Ben Affleck vs. Bill Maher: No One Wins

I am a huge Ben Affleck fan. I think he's intelligent and dashing and heck, I like the movies he makes. Even Gigli, damnit!

I am also a huge Bill Maher fan. I think he's intelligent and quick-witted and I respect his unapologetic defense of atheism in a world gone wild with religious fervor.

Which is why it was particularly uncomfortable for me to wake up this morning to this video clip of the two of them going at it over the subject of Islam. It was like overhearing your mom and dad fighting when you were a kid: you want for both of them to be right, and you just want the argument to be over, now.

Except in this case, I think Ben and Bill were both right.

On the one side you had Bill Maher, exasperatedly criticizing the religion of Islam, what with its decidedly anti-Western ideals of female subservience, mandated heterosexuality, and carefully controlled public opinion.

On the other side you had Ben Affleck, head in hands, seemingly incapable of enduring this rehashing of dangerous stereotypes: all Muslims hate women, all Muslims hate gays, all Muslims want to see the destruction of America, all Muslims want to die in a blaze of suicide-bomber glory. Ben sat there and exclaimed, "It's racist!"

Problem is, despite all the bluster and loud sighs, these guys were not actually disagreeing with each other. Not really. Bill was addressing a belief system -- one which admittedly is very different from the beliefs we promote here in America -- while Ben was addressing the people who hold those beliefs, either because they know no different, or because they are afraid or not allowed to object, or because they genuinely find truth in the ideas. In other words, Ben was thinking of the people, and what harm might come to them should the characterization of all Muslims as dangerous be given credence; and Bill was thinking of the ideas, and what harm might come to non-Muslims (and the women and gay people within the Muslim community) should their belief system go unchallenged. It reminded me of the time-honored "love the sinner, hate the sin" rhetoric we've all grown so weary of.

In order to have a responsible debate on the subject of Muslims vs. non-Muslims, or Palestinians vs. Israelis, or any other scenario in which one group's ideology could potentially fuel the violent destruction of another group, it is imperative that we learn how to separate these two concepts: the human beings, and the beliefs they hold. Because no one is BORN a racist, or a Zionist, or a radical Islamist--those are all ideas that are integrated into a person's worldview over time. Rather, every person on this earth was once a very young child, ignorant and open-minded, needing to have the world shaped and defined by those around them. By rejecting Bill's characterization of Islam as an outright plague, Ben urges us to value the individuals over the collective, to think of those children before we condemn their parents.

Whether the faith of Islam has been irreparably crippled by its extremists remains to be seen. But I do know one thing for sure: if Americans let the Bill Mahers of the world dictate foreign policy without the Ben Afflecks of the world also having a seat at the decision-making table, then our ideas are dangerous, too.