Since 9/11, Americans love to talk Islam. Unfortunately, this has not tended to be an intelligent debate, and Bill Maher is often one of the worst offenders when it comes to sweeping over-generalizations and misunderstandings of the complicated ways religious membership, belief, and behavior interact.
On Monday, CNN Tonight chimed in on this conversation in what was seemingly the correct way: The producers invited on Reza Aslan, a bona fide religion scholar, to respond to some of Maher’s recent comments and discuss the broader issues. Unfortunately, what followed wasn’t the intelligent conversation it should have been, but rather a stale regurgitation of the same silly loaded questions hosts have been asking for more than a decade:
Perhaps the most telling moment comes at 4:50, when, following Aslan’s eloquent points about how silly it is to broadly generalize about 1.5 billion people given that Bangladesh is not Turkey is not Saudi Arabia, Don Lemon — perhaps sensing the conversation is getting slightly too nuanced — asks Aslan point-blank to respond to the question on the screen: Does Islam promote violence? (Aslan responds, smartly, that Islam doesn’t inherently “promote” anything — “Like every religion in the world, it depends on what you bring to it.”)
It’s not worth rehashing the rest of the segment. Instead, it should be seen as an opportunity to point out the sorts of interesting, productive questions hosts should be asking the Reza Aslans (Rezas Aslan?) of the world.
Here are some questions the hosts could have asked to make the segment a bit more intelligent and watchable:
1. If female genital mutilation is about local cultural practices rather than Islam, why do some fringe Muslim figures defend it?
2. What do we know about why people join ISIS and how they differ from other Muslims with similar levels of religiosity?
3. In the age of ISIS, how do efforts to sway vulnerable young Muslims away from violence vary from country to country, given the huge cultural differences at work?
4. What are some specific examples of local efforts — successful and unsuccessful alike — to do so?
5. Maher is harsh on religious fundamentalism, but there are other forms of ideological extremism too. Do we have firm evidence on whether religious extremism is more likely to lead to violence than other forms of it?
The silver lining here is that Americans are curious about Islam, both for obvious reasons pertaining to the news and because Muslims are an increasingly visible part of American civic life. CNN and other outlets should use this curiosity to illuminate useful questions, which certainly isn’t what happened Monday night.