Fareed Zakaria had Bill Maher searching for words
It is hard to remember Bill Maher being so outclassed in a discussion as he was on today’s Real Time panel. Fareed Zakaria made so many consecutive intelligent points that unlike other guests on the same subject, Bill Maher was unable to interrupt. One must give kudos to Bill Maher however for bringing Fareed Zakaria to the panel after Zakaria intellectually ridiculed the oversimplification and naive interpretation of the state of Islam today by both Maher and Sam Harris in his Washington Post piece “Let’s be honest, Islam has a problem right now”
Bill Maher segued from a discussion about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s possible death sentence to Maher’s recent attacks on Islam. “Which get’s us back to the idea of Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas,” Bill Maher said. “Fareed?”
Fareed Zakaria was ready. “As you know Bill, I have written a lot about the problem in Islam,” Fareed Zakaria said. “In fact I wrote about them well before you were talking about it because I was focused on that stuff.” In other words Bill, you are the new kid on the block.
Zakaria continued. “My problem with the way you approach it is, I don’t think you are going to reform a religion by telling 1.6 billion people — most of whom are just devout people, who get some inspiration from that religion and go about their daily lives — I don’t think you are going to change the religion by saying ‘Your religion is the mother lode of bad ideas. It’s a terrible thing. Shape it up and change it’.”
Bill Maher’s audience busted out in applause for Fareed Zakaria’s statement as he continued. “I think frankly you are going to make a lot of news for yourself and you are going to get a lot of applause lines and joke lines out of it. But if you really want to change those people. If you want to change that religion then what you have to do is push for reform but also with some form of respect for the spiritual values that people take.”
Fareed Zakaria then attempts to teach a form of sophisticated empathy that Bill Maher and many Atheist, Christians, and others lack. “I am not a religious guy. But all I am telling you is that I know that word and if you tell everybody ‘you suck, your religion sucks, clean it up’ then its going to get their backs up against the wall.”
Bill Maher comes back with the generalization of Islam’s intolerance of women and gays. Again Zakaria reminds him that does not apply to the 1.6 billion Muslims. He schools Bill Maher on Indonesia, the largest Muslim country which is also very tolerant of minorities and have been as peaceful as any other country.
Fareed Zakaria then provided the science of the ‘Islam problem’ in a very concise manner. “The biggest problems you have are in pathologically dysfunctional Arab societies which have had forty or fifty years of oppressive dictatorships in which they have driven all dissent into the most extreme places. … You’re not persuading people with what you’re doing. You’re getting applause lines in the West.” Bill Maher took offense to the last statement.
Bill Maher in closing the topic attempted to save face. “Let’s not pretend that the things that ISIS believes are not things that many millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions of Muslims believe around the world.”
Fareed Zakaria had to continue Bills’s education. “To say that hundreds of millions of people believe what ISIS says, you would have a lot more problems than the number of terrorists events you have now.”
After a silly interjection by Bill Maher about hundreds of millions of Muslims believing that death should come to you if you speak ill of the prophet, Zakaria schooled him again. “I grew up in this world. What people feel. They feel like their religion is being insulted. And so if you ask them in a poll. The point is do they go around burning people? Do they go around stoning people in Indonesia, in India? These are places where hundreds of millions of Muslims live.”
Bill Maher could not have won this one. Fareed Zakaria lived in the Muslim world, understands the Muslim world, and analyzes the Muslim world. Bill Maher is just another face jumping into a debate superficially and without empathy. Maher should read the following passages from Zakaria’s article that slammed Maher and Sam Harris’ ignorance.
Harris prides himself on being highly analytical — with a PhD, no less. I learned in graduate school that you can never explain a variable phenomenon with a fixed cause. So, if you are asserting that Islam is inherently violent and intolerant — “the mother lode of bad ideas” — then, since Islam has been around for 14 centuries, we should have seen 14 centuries of this behavior.
The following paragraphs ARE even more telling given that Maher and Harris’ time scope is so short. It is like landing in the Sahara desert and claiming the Earth is dry and barren.
Harris should read Zachary Karabell’s book “Peace Be Upon You: Fourteen Centuries of Muslim, Christian and Jewish Conflict and Cooperation.” What he would discover is that there have been wars but also many centuries of peace. Islam has at times been at the cutting edge of modernity, but like today, it has also been the great laggard. As Karabell explained to me, “If you exclude the last 70 years or so, in general the Islamic world was more tolerant of minorities than the Christian world. That’s why there were more than a million Jews living in the Arab world until the early 1950s — nearly 200,000 in Iraq alone.”
If there were periods when the Islamic world was open, modern, tolerant and peaceful, this suggests that the problem is not in the religion’s essence and that things can change once more. So why is Maher making these comments? I understand that as a public intellectual he feels the need to speak what he sees as the unvarnished truth (though his “truth” is simplified and exaggerated). But surely there is another task for public intellectuals as well — to try to change the world for good.
It is obvious that Bill Maher will not allow himself to be convinced of the truth. He is simply wrong. What is great is Fareed Zakaria got his point across to Bill’s large audienc, those that received tacit approval from Bill Maher to be willful bigots.