The actor claimed that Maher and Harris were being racist and were making generalisations about Muslims. "How about more than a billion people who are not fanatical, who don't punish women, who just want to go to school, have some sandwiches," he asked. "It's stereotyping."
The debate, which can be viewed here, was circulated widely on the internet, and earned Affleck a great deal of praise from progressives.
Bill Maher is coming to London; I would love it if the whole of the Hammersmith Apollo was filled with Muslims wearing Ben Affleck T shirts.
— Sarfraz Manzoor (@sarfrazmanzoor) October 16, 2014
However, not everyone agreed with Affleck. In an open letter this week, a Canadian illustrator and blogger of Pakistani origin named Eiynah politely and eloquently explained why she believes the actor is wrong.
I am writing to you today as a woman who was born and raised in Islam. I saw your discussion with Bill Maher and Sam Harris, and I must say you did me a great disservice that day. Your heart was in the right place, of course, and it was lovely of you to step up and defend "my people".
What you really did though, perhaps inadvertently, was silence a conversation that never gets started. Two people attempted to begin a dialogue and you wouldn’t even listen. Why should any set of ideas be above criticism, Ben?
Why are Muslims being "preserved" in some time capsule of centuries gone by? Why is it okay that we continue to live in a world where our women are compared to candy waiting to be consumed? Why is it okay for women of the rest of the world to fight for freedom and equality while we are told to cover our shameful bodies? Can’t you see that we are being held back from joining this elite club known as the 21st century?
Noble liberals like yourself always stand up for the misrepresented Muslims and stand against the Islamophobes, which is great but who stands in my corner and for the others who feel oppressed by the religion? Every time we raise our voices, one of us is killed or threatened. I am a blogger and illustrator, no threat to anyone, Ben, except for those afraid of words and drawings. I want the freedom to express myself without the very real fear that I might be killed for it. Is that too much to ask?
When I wrote a children’s book that carried a message of diversity and inclusivity for everyone, my life changed. My book, My Chacha (uncle) is Gay’ has the innocent anti-homophobia message, "Love belongs to everyone." This was not palatable to many of my Muslim brothers and sisters.
Since that project I have been declared an "enemy of God" and deemed worthy of death. All because I want to help create a world where South Asian children too can have their stories told, so they too can know that love comes in all forms, and that that’s okay. My Muslim brothers and sisters were hit hard by this work because it addresses the issue of homophobia within our own community. It is not something they can pass off as "Western" immorality. Just like they deny that any issues exist within the doctrine of Islam, many deny that homosexuality exists amongst good, "moral" Muslims. Just like that, millions of people’s existence is denied. Please do not defend people who think this way, and let me tell you Ben, many "good" Muslims do think this way.
What you did by screaming "racist!" was shut down a conversation that many of us have been waiting to have. You helped those who wish to deny there are issues, deny them. You became an instant hero, a defender of Islam. It’s kind, it really is. I understand because I too am plagued and affected by the issues brought about by actual Islamophobia. I have a Muslim name and brown skin, my peaceful relatives have been pushed in the subway and called "terrorist" for no reason.
I get that.
We must distinguish critiquing an ideology from being hateful towards a group of people. And for this reason I think that tackling the issues within Islam should be two-pronged. They must be brought up, but simultaneously we should stress that blame for these issues cannot be placed on individuals.
In the interest of being politically correct and "liberal", we silence the voices of millions. I am turning to you because you were instrumental in starting this conversation. Those of us who want reform are muted by extremists, as well as the liberals who betray us in the name of multiculturalism.
ISIS paints a horrific picture, so I understand the knee-jerk reaction to deny any link. Most Muslims choose to interpret scripture in a peaceful way, but that doesn’t mean the raw material isn’t there for those who choose the path of violence. That material must be addressed.
Can we talk about the blatant double standards and violation of human rights, for a second? Mosques are built throughout western countries, usually without much issue. But in the hub of Islam, the heart of Islam, Saudi Arabia, no one but Muslims are allowed to officially practice their faith. There are no churches, temples or synagogues because Saudi Arabia will not permit any non-Muslim place of worship to exist. Who will hold them accountable for such injustice if we hush everyone who speaks out against Islam?
What is so wrong with wanting to step into the current century? There should be no shame. There is no denying that violence, misogyny and homophobia exist in all religious texts, but Islam is the only religion that is adhered to so literally, to this day.
In your culture you have the luxury of calling such literalists “crazies”, like the Westboro Baptist Church, for example. In my culture, such values are upheld by more people than we realise. Many will try to deny it, but please hear me when I say that these are not fringe values. It is apparent in the lacking numbers of Muslims willing to speak out against the archaic Shariah law. The punishment for blasphemy and apostasy, etc, are tools of oppression. Why are they not addressed even by the peaceful folk who “aren’t fanatical, who just want to have some sandwiches and pray five times a day? Where are the Muslim protestors against blasphemy laws/apostasy? Where are the Muslims who take a stand against harsh interpretation of Shariah? These sandwich-eating peaceful folk do not defend those suffering in the name of Islam, Ben, and therein lies our problem.
Maybe the points Maher and Harris were trying to make are more easily digested when coming from within the community, I can appreciate that. That is why I am writing to you, as someone who has personally been hurt by the lack of acknowledgement of these issues.
If Muslims do not critique their own atrocities, then people on the outside will and their message will not be listened to simply because of who they are. It’s a vicious cycle, one that can only break if indeed, like Harris said, true reformers are empowered.
I ask you and anyone reading this to make an effort to seek out reformers from within our community, and support them in any way you can.
If I were allowed to meet a man that is not my father, brother or husband unchaperoned, I would have loved to discuss this over drinks (which I am also not allowed to have) with you. So, you see, things must change.
Eiynah's blog, Nice Mangos, can be viewed here. Her Twitter handle is @nicemangos.
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