Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Ben Al-Affleck

I wrote on this blog and in my Variety column about the debate brought out last month over Islam first starting with the exchange between actor Ben Affleck and Bill Maher and Sam Harris (both well-known atheists) on Maher's show Real Time. Since the debate didn't really start with them but is something that has been going on for centuries, the debate has continued, although in its current iteration constantly referring back to Maher and Affleck as being different discursive positions within the discussion. Below I've pasted two letters. The first from Michael Moore from his Facebook page where he defended Bill Maher and the second from a Pakistani/Canadian blogger Eiynah who is critical of Ben Affleck's position.

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A Message in Support of Bill Maher
Michael Moore
11/10/14
Facebook

Bill Maher is a friend of mine. He stood up for me when I was attacked after my Oscar speech (given on the fourth night of the Iraq War, a war Bill publicly opposed while 70% of the country, including the majority of Democrats in the U.S. Senate, supported it), and I stood up for him when ABC fired him and cancelled his show when he attempted to stop the hysteria and fear-mongering after 9-11 -- resulting in the Bush White House publicly ordering him to watch what he says -- or else. When Bill got his HBO show, he went on a 7-year tear against the Bush administration and became one of our most unapologetic and unrelenting voices against the insanity being shoved down our throats.
I, for one, am glad there's at least one top comedian who isn't afraid to say the word "capitalism" or give credence to the good of socialism.

You may not agree with Bill on everything. Yet I'm guessing you love it when he goes after the Uterun Police/Protectors of Child Rapists (also known as The Vatican), or when he brilliantly satirizes the crazy Christian Right which has controlled much of our politics for the past 33 years. I certainly do.

But when Bill goes after Islam, or crazy people professing to be Muslim, we grow uncomfortable. Why is that? Because when he bravely ridicules and attacks Christian assassins of abortion doctors who cite the Bible as justification for their evil acts, we heartily applaud him. But when he mercilessly stomps on Islamic assassins who cite the Koran, we grow uneasy. Why the switch on our part? Is it because Bill doesn't just stop with the Islamic assassins -- he thinks anyone who follows the Koran is a bit nuts? Or the Bible or the Talmud or the... you name it. He thinks it's all coo coo for cocoa puffs.

I have, when I'm on Bill's show, told him there are far more examples historically of the death and destruction that Christians have brought to the planet, from the Crusades to the Inquisition to the wiping out of Native Americans to the Holocaust. But he points out that, in truth, the Jesus followers seem to have taken a break lately in their genocidial lust -- and that the debate should be about the present; i.e., which religion is now doing most of the terrorizing?

Though I would maintain that it is still the Judeo-Christian West whose armies and banks and institutions keep much of the third world under a heavy economic boot, resulting in a lot of hunger, suffering and death, Bill asks, "If I draw a cartoon of Jesus in a dress, will Christian leaders issue a call to assassinate me?"

I can't speak to Bill's drawing skills, but it's safe to say that in the USA he can draw whatever he wants. In fact, other than those murdered abortion doctors, a hundred bombed or ransacked Planned Parenthood clinics and a few people like me, there are not many activists or artists who have to worry about Baptists blowing up their homes. Sinead O'Connor was not beheaded for beheading a photo of the Pope on NBC. Your middle name can be 'Hussein' and you can still win the state of Virginia if you're running for President.

Sure, I can make a daily list of all the horrible things so-called Christians still do in this country. Rarely, though, do their actions involve decapitation.

But if you're a Dutch filmmaker who makes a movie about violence against women in some Islamic countries, or if you're a Danish cartoonist who draws an image making fun of the Prophet -- well, you are then either shot to death or you are now in hiding.

So if Bill is taking the same exact position liberals usually take whenever we see free speech being threatened, or women being abused or people forced to submit to fundamentalist dictates, why then is he facing any criticism for speaking out against these wrongs? When Christians do these things we speak up -- loudly. So why not speak out when Muslims do it? 'Cause it's none of our business? Isn't it?

I think I may have a couple answers as to why some liberals are uncomfortable with Bill's humor when it comes to Islam:

1. We have witnessed, since 9/11, Arabs and Muslims in this country undergoing huge amounts of prejudice, bigotry and sometimes outright violence. This sickens us (as I know it does Bill). So we are extra sensitive to what sounds like, as it goes through the liberal filter in our ears, any "anti-Arab" comments. We don't want to hear anything even remotely anti-Muslim. But we have to be careful that this doesn't stop us from listening to legitimate criticisms about things that go on in the Muslim world. I just think that, due to our illegal actions (invasions) of the past decade, our government lacks any moral authority on this and should be forbidden from any attempts to "fix" those problems.

2. Liberals are intensely fed up with these two wars against mostly Muslim populations (not to mention the indiscriminate drone strikes on at least four other nations). And now the party that won the elections last Tuesday would like a war with Iran. An ignorant American public was manipulated with fear and lies to start and maintain the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars -- and that manipulation continues today in order to justify things like the mass spying by the NSA on our entire citizenry. When the Cold War ended (25 years ago today in Berlin), the defense industry went berserk with worry that their salad days were over. A new enemy was needed. Arab terrorists fit the bill perfectly! Not only has the defense industry since thrived, a whole new fake industry has arisen -- the Homeland Security behemoth. As our infrastructure, our freedoms and our middle class vaporize, billions are spent as a grossly out-of-proportion response to a few shitty disasters.

So we liberals don't want to hear another word about an "Islamic threat" or some non-existent Iranian nukes or... or whatever! We know we're being set up to get behind another war effort, another arms race, another diversion intended to make the point-one-percenters even filthier rich -- and the rest of us distracted with false fears and hatreds.

I don't even know if I want to see Jon Stewart's new film about the Iranian who was unjustly imprisoned. WHY not? It's a true story! It happened! But the liberal panic button says this film will be used in ways to pump up fear of Muslims. At the very least, it will be the first thing Jon Stewart has done that the Republicans will like. So does that mean he shouldn't have made it?

Two weeks ago on Bill's HBO show, he had on the wonderful Palestinian writer Rula Jebreal. They had a good and testy back and forth (Bill often has Muslims who disagree with him on his show, like the great Ben al-Afleck). Rula was giving it to Bill pretty hard, but when he paused and asked her if he were a Muslim, living in certain Muslim countries, and he walked into the Men's Club one day and announced he was now a Presbyterian, would that be ok? She paused, and then said "No."

Comedy is and should be a dangerous business. Those comedians who play it safe are far less interesting, less funny and, frankly, are often boring. Those who are willing to take their comedy to the Line That Shall Not Be Crossed -- and maybe step over it from time to time -- are the ones we are drawn to. But in order to encourage them to take those chances, we have to give them some leeway, give them a break when, in our mind, they've crossed that line. To not do so is to encourage them to go toward the bland, the passe and to the non-offensive. Those comedians like Bill Maher who are willing to take the risk of being the court jester -- saying the things that the rest of us are often thinking (or wish we were thinking) but are afraid to say -- should be supported, not silenced.

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Pakistan Today
October 25, 2014 BY

Your heart was in the right place, but…

Dear Ben,

I am writing to you today as a woman who was born and raised in Islam. I saw your discussion with Bill Maher and Sam Harris, and I must say you did me a great disservice that day. Your heart was in the right place, of course, and it was lovely of you to step up and defend ‘my people’.

What you really did though, perhaps inadvertently, was silence a conversation that never gets started. Two people attempted to begin a dialogue and you wouldn’t even listen. Why should any set of ideas be above criticism, Ben?

Why are Muslims being ‘preserved’ in some time capsule of centuries gone by? 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. I am a blogger and illustrator, no threat to anyone, Ben, except for those afraid of words and drawings. I want the freedom to express myself without the very real fear that I might be killed for it. Is that too much to ask?

When I wrote a children’s book that carried a message of diversity and inclusivity for everyone, my life changed. My book, ‘My Chacha (uncle) is Gay’ has the innocent anti-homophobia message, ‘Love belongs to everyone’. This was not palatable to many of my Muslim brothers and sisters.

Since that project I have been declared an ‘enemy of God’ and deemed worthy of death. All because I want to help create a world where South Asian children too can have their stories told, so they too can know that love comes in all forms, and that that’s okay. My Muslim brothers and sisters were hit hard by this work because it addresses the issue of homophobia within our own community. It is not something they can pass off as ‘Western’ immorality. Just like they deny that any issues exist within the doctrine of Islam, many deny that homosexuality exists amongst good, ‘moral’ Muslims. Just like that, millions of people’s existence is denied. Please do not defend people who think this way, and let me tell you Ben, many ‘good’ Muslims do think this way.

What you did by screaming ‘racist!’ was shut down a conversation that many of us have been waiting to have. You helped those who wish to deny there are issues, deny them. You became an instant hero, a defender of Islam. It’s kind, it really is. I understand because I too am plagued and affected by the issues brought about by actual Islamophobia. I have a Muslim name and brown skin, my peaceful relatives have been pushed in the subway and called ‘terrorist’ for no reason.

I get that.

We must distinguish critiquing an ideology from being hateful towards a group of people. And for this reason I think that tackling the issues within Islam should be two-pronged. They must be brought up, but simultaneously we should stress that blame for these issues cannot be placed on individuals.
In the interest of being politically correct and ‘liberal’, we silence the voices of millions. I am turning to you because you were instrumental in starting this conversation. Those of us who want reform are muted by extremists, as well as the liberals who betray us in the name of multiculturalism.

ISIS paints a horrific picture, so I understand the knee-jerk reaction to deny any link. Most Muslims choose to interpret scripture in a peaceful way, but that doesn’t mean the raw material isn’t there for those who choose the path of violence. That material must be addressed.

Can we talk about the blatant double standards and violation of human rights, for a second? Mosques are built throughout western countries, usually without much issue. But in the hub of Islam, the heart of Islam, Saudi Arabia, no one but Muslims are allowed to officially practice their faith. There are no churches, temples or synagogues because Saudi Arabia will not permit any non-Muslim place of worship to exist. Who will hold them accountable for such injustice if we hush everyone who speaks out against Islam?

What is so wrong with wanting to step into the current century? There should be no shame. There is no denying that violence, misogyny and homophobia exist in all religious texts, but Islam is the only religion that is adhered to so literally, to this day.

In your culture you have the luxury of calling such literalists “crazies”, like the Westboro Baptist Church, for example. In my culture, such values are upheld by more people than we realise. Many will try to deny it, but please hear me when I say that these are not fringe values. It is apparent in the lacking numbers of Muslims willing to speak out against the archaic Shariah law. The punishment for blasphemy and apostasy, etc, are tools of oppression. Why are they not addressed even by the peaceful folk who “aren’t fanatical, who just want to have some sandwiches and pray five times a day? Where are the Muslim protestors against blasphemy laws/apostasy? Where are the Muslims who take a stand against harsh interpretation of Shariah? These sandwich-eating peaceful folk do not defend those suffering in the name of Islam, Ben, and therein lies our problem.

Maybe the points Maher and Harris were trying to make are more easily digested when coming from within the community, I can appreciate that. That is why I am writing to you, as someone who has personally been hurt by the lack of acknowledgement of these issues.

If Muslims do not critique their own atrocities, then people on the outside will and their message will not be listened to simply because of who they are. It’s a vicious cycle, one that can only break if indeed, like Harris said, true reformers are empowered.

I ask you and anyone reading this to make an effort to seek out reformers from within our community, and support them in any way you can.

If I were allowed to meet a man that is not my father, brother or husband unchaperoned, I would have loved to discuss this over drinks (which I am also not allowed to have) with you. So, you see, things must change.

Sincerely,

Eiynah

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