Maher vs. Aslan: The Real Issue is Language

| October 2, 2014 | 1 Comment

Reza Aslan Vs. Bill Maher Muslims have been hailing “touchdown!” ever since Reza Aslan went on air calling Bill Maher’s arguments “facile” and a pair of CNN Tonight hosts as “stupid.” Maher was grilled for his blanket statement on Muslim nations, throwing out that, “People were not giving enough attention to Islamic violence and oppression.” CNN Tonight hosts Alisyn Camerota and Don Lemon were grilled for equivocating the problems with Saudia Arabia with all “Muslim countries.”

As Cenk Uygur, Host for The Young Turks, (who by the way is hilarious and worth watching regularly) points out: “You don’t know a thing. You’re so uneducated, it’s sad. When you make a blanket statement like that, you’re stepping into a minefield because…it’s not true.”

While I applaud Reza for calling out a media bias, and perhaps unknowingly pointing out the root cause of war, I’m not a hundred percent on board with his argument. Here’s what he got wrong, and more importantly, what everyone has missed completely.


For one, he makes his own blanket assumptions, claiming that female genital mutilation (FGM) is “not an Islamic problem, it’s an African problem.”

Not exactly. Though he’s justified in his marksmen-like use of the short media time you’ve got to puncture the astoundingly deformed argument that FGM is in anyway a part of Islam, it’s certainly not exclusively an “African” problem either. In fact, according to both activist Zainab Khan and, the much-recommended documentary, The Honor Diaries, “In the United States alone, over 200,000 women and girls are at risk yearly for being victims of FGM. The crime is committed by either sending girls overseas or undercover on US soil.”

And yes, Reza is also right about a whopping seven women having been heads of state in Muslim countries, while American still stands at zero. Let us premise that with (1) it’s really telling that we can count the number of female heads of state on two hands, (2) that we still feel the need to count this, and (3) that we shouldn’t care how many women have made it into office; what we need to care about is how many excellent leaders made it into office. There, that number is grim all around.

And yes, many “Muslim countries” are free and open to women…particularly if you’re privileged.

They’re not quite so open if you’re poor and suffer the ill luck of belonging to an uneducated family, by whom the countries’ most primitive laws are applied to with a heavy hand. Even cultural practices are executed as punishment outside of police and judicial authority – and often go unprosecuted.


Still, we can all agree over one thing – and that’s that no one really likes Saudi Arabia. Reza called it out, as did the CNN anchors, along with just about everyone else over the last month when we realized that the atrocities committed by ISIS in one month are regularly committed by our closest ally in the gulf. We can agree that if we define ISIS as extremist, we should also be recognizing House of Saud as extremist.

Hands down, the award for “Most Regressive Society” goes to the Saudis, who despite cloaking themselves in the riches of oil still customarily behead people for sorcery, drug smuggling and other heresies. (Who needs to travel back in time when the Dark Ages, at least by European standards, is a flight away.)

And yes, while America is no saint when it comes to capital punishment, you can be sure heads aren’t rolling over minor if not superstitious offenses. And this is where I’ll sympathize with anchors desperately trying highlight a point: which is, this sort of thing happens in “Muslim countries.”

Aligning himself with Reza, Uygur also contests the point, reminding us that “Indonesia has a much larger population than any Muslim country. Bangladesh has a much larger Muslim population. INDIA has a much larger Muslim population but we don’t have any issues there.”

You could say that the current administration doesn’t currently have a problem with India since it’s not a Muslim country. The rest of us thinking-feeling folk do. We have a problem with their culture and attitudes toward women. Even Indians are sick of how Indians are getting treated. This all comes back to how these problems exist outside of Islam too.

As Uygur goes on to say, “In [Muslim] countries where they do have issues, like Iran, we call them out non-stop. You know that the s*ns of b*tches in the Iranian government the other day executed a guy for heresy – because they said he did ‘innovations’ in Islam?”


While innovations would be considered as a benefit to the West, it’s not considered as a plus in other countries if those innovations are causing much-needed cracks in fossilized religious philosophy. The irony of this is that Islam was formed through innovation, with verses revealed by the prophet over a course of 50 odd years depending on the need at the time. You could even say that Muhammad was the most innovative Muslim, and if we follow his lead in everything else, we should also embrace radical innovation in our own lives.

What we have here isn’t a problem of religion so much as a problem with culture. Where an interpretable faith meets that backward culture, that’s where we have a problem. Despite the fact that Muhammad used Islam to hack into a rigid Arab culture that was in desperate need of reform Islam clearly hasn’t been able to rescue Arabia.

Now you could say yes, look at all the scientific advancement in those Muslim countries. Look at all the wealth and privilege. You could even say that for many life there is easier than life in America – also true.

But when we skip past the premise where in any given Muslim country, you can be arrested, prosecuted, and punished for universal rights such as free speech, then you’ve got a huge crack in your argument against generalization.

And that’s precisely what I think people like Bill Maher and our two CNN Tonight hosts are trying to get across.


Americans are a people with a short history, and that history is ripe with revolution and innovation. It’s a country for which freedom is a relentless pursuit, and even though they’re presently distracted from how quickly these freedoms are becoming little more than ideas, we know that here you can say whatever you damn well please and not be killed for it.

Despite the fact that Americans have almost zero geographical knowledge outside of the States, despite the fact that every time foreign news gets mentioned, they have to first pull out a map, and despite the fact that they generally don’t have a comprehensive understanding of foreign cultures and history (which enables them to clump up a diverse history and people under one neat little label), Americans have long woken up to the fact that something’s not quite right in that part of the world. Everyone knows it; we’re now just arriving at a point where people are saying it too.

If there’s a “thread” across “Muslim countries”, that’s it.

It’s that Muslim countries, whether it’s Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, are great if you’re rich and mute. Not so much if you’re poor and/or want to challenge Islamic doctrine. (Let’s just start with all the people who’ve been killed for blasphemy laws.)


So the fault in Reza’s argument is an argument from fallacy, which assumes that if an argument is flawed, then the conclusion is false. Not so.

Still, can I blame him? Not really.

First, Reza is dead right that we need to be more mindful of our labels. Generalizing countries, religions, and people, is what got us into our first two World Wars – it’s the fault in all of us. Language breeds war when it attributes the whole for the acts of one or a few. In other words – when we confuse individuals with labels we use to identify larger groups.

For example:

(Label) Muslims didn’t attack The World Trade Center on 9/11.

Some members of the (label) Al-Qaeda attacked the Twin Towers on 9/11.
Some of those members were from (label) Taliban.

Members of the Taliban are part of Afghanistan.
But most people in Afghanistan weren’t part of (label) Taliban.

The media talked about 9/11 by identifying one label (Taliban) with a larger label (Afghanistan).
Because we’re used to language manipulation, we were lead to see an entire country as being part of a smaller label.
The result: a nation was leveled for the acts of a few of its rogue members.

Let’s try another one:

Label America hasn’t killed thousands of Muslims in over 390 cover drone wars in the last five years.
A handful of directors under the Obama Administration, have ordered the murder of thousands of people in drone warfare.

So when individuals in the Middle East, chant “Death to [label] America,” what they really should be saying is… [you can fill in the blank. I don’t need the FBI at my door.]
You and I didn’t order the strikes. So why are we being clumped with our leaders under one label?
Because the chanters also conditioned to manipulative language..

And the media is doing it again by equating (label) ISIS is with label (Muslim).
No, (label) ISIS is “Muslim” but not all Muslims are ISIS.

One more:

A Muslim didn’t behead an American journalist
One man, claiming the label ISIS and label Islam, beheaded James Foley, of the label America.


As Reza puts it, we have to look at the “actions of individuals, and societies, and countries,” going on to add that if there’s stoning in Pakistan, it’s a problem for Pakistan.

More specifically, I’d say, if there’s a stoning in Pakistan, it’s a problem for some people in Pakistan.

For me and you, this means having to be, as Uygur says, “Accurate in your criticism. Who are you talking about?” Otherwise you’re committing your own fallacy of composition, which is assuming that something true of a part must be true of a whole.

For example, when you can see the trees rather than the forest, when you can begin to identify the individuals rather than the whole, then you’re less likely to succumb to language manipulation. It will become more difficult for you to destroy a forest because you’re able to recognize the thousand of individual trees in it. Similarly, it will be more difficult for you to demonize an entire faith or nation because of the individuals in it or acting as its directors.


Second, while we’re on the subject of parts for the whole, I for one am tired of being told to “prove myself” as a Muslim. If the hundreds of hours I’ve put into this blog and the research for my book doesn’t prove that I’m not an Islamist, terrorist, or some other dusty hobgoblin of “Muslim” origin, then I don’t know what does.

If I am wrong here, I invite you to correct me. If I’m right then let’s admit something is fundamentally wrong with a faith that doesn’t allow for self-criticism. Let’s also admit there’s a huge crack with language used by the media and by our own directors in office. It’s manipulative and it’s deceitful even if done out of ignorance.

And if we can agree on this, then we can agree we’re not dealing with a problem in “Muslim countries.” We’re dealing with a much bigger problem within the label Islam itself.

This doesn’t mean there’s a problem with all Muslims.
This means there’s a problem with some Muslims because there’s a problem with some aspects of the faith.

It’s a problem that individual people in individual countries are either trying to stabilize or change. You’re either working to hold onto those systems, or working to change them in some small or great way. As we’re seeing, the people in each country are dealing with it in their own way.

And when two or three labels mix, as with religion and state and tribal/ethnic affiliations, things get a little more complicated. It becomes a little more difficult to be so simplistic in your assessment, as we see repeatedly on TV. It’s called lazy journalism.


As a journalist, a reporter, an anchor or host, it should be a little more difficult to sew together a billions people with one thread. That’s not even seeing the trees as one forest; that’s as obtuse as seeing all the forests as one planet. If we thought of it this way, we’d think it absurd to make such a broad generalization. But because the subject matter is a lot more complex, and the work to figure it out that much greater, we accept language manipulation and make sweeping statements.

And when it comes down to that, Reza’s logical fallacy is a small drop compared to the flood of mass media, legislators, politicians, organizations, and countless individuals who assume that because terrorism exists within Islam, then Islam must be a violent faith. If we’re to be a country of free people who relish innovation and revolution, then maybe there needs to be an onus on us to base our wonderfully spirited opinions on a slightly more educated understanding of the world.

Let me help with that:

If terrorism exists within Islam, then Islam has verses that justify for violent interpretation.
All three monotheistic faiths have verses that justify violent interpretation.
Not all 3 faiths are producing violent followers in escalating numbers.
So let’s ask ourselves, “Why is this happening within Islam and what can we do about it?”

If you’re interested in what you can actually do about it, start by sharing this post on your social network and your email list – and add a few lines on why you’re sharing it. Print out a handful of copies and take it to your next spiritual or political meeting. And tell me what you think. You can always email me at editor(at)

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Comments (1)

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  1. Neal says:

    This was an informative read. This is comparable to David Pakman’s video where he took Reza Aslan to task.

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