LET’S TALK ABOUT SECTS, BABY
On October 3, 2014, Bill Maher, favorite son of the progressive, secular humanist (i.e.
atheist) left, found himself catching some blow back from a relatively unknown actor named Ben
Affleck for Mr. Maher’s position on Islam. Bill was aided in what the internet has called a
“fierce debate”, a “battle”, and a “heated row” by Project Reason co-founder Sam Harris. A
portion of the transcript can be seen here. You can see in the exchange that Affleck fell right
into the PC liberal stereotype that Maher has been so critical of in recent years. Nearly all the
arguments Maher and Harris made were met with derisive accusations of racism and bigotry. While
watching it, I understood the overall points both sides were trying to make, but I found myself
leaning away from Team Affleck by the end of the segment. Reflecting on it now, several weeks later,
I have to say that I’m also leaning away from Team Maher/Harris. It’s pretty clear that the three men (with
occasional contribution from Nicholas Kristof and Michael Steele) were talking past one another
completely. In truth, it was hard to determine if they were all even talking about the same thing.
So, who won?
Nobody—for a finding on the merits, you first have to generally have to agree (or have a
fact finder decide) what the basic facts are. Maher’s central point is that fundamentalism in
Islam runs rampant and that the “moderate Muslim majority” liberals like to talk about so much
really doesn’t exist. Or—if it does exist, it gives way far too easily to the fundamentalists
running the show. Affleck’s response is that it is unfair to mischaracterize 1.6 billion people as
hateful murders for the actions of a small minority. In his piece for the Washington Post
Wonkblog from October 6, Christopher Ingraham points out that the picture surrounding what
Muslims believe about certain practices is quite complex. Citing a Pew poll from 2013,
Ingraham points out that tolerance for some of the more abhorrent practices that pop up in
Islamic populations—honor killings, stoning, killing apostates, etc.—runs higher in Middle
Eastern and South Asia countries. European and former Soviet-block countries generally show
disfavor for these kinds of practices. Doing a deep dive into the numbers and figuring out what
they mean is beyond my pay grade for sure, but when you look at the population demographics
for two countries, some interesting questions arise.
Citing back to the Pew poll, one of the question it asked was “Are Honor Killings
Permissible?” The poll then measured the percentage of Muslims who said it was never justified
when a man or a woman committed an offense. In the survey, Azerbaijan polled the highest;
86% of respondents said that honor killings were never justified when a man committed the
offense—82% for when a woman committed the offense. Afghanistan scored the lowest—only
24% of respondents said that honor killings were never justified when either a man or a woman
committed an offense. These two countries seem to encapsulate the disagreement between
Maher and Affleck fairly well: it does seem too reductive to say that Islam is the problem full
stop, but what else accounts for a country like Afghanistan vis-à-vis honor killings? Afghanistan
boasts an Islamic population of 99.8% (about 86% of whom practice Sunni Islam); Azerbaijan
records an Islamic population of 96% (about 85% of whom practice Shi’a Islam). Afghanistan is
larger country by population—30.55 million to Azerbaijan’s 9.69 million. Both countries have
undergone recent traumas. Azerbaijan suffered through the Nagorno-Karabakh War and military
coups in the early 90s. Afghanistan was torn apart by the Soviets in 1978, the Taliban regime
shortly after the Soviet retreat, and then again by us from 2001 onward. Both countries have
problems with governmental corruption and human rights abuses.
For two countries that have interesting similarities and key differences, it is interesting
that the poll I keep referring to can be so drastic between these two countries. One key
difference, the one I think explains a lot of what’s going on here, is that Afghanistan is organized
as an Islamic republic. Azerbaijan is not.
An Islamic republic is a country organized in such a way that “Islamic law”—shari’ah
(the reason for the quotes will become apparent) is ensconced as the law of the land. Think of
our Constitution containing phrases like “The United States is a Christian nation; only full
immersion baptism shall be practiced by the people”. Stuff like that. Azerbaijan is not. In fact,
two of the lowest scorers on the Pew poll, Pakistan and Iraq, are organized as Islamic republics.
Bangladesh, another lower scorer in the poll, is not currently an Islamic republic—but it only
achieved independence from Pakistan in the 70s. Religious toleration takes time.
Which brings me to my central point. Though I agree with Bill Maher to a large degree
about the harmful effects of religion, I do not agree that Islam is per se violent and leads to
violence necessarily. Well-meaning liberals consistently point out to him the violent history of
Christianity during the reformation. He is correct to retort that Islam is violent today—the
minute Christian preachers start calling for their followers to kill Dutch cartoonists or Salman
Rushdie, he’ll be just as critical. However, violence isn’t a central tenant of Islam—or any
religion for that matter; the problem here is government-sponsored religion.
Leaving aside the more metaphysical problems with religious institutions, it seems fairly
clear to me there are practical and political problems as well. Religions are neither violent nor
non-violent—they exist as frameworks within which violence or non-violence can operate as
necessary. Jesus Christ told his followers to turn the other cheek; we still have anti-choice
zealots willing to kill abortion doctors today. Buddhism maintains a popular veneer of non-
violence; Buddhist extremists have carried out horrific attacks against Muslims and other ethnic
minorities in Burma since the 30s. Are these violent religions or just religions with violent
people? What explains the violence perpetrated on Muslims by Muslims in Syria, Iraq, and
elsewhere around the world? Let’s look to our history for the answer.
The worst instances of sustained violence through the years have come at the hands of, or
as a result of the failure of governments. This isn’t a controversial statement by any means.
Throughout history, the organized government has been the only institution throughout history
with the manpower and the will to inflict immense disaster on populations. Think about
Napoleon, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao.
What is more interesting to me than the practical reality of the force of the State,
though, is the theory behind that force. In his A Letter Concerning Toleration, John Locke
briefly explained a few of the central political philosophies that would be given a more
thorough treatment in his Second Treatise of Government. In the letter Locke distinguished the
government’s power of temporal and corporeal coercion from the spiritual coercion of religious
faith. Simply put, Locke argued that civil government had charge of the present and earthly;
religion had charge of the divine:
Though if infidels were to be converted by force, if those that are
either blind or obstinate were to be drawn off from their errors by
armed soldiers, we know very well that it was much more easy for
Him to do it with armies of heavenly legions than for any son of
the Church, how potent soever, with all his dragoons.
A Letter Concerning Toleration (Locke).
Arguably, the most important aspect of self-government is the consent on which that
government is based. In exchange for the security, stability, and ordered redress of grievances,
we grant the government the power to punish us by restricting our freedom, levying fines, and
even killing us under extreme circumstances. On the other hand (and speaking about classically
liberal governments such as ours), we do not grant religions the same kind of power. No Baptist
minister has the power to keep his congregation in the pews against its will. No Catholic priest
can force his flock to tithe. The power of the church is in the hereafter—encouraging the lending
of spiritual capital on the promise of supernatural dividends. In a society like the United States,
with its strong tradition of separation of church and state, these ideas are not foreign, nor are they
controversial. However, religion is vulnerable to twin destructive flaws when introduced into
the sphere of the government—certainty and impunity.
When acting on the consent of the governed, a State (if it is responsible and non-
totalitarian), must employ due process of law when exacting punishment from the population for
their transgressions; its very legitimacy would be in question otherwise. The process is not
perfect—recognizing the impossibility of complete certainty. Reasonable doubt, anyone?
The Church has no such constraints; in fact, the Church needs none. The population of
the Church is self-selecting. Those who belong are the righteous. Those who do not are the
infidels. Justice and mercy—at least the fundamental questions giving rise to these concepts—
are the province of God. This God is never wrong, is actively working for the benefit of the
community, and brooks no nonsense with the violation of its laws. Imagine that kind of zealotry
in the hands of a government—with its armies!
Of course, this has happened throughout history. Feudal Europe existed as more or less a
collective of theocracies. The Crusades were a brutal exercise of earthly violence divinely
inspired. The Reformation had its share of bloodshed and zeal. The end of the Troubles in
Ireland occurred in my living memory.
But we know this, right. To bring this back to my opening topic, this digression is
exactly the kind of thing that frustrates Bill Maher to no end: criticize Islam as violent, and sappy
liberals will change the subject and wax Herodotus like about the violent past of Christianity.
However, I am not pointing out the problems Christianity had to excuse the problems within
Islam—I’m merely pointing out that we’ve seen this before.
To me, the biggest problem with the mixing of religion and government is that the faith
of religious anesthetizes the consent of the populace. If the population is faithful, and they
believe that sins against God are sins against the society as well, then it is any easy step to
consenting to the use of government power to punish that sin. This, I think, is the desperate
problem of Islam. In countries that are recognized Islamic republics, we see societies that are
consenting to corporeal punishment to assuage divine offenses. It is not that there is something
inherently violent or nefarious about Islam itself—it is that Islam has been allowed to govern.
Bill Maher knows the history of religions dabbling in the halls of earthly power as well as
anyone. I wonder if he would have suggested that Christians were irretrievably violent in 1565
if he had been alive then. I wonder if his critics would have attempted to make the distinction
between the sects of Christianity. It’s not the Lutherans who are violent—it’s those damn
The way Affleck, Maher, and Harris spoke about Islam as a monolithic faith was also
interesting. The most horrific acts of violence seem to be carried out by Sunni Muslims. The
Muslim population in Azerbaijan—corrupt but not as violent as other parts of the Muslim
world—is largely Shi’a. Of course, Iran is primarily Shi’a; so is Hezbollah, the leading political
I equivocate for a reason. The issue of Islamic violence is far more complicated than
Maher, Affleck, and Harris acknowledged in their “debate.” Though groups like ISIS and Al
Qaeda perpetrate horrific acts of violence, they are a drop in the bucket compared to the regular
everyday violence that occurs in countries where Islam is ensconced in the operation of
government. It is not Islam with the violence problem; it is religious governments that are the
Westerners have been saying that Islam has a lot of soul-searching to do for several years
now. This condescension is as unhelpful as is Affleck’s indulgence and Maher’s criticism.
Though fair, the criticism is misplaced. Secular governments are the key to mitigating religious
As Locke said in his Letter:
No peace and security among mankind—let alone common
friendship—can ever exist as long as people think that
governments get their authority from God and that religion is to be
propagated by force of arms.
aka. Blake Lubinus