Ben Affleck, White Knights and Islamophobia

Bill Maher, Ben Affleck, Reza Aslan, and Sam Harris go into a bar. And they all raise a toast to Malala Yousafzai. This should tell us just how they would ‘do’ Islam.  Those who have been laid up with the viral video of Bill and Ben might be surprised to find these opponents put on the same side.

Bill Maher says he is a liberal. Ben Affleck says he is a liberal. Both have taken conservatively safe and sorry positions. This is how liberalism pans out, especially when faced with uncomfortable ideas about Islam. What appears to be a true-blue battle against stereotypes is in fact a reiteration of them, with a self-pat as bonus.

It makes for a good story. With a moral. In this excruciating episode of everybody and their rubbed Islam genies the essence is about the nice guys winning. Maher wants to save the world from the “mafia”. Affleck wants to save the world from bad Muslims by quoting without quotes the good Muslims. It looks like a duel when Ben is actually akin to the matador in a china shop who reaches there after the bull. Get the picture? His red rag contribution has been enshrined in the two words “gross” and “racist” as his boots crunch the fragile porcelain underfoot.

“Jesus,” he cries in frustration when Sam Harris says, “Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas”.  Sure, it is an exclamation, but imagine the delicious possibility of it being an evocation. In fact, Affleck’s new role as messiah is essentially about getting rid of the collective fear of xenophobia.

Maher is easy to deal with (“They will f*cking kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture, or write the wrong book.”); we know what he is saying even if we may not agree. He is not cherry picking. Affleck is, and it is a disingenuous position if not vile. 

Nothing screams out white privilege with as much force as two white men fighting for ideological rights over those not white. Here white is not just colour; it is the varnished vantage of the chosen ones.  A Hollywood actor is called a “Caliphate crusader” because he chooses a random eraser to wipe out anything negative about Islam. Vacant spaces have a tendency to get filled with perception and perfidy.

* * *

Lisa Carol Roche knows what works. She was stealing sunglasses and other such trinkety stuff from the cars parked outside her children's school in Mississippi when the police caught her in the act. Thieves are known to use imaginative excuses. Lisa did use her imagination, but it was based on the fantasy pragmatism that America is famous for. She told the cops she was searching for ISIS terrorists.

The Independent that picked up the story from a local news outlet ended its report by stating that the ISIS has “threatened retribution on the US for conducting airstrikes”. This makes it appear as though Ms. Roche could possibly have a valid reason for the excuse. Because, you see, she is a mother of young kids, a regular white mom who occasionally gets into a scrap with the legal authorities, but she is civic minded, perhaps even feels threatened.

This is not the stuff that either Maher or Affleck is interested in. Her government has told her that the ISIS is on its way.  If we are to use the theft analogy, then isn’t that what many western powers are doing by employing the ruse of terror threats? Why don’t these caregivers of Islam deal with the source of Islamophobia rather than fitting a halo on their heads while sparring with a comedian?

* * *

When Affleck tells Maher, “You guys are saying, if you want to be liberal, believe in liberal principles. Like, we are endowed by our forefathers with inalienable rights, all men are created equal”, he forgets he is there because of this inalienable right and because there is no Muslim who will be considered a saviour for merely spitting out “gross”.

It segues into a challenge

“Hold on – are you the person who officially understands the codified doctrine of Islam? It’s gross and racist. It’s like saying, ‘Oh, you shifty Jew!’ Your argument is, ‘You know, black people, they shoot each other.’…How about more than a billion people who aren’t fanatical, who don’t punish women, who just want to go to school, have some sandwiches, pray five times a day, and don’t do any of the things you’re saying of all Muslims. It’s stereotyping.”

In the negation lies the confirmation. Affleck has fanatical fans, so Islam may have them too. Do you mind, eh? These over billion people who do not punish women, would they include the actor’s chums in their starry chambers? Some people pray five times a day and that includes extremists. The going to school and having sandwiches as Muslims is too sophomoric even for a McDonalised madrassa.

And how smart is it to bring in the “shifty Jew” reference, when it is clear that shiftiness is nowhere near barbarian, which is the word often used to describe Muslims. The false equivalence – for shifty is no threat – establishes a huge chasm in the badness yardstick.

Bill O'Reilly too joined in

“Mr. Maher is correct on the overall effect Islam is having on the world right now. The truth is many Muslim nations have not confronted Islamic terrorism, have not attacked violence in the name of Allah, and have not even condemned the jihad. There are exceptions to the rule, but they are few.” 

His major peeve is that 3000 people were killed in 9/11 but “Muslim nations” did not ‘call out’ the Al Qaeda. This is churlish more than stupid. Let us see Americans call out the US government, or other countries in the west do so, for the millions who are killed to help usher in democracy.

* * *

This debate has given mainstream media one more opportunity to colonise a faith with some voodoo tricks. The dumb homogeneity inflicted by the pan-Islamist accusers is revived by the neo-liberals with their trick-or-treat manifesto quoting the same Pew Research survey from 2013 about how the “Muslim world” (as opposed to Disneyworld, I suppose) wants Sharia to rule their lives. Pew too pays lib service when it adds how “most Muslims around the world express support for democracy, and most say it is a good thing when others are very free to practice their religion”.

Sharia as rule of law is different from Sharia as article of faith. Placed in tandem, they appear to be on the same plain and negate the “not every Muslim woman cannot drive a car” trope. It also prompts intriguing reactions, such as Dr Zuhdi Jasser of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy who thinks that “Imam Ben Affleck” is “defending the theocrats, the status quo”. Although theocracy is the status quo, theocrats are not the only status quo. Take the #Notinmyname insecure reaction to ISIS that merely created a parallel stereotype of the Muslim penitent on behalf of the sinner. The iterant moderate module is saved for a rainy day, and what should be on Buzzfeed gets on primetime.

Reza Aslan’s appearance on CNN is sold as a slamming of Maher. Last year, he had spent much time trying to explain to Fox TV that he is a scholar, which was bound to leave him exhausted. It is with this feeling of ennui that he lands up on CNN wearing intellectual coat tails to tell Maher that his views are “unsophisticated”. The main thrust of his argument is that the problem with Saudi Arabia is Saudi Arabia’s problem and not Islam’s. This looks rather nice as a calligraphy scrawl on a Hallmark card. While ostensibly clearing the decks of religion as state, he does not address the religion of the state issue that is worrying the blimps. Nations and their dynamics are too complex for those who are brainwashed to fear, so they deal the religion card.

Aslan has a morning after moment when he writes in the New York Times, “Bill Maher is right to condemn religious practices that violate fundamental human rights.” He adds: 

“First, simplistic knee-jerk response among people of faith to dismiss radicals in their midst as “not us” must end. Members of the Islamic State are Muslims for the simple fact that they declare themselves to be so. Dismissing their profession of belief prevents us from dealing honestly with the inherent problems of reconciling religious doctrine with the realities of the modern world. But considering that most of its victims are also Muslims — as are most of the forces fighting and condemning the Islamic State — the group’s self-ascribed Islamic identity cannot be used to make any logical statement about Islam as a global religion.”

There are too many ifs and buts that do not convey any serious engagement with reality. When his book ‘Zealot’ was out and Aslan was asked how he, a Muslim, could write about Jesus, he had felt the need to declare, “I'm in a blissful interfaith marriage with my Christian wife.” In effect, he seeks legitimacy for being and is essentially saying what the West wants to hear by way of fake neutrality.

Columnist Nicholas Kristof who was also there during the Maher Moment writes in NYT, keeping the boys club pennant flying, “I sided with Affleck.” He mentions reformers, among them Malala. This is the stuff you pull out of a hat when you know the audience is expecting a scarf. Malala is just what fits in snugly to take on Islam according to Gap.

Prevaricators are touted as the voice of reason because their assembly line echoes work like a dream for the paranoid parvenu.

© Farzana Versey