Reza Aslan versus Bill Maher: Learning the crucial difference between culture and religion

Published: September 30, 2015

Responsible schooling, governance, international diplomacy, accountability and conscientious citizens are the demands of modern society. However, popular media despite its presence in every home, remains the most ignorant, irresponsible and manipulative aspect of modern life.

With its capacity to communicate instantly, the world with its current atmosphere of extremism, global stress and social and political upheavals is more open to suggestions in a way it was never before. Therefore, manipulation by entities with access to an audience has wider influence than before.

Labels are among the pithiest vehicles of language. They appeal most strongly to unthinking individuals, starting with those of all faiths in the pulpit to the common man. A single label – apt in a certain connotation, allows a person to categorise every aspect of life, to encapsulate it into that and this, good and bad, safe and dangerous.

The creation of scapegoats is a human instinct. It was the Jews for Hitler and following their immigration to the US, as a result of the potato famine, the Irish Catholics for the Americans. Till well into the 19th century, “negative stereotypes imported from England characterising the Irish as pugnacious, drunken, semi-savages were common and cartoons depicting the Irish as small, ugly, simian creatures armed with liquor and a shillelagh pervaded the press”.

Since 9/11, language has been powerfully used against Muslims to manipulate global sentiment and perception. Islam and Muslims, the current scapegoats, have been generously helped into the position by Muslims themselves and by others, but none so much as the media. The words ‘Muslim’, ‘beard’, ‘mosque’, ‘jihad’, ‘hajj’ along with many others, have all acquired a potent negative undertone that they do not possess by definition. So much so that anything related to these terms takes on a similar unquestionable impetus which translates into strong social and political consequences.

Reza Aslan, the author of ‘Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth’ and ‘No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam’, in his bouts with CNN and Fox ‘journalists’ such as Lauren Green and Bill Maher underlines this fact. Referring to Maher’s disparaging remarks when he called Muslims ‘mutilators’ (label) and ‘honour killers’ (label), Aslan said that,

“The problem is that you’re talking about a religion of one and a half billion people, and certainly it becomes very easy to just simply paint them all with a single brush.”

Aslan pointed out the difference, a crucial one between culture and religion. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a cultural not an Islamic or Christian practice. It takes place in countries that may be predominantly Muslim or Christian, and has to do with the social practices of the people, not with their religion. Confusing the two is a common trap. Calling it an Islamic practice lays one more damning accusation on the religion which is now blamed for so much that it lays itself open to whatever comes.

What is cultural does not necessarily constitute the religion of a particular society, although the two may coincide. The burqa in the subcontinent is a cultural and not a religious mode of dress, although it has come to represent the particular brand of Islam practiced in the region.

By allowing these labels to slip by unnoticed, we participate in the prejudices and stereotypes they have come to represent, at times unknowingly placed there by journalists but very often quite deliberately by the media and world leaders. Amongst the youth, jihad, a powerful tool towards good is now synonymous with the act of blowing up one’s self and a great number of innocent bystanders, by a bomb strapped onto one’s body.

By participating in the blame game, we fail to recognise faults where they genuinely lie and to do something about them. We fail to educate ourselves and perpetuate the consequences of these labels into our future.

It would be an exercise to pick out as many of these labels as possible, starting perhaps with the ones in this short piece written on the subject.


Rabia Ahmed

The author is a freelance writer and translator.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Brain Think

    I do hope Rabia knows that Reza has a very negative view of Pakistan. He thinks Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan have given a very bad name to muslims.

    Whereas, Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia are the role models, all muslims should look up to.Recommend

  • Parvez

    I do understand what you are saying……but as you say Muslim, mosque, beard, jihad have all acquired a potent negative undertone, but why ?…..because Muslim religious extremists have acted in a way that has forced these perceptions to develop. You trying or calling on me to try and explain this will only make the opposite side more cynical……if anything, people should try do something to pressurize the authority to desist from mollycoddling these elements and use the heavy hand of the State to crush religious extremism…..which is the basic cause for others to harbor these negative undertones.Recommend

  • zafars

    Most of the time this guy talks nonsense.Recommend

  • Ned Flanders

    Dear Author,

    An associate professor of creative writing at UC Riverside who claims to have a PhD in the ‘History of Religion’ (which is a lie, he has a PhD in sociology) cannot be trusted. In the interviews you mention, Reza actually states incorrect facts (his claim that FGM is an African issue for one) and misleads the audience with his cherry picking.

    If one examines his arguments, they are riddled with holes and false information. Feel free to do your own research.


  • Bibloo

    That goes for YOU too. See?Recommend

  • Bibloo

    Watch out! Here come the Hindu trolls!Recommend

  • Rabia

    You’re right Parvez. The negative undertone has much to do with the way the so called ‘Muslim’ behave. I have mentioned this when I say we have been ‘helped into this position by Muslims themselves.’ However to be blind to external manipulation is also dangerous. A labels is a dangerous thing. You either take it or leave it as it is complete with all its connotations. Over time one falls into the habit of using the label oneself. As in now we use the term ‘jihadi’ in a negative sense.Recommend

  • Rabia

    AS far as the first paragraph is concerned, do you think Pakistan, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia give a good name to Islam and Muslims?Recommend

  • Rabia

    FGM is a social practice and issue not a religious one. Nowhere in Islam is the practice mentioned, much less sanctioned. I suggest you do some research yourself. Aslan mentions Eritrea. According to the Pew Research Centre more than 60% of the population of that country is Christian, which religion also does not sanction the practice. Recommend

  • Brain Think


  • Sheikh Rafay

    Well, he is spot on !!!Recommend

  • Rabia

    Aslan’s degrees include a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies from Santa Clara University (Major focus: New Testament; Minor: Greek) , a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard University (Major focus: History of Religions), a PhD in the Sociology of Religions from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa, where he was named the Truman Capote Fellow in Fiction. An Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, he is also a member of the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities and the Pacific Council on International Policy. He serves on the board of directors of the Ploughshares Fund, which gives grants for peace and security issues; Narrative Four, which connects people through the exchange of stories; PEN USA, which champions the rights of writers under siege around the world; the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Levantine Cultural Center, which builds bridges between Americans and the Arab/Muslim world through the arts.Recommend

  • Parvez

    True….but its a hard uphill battle.Recommend

  • Custard_Pie_In_Your_Face

    Where religion itself has an impact on culture it’s not so easy to absolve negative actions by followers on culture alone.

    If a religion preaches female subservience to men, then it’s easy for customs and norms to develop where women are seen as second class citizens.

    For every cherry picked to show any religion in a positive light you can pick another showing it to be a negative influence.Recommend

  • Brain Think

    I didn’t make my statement to denounce Reza.

    He is right.Recommend

  • abhi

    What about Burqa, it is cultural or religious?Recommend

  • Videlicet

    Rabia, you say people are ‘labelling’ islam, muslims and islamic terms and many such terms now have negative connotations. While I empathise with you, please understand the thought process of non-muslims. Non-muslims want to be safe that’s all. Unless you see the world as a muslim it is not that there are only 2 types– muslims and non-muslims! Non-muslims wouldn’t treat muslims any differently from others different from themselves if not for these problems– security, non-integration, illiberal or backward thought, taking offence (big time!) to other’s negative opinions etc. Security and safety is the biggest concern.Recommend

  • Videlicet

    About labelling– I could not get the interview of Bill Maher you were referring to. But when I hear the word mutilators, male genital mutilation is what comes to my mind. I do not approve of irreversibly altering a child’s body without the person’s informed consent.Recommend

  • Videlicet

    Jihad may have had sacred connotations. But today it usually refers to struggle, often violent one, against people who are not muslims, or muslims enough, or muslims according to the whimsical definitions of a group. Why we kafirs fear jihadists? Because we are the first targets. Once we are eliminated, another group such as Ahmediya will be identified and labelled as kaffirs. Then Shias. Then moderates such as yourself who have slightly different beliefs.Recommend

  • Videlicet

    Those words burqa, beard etc have gained a negative undertone because of another factor not just safety– namely loyalty to one’s nation. Many muslims support muslims of other countries including politically hostile ones over people from allied countries or even their own. Such misplaced loyalties due to feeling of muslim-nationhood irks the people and taxpayers of such countries. The general understanding is that the more a person is staunch about islamic traditions (burqa, beard, disregard for secularism and uniform laws and treatment, needs of the current hour and not 7th century such as birth control), the higher the chances of such a person preferring muslim-nationhood over motherland.

    Burqa, beard etc are symbolic indicators of such orientation.Recommend

  • rationalist

    Please take Malaysia off the list of “good” role models. It is becoming increasingly intolerant. Islamism has taken roots in Malaysia. The rights of non-muslims are being steadily eroded. Mind you non-Muslims constitute over 45% of the population, yet Islam is the only state religion.Recommend

  • I

    It is cultural.Recommend


    The word islam is drives from Arabic word slam means peace .there are four pillars in islam .Roza , Zakat, Hajj and Jihad . but some one misinterpret the last pillar jehad . its actual meaning is struggle against evil. Majour type of jihad is litrary jehad .Recommend

  • Miyagi Jr.

    “Love of one’s country (where one resides) is a part of faith” is the teaching that all Muslims should follow.Recommend

  • Miyagi Jr.

    It is not Jihad’s fault, it is ignorance. Quran nowhere states that you start killing non-muslims wherever you see them just for the sake of killing non-muslims, but it is taught at the seminaries which is the root cause of all this ignorance.Recommend

  • Miyagi Jr.

    Those countries who have taken religion too literally have gone astray, and those who have tried to get the gist of it have progressed but gradually extremism is seeping in as well. Need radical changes.Recommend

  • Ajay

    I feel the Muslims give undue importance to outward symbols and rituals as practice of religion. Wearing burqa or beard or a skull cap or typical dress does not make you religious. The purpose of religion is to make one spiritual. Too strict adherence on symbolism and rituals are counter productive and creates division in society. For example, muslims living in India refuse to sing the patriotic poem ‘Vande Mataram’ or protest if their children are asked to practice yoga in schools. Muslims should absorb good cultural practices of the land where they live and not create cultural islands of their own. They have a fear that accepting cultural practices of the land where they live will make them unislamic and the religious leaders of Muslim community are too rigid and preach the wrong behaviour.Recommend

  • Aay.K

    Islam is the best and peaceful religion in the world.Recommend