ISIL is not 'Islamic.' No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL's victims have been Muslim. —President Barack Obama
A new issue has penetrated the talking points of pundits and politicians, but this time even partisans are in disagreement.
The central argument is over religious extremism — in Islam in particular— but the role of religious devotion in public life, and what constitutes acceptable religious beliefs, has caused disputes on both the left and the right.
On Monday, conservative commentator and Fox News ratings juggernaut Bill O'Reilly sprang to defend his longtime liberal rival, HBO's Bill Maher, over his views of the culpability of Islam in the expansion of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), a radical sect of Islam that has destabilized Iraq and broadcast horrific beheadings in an effort to terrorize the West.
“The truth is that many Muslim nations have not confronted Islamic terrorism, have not attacked violence in the name of Allah, and have not even condemned the jihad,” O'Reilly said on Monday, echoing much of what Maher argued on his program a few days before.
Maher's assertions have been the cause of much controversy, first after proclaiming on his program that "not only does the Muslim world have something in common with ISIS, it has too much in common with ISIS" and then again after getting into a shouting match with actor (and noted supporter of liberalism) Ben Affleck over similar statements last week.
"We are not bigoted people," Maher told Salon's Elias Isquith in defense of his stance on Islam. "On the contrary, we’re trying to stand up for the principles of liberalism!"
Others have come to the defense of Maher, saying that the fear of political correctness has gotten in the way of solving extremism in the Middle East.
“Reluctance to criticize the failures of other cultures has been a problem within contemporary liberalism,” the Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky wrote on Sunday.
“If ISIS is not Islamic, then the Inquisition was not Catholic, “ the New Republic’s Jerry A. Coyne, an evolutionary biologist, wrote on Sept. 13.
Coyne argues that distinguishing between the acceptability of religious traditions and the fanatical sects that spawn from them is misguided, since following the letter of the law of any religion leads to extremist behavior. The Quran is full of problematic teachings, according to Coyne, so “Why shouldn’t adherents to those views be considered ‘true’ Muslims,” since they are simply faithfully following the teachings given to them.
The problem, according to Maher and Coyne, isn't a small group of religious fanatics, it's the basic teachings of Islam faithfully lived.
Others, however, believe it to be counterproductive, even dangerous, to paint a religion that makes up 23 percent of the world's population with such damning generalizations.
"ISIL is not 'Islamic.' No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL's victims have been Muslim," President Obama said during a press conference on Sept. 10.
“When critiquing something as broad and expansive as a world religion, omitting relevant data and history is almost always inevitable,” H.A. Goodman wrote in the Huffington Post. And overgeneralization, according to Goodman, are what drive the opinions of critics of Islam such as Maher and Coyne.
One of the most heated rebuttals to Maher's claims came from biblical scholar Reza Aslan. In a spirited discussion on CNN in the wake of some of Maher's comments, Aslan argued that prominent critiques of Muslim doctrine aren't actually based on Muslim doctrine at all. He points to the practice of female genital mutilation as an example, stating that it's not an Islamic problem, but an African problem. Many countries in Africa that have Christian majorities also follow the practice, Aslan explained, so the belief that it's simply "Muslim nations" that need to be modernized is shortsighted.
"The problem is that these kinds of conversations that we're having aren't really being had in any kind of legitimate way," he said during his CNN interview. "We're not talking about women in the Muslim world. We're using two or three examples to justify a generalization. That's actually the definition of bigotry.
“Islam doesn't promote violence or peace," he continued. "Islam is just a religion, and like every religion in the world, it depends on what you bring to it. If you're a violent person, your Islam, your Judaism, your Christianity, your Hinduism is going to be violent."