Ben Affleck and Islam: What Happens When Hollywood Gets Political?

Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Hollywood has a tendency to get involved in politics, usually on the liberal side of matters because many in the entertainment world are supporters of Democrats, but not always — you may recall Donald Trump’s hysterical Ebola fear-mongering. Many argue, understandably, that big names in the entertainment business have no right to stick their noses into issues they lack the experience and expertise to fully understand the intricacies of, especially given the way that many in the public tend to take their viewpoint as gospel because of their fame.

In reality, the public has to be responsible for its own education; listening to Bill O’Reilly, a career political correspondent, is arguably no better than asking Justin Bieber what he’d think of a woman president in the United States, and Bieber’s not even American. Celebrities have as much right to an opinion as anyone else, and while fame gives them louder voices, the idea that this demands more responsibility and caution in the message given doesn’t hold up when you consider the unfortunate fact that politicians themselves don’t always do the same. It’s also unfair to assume that because an individual is in the entertainment industry they cannot be well versed on political topics. Ronald Reagen was an actor before he was president after all.

Like anything, celebrity input is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, it sometimes bring a great deal of much needed attention to important issues, for example the ALS ice bucket challenge, various charities, and Emma Watson’s recent speech at the UN on women’s rights. Watson may not have been saying anything that feminists have not already said for years, but her face and name brought additional attention to the issue in a useful and applaudable way. Sometimes the issues aren’t so clear cut, as with Scarlett Johansson’s involvement with SodaStream and Oxfam earlier this year. And sometimes it’s just an additional and sometimes very powerful way to spread misinformation and misunderstanding from sources many trust without question.

Recently, Ben Affleck (Gone Girl) was a guest on Bill Maher’s late night talk show alongside Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and co-founder of Project Reason, political analyst and former-politician Michael Steele, and writer/journalist Nicholas Kristof. On the menu for discussion was one of the more controversial and charged international political issues of late: ISIL and Islam. Affleck was quickly and angrily drawn into the discussion between Maher and Harris, well known for his scathing criticism of religion and his vocal support of secular government. Since then, each side of the debate has been a topic for discussion, and as usual, both sides were wrong and a little bit right.

“We have been sold this meme of Islamophobia, where criticism of the religion gets conflated with bigotry towards Muslims as people. It’s intellectually ridiculous,” said Harris. He and Maher both argued that an overcautious avoidance of xenophobia has led to a failure on the part of liberals to criticize Islam where it deserves to be criticized. “They’ll criticize Christians,” said Harris. “But when you want to talk about the treatment of women and homosexuals and free-thinkers and public intellectuals in the Muslim world, I would argue that liberals have failed us.”

This was enough to set Affleck off, calling the argument “gross” and “racist,” in some ways proving that the discussion of problems within sections of the Islamic religion has become perhaps too taboo. On the one hand, Islam deserves as much criticism for sexism and violence as Christianity. When institutionalized abuse or inequality takes place, critics should be no more hesitant in pointing it out in the Islamic religion than they are in calling the Catholic church out for sexual abuse of young children and homophobia.

However, Harris quickly took the argument a step further and crosses the line, saying, “We have to be able to criticize bad ideas, and Islam at this moment is the motherlode of bad ideas. It’s just a fact.” Calling Islam “the motherlode of bad ideas” is not an acceptable argument, and it is racist. And as Affleck is quick to point out, claiming the entirety of the Islamic religion is the same is bigoted and unfair, you cannot “paint the whole religion with that paintbrush,” he argues.

Maher goes even further than Harris, saying that “It’s the only religion that acts like the mafia — that will f–king kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture, or write the wrong book.” Not only is this just patently untrue — and here we could list examples of persecution and murder across the religious spectrum — but it is the type of insensitive and unmoderated commentary that makes true human rights concerns and critiques harder to recognize and distinguish. “How about the more than a billion people who aren’t fanatical, who don’t punch women, who just want to go to school,” said Affleck, joined in a calmer and more measured way by Kristof at one point in the debate.

“What is our solution? Just condemn Islam? We’ve killed more Muslims than they’ve killed us, by an awful lot. We’ve invaded more Muslim countries than they’ve invaded ours, by an awful lot. Yet somehow we’re exempted from these things because they’re not really a reflection of what we believe in. We did it by accident, that’s why we invaded Iraq,” Affleck said.

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