home Human Rights, Middle East, North America, Religion Ben Affleck vs. Bill Maher / Sam Harris: A Debate Rages For the Core of Islam

Ben Affleck vs. Bill Maher / Sam Harris: A Debate Rages For the Core of Islam

There are moments to remember on social media. And this was one of them. The passion of Ben Affleck resonating with millions of Muslims and liberals the world over. The calm, calculated “logic” of Harris and Maher pleased some but by and large infuriated many, many more.

The debate struck a note primarily because it captured a debate that is the stuff of dinner conversations pretty much everywhere you go. The madness of ISIS has not only shocked humanity, but it has forced Muslims and non-Muslims to ponder publicly the core of Islam. How could these thousands upon thousands of so-called Jihadis from Iraq, Libya, Syria, United Kingdom, United States and scores of other countries converge on Syria and Iraq to wage a war that can rightfully claim its place amongst the most disgraceful and disturbing in history? What drives young men to pick up a rifle or a knife and mercilessly kill innocent men and women on the streets of Raqqa? What turns a middle class teenager from London into a murdering and raping machine?

In a nutshell, Maher and Harris are saying Islam is the cause. That Islam is full of texts and strands of thought that support this type of behavior. That there are scores of text in Islamic theology that support this behavior. Harris: Islam is the “mother lode of bad ideas”. Maher: Islam is the “only religion that acts like the mafia.”

Cue Ben Affleck and literally hundreds of millions of outraged people and Muslims who practice and believe in an Islam which they believe condones none of this barbaric behavior,. And 120 scholars of Islam come to the defense of the religion. Picking a fight with ISIS text by text, word by word. And all over the Islamic world, a debate is raging. People are less scared to discuss this in public. What’s behind ISIS? Are moderate Muslims (I would say true Muslims) doing enough to counter this insanity?

We paste below a number of links from both sides of the raging debate. It’s important to have a clear conversation in this regard. But before I leave you to the raw material, let me say this:

I side with Ben Affleck. I do so as a liberal and a Muslim, but not from a standpoint of religious pride. I do so because I believe to the absolute core of my being that ISIS and all forms of extremist Islam like them are alien to Islam.

I reject Maher and Harris’s arguments completely because Islam cannot be studied and judged without any regard to historical context. Yes, there are some debatable precedents and incidents in Islamic history. But the plain fact is that absolutely none of the Islamic empires, whether at the time of the prophet or thereafter, committed anything remotely close to the barbaric acts of ISIS. If the immediate disciples of the prophet and their descendants built states where Christians, Jews and people of all faiths were not only respected but protected more than anywhere else in the world, then how on earth can anyone infer that ISIS are rooted in anything based on true Islamic theology? ISIS are an aberration and a deviation of Islam that is criminal to say the least.

I side with all those Muslims who believe in and practice an Islam that is tolerant, kind, charitable, spiritual, giving. An Islam that focuses on helping the poor and fighting injustice. An Islam that encourages you to observe your behavior before judging that of others. An Islam that encourages each individual to find his own path towards the understanding of the religion.

I side with an Islam where the Ottoman Empire (the last Islamic state per se) became one of the few sanctuaries in the world for Jews escaping the wrath of racism in Europe (and a Jewish community still thrives in Istanbul).

I side with an Islam where Omar Bin Khattab (second Muslim ruler after the prophet) refused to pray in a Church out of respect for the Christian faith and for fear it will be turned into a mosque.

I side with an Islam that built cities in Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo and Seville that were bastions of tolerance at a time of darkness throughout Europe.

I side with Affleck because I believe no religion can survive the misguided and coded nitpicking of analysts like Maher and Harris. Will the texts of Judaism pass the test? Will all the barbaric acts committed in the name of Christianity pass the test?

Yes, the contemporary interpretation of Islam raises major issues. And it’s not just a matter of ISIS. We are at a time in Islamic history where the prevailing theology practiced around Islam is one that is focused on appearances and pretenses as opposed to the core and true message of Islam. Islam must be reclaimed. We must go back to the roots of the religion and the deeper message that the Prophet brought to humanity and what his closest friends and disciples did in the name of Islam. And we must see that in its true historic context. We must face the demons that ISIS have unleashed openly and clearly. We must dissect the texts that ISIS and co say they are relying on and refute their arguments with passion and in the most public of manners.

Finally, Affleck is absolutely right because the way Maher and co present the issues is such that you cannot escape from the conclusion that they are condemning all Muslims. It is difficult to see where they are taking the logic. If someone comes along and says Judaism is the mother ship of terrible ideas, is that not an indictment of Jews? Or at least let us say there is a very thin line between this kind of bombastic indictment of a doctrine and the indictment of a people. What does the average viewer think when he or she hears the holistic arguments of Maher and Harris?

Let the conversation begin:

(Note: These links aim to provide an overview of the views that are being expressed around this issue. They do not represent the views of the author)


1. The Debate


2. Harris’s response

3. Muslim Scholars respond to ISIS (and again here)

4. Moderate Muslim / Liberal voices –

Omar Ghobash

Dean Obeidallah

5. Views Against Maher and Harris

6. Views in defense of Maher and Harris

Photo by Rudy Herman, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

One thought on “Ben Affleck vs. Bill Maher / Sam Harris: A Debate Rages For the Core of Islam

  1. Lack of empathy by males is the primary reason for many of the world’s problems. This means that any theological document purporting to be the word of God that advocates violence and discrimination makes it easy for the least empathetic men to use violence to spread their ideology. If the Quran was in fact the word of god rather than a conquest manifesto of a slave owning warlord I have no doubt that respect for the rigts of others would its prime directive and only those that engage in violence would be destined for hell.It is my fervent hope that Islam will undergo a separation of religion and state before the extremists drag the moderates to adopt their ideology like happened in Nazi Germany.

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