It's not a religion problem it's a species problem
There's an awful lot of talk these days about religions of peace vs religions of war and how some are intrinsically violent and others aren't. It's all nonsense. Right now, for a variety of reasons, Islam features some violent extremism on the fringe which happens to be in a part of the world where everyone has an interest. But you only have to look at history to see that all religions have their moments of violence. Even Buddhism, which I think we all would assume is one of the most peaceful religions in the modern world, can be drawn into violence:
Of all the moral precepts instilled in Buddhist monks the promise not to kill comes first, and the principle of non-violence is arguably more central to Buddhism than any other major religion. So why have monks been using hate speech against Muslims and joining mobs that have left dozens dead?
I don't think the point is that because these Buddhists are acting violent that Buddhism is a violent religion. Obviously. But it does happen even to the most peaceful of them. All you have to do is look at what was done in the name of Christ the prince of peace to understand that.
This is happening in two countries separated by well over 1,000 miles of Indian Ocean - Burma and Sri Lanka. It is puzzling because neither country is facing an Islamist militant threat. Muslims in both places are a generally peaceable and small minority.
In Sri Lanka, the issue of halal slaughter has been a flashpoint. Led by monks, members of the Bodu Bala Sena - the Buddhist Brigade - hold rallies, call for direct action and the boycotting of Muslim businesses, and rail against the size of Muslim families.
While no Muslims have been killed in Sri Lanka, the Burmese situation is far more serious. Here the antagonism is spearheaded by the 969 group, led by a monk, Ashin Wirathu, who was jailed in 2003 for inciting religious hatred. Released in 2012, he has referred to himself bizarrely as "the Burmese Bin Laden".
March saw an outbreak of mob violence directed against Muslims in the town of Meiktila, in central Burma, which left at least 40 dead.
Tellingly, the violence began in a gold shop. The movements in both countries exploit a sense of economic grievance - a religious minority is used as the scapegoat for the frustrated aspirations of the majority.
On Tuesday, Buddhist mobs attacked mosques and burned more than 70 homes in Oakkan, north of Rangoon, after a Muslim girl on a bicycle collided with a monk. One person died and nine were injured.
Last night on CNN, I saw one of the most disturbingly obtuse interviews I've ever seen on cable TV (and that's saying something.) It featured Don Lemon, Alisyn Camerota and Reza Aslan, who tried in vain to make the point I just made above and was met by a brick wall of stupidity:
Alisyn CAMEROTA: Defenders of Islam insist it is a peaceful religion. Others disagree and point to the primitive treatment in Muslim countries of women and other minorities.
I thought he was going to come through the screen and I don't blame him. Being interviewed by Beavis and Butthead had to be frustrating.
LEMON: So let's discuss this now.
We're joined now by Reza Aslan, a scholar of religions, a professor at University of California, Riverside, and the author of "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth."
Let's talk about this because it's a very interesting conversation every time we have it. Before we get into this discussion, I want to play with you this clip from Bill Maher's show just this Friday night. Here it is.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MAHER: President Obama keeps insisting that ISIS is not Islamic. Well, maybe they don't practice the Muslim faith the same way he does.
MAHER: But if vast numbers of Muslims across the world believe, and they do, that humans deserve to die for merely holding a different idea or drawing a cartoon or writing a book or eloping with the wrong person, not only does the Muslim world have something in common with ISIS; it has too much in common with ISIS. There's so much talk -- you can applaud. Sure.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LEMON: He went on for a good five or six minutes about that, talking about how women are -- circumcision for women, not respecting the rights of women, not respecting the rights of gay people. And what's your reaction? And then we will talk.
REZA ASLAN, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, RIVERSIDE: Well, I like Bill Maher. I have been on his show a bunch of times. He's a comedian.
But, you know, frankly, when it comes to the topic of religion, he's not very sophisticated in the way that he thinks. I mean, the argument about the female genital mutilation being an Islamic problem is a perfect example of that. It's not an Islamic problem. It's an African problem.
CAMEROTA: Well, wait, wait, wait.
CAMEROTA: Hold on. Hold on a second Reza, because he says it's a Muslim country problem. He says that, in Somalia...
ASLAN: Yes, but that's -- yes. And that's actually empirically factually incorrect.
It's a Central African problem. Eritrea has almost 90 percent female genital mutilation. It's a Christian country. Ethiopia has 75 percent female genital mutilation. It's a Christian country. Nowhere else in the Muslim, Muslim-majority states is female genital mutilation an issue.
But, again, this is the problem, is that you make these facile arguments that women are somehow mistreated in the Muslim world -- well, that's certainly true in many Muslim-majority countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia. Do you know that Muslims have elected seven women as their heads of state in those Muslim-majority countries?
How many women do we have as states in the United States?
LEMON: Reza, be honest, though. For the most part, it is not a free and open society for women in those states.
ASLAN: Well, it's not in Iran. It's not in Saudi Arabia.
It certainly is in Indonesia and Malaysia. It certainly is in Bangladesh. It certainly is in Turkey. I mean, again, this is the problem is that you're talking about a religion of 1.5 billion people and certainly it becomes very easy to just simply paint them all with a single brush by saying, well, in Saudi Arabia, they can't drive and so therefore that is somehow representative of Islam.
It's representative of Saudi Arabia.
CAMEROTA: But hold on. I think that Bill Maher's point is that these aren't extremists. We often talk about extremists and that we should crack down on extremists and why aren't Muslims speaking out about extremists?
In Saudi Arabia, when women can't vote and they can't drive and they need permission from their husband, that's not extremists. Why aren't we talking more about what...
CAMEROTA: That's not extremist. That's commonplace. Why don't we talk more about the commonplace wrongs that are happening in some of these countries?
ASLAN: It's extremist when compared to the rights and responsibilities of women, Muslim women around the world. It's an extremist way of dealing with it.
LEMON: But it's not extremist in that country, in Saudi Arabia. That's the norm.
LEMON: That's what she is saying.
ASLAN: Oh, no, it's not.
I mean, look, Saudi Arabia is one of the most, if not the most, extremist Muslim country in the world. In the month that we have been talking about ISIS and their terrible actions in Iraq and Syria, Saudi Arabia, our closest ally, has beheaded 19 people. Nobody seems to care about that because Saudi Arabia sort of preserves our national interests.
ASLAN: You know, but this is the problem, is that these kinds of conversations that we're having aren't really being had in any kind of legitimate way. We're not talking about women in the Muslim world. We're using two or three examples to justify a generalization. That's actually the definition of bigotry.
LEMON: All right, fair enough.
Let's listen to Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations today.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: So when it comes to their ultimate goals, Hamas is ISIS, and ISIS is Hamas. And what they share in common, all militant Islamists share in common.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LEMON: So, Reza, the question at the bottom of the screen that everyone is looking at, does Islam promote violence?
ASLAN: Islam doesn't promote violence or peace. Islam is just a religion, and like every religion in the world, it depends on what you bring to it. If you're a violent person, your Islam, your Judaism, your Christianity, your Hinduism is going to be violent. There are Buddhist -- marauding Buddhist monks in Myanmar slaughtering women and children. Does Buddhism promote violence? Of course not. People are violent or peaceful. And that depends on their politics, their social world, the way that they see their communities, the way they see themselves.
CAMEROTA: So, Reza, you don't think that there's anything more -- there's -- the justice system in Muslim countries you don't think is somehow more primitive or subjugates women more than in other countries?
ASLAN: Did you hear what you just said? You said in Muslim countries.
I just told you that, Indonesia, women are absolutely 100 percent equal to men. In Turkey, they have had more female representatives, more female heads of state in Turkey than we have in the United States.
LEMON: Yes, but in Pakistan...
ASLAN: Stop saying things like "Muslim countries."
LEMON: In Pakistan, women are still being stoned to death.
ASLAN: And that's a problem for Pakistan. You're right. So, let's criticize Pakistan.
LEMON: I just want to be clear on what your point is, because I thought you and Bill Maher were saying the same thing. Your point is that Muslim countries are not to blame.
There is nothing particular, there's no common thread in Muslim countries, you can't paint with a broad brush that somehow their justice system or Sharia law or what they're doing in terms of stoning and female mutilation is different than in other countries like Western countries?
ASLAN: Stoning and mutilation and those barbaric practices should be condemned and criticized by everyone. The actions of individuals and societies and countries like Iran, like Pakistan, like Saudi Arabia must be condemned, because they don't belong in the 21st century.
But to say Muslim countries, as though Pakistan and Turkey are the same, as though Indonesia and Saudi Arabia are the same, as though somehow what is happening in the most extreme forms of these repressive countries, these autocratic countries, is representative of what's happening in every other Muslim country, is, frankly -- and I use this word seriously -- stupid. So let's stop doing that.
LEMON: OK, Reza. Let's -- I want you to listen to Benjamin Netanyahu again. This is actually the one I wanted you to hear.
ASLAN: Yes, the ISIS.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
NETANYAHU: But our hopes and the world's hopes for peace are in danger, because everywhere we look, militant Islam is on the march. It's not militants. It's not Islam. It's militant Islam. And, typically, its first victims are other Muslims, but it spares no one.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LEMON: He's making a clear distinction there. He says it's not militants, it's not Islam; it's militant Islam. Do you understand his distinction there? Is he correct?
ASLAN: Well, he's correct in talking about militant Islam being a problem.
He is absolutely incorrect in talking about ISIS equaling Hamas. That's just ridiculous. No one takes him seriously when he says things like that. And, frankly, it's precisely why, under his leadership, Israel has become so incredibly isolated from the rest of the global community.
Those kinds of statements are illogical, they're irrational, they're so obviously propagandistic. In fact, he went so far as to then bring up the Nazis, which has become kind of a verbal tick for him whenever he brings up either Hamas or ISIS.
Again, these kinds of oversimplifications I think only cause more danger. There is a very real problem. ISIS is a problem. Al Qaeda is a problem. These militant Islamic groups like Hamas, like Hezbollah, like the Taliban have to be dealt with. But it doesn't actually help us to deal with them when, instead of talking about rational conflicts, rational criticisms of a particular religion, we instead so easily slip into bigotry by simply painting everyone with a single brush, as we have been doing in this conversation, mind you.
LEMON: Well, we're just asking the questions, Reza. And you're answering. And I think you answered very fairly, and we appreciate it.
Thank you, Reza Aslan.
CAMEROTA: We appreciate your perspective...
ASLAN: My pleasure.
CAMEROTA: ... and helping everyone understand your perspective.
I'm not a religious person myself and really don't have a stake in defending any of them. I find an awful lot of allegedly religious behavior to be hypocritical and somewhat obscure. However, it's clear to me that the underlying problem of religious wars of the past or the violent religious extremism of the present cannot be attributed to one religion or another. This is a species problem --- the human species. We will always find a reason to fight one way or another if that's what we want to do. Religion is just one of many reasons we come up with to justify it.
You can see the interview here