“It’s gross; it’s racist,” was far from the best thing Ben Affleck said in response to Bill Maher’s and Sam Harris’ criticisms of Muslims on Real Time last week. Yes, his series of incredulous facepalms was charming, and yes, Maher and Harris were being gross and racist. But around 7:34, Ben started pointing out what was really wrong with the entire conversation.
See, up until this point, everyone was arguing whether most Muslims are sexist (Bill Maher’s sexism comes and goes when Muslims are in question), homophobic, apostate-killing fanatics.Here’s the predictable path that type of argument has to (and did) go down: “all Muslims aren’t like that; well most Muslims are like that; no they’re not because I know some who aren’t; no those aren’t the real Muslims.” It’s the same argument that has created the unfortunate set of conditions where some Muslims feel the need to prove that all Muslims aren’t ISIS (and that led to the hilarious MuslimApologies hashtag where Muslims apologized for geometry and biryani.)
But the “spot the real Muslim” game already concedes too much to Islamophobes. It accepts the premise that the behaviors of “others” are primarily attributable to their religious doctrines. The game operates in a rhetorical world it makes sense in a world where a set of religious tenets are sufficient causal explanation of political behavior.
Ben beautifully exposed (around 7:34) that Americans would never accept such facile explanations of their own behavior. He said, “We’ve killed more Muslims than they have us…but when we do [such acts] they’re not really a reflection of what we believe in. We did it by accident. That’s why we invaded Iraq.”
With these words Ben tried to inject history them into a conversation that had erased it. That’s what the “spot the real Muslim” game does; it hides specific historical and political causes—turning questions about world politics into faux-doctrinal debates. When we want to know why people are engaging in calls to war, we might just want to know what kinds of political and economic conditions preceded them. If we are talking about ISIS, it might be important to talk about the fact that it is nearly universally agreed that they would not have been able to come to power without the U.S. invasion of Iraq–and without centuries of the “great loot” of the Middle East. Making the question of why extremists have come to power in some places a question about what a 1400-year old religion says is a surefire way of avoiding what is really at stake.
Ben also tried to ask whether Americans would ever see the unjustified violence we have caused as caused by “what we believe in.” In doing so, he identified an important double-standard that riddles post-911 American rhetoric. When “others” cause violence, it is because their belief systems are fundamentally violent. And yet, despite the fact that we recently invaded another country in a war that 77% of Americans now believe was not worth the costs, we still have little trouble referring to ourselves as “a peace-loving nation.”We are apparently willing to acknowledge a complex relationship between ideals and behavior only when the behavior is our own.
Immediately after Ben made his awesome comment, his interlocutors went back to playing the “spot the real Muslim” game. But I guess it’s hard to notice you’re playing a game when it’s the only game in town.