September 23, 2019

We need a rematch: Maher vs. Affleck vs. Harris

I have one word for Ben Affleck, Sam Harris and Bill Maher: Rematch.

The three of them began an argument on Oct. 10 on HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher” that came to an end when the episode concluded. It needs to continue.

At issue was whether Islam is, in Maher’s view, a hotbed of bad ideas that, “like the Mafia,” eliminates those who cross it. Affleck countered that to argue such a proposition is inherently bigoted.

“It’s gross, it’s racist,” Affleck said. “It’s like saying ‘shifty Jew.’”

Maher, a liberal, said liberals won’t criticize Islam for fear of being accused of Islamophobia. “Every criticism gets confused with bigotry,” he said.

Harris took Maher’s side, though with far more nuance than the format allowed. 

“We’re misled to think that the fundamentalists [in Islam] are the fringe,” he said. Out of a religion of a billion and a half people, Harris said, many millions either support, or accept, fanatical views. By way of example, he quoted a poll that found a majority of Egyptians support the death penalty for heretics.

“We have to be able to criticize bad ideas,” Harris said, “and Islam right now is the mother lode of bad ideas.”

(Also on the show was New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who probably has spent more time in Muslim countries than all the panelists combined. He tried to come to Affleck’s defense but was drowned out. Times columnists do terribly on these shows — they just aren’t bred for the ring.)


The whole debate lasted just a few minutes, onscreen. But man, did it resonate against the constant, gruesome news of Islam Gone Wild: In Iran, the fundamentalist Shiite regime hanged a woman for the crime of defending herself against her rapist. In Iraq the Sunni ISIS lined up dozens of men, women and children from a Sunni tribe they considered disloyal and shot them, one by one. An ISIS militant slit the throat of a hostage British aid worker. And, in a just as disturbing bit of news, it was reported that Tunisia’s nascent and promising democracy produces more recruits for ISIS than any other Arab country. All of which points to the fact that understanding fundamentalism, how ancient texts move through historic cultures and into modern society, is one of the most pressing issues of our time.

Real Time brought into the open this long-overdue debate and did it in a way that shuffled the ideological deck. Affleck/Kristof said you can’t criticize a whole religion for the behavior of a minority. Maher/Harris said it’s not such a minority, and of course you can. This was liberals fighting over how Muslims can have more liberty, including the liberty to criticize Islam.  

Not surprisingly, two of the most thoughtful and unexpected reactions came from Muslims who want more liberty.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Salam Al-Marayati and Maher Hathout, leaders of the Muslim American community in Southern California, took a stand that did what Maher and Harris suggested without directly crediting them.

“We Muslims must liberate ourselves from the shackles of dogmatic traditions such as sectarianism, tribalism, chauvinism and theocracy,” they wrote,  “all of which contradict Islamic ethics based in the Quran and the authenticated traditions of the Prophet Mohammed.”

It was, as David Lehrer points out in these pages, a brave step for any Muslim leader.  As if to (sadly) underscore that point, an ISIS sympathizer shot a Shia community leader in the face outside an Islamic center on Nov. 3  — in Sydney, Australia.  According to eyewitnesses, the attackers shouted, “ISIS lives forever!” before opening fire. Clearly, a lot more is at stake than winning a TV debate. 

The other reaction came from a Muslim Pakistani woman living in Canada, a children’s book author who goes by the name of Eiynah. After publishing a sweet children’s book against homophobia, “My Chacha (Uncle) Is Gay,” Eiynah became the target of numerous death threats. 

“Why are Muslims being ‘preserved’ in some time capsule of centuries gone by?” she wrote in an open letter to Affleck. “Why is it okay that we continue to live in a world where our women are compared to candy waiting to be consumed? Why is it okay for women of the rest of the world to fight for freedom and equality while we are told to cover our shameful bodies? Can’t you see that we are being held back from joining this elite club known as the 21st century?

“Noble liberals like yourself always stand up for the misrepresented Muslims and stand against the Islamophobes, which is great but who stands in my corner and for the others who feel oppressed by the religion? Every time we raise our voices, one of us is killed or threatened.”

The first Affleck/Maher/Harris debate, as these things do, set out the most extreme, sound-bitey positions. Now it’s time to take an hour or so, bring in some actual Muslims, maybe a woman or two, and really hash out the issue. The fact that the debate continues as a source of contention, bitterness and heartfelt pleas means we’re ready for Round 2. 

No, we’re not just ready — we need it.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.