "racist!" whenever Islamic teachings are criticized; whether confusing the matter by conflating the actions or beliefs of some Muslims with the actual black-and-white teachings of Islam; whether turning history upside its head by turning persecutors into victims and victims into persecutors; or whether, after being backed into a corner, exclaiming that one has no choice but to apologize as true speak will make things worse — in a nutshell, Ben Affleck's few minutes on Islam nicely summed up the Islamic apologetics game.
In the end, of course, Affleck may be excused. He's just a simple actor and not expected to know much outside of the realm of pretense. The truly guilty ones are all those Americans in political positions whose job requires them to be honest with the American people but who continue to act — to lie — about Islam.
Raymond Ibrahim is a Judith Friedman Rosen Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum.