Tuesday night, Jon Stewart's Daily Show airing featured an interview with noted religious scholar Reza Aslan. Reza Aslan's known in part for his book "Zealot", which led to the much maligned 'should a Muslim be writing about Jesus' FOX News interview in 2013. Aslan is also known in some circles for his back-and-forth narrative judo with individuals like Sam Harris, specifically when it comes to the topic of 'radical' Islam, it's causes, and it's impact on the world at large. In short, individuals like Sam Harris believe the literal tenets of Islam are a primary part of the problem when it comes to radical Islam, where as Reza Aslan claims focusing on the tenets of Islam is a form of bigotry and that the true problem of radical Islam was and is born out of social, political, and economic strife.
Stewart started the interview with Alsan by engaging in a broad discussion about what religion is, and what it means to people. Aslan gave his usual viewpoint, outlining a boundlessly elastic definition of religion whereby religion is always present, but rarely if ever directly attributable to or for anything. This conversation represented the on-air entirety of the interview, and while the dialogue between Stewart and Aslan was entertaining, no specific territory was traversed with any degree of depth. However, at the tail-end of the interview, Stewart indicated an extended interview could be found online and Aslan hinted at a much more controversial topic to be covered; specifically, "Fixing the Middle East".
Indeed, the discussion around "Fixing the Middle East" was much more substantive in content. Aslan started the dialogue by making reference to the people he disagrees with on Islam, saying "what drives me absolutely bananas is this constant reframe you hear, from some of your guests actually, this reframe of 'You know what Islam needs, you what it needs, it needs a reformation'". He and Stewart went on to discuss violence in the name of religion, with Stewart specifically referencing a hypothetical that if ISIS didn't use Islam as it's organizing principle, ISIS would simply find a different organizing principle to form around in order to carry out it's violence.
It was at this point that Reza Aslan and Jon Stewart engaged in a dialogue that rather misses the point on Islam. After Stewart's comments about ISIS and it's 'organizing principles', Aslan stated "I'm okay with you saying ISIS is Muslim. As long as you also realize that the tens of thousands of people they kill are Muslim, and that the tens of thousands of people fighting against ISIS are Muslim. So, if ISIS is Muslim, their victims are Muslim, and the people fighting them are Muslim, then that really doesn't say anything all that interesting about Islam; certainly not anything you can make a generalization out of". This statement brought applause from the audience, and prompted Stewart to make a point about how America has labeled its biggest threat as "Islamic terrorism" whereas the Muslim community may define the biggest threat as being generalized as terrorists. Aslan and Stewart wrapped up the dialogue by referencing FBI data which indicates furniture causes more deaths of Americans each year than terrorism does. Aslan quipped about this point with the sentiment "this means your lazy boy is actually more dangerous than ISIS".
This dialogue, frankly, misses the mark almost completely when it comes to discussing the impact fundamentalist approaches to Islam have on the world. A primary reason for this miss is that Reza Aslan and Jon Stewart held the discussion of Islamic fundamentalism within the narrow scope of 'terrorism' of the kind ISIS carries out, and discussed no other implications at all. This is an all too often occurrence when this topic surfaces, and it's basically the exact same thing Ben Affleck did on Real Time With Bill Maher when he got into his much publicized exchange with Sam Harris. During that exchange, Sam Harris conceded to Affleck immediately the basic point that the vast majority of Muslims aren't terrorists and aren't a threat in that way. Harris's point was rather that the vast, vast majority of those non-violent Muslims still hold very concerning views about the way women, children, gay people, and nonbelievers should be treated. Harris's contention was that this less explicit application of Islam is hurting a lot more people than the actions of a group like ISIS, but is glossed over in deference to the 'terrorism' discussion. As a general reference: Sam Harris has made this point directly to Reza Aslan as well. And Aslan's response to this line of inquiry, in the rare occasions where he does choose to address it, includes making blatantly false claims about alleged equality of women in a select few Muslim majority countries as if there isn't a persistent mistreatment of women in most Muslim majority territories.
To be clear: Harris's position about the general beliefs of people claiming to be Muslim when it comes to women, gay people, nonbelievers, etc. is factually undeniable. Pew polling - the same entity Reza Aslan cited in his interview with Jon Stewart to make generalizations about American attitudes toward various things - conducted massive polling samples of Muslims in countries throughout the world. The results of those polls showed that Muslims all over the world, not just in war torn countries, are in favor of some very concerning things as it relates to equal rights and civil treatment of various populations. For example, large majorities in dozens of countries wanted Sharia Law to either (a) become, or (b) remain synonymous with, the country's legal system. Large majorities of Muslims in many countries felt women should have to obey their husbands and shouldn't be allowed to initiate divorce. Massive majorities of Muslims believed homosexuality to be wrong (more than 80% across the board minus one 79%) and many supported penalties for homosexuality. Majorities in multiple countries supported execution of people who leave the faith of Islam. It's important to note: these concerning views constitute the thoughts of a majority of Muslims across all kinds of countries, including many alleged 'moderate' countries where there isn't now nor has ever been occupation by the United States military.
With this information in mind, the distinction that all Muslims shouldn't be generalized as terrorists becomes irrelevant. Yes, it's quite clear there's a huge difference between ISIS and moderate Muslims when it comes to engaging in acts of terrorism and overt violence. And, it's quite rare (aside from on FOX News) to hear anyone arguing otherwise. Certainly, the "New Atheists" that have been attacked as bigots recently don't argue this as they generally start their position with the explicit and matter-of-fact statement that the vast, vast majority of Muslims aren't terrorists and shouldn't be generalized as such. But, where Reza Aslan stops his argument is the point where the people he claims to be debating are starting their argument. There's a massive chasm of behavior between "terrorism" and "non-terrorism" when it comes to Islamic fundamentalism, and conversations like the one Stewart facilitated with Aslan completely white wash all of that space as if it doesn't exist or isn't relevant.
To that end: Stewart and Aslan are right on the general merits when they quip about "a lazy boy being more dangerous than ISIS". But, ISIS isn't facilitating the majority of suffering caused in the name of Islam. For that matter, neither was Bin Laden, or the Taliban, or Al Qaeda. Rather, the vast amount of suffering being caused in the name of Islam is happening within the group we routinely label as "moderate", precisely because we're only considering their behavior in relation to groups like ISIS. Far more women in Muslim majority territories are being subjugated and oppressed than are people worldwide being killed by groups like ISIS. The same could be said for the mistreatment of homosexual people and children in the name of Islam in relation to the number of people killed by terrorism in the name of Islam. And, in countries and territories all over the world, blasphemy and apostasy are punishable crimes, even if said punishments aren't nearly as harsh or severe as those carried out by groups like ISIS.
It is these atrocities we should be discussing when discussing the impact of fundamentalist Islam worldwide, equally as much if not more than we discuss terrorism. Surely, we're less likely to have that discussion if all dialogue on the issue is cooked in the pot of "terrorism". Everything looks 'moderate' in comparison to the kinds of behavior ISIS engages in, but those same 'moderate' behaviors become less 'moderate' looking when we compare them to what we know about the health and wellness of human beings and societies in general. And what we know about the health and wellness of human beings should be our baseline when determining 'moderate' behavior; not what we know about men hellbent on destroying anything and everything along their path to the Holy Land.