In his treatment of Islam, and of traditional religious faiths in general, Bill Maher seems to be oblivious to this simple fact of life: people are mostly hypocritical in nature, not puritans. They want the best out of both: the here-and-now as well as the hereafter. This makes it difficult to judge people on the basis of the holy books in which they believe, because, while they might refuse to challenge the authority of these texts, in part or as a whole, their actions and inactions come as a much better measure of what they really want.
Indeed, most believers are willing to assert their belief even in the most controversial rulings mentioned in their holy books, but their adamant refusal to abide by these rulings in practice that is far more noteworthy and telling. There is no shortage of admitted heretics and apostates all over Muslims societies, but, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, among other states, most these figures can actually go about their lives unmolested, no matter how open they happen to be about their views. Sometimes their writings and works are censored, but they often become available under the counter. This unofficial conviviality is not the ideal option by far, but it works and so much so that it creates a resistance to change among people from all different religious and ideological backgrounds. The resistance of the traditionalists comes as an indication of their unwillingness to publicly challenge the authority of their holy books, a development that cod jeopardize their fate in the hereafter, while the modernists resist change for fear that it might empower the radicals, especially considering the reluctance of the traditionalists, who often form the majority, to stand up to them.
The revolts associated with the Arab Spring, although they came more as a result of deteriorating socioeconomic conditions and imploding infrastructures than a desire to desire to challenge this state of affairs, seem to have indeed spelled the end of this unofficial conviviality between modernists and traditionalists, and not just between the different sects and religious groups, be they majorities and minorities. But it will take decades for things to sort themselves out.
“A live-and-let-live attitude tells us much more about the true nature of the traditional Middle East than the live-and-let-die one currently espoused by radicals.”
Contrary to popular impressions, traditional conviviality owes its existence to social norms, not the ruling regimes involved. In fact, the authoritarianism, corruption and manipulations of the ruling regimes is a major reason for why the system has finally come apart rather than giving birth to official systems of governance based on rule of law and respect for the basic rights and heritage of all citizens and communities.
So, and to go back to the issue of Muslims and Islam, despite most Muslims’ willingness to provide verbal affirmations of certain rules, most seem more at ease ignoring said rules, and more often even break them, in a natural attempt to enjoy life and avoid unnecessary strife and hardships. In fact, a live-and-let-live attitude tells us much more about the true nature of the traditional Middle East than the live-and-let-die one currently espoused by radicals.
But, because the system of conviviality has remained unofficial over the century following the collapse of the Ottoman and Safavid empires, its unofficial character leaves believers at the mercy of doubt and guilt. This represents the psychological component with which extremist preachers play in order to recruit people for their movements. This approach works especially with the young and not so-cynical. But also work with certain men who have grown too cynical, perhaps to the point of numbness, until a jolt of radical preaching help snap them out of it, giving them a renewed sense of purpose, and making them feel “alive” again.
Today, and with so much polarization in the air, the system of unofficial conviviality is clearly falling apart as extremism spreads infecting all groups and communities. Having it all may now require most Muslims to finally undertake a more open and critical review of their basic texts and traditions as they search for new balances and seek to lay the intellectual foundations necessary for their emergence. The process will not easy or quick and, on the short to intermediate-terms, it might even encourage more radicalism and obscurantism. But, sometimes in the next half of the current century, we might begin to witness some positive results. In the meantime, we are likely to cross our entrails and not only our fingers in anticipation.