Last week, some of us might have seen the Batman duke it out with the Joker. Not quite the cinematic version, mind you. Hollywood actor Ben Affleck, the man who would be Batman in a forthcoming movie, got into an altercation with famous comedian and TV host Bill Maher about Islam, or more specifically, why liberals shy away from critiquing the more odious aspects of the religion.
To sum up the debate, which has since gone viral, Affleck was visibly affronted by Maher’s repeated attempts to equate Islam as a unique religion that not only condones violence, but is actually responsible for terrorist groups like ISIS carrying out warfare across liberals and conservatives alike. Islam, to Maher, is “the only religion that acts like the mafia” and which would “kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture, or write the wrong book.”
What was so unique about Batman’s dance with the Joker had less to do with believers and rationalists going at each others’ throats, but more to do with how religion, may it be Islam or Scientology, continues to be the subject of contemporary sophomoric debates, both by liberals and conservatives alike, trying to get to the “essence” of religion. I would argue there is none.
First, full disclosure: I am an atheist, and have little or no sympathy for all things religious. I specially get irked by Muslims who continue to scoff at violence done in the name of Islam. ISIS is not really an Islamic group, al-Qaeda really does not have a clue about “real” Islam, the Crusades weren’t really a war about religion.
At the very least, these people are dismissive about the actual motivations of the people who carry out such atrocities, and are quick to call themselves the real representatives of their religion (funnily enough, ISIS members would equally contest that claim and call themselves the real brand ambassadors).
But I also get irked by the opposition: Those who try to tie down religion to its scriptural meaning, and sum up Islam and Christianity as the sum total of the Qur’an or the Bible. Yes, both texts have violence, misogyny, and are riddled with contradictions. But national constitutions often appeal to violence, often don’t hold women and minorities in the highest regard, and yet we don’t see nationalities and citizenship come under the same scathing attack as some religions do.
All religions are a merger between culture, scripture, and your own personal values. Like any other religion, Muslims all over the world are brought together by the five pillars of Islam. But there are also healthy, and sometimes significant, differences between Muslims from all over the world, often cultural.
Whereas Bangladeshi Muslims abstain from all food during Ramadan, I have seen my Bosnian friends drink water or tea while fasting. Shi’ite Iranians happily draw pictures and sketches of Prophet Mohammad and distribute them during Friday prayers, but Sunnis in Saudi Arabia would probably be put to death for doing the same thing.
And Turkish women are increasingly abandoning headscarves and abayas and still consider themselves bona fide Muslims, much to the chagrin of many Somali women who consider headgear fundamental to their identity as a Muslim woman.
So who is the real Muslim? Unfortunately for Bill Maher and his brand of liberals, there really isn’t any. Just like liberals, Marxists, feminists, and Buddhists, a person’s religious identity is meshed with how he sees the world at large.
All religious texts are perfectly malleable to conform to what you individually bring to the table while reading it. A feminist Muslim reading the Qur’an will find enough quotes about women’s empowerment, a Marxist will find plenty of ammo to destroy class structure in the holy book, while an atheist will certainly find enough loopholes and contradictions to claim that this is all bunk. There really is no essence to religions, and any attempts to find the quintessential Muslim person will just send you on a fool’s errand.
But back to Batman vesus Joker. My message to the upcoming Bruce Wayne would be not to completely dismiss the Muslim identity of ISIS members. Most religious extremists believe they are doing God’s work, and it is their God which is the legitimate one.
Pooh-poohing their claims as not “authentic” also makes it very difficult to scrutinise and deal with the very real problems that some religious people have with modernity – decrying equality between men and women, high intolerance for people of different ethnicities or religion, and a duty to enforce what they believe is the only way to live life.
Bill Maher is completely correct to point out that many in the Muslim world still exist in a dark cave, and we – both Muslims and non-Muslims alike – should not wear kid gloves while dealing with the very real problems, or skirt around the issue as to how religions sometimes fan the flames of extremism.
But the Joker also needs to realise that one extremist does not make an entire religion or a people. Yes, honour killing is rampant amongst Muslims in Yemen. But Christians in Jordan carry out the exact same hideous crimes, while Christian Eritrean families still carry out female genital mutilation, Muslims in Bangladesh too suffer from the same caste system that their neighbours in India have enforced for centuries, while Hasidic Jews in Israel eschew interest in profits in exactly the same way Muslims do in the Middle East.
Failing to realise that religions don’t exist in a vacuum or a single tradition, and are a function of culture, geo-politics, and plain old personal biases, will continue to engender conflicts between the Dark Knight and his coterie of adversaries. Understanding the chameleon nature of religion is to acknowledge it’s not who we are underneath, but what we do that defines us.