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Sunday, April 3, 2016

Bill Maher and 'that' Pew survey

Bill Maher is a well-known TV personality in USA. He is a touring comedian who hosts a regular late-night talk show on HBO. He is a left-wing liberal and is a devout atheist. He loves to berate religion and conservatives in his shows and finds little in common with people of faith. In recent months, Maher has turned his most acerbic wit to criticize Islam.
Maher (center) had a heated argument on his HO show with Ben Affleck (left) on his negative remarks about Islam
 (image courtesy LA times)
His jokes fall flat as I can see through his ignorance of my religion. His opinions are informed by certain Islamophobes who think that they know all there is to know about Islam. They see the Islamic world in turmoil, suicide attacks on the innocent civilians all around the world and a constant stream of negative headlines and deduce that there must be something wrong with the religion.
Maher cites a pew survey very regularly to prove his point. The survey does seem to show some worrying results. In Egypt, 86% of Muslims believe that apostates should be killed. This is also Bill Maher’s favourite statistic.
Pew Survey (2013) 86% of Egyptians think that punishment of apostasy should be death

From a statistical point of view the survey has some merits. With a considerable sample size and a good geographic spread, this survey goes to some lengths to understand the socioeconomic profile of the target demographic. 
From my reading, I can see some flaws in how the data is being presented. For example, when it comes to the controversial topics like the stoning to death of adulterers or apostates, the data is presented as if it represents the views of the same population who responded to the prior questions. The caption on the graph does explain that it represents the answers from only the subset of people who stated that sharia law must be the law of the land.  If recalculated, 86% turns into 63%; still a very high percentage. Who would like to live in a place where more than half of its population is so bigoted? I wouldn’t.
Lets look at some more variables to understand this data. My stance is that indeed Muslims around the world are invariably influenced by the rigid interpretation of Islam exported from Saudi Arabia, but the situation is not as bad as portrayed by the survey.  It is partly due to the fact that the questions were over-simplified and we cannot rule out extreme response bias due to the nature of the survey and the current environment.
Countries scoring very high in the survey for violence and prejudice have been in a state of socio-economic upheaval for a long time. Add to that failing political system, mistrust of the politicians and a constant dose of counter-narrative from the Islamist camp and you are bound to get such poll results.  A survey recently found out that almost 20% of Trump supporters think that slavery should not have been abolished.
This is far more alarming than a politically disenfranchised Egyptian or Pakistani wishing for an ideological state which can never exist.
Results from central Asia, Turkey and most African countries show Muslims to be tolerant and accepting of other faiths. Countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia are among those showing high numbers in markers for intolerance.
These countries are also very diverse in their ethnic mix, urban and rural make-up of religious groups and how the current political establishment may be impacting the opinions of the common people. Also, if the surveyors had gone to the major urban centers like Lahore, Rawalpindi, Dhaka, Jakarta etc., they may have found highly opinionated responders who are not representative of the opinions found in the wider population.
It is not unlikely that a large proportion of people living in economically deprived areas would hold rather extreme political views. The prevailing political system would dictate how much of that is translated into a real change. Mr. Trump’s disenfranchised white, working class supporters prove that point.
The religion of Islam is undergoing a crisis since the past two centuries. It is the same crisis that the Western world went though and came out of it without a faith. Some say it is a good thing. I disagree.
Some western liberals believe that this problem can be solved by listening to lapsed or ex-Muslims who hold  opinions not to dissimilar to many Islamophobes. I hear them speak about discarding certain verses from the Quran or even accepting the hate filled criticisms of modern orientalists with open hearts.  
Ayan Hirsi Ali, an ex-Muslim and Maher's favourite Islamophobe (image:

It may get them some airtime on an HBO talk show but it means nothing to 1.6 billion Muslims, majority of whom struggle for their daily bread.
In the same survey, a majority of Egyptians and Pakistanis thought their country's economy was in a bad state. Similarly, most responders across the board were dissatisfied with the general state of affairs their country.
To such people religion offers the justice that they deserve in the afterlife. This notion of Sharia law which their local cleric has taught them is nothing but an alternative political system to end all injustice.
The survey also establishes that many Muslims believe that Sharia is a Divinely revealed law with no room for interpretation. They also believe that according to the same law apostate should be killed and adulterers should be stoned to death. 
I see not a single verse in the Quran to support either punishment. In this discrepancy lies the answer to all involved; liberals, lapsed or ex-Muslim intellectuals, Islamophobes and most importantly, the practicing Muslims.  
Intellectual thought in mainstream Islam has been frozen in time and opportunist elements from within and without want to keep it that way. This intellectual leap which would allow Muslims to embrace modernity can only be made through economic welfare and education, both of which impossible without peace.
Modernity does not mean discarding of the fundamental Islamic tenets. It means that educated Muslims will be able to read and understand the Quran themselves, they will be empowered to challenge the clergy, run their own democratic governments,  and cause a peaceful revolution which will be in the best interest of all.  
In the meantime, Bill Maher should worry more about a fascist regime which is about to take over his own country.

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