Many people may have heard about the recent controversy surrounding Ben Affleck and Sam Harris’s “debate” (if you can call Ben Affleck shouting “racist” over every word that came out of Harris’s mouth a debate) regarding the criticism of Islam. Harris argued that we should be able to freely criticize Islam because Islam is “the mother lode of bad ideas” and its doctrine supports many terrible things. Affleck claimed that Harris is racist and disgusting and that it’s Islamophobic to criticize Islam.
There are a ton of articles that go in-depth about why Sam Harris was right or wrong, (including Harris's own response to the controversy) and I believe that Harris was absolutely correct that people should be able to criticize Islam (or any religion for that matter) and it’s not Islamophobic. Harris kept attempting to point out that he was in no way attacking Muslims as people, but only Islam’s dangerous practices, such as a death sentence for apostasy. However, Affleck obviously didn't understand that (probably because he refused to listen to a word Harris said) and claimed that Harris was attacking individuals for their beliefs, when that wasn't actually the case.
There is a huge difference between a religion and its followers, and people refuse to see that difference once a religion is criticized. The second someone condemns an aspect of a religion, many people claim that person is condemning every person who follows that religion. As one online commenter stated, we should “hold religions responsible for those who do evil in their name, but don’t hold the practitioners of the religions responsible for what other practitioners do.”
I think the uproar that arose from Harris’s comments regarding Islam stems from the widespread belief that we need to tolerate everything and everyone no matter what. While I’m all for tolerance of people and their culture and customs, tolerance can be a very bad thing when taken too far. There are many customs and ideas that we should stand against and not tolerate, but it’s ingrained in us that if we protest another’s culture or belief, we are being prejudiced.
Last year Leyla Hussein conducted her own experiment to see how far people would go in the name of political correctness. She went around London and asked people to sign a petition in support of female genital mutilation (FGM). She would tell them that she was trying to protect her culture, tradition, and rights, and that “it’s just mutilation”. 19 people signed the petition in only 30 minutes. They told Hussein that they didn’t actually support FGM, but that they would sign the petition to protect her culture.
We need to learn to differentiate between criticizing dangerous and harmful practices and criticizing the people that support them. It is never okay to discriminate against or hate someone because of what they believe. It is okay, however, to condemn and hate the belief itself. I’m not just talking about Islamic practices. The KKK is a Christian organization, which is a fact most people overlook. If we have groups like the KKK and Westboro Baptist Church and worse running around doing and saying horrible things because of the Bible, maybe we need to take a look at their motivations. Obviously most Christians are not horrible racists and a lot of them are good people, but you can’t deny that the Bible has some pretty racist and terrible practices in it. That doesn’t mean that all Christians believe in these practices, but the fact that groups of people do is an indicator that we should at least critically examine the doctrine. In a free and just society, we should be able to freely critique any religious doctrine, and not be accused of being prejudiced against the people who follow that religion.
Tolerance of individuals is a must. Tolerance of their belief system is not. Once we get past the idea that we must tolerate everything or else we’re being prejudiced, the sooner we can critically evaluate outdated ideas and practices and become a better society.