If Allah exists, can he possibly approve of the savagery exhibited by the militant Sunni army that has swept down from Syria to capture a third of Iraq? Can he be OK with Boko Haram, the Muslim rebel group in Nigeria that kidnapped hundreds of teenage girls and threatens to sell them into slavery? Could he be approving of the Taliban burning schools in Afghanistan and forcing women back into cultural captivity?
And another question: Can Americans talk about the wickedness of some of those who claim to be doing the will of Allah without slipping into a condemnation of all Muslims or, conversely, shying away from any critique of the dark side of Islamic culture for fear of appearing politically incorrect?
That last question is at the heart of the current media kerfuffle over comedian Bill Maher’s unrestrained criticism of Islam. An ardent atheist, the host of HBO’s “Real Time” slams Islam as the worst belief system of them all. A staunch liberal himself, he scoffs at fellow liberals who condemn abuses of human rights around the world but refuse to admit that, in many parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, “Islam is the problem.”
Maher revels in saying shocking things that make his audience both gasp and roar with laughter, and his political analysis is sometimes just as over the top. He oversimplifies the current chaos in Iraq, for instance, as nothing but a religious fight; a spat between two sects of Islam that must be allowed to run its bloody course, like the Hundred Years' War in Europe. The Iraq mess is really not that simple. There are ethnic rivalries in the mix, valuable oil resources in dispute and conniving politicians, from the local to the geopolitical level, who have selfish aims that have little to do with religion.
But Maher is comedian, not a journalist or a diplomat, and his aggressive satire does dig into uncomfortable truths that many would rather avoid. And the truth is that Islam has a deep problem. It is not a problem with the faith as a philosophy of life nor as it is lived out by millions of peaceful Muslims; it is a problem with the way fundamentalist interpretations of the faith have found violent, inhumane and oppressive expression in so many places.
It is the same problem Christianity had for centuries, from the Crusades to the Salem witch trails and through all the blood, battles and burnings in between. During much of that time when Christians were busy killing one another and anyone who was not like them, Islam went through an enlightened period. A pan-national system allowed a relatively tolerant, multiethnic and religiously diverse culture to flourish in the Middle East and North Africa.
Those days are long gone.
After a century of rule by colonial overlords and homegrown dictators, the most potent actors in the Islamic world seem to be men with deep grudges who identify only with those inside the circle of their narrow theology; fanatics who claim to know the mind of God and find it easy to justify murder of anyone outside the circle. This is a problem for the world, but, most of all, it is a problem for Muslims themselves because, amid the chaos, intolerance and gruesome brutality that has overtaken so many Islamic societies, Muslims are, by far, the most numerous victims.