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I pay for my mother’s cable bill for the sole purpose that I can get access to HBO Go. One of my joys of watching HBO is Real Time with Bill Maher, despite his sense of humor that hasn’t changed since the 80’s, and his bizarre opinions on antibiotics, drone strikes, and his recent rant against Islam.

You’ve probably seen this exchange between Ben Affleck and Sam Harris/Bill Maher posted online last week:

Now, despite my displeasure at non-HBO subscribers getting to watch HBO shows, I was really annoyed at Harris/Maher’s continual reliance upon data arguing that Islam is an inherently violent religion, and that Muslims some Muslims are therefore violent.

I’ve read the Koran and the Bible, and both documents are filled with bizarre quotes that can be taken out of context:

Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband’s] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance – [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand. (Sura 4: 34 from Qur’an)
Seems pretty anti-women. How about this:

They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.” Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing.  Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.” (Genesis 19:5-8)

Lot just offered up his daughters to be gang-raped. And he was the GOOD guy in Sodom and Gomorrah.

There are so many examples of violent behavior from every religion (even the good ones, like Hinduism and Buddhism). Reza Aslan had a fantastic soundbite from an otherwise horrible interview showcasing the stupidity of CNN: “If you’re a violent person you’re [religion] is violent.”

Bill Maher and Sam Harris rely on data from Pew asking Muslims whether they believe that people should be whipped or have their hands cut off for theft, stoned for adultery, or killed for leaving Islam. The results, according to Pew, look like this:

They of course cite the 76% of South Asians who wish the death penalty for those who leave Islam (the data actually breaks down into 79% in Afghanistan, 75% in Pakistan, and 43% in the more moderate Bangladesh). Meanwhile 3 regions of the world (Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and Southern-Eastern Europe), comprising about 800 million muslims who all overwhelmingly do not believe that you should execute people who leave Islam.

Often times with these major polling studies, people don’t read the fine print. Another study by Pew shows that in Sub-Saharan Africa (notably omitted from this table that is frequently cited), 64% of respondents DO NOT believe you should execute people who leave Islam.

The most interesting aspect of this poll for Sub-Saharan Africa is the section on religious law, which has the following results:

Christians Muslims
Favor making religious book the law of the land 57.25 58.25
Favor judges using religious beliefs to settle disputes 42.83333333 64.16666667
Favor whipping/cutting off of hands for theft/robbery 21.5 43
Favor stoning adulterers 15.16666667 36.16666667

At face value, this seems pretty bad. While both Christians and Muslims have the same attitude to wanting a theocracy, Muslims overwhelmingly more than Christians want their judges to be religious, hands to be cut off for theft, and adulterers stoned. 

All of this could be spun to make Muslims (and by proxy Islam) out to be a violent religion, but we are viewing this with our own lens of how justice should be mediated. Stoning, and cutting off hands are all aspects of sharia law, particularly a portion of the law, called Hudud. Hudud punishments are fixed, and have been predetermined by God. By answering these questions in the affirmative, the data does not get at what people believe, but rather count the number of people who say “Who am I to question God?”

The US legal tradition originates from canon law, based upon a judicial system of inquisition, which was “improved” upon by the English system of juries and adversarial advocates. This judicial system has evolved over the centuries away from a strict definition of punishments as either “eye for an eye” or the death penalty. So, we may view stoning and chopping off of hands as wrong, but we still perform the death penalty. And not well at that.

While most of the criticisms of Sharia law fall under the Hudud punishments described before, maybe we can take a moment to consider the BENEFITS of being in a country governed by Sharia law.

  • Islam discourages the hoarding of wealth (Sura 9:35). Billionaire CEOs in a Sharia country would be abolished.
  • There is an economic safety net paid for by the zakat (Sura 2:110). People do not have to worry about living in poverty.
  • …OK, look, I’m not here to make the argument that sharia law is GREAT. There are strengths and weaknesses of any legal system.

My point is that we can’t make blanket statements about Muslims being violent because of some polling data that we misinterpreted. The violence we see in Islamic countries does not originate from Islam, it originates from a disenfranchisement of a minority within a country. It is less the religion itself, and rather the roots of this disenfranchisement (be it exploitation of the poor, government oppression, persecution of the minority, or any number of other factors) that are the cause for violence.

As Ben Affleck said (can’t believe I started a sentence this way), Islam is a religion of over a billion people, who each have varying opinions on a lot of issues. To say that Muslims are all “this” or all “that” is coming from a completely misinformed and inarticulate position.

That being said, I’m still kinda annoyed at having to pay for HBO Go and people just posting everything on Youtube. DEATH TO THE INFIDELS!!!*

*If you’re my NSA tracker, I’m just kidding.