It's fine to criticize certain aspects of Islam, but it should be done in the proper context

Questions about IslamIs Islam the most violent modern religion? This question surrounding Islam is complicated for western audiences, but it is still legitimate to ask? We often are given the wrong questions about Islam, so we often conclude with the wrong answers. I believe any religion is worthy of criticism, but we have to give said criticisms proper context.

A recent spat arose between Bill Maher and scholar Reza Aslan, over the question of Islam’s role in the world. An argument that spilled over the following week on Bill’s show between him, Sam Harris and Ben Affleck. As anyone who watches Bill Maher knows, he has very sharp opinions about the Islamic faith and religion in general. When it comes to Islam though, his opinions can cause many liberal viewers to split with him. I believe the debate is necessary, however there needs to be better questions being asked.

In Maher’s case, Bill does seem to miss several points. First, Bill often tends to lump all Muslims together in a way he doesn’t with other religions. second, Bill also tends to frame issues in the Middle East as solely an Islamic problem, without political and external factors.

In Reza Aslan’s case, he tends to say the opposite. Islam has many proportions that can spur radicalization. The radical elements of the religion can’t all be summed up to foreign policy errors. There is an element to the faith that should be scrutinized, but not in the way Maher suggests.

Maher has often stated that “not all religions are the same.” He is correct, to a degree, not all religions in the world are the same. I would never compare a Hindu and a Baptist as the same stock. Yet, Maher often makes his statement to single out Islam and Islam alone as the most violent religion in the world.

While Maher criticizes Christian religious beliefs, he holds this vain idea that Christianity has inherently transformed into a pacified faith not worthy of serious fear, while Islam is a threat to world peace. Maher claims that Islam breeds more violence, but still he fails to see the context. Islam and Christianity are very close, it just depends where you look.

The reason why Christians are not acting in ways that our Muslim counterparts are in certain countries is a lack of secular governments. Some Muslim countries, like Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey have secular governments. They do not impose harsh Sharia law, there woman are largely free and there is very little religious violence. Nations like Saudi Arabia however lack a clear separation of religious institutions and government. This type of country breeds the extremism Maher refers to.

Questions about IslamChristianity in the Western world today is under the auspices of secular governments who do not permit religious laws to rule the population. The reason the US and Europe doesn’t burn witches at the stake anymore is because the governments of today have separated the religious institutions (for the most part) from holding major power. This doesn’t mean that Christianity doesn’t breed extremism, it simply means that those extremists are largely kept in check from seizing political power.

Christian nations that lack clearly defined separation of religion and state breed extremists like Muslim countries. In Uganda, for example, recent attempts at making homosexuality a death sentence reveals an issue of extremism in a Christian nation. This same nation also bred the notorious LRA, who, by all accounts, are the Christian equivalent of ISIS. In Nigeria, parts of the country that are Christian have engaged in witch-hunts, including persecuting children, with intentions of killing them.

These are the effects of what Christianity can produce when left unchecked in society, much like Islam. The problem with certain Muslim countries is not the faith, but with the faith dominating public life. Secular mechanisms keep religious extremism in check. Thanks to democracy and secularism, there is no real Christian theocracy to speak of in the western world. Muslim countries that lack these two important ingredients will always be a hotbed for extremism. It is here that Muslims must find solutions and it starts with places Saudi Arabia.

None of this affirms Islam as the sole source of religious violence, but it also means that any criticisms we hold be made from the view of secular discourse. This also means that Islam is not the sole religion worthy of criticism and ridicule. When it comes to Islam, asking a question doesn’t confirm a point of view.


  1. I have no respect for religion, what so ever.
    It’s stupid, it’s always been stupid, it’s time we moved on.
    Once upon a time it was used to explain things we did not understand, that is no longer the case.
    If, however, religion is the only reason that you can find to be a decent human being, you need to be in church every Goddamned day……

  2. Allow me to suggest that, given your interest in matters religious and theological, you spend some immersion time in studies that will take you a bit deeper into the functional dynamics of both the religious and the theological. While I often appreciate the points you seem to want to make per these matters (even when I disagree with them, which happens with relative frequency), I find your treatment of “religion” and “theology” to be, in general, dismaying in its lack of depth and naive in its failure to understand the innumerable historical, sociological, psychological and phenomenological layers and textures and finely-detailed nuances that are not only part of every religious tradition but also part and parcel of both religion and theology in general.

    A good place to start would be ancient cave drawings, given that both religion and theology are as old as the communal life of those who walk upright and have opposable digits.

    The efforts of contemporary commentators to do a reductionist dance around the fires of religious systems both general and particular is amusing, frustrating and, in the end, potentially dangerous. It is only by a dynamic and functional understanding of how religion/theology has operated and does operate within both the individual and his/her particular community that a rich, helpful perspective can be achieved per any religious or seemingly religious—important distinction!—movement. And, in the absence of a rich, helpful perspective, well, you get abysmal conversations such as was had on Maher’s show. And, quite frankly, you get the generalized-to-the-point-of-indifferent commentaries unfortunately represented by this particular column.

    I’m not asking you to become either a religious scholar or theologian. But, given the socio-dynamic fact that religion has never been far away from any spot whereupon homo sapiens gathered or gather, I’m asking you to take it seriously enough to dive a little deeper. Like it or not, it has been an ordering principle of human thought, society and culture since the beginning and it will continue to be long after you and I have returned to the dust from whence we came, so to speak. Which means it both demands and deserves a degree of scholarly respect.

    • To start, I should make it clear that I am a agnostic non-theist, so I don’t really believe in any of the major religions as literal truths (or even figurative). While I understand your background in philosophy and theology, realize that my lack of depth on the theological questions perhaps comes from my lack of belief in the scriptures themselves. I have read the bible and parts of the koran (I’ve also grown interested in Bagavad-Gita lately), yet ultimately I read them as sources of mythology rather than spiritual truths about the world we live in. That is the primary reason I come off the way I do about religion. I don’t believe in granting automatic reverence to a religion simply because lots of people believe in it. Respect is something to be earned, not demanded.

      Granted, yes I understand the layered history that religion has had on humanity. Being as Literature and History are my main sources of study, I can speak confidently that religion has played many dynamic roles. However, that does not bring me to the conclusion that religion is still ultimately a “good” force in the world, as it proves to be very volatile. While religion feeds people in need, it also spawns groups who desire the creation of barbaric societies based on texts and mythologies written by people who thought the world was created in seven days, bats were birds, and that witchcraft caused disease. While these texts can be useful as literature and give glimpses into the beliefs of the human past, I am among those who believe we should no longer hold religion in this exclusive status if protection and reverence. It should be scrutinized just as any other belief system is, though it should be criticized for the right reasons and under proper context.

      Perhaps this explains my perspective better. I don’t speak in deep respect of religion, because I myself don’t have one, and personally don’t believe it deserves a pedestal of respect when compared to any other system of belief. We would criticize irrational political views, why not religious ones? That doesn’t mean I believe religious people are not worthy of respect, it means the idea of religion doesn’t grant automatic respect. Just because the religion exists and people believe it does not mean the belief is immune from rational criticism.

      • Well-said. However, having a “deep respect” for religion in general does not require a person to either “have one” or place a particular religion or religion in general on “a pedestal of respect.” To me, it simply means that one acknowledges the near universality of religion as, for better or worse, a formative and, on occasion, determinative factor in the ordering of individual, societal and cultural thinking and acting.

        Example? One cannot understand the societal and cultural history—and, for that matter, present—of the deep south and my own home state of South Carolina without seeing that history through the lens of its religious peculiarities. That certainly doesn’t require putting religion on a pedestal or even respecting it per se—many of those “religious peculiarities” are deserving of nothing more than disdain. But I think it does require that one “respect,” so to speak, its role in the development of the American south.

        At any rate, your reply was well-stated and appreciated. Disagree we might, but I doubt that, in the end, our respective conclusions are very far apart.

  3. Thank you for this insightful article. I am a SECULARIST …. BUT I am a Muslim. What we do not understand is that we can be religious YET secularist. Secularism NEVER condemned Belief. In fact it invigorates your own belief PLUS respects other beliefs. IF Muslims would follow their Prophet, whom we (the muslims) seem to REVERE SO MUCH, WE would be LOOKED up to as he (the Prophet, like ALL other Prophets before him) wanted to bring Social Change in Society but unfortunately AS SOON AS his eyes closed, WE muslims went BACK to Tribalism and THAT is where the problem lies. Just my two cents worth.

Leave a Comment