Sun, Jun

Why Ben Affleck Is Right, Bill Maher Is Wrong, and Sam Harris Is Jaded About Islam


FOR THE RECORD-This week's Real Time witnessed a heated debate about Islam. A quick glimpse of the opposing viewpoints can be found in the following transcript from Real Clear Politics, but it's best to simply view the debate in order to get an accurate understanding of the discussion. 

For the record, I think Bill Maher is a comedic genius (his social commentary is brilliant) and Sam Harris is a thought provoking and important philosopher. However, both Maher and Harris are on the wrong side of history with this issue, primarily because when critiquing something as broad and expansive as a world religion, omitting relevant data and history is almost always inevitable. There are several reasons why Ben Affleck and Nicholas Kristof are right, and both Bill Maher and Sam Harris are wrong about the relevance of Islam in fomenting radicalism as well as Islam's role in promoting regional instability. 

The sad reality is that we give hundreds of billions of dollars in weapons to governments in the Middle East who would never allow anyone to "empower the true reformers in the Muslim world to change it," as espoused by Sam Harris. According to Mr. Harris, Islam is "the motherload of bad ideas." 

Therefore, let's assume that it's important to pontificate against the insidious aspects of Islam and let's say Islam today is indeed, to a great extent, evil. Surely, if this is true, then funding governments who don't allow women to drive and behead several people in a day wouldn't be in the interest of the United States, correct? 

Not really. 

According to the Office of The United States Trade Representative, "foreign direct investment in Saudi Arabia was $9.7 billion in 2012, a 17.5 percent increase from 2011." This was the same year that Human Rights Watch published a report stating "Saudi Arabia does not tolerate public worship by adherents of religions other than Islam and systematically discriminates against its religious minorities, in particular Shia and Ismailis (a distinct branch of Shiism)." 

Such hypocrisy goes back a lot further than 2009. A BBC article in 2002 explains that 15 schoolgirls in Saudi Arabia died after, "Saudi Arabia's religious police stopped schoolgirls from leaving a blazing building because they were not wearing correct Islamic dress, according to Saudi newspapers." 

In 2002, the same year religious police locked female students inside a burning building, PBS states that Saudi investors "pulled out more than $100 billion dollars from U.S. institutions." 

U.S. foreign policy also doesn't address the long term consequences of funding regimes that promote extreme views of Islam; a fact of life that contributes to why these ideologies gain a foothold in the region. Owen Jones of The Guardian states that, "To really combat terror, end support for Saudi Arabia." 

As for its complicity in helping foment the religious zealotry utilized by ISIS, The Independent's Patrick Cockburn writes that "Saudi Arabia has created a Frankenstein's monster over which it is rapidly losing control." According to the Cato Institute in a report investigating governments linked to terrorism, "Worst of all, the Saudi monarchy has funded dubious schools and 'charities' throughout the Islamic world" that serve as "hotbeds of anti-Western, and especially, anti-American, indoctrination." 

Echoing this sentiment, the State Department reported that Hamas receives funding from "private benefactors in Saudi Arabia." Finally, according to the 9/11 Commission, Saudi Arabia "was a place where Al Qaeda raised money directly from individuals and through charities" and indicates that "charities with significant Saudi government sponsorship" may have diverted funding to Al Qaeda. 

So, with all these links to regional instability and terrorism, how have the United States and other Western nations reacted to the scourge of fundamentalism and radical Islam? 

In 2010, the U.S. confirmed a $60 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. In 2011, another $30 billion deal was signed. Also, if Sam Harris, Bill Maher, and others are correct and Islam is primarily to blame for the radicalism that exists within its ranks, then why would we empower people who promote such extreme ideology? 

According to the State Department's Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 2002-2009, the scourge of Islam hasn't prevented the West from sending "motherloads" (if we're fond of the adjective) of weapons and armament to the Middle East: 

The four major West European suppliers (France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Italy), as a group, registered a notable increase in their collective share of all arms transfer agreements with developing nations between 2008 and 2009... 

Among the larger valued arms transfer agreements the United States concluded in 2009 with developing nations...

Saudi Arabia was the leading developing world arms purchaser from 2002-2009... 

The total value of all arms transfer agreements with developing nations from 2002-2009 was $262.3 billion (in current dollars). Thus Saudi Arabia alone accounted for 15.2% of all developing-world arms-transfer agreements during these eight years... 


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What geometric representation (he used concentric circles to illustrate his point) would Sam Harris give to the $262 billion in weapons that Western nations sold to governments like Saudi Arbia? After all, these are governments who essentially treat "women as minors" according to Human Rights Watch. Furthermore, when Bill Maher says, "There's a reason why Ayaan Hirsi Ali needs bodyguards 24/7," he fails to mention that a big part of the reason is we prop up regimes who disagree vehemently with Ms. Ali on almost every aspect of life. Terrorists know this geopolitical irony all too well.

We can wallow in self-righteous indignation all we like and harp about the barbarism of beheading videos, but we give hundreds of billions in weapons to an unstable region of the world. This foreign policy significantly overshadows the fact that Islam is interpreted in dangerous ways throughout the Middle East, but alas, we fund everyone from Pakistan to Egypt and Saudi Arabia regardless of the honor killings, egregious human rights abuses, or religious intolerance found in these countries. 

Strategic arms relationships are never hampered by the treatment of homosexuals and women in a region that controls the world's oil supply, nor have they been hampered by the plight of Christians in Egypt; a human rights situation that has continued for years without protest from countries selling weapons. 

When Ben Affleck differentiates the extremists from the overwhelming majority of peaceful Muslims, and when Harris and Maher claim that polls indicate the extreme are a larger part of the overall pie than we think, Affleck's argument is not only stronger, but correlates to the raison d'etre for both the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. Fox and Friends, Bill O'Reilly, and the "us vs. them" media personalities who foment Islamophobia on a daily basis conveniently fail to remember the most critical objective of both wars: bringing democracy to Muslims. 

A Rand report written in 2003 explains that nation building was the primary purpose of our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan: 

In Iraq the United States has taken on a task with a scope comparable to the transformational attempts still under way in Bosnia and Kosovo and a scale comparable only to the earlier U.S. occupations of Germany and Japan... 

The current administration, despite a strong disinclination to engage U.S. armed forces in such activities, has launched two major nation-building enterprises within 18 months. It now seems clear that nation-building is the inescapable responsibility of the world's only superpower. 

If Islam is so inherently evil, then why on Earth did we sacrifice so much trying to bring democracy and freedom to Muslim nations? To have attempted such endeavors must also mean that we've bet a great deal on the belief that the majority of these people are good human beings, or at least that their religion isn't the antithesis of rationality.

Repeating the phrase "radical Islam" a billion times won't change the fact that we sell hundreds of billions of dollars in weapons to governments that promote fundamentalism, thus providing them with a greater base of power to foster these ideologies. This does more to further extremism than anything preached by an imam anywhere in the world. 

To ignore this geopolitical reality, while jumping on the bandwagon blaming a religion for regional instability, inevitably puts the blame on the average person of the Muslim faith who has nothing to do with massive arms transfers, grandiose foreign policy objectives, or blatant hypocrisy by the world's most powerful nations. If Islam is indeed "full of bad ideas," then we legitimize these bad ideas with dangerously counterproductive foreign policy. 

(H.A. Goodman is an author and journalist published in Salon.com, the Jerusalem Post, Chicago Tribune, The Hill's Congress Blog, and other publications. More of H.A. Goodman at hagoodman.com. This opinion piece was posted most recently at HuffingtonPost.com





Vol 12 Issue 81

Pub: Oct 7, 2014

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