Saturday, February 04, 2017

Transcript of the October 2014 Maher vs. Affleck Debate about Liberals and Islam

In the October 3rd, 2014 episode of Real Time, Bill Maher and his guests engaged in a heated argument about the response of American “liberals” to human rights violations in “the Muslim world.” [1] Maher, a comedian, writer, producer, and liberal political activist/commentator, is well-known for politically incorrect humor and harsh criticism of religion, including Islam. In the October 3rd episode, Maher’s guest panel included Ben Affleck, Sam Harris, Nicholas Kristof, and Michael Steele. There were furious outbursts and wild gesticulations by Affleck, hard-hitting criticisms of Islam and liberals by Maher and Harris, and accusations of racism by both Affleck and Kristof. (Steele, for his part of the discussion, was calm and diplomatic). The exchange elicited an enormous amount of controversy and was discussed across a wide spectrum of media, major and minor, for weeks thereafter. A week earlier in the September 26th episode of Real Time, Maher had also talked about American liberals and human rights violations in “the Muslim world,” and said that “vast numbers of Muslims” in their beliefs have “too much in common with ISIS.” [2]  The controversy generated in the media from Maher’s September 26th comments helped to set the stage for the October 3rd show.  

Some brief notes about the guests:

Affleck is an A-list Hollywood actor and director who was promoting his new movie Gone Girl.

Harris is a cognitive neuroscientist, philosopher, and critic of religion who was promoting his new book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.

Kristof is a journalist and columnist for the New York Times who was promoting his new book A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity.

Michael Steele is a political analyst on MSNBC and a former Chair of the Republican National Committee.

I’ve transcribed the approximately 10 minutes of the much-viewed heated exchange about liberals and Islam, from about 32:26 to 42:31 of the main portion of the show. (For audio* of the full episode, click here [3, 4]. *Update, October, 2017: The audio file is no longer available at those links). In addition, I’ve described and transcribed some other bits of the discussion that occur before and after the main exchange.

Between approximately 21:40 and 25:40, the panelists discuss what they view as the racism of some Americans, particularly those who oppose Obama on various policies. Steele says that some of it is due to racism while in other cases it is based on disagreement with the policies.

Harris is the mid-show interview guest, so he has been offstage and has not yet been a part of the panel discussion. At about 30 minutes into the episode, Maher introduces Harris, mentioning the new book he is promoting. Maher asks Harris, “You know the boys don't you?”

30:22 Harris [apparently addressing Kristof]: I know we've tangled online before.

[Kristof laughs]

Maher: Yes, and you may again here now.

That is followed by a brief joking exchange between Affleck and Harris that is, although clear in surface meaning from the audio alone, puzzling without further contextual information. Maher then starts talking about Harris’ book.

At about the 31 minute mark, Harris is talking about spirituality without religion. Maher asks him what people mean by “spiritual.”

31:53: Harris: Yeah, well, it can mean many things. Unfortunately, what many people mean by it is just as crazy as what other people believe under the context of religion. So, you know, if you're swapping your belief in the virgin birth of Jesus for a belief in Atlantis, you haven't made much intellectual progress. [audience laughter]

Affleck: [sarcastic] Come on! That's a little step down!

Harris: No, but that is in fact, if you wander the aisles of the New Age section of a bookstore, you get—

Maher: That's why the word spiritual is a little problematic.

Harris: Yes, and that’s why I’ve had to untangle it—

Maher [regarding Harris’ new book]: But it’s doing great on the charts, so people are, it’s struck a chord with people.

Harris: Yeah.

32:26 Maher: Okay. So the other thing we want to talk about of course is that you and I have been trying to make the case—I think, I have anyway—that liberals need to stand up for liberal principles. This is what I said on last week’s show. Obviously I got a lot of hate for it. But all I’m saying is that liberal principles, like freedom of speech, freedom to practice any religion you want without fear of violence, freedom to leave a religion, equality for women, equality for minorities, including homosexuals, these are liberal principles [applause] that liberals applaud for, but then when you say in the Muslim world this is what’s lacking, then they get upset.

Harris: Yeah, yeah. Well, liberals have really failed on the topic of theocracy. They’ll criticize white theocracy.

Maher: Right [laughs].

Harris: They’ll criticize Christians. They’ll still get agitated over the abortion clinic bombing that happened in 1984, but when, when you want to talk about the treatment of women, and homosexuals, and freethinkers, and public intellectuals in the Muslim world, I would argue that liberals have failed us. And the crucial point of confusion – [applause] yeah, thank you.

Affleck: Thank God you’re here!

Harris: Yeah. Well, I mean the crucial point of confusion is that we have been sold this meme of Islamophobia, where every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry toward Muslims as people.

Maher: Right.

Harris: And that is, uh, intellectually ridiculous, and even it gets [conflated with] race.

Affleck: So hold on – are you the person who understands the officially codified doctrine of Islam? You’re the interpreter of that? So you can say well this is—

Harris: I’m actually well-educated on this topic.

Affleck: I’m, I’m asking you. So you’re saying– if I criticize that— you’re saying that Islamophobia is not a real thing. That if you are critical of something—

Maher: Well it’s not a real thing when we do it.

Affleck: Right. [audience laughter]

Maher: It really isn’t.

Harris: I’m not denying that certain people are bigoted against Muslims as people. And that’s a problem.

Affleck: That’s big of you.

Harris: But the—

Maher: But why are you so hostile about this concept?

Affleck: Because it’s gross! It’s racist! It’s disgusting!

Maher: It’s not. But it’s so not.

Affleck: It’s like saying, ‘You shifty Jew.’

Harris: Absolutely not.

Maher: You are not listening to what we are saying!

Affleck: You guys are saying if you want to be liberals, believe in liberal principles like freedom of speech,

Maher: Right, right.

Affleck: Like, um, you know, we are endowed by our Cre -- uh forefathers with [inalienable rights like] all men are created equal.

Harris: Ben, we have to be able to criticize bad ideas, and Islam—

Affleck: Of course we do! No liberal doesn`t want to criticize bad ideas.

Harris: Okay, okay, but Islam at this moment is the mother lode of bad ideas.


Affleck: Jesus Christ!

Maher: That’s just a fact.

Harris: So we have, we have ideas like blasphemy, apostasy

Affleck: It’s not a fact. It’s an ugly thing to say!

Kristof: There’s one basic liberal principle of tolerance.

Harris: Well, let me unpack it, let me unpack it.

Maher: But not for intolerance.

Kristof: No of course not, but the picture you’re painting is to some extent true, but is hugely incomplete. It is certainly true that plenty of fanatics and jihadis are Muslim, but the people who are standing up to them, Malala, uh—

Harris: Malala is [fantastic], yes.

Kristof: —incredible Mohammad Ali Dadkhah in Iran, in prison for nine years for speaking up for Christians. A friend that I had in Pakistan who was shot this year, Rashid Rehman, for defending people accused of apostasy—

Harris: Okay, but Nick—

Kristof: —those are Muslims too.

Affleck: Or how about the more than a billion people who aren’t fanatical, who don’t punish women, who just want to go to the store, [applause] have some sandwiches, pray five times a day—

Maher: Wait a second.

Affleck: —and don’t do any of the things that you’re saying all Muslims [do]

Harris: Okay I’m not -- wait, wait, wait, wait.

Affleck: That is stereotyping.

Harris: I’m not saying all Muslims believe that.

Affleck: You are taking a few bad things and you’re painting a br—the whole religion with that same brush.

Maher: No, no. Let’s get down to who has the right answer here. A billion people, you say? All these billion people don’t hold any of those p—

Affleck: A billion five or something.

Maher: Don’t hold these pernicious beliefs? I would—

Affleck: No. They don’t.

Maher: That’s just not true, Ben. That’s just not true.

Harris: Ben, can I just express how I think it breaks down in terms of belief among Muslims?

Affleck: You haven’t even defined—

Maher: You’re trying to say that these few people, that’s all the problem is, these few bad apples. The idea that someone should be killed if they leave Mu—the Islamic—

Affleck: That’s horrible. That’s just horrible.

Harris: That is center-of-the-fairway Islam.

Maher: Wait, but wait, you’re saying that the idea that someone should be killed if they leave the Islamic religion is just a few bad apples?

Affleck: The people who would actually believe in an act that you murder somebody if they leave Islam is not the majority of Muslims at all [unclear].

Harris: Okay let me, let me break this down for you. Okay we –

Affleck: You are trafficking—

Harris: As you say we have 1.5, 1.6 billion Muslims. Now—

Affleck: Second biggest religion in the world, a quarter of the people of the population on earth.

Harris: Ben let me – let me unpack this – let me unpack this for you.

Affleck: Please do, I’ve been waiting. Luggage has been sitting there packed up.

Harris: Just imagine some concentric circles. You have at the center, you have jihadists. These are people who wake up in the morning wanting to kill apostates, wanting to die trying. They believe in paradise—

Affleck: Horrible bad people that—

Harris: They believe in martyrdom. Outside of them, we have Islamists, these are people who are just as convinced of martyrdom and paradise and wanting to, to foist their religion on the rest of humanity, but they want to work within the system. They’re not going to blow themselves up on a bus. They want to change governments. They want to use democracy against itself. That – that – those two circles arguably are 20% of the Muslim world. Okay this is not the fringe of the fringe.

Affleck: What are you basing that research on?

Harris: A bunch of poll results that we can talk about. So, to give you one point of contact, 78% of British Muslims think that the Danish cartoonists should have been prosecuted. 78%. So I’m being conservative when I roll this back to 20%. But outside of that circle you have conservative Muslims who can right—can honestly look at ISIS and say that does not represent us, that we’re horrified by that, but they hold views about human rights, and about women, and about homosexuals that are deeply troubling. So, so these are not Islamists, they’re not jihadists, but they b—

Affleck: Those are views anathema to ours.


Harris: But they also keep women and homosexuals immiserated in these cultures, and we have to empower the true reformers in the Muslim world to change it. And what, and lying about the link between doctrine and behavior—

Affleck: [waving, gesturing for Harris finish] Okay, let him [Kristof] talk.

Harris: —is not going to do that. [applause]

Affleck: A lot of talk.

Kristof: The great divide – the great divide is not between Islam and the rest; it’s rather between the fundamentalists and the moderates in each faith.

Harris: But we’re misled to think that the fundamentalists are the fringe. Okay we have jihadists, Islamists, and conservatives.

Maher: That’s the key point. And by the way this—

Harris: Hundreds of millions of people fit that description.

Steele: Just, you’re saying that the strongest voices are coming from those who are jihadists and extremists.

Harris: That’s, yes.

Steele: That represents a bigger piece of the pie—

Harris: Yes.

Steele: —than we often think is true.

Harris: There’s no question about that.

Steele: Okay so having said that, even if that is true, statistically or otherwise, the key thing to recognize that I don’t think is part of the argument, but I think should be, is that there are voices that are oftentimes raised in opposition to these jihadists and to these extreme acts but, guess what? They don’t covered, they don’t get exposed, and they’re not given the same level of platform, um, that we see the jihadists get.

Maher: One reason they don’t get exposed is because they’re afraid to speak out because it’s the only religion that acts like the mafia, that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture, or write the wrong book!


Steele: That's true...I mean that's...So you do have—

Maher: There’s a reason why Ayaan Hirsi Ali needs bodyguards 24/7.

Steele: You do have that element of fear as well, but you also have other braver souls out there who do speak out and who like—

Kristof: Who are risking their lives to do that.

Steele: Who are risking their lives, like the Muslim clerics, and others, from Australia to Europe, to the United States, just recently, publicly put their names on paper declare – declaring their opposition to what ISIS and others are doing.

Harris: Yeah, we need to do that.

Steele: So there are those voices, but where was the coverage? Where was, where was that story to sort of create a different picture, of the Muslim community?

Affleck: What is your solution? Like what is your ‘ask’? To just condemn Islam? Is that the question?

Harris: No, the solution is very much what Nick—

Affleck: We’ve killed more Muslims than they’ve killed us by an awful lot. We’ve invaded more [of their countries] than they have of ours by an awful lot.

Maher: I am not for more killing.

Affleck: And yet somehow we’re exempt from these things because they’re not really a reflection of what we believe in. We did it by accident, that’s why we invaded Iraq, and put 4 million people—[applause]

Harris: You are, you are free associating.

Maher: We’re not convincing anybody.

[audience laughter]

Affleck: It’s not [free associating]. I am specifically telling you that I disagree with what you think.

Harris: You don’t actually understand my argument.

Maher: I know, and we’re obviously not convincing anybody [unclear].

Affleck: I don’t understand it?

[audience laughter]

Harris: You don’t understand my argument.

Affleck: Your argument is, like, ‘You know, black people, you know they shoot each other.’

Harris: That is not my argument

Maher: No it’s not! No it’s not! It’s based on facts. I can show you a Pew poll of Egyptians—they are not outliers in the Muslim world—that say like 90% of them believe death is the appropriate response to leaving the religion. If 90% of Brazilians thought that death was the appropriate response to leaving Catholicism you would think it was a bigger deal.

Affleck: I would think it’s a big deal no matter what.

Harris: Apparently you don’t.

Maher: Okay, but that’s the facts.

Affleck: But what I wouldn’t do is say it’s all Brazilians, or I wouldn’t say,

Harris: When have I said it’s all Brazilians?

Affleck: ‘Well, Ted Bundy did this. God damn these gays, they’re all trying to eat each other!’

Harris: Okay, let me just give you what you want. There are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are nominal Muslims, who don’t take the faith seriously, who don’t want to kill apostates, who are horrified by ISIS, and we need to defend these people, prop them up, and let them reform their faith.

Affleck: Could you talk — ISIS couldn’t fill a double-A ballpark in Charleston, West Virginia, and you’re making a career out of talking about ISIS, ISIS, ISIS.

Maher: No, no, no we’re not! That’s the opp—

Harris: No, it’s not just ISIS, it’s all jihadists. It’s global, it’s a phenomenon of global jihad.

Maher: I think that’s the opposite of what we’re doing.

Affleck: There is those things. There is ISIS, there is global jihadists. The question is the degree to which you’re willing to say, because I’ve witnessed this behavior—which we all object to on the part of these people—I’m willing to flatly condemn those of you I don’t know and have never met.

Maher: Not, not willing. This is based on re—

Harris: No. It’s not condemning people, it’s ideas. You’ve got to make the distinction.

Maher: And people who believe in those ideas.

Harris: Yes, and their behavior [unclear]—

Affleck: So it’s [unclear] people believe—

Maher: Based on reality, Ben!

Harris: It’s based on actions.

Maher: We’re not making it up, that there is, that in the Muslim world, it is mainstream belief, main—

Kristof: But this is such a caricature of Indonesia, of Malaysia—


Harris: Okay wait a minute.

Kristof: —and of so much of the world. And this does have the tinge a little bit of the way white racists talk about African-Americans, and define blacks by black criminals, which are not representative.

Maher: But what you’re saying is because they are a minority, we shouldn’t make – we shouldn’t – we shouldn’t criticize.

Affleck: It’s not that much of a minority. It’s the second biggest religion in the world.

Maher: Exactly, but you’re treating them like a minority. I mean, if Filipinos were capturing teenagers and sending them into white slavery, we would criticize that. We wouldn’t say, ‘Well, they’re Filipinos.’

Affleck: You would criticize the people who are doing it, not the Philippines! You know what I mean, we—

Maher: What if the people were—

Affleck: [Because] a Filipino kid [who] lives down the street from you would have nothing to do with that. So these are different things. Crazy people—

Kristof: Racial stereotyping.

Steele: I think, I think it goes—

Maher: Alright, let’s, let’s talk, we mentioned ISIS. Let’s talk about that, because 52% of Americans in a poll I saw out today said they are now willing to send ground troops, which is an amazing turnaround. Turkey got involved this week […]

[Maher talks about countries that surround Syria, such as Turkey, getting involved in fighting militarily against ISIS. The panel then discusses whether the U.S. should send in ground troops or whether the countries in the region should solve it.]

44:18 Affleck: And yes, Turkey needs to step up. And it’s a lovely Muslim country, if you’ve ever been there. I suggest you visit. It’s one of the most beautiful Muslim countries in the world, where I’ve had a great time. […]

[Affleck is against U.S. intervention, but Steele argues that there are times when the U.S. needs to step in if others aren't.]

46:31 Steele: […] If the people in the region aren’t prepared to draw the line [to stop ISIS], then the question is who? Is it the Brits? Is it the French? Is it the Americans? [crosstalk] And that’s the global community’s question.

Harris: The question is who is “us”. “Us” is humanity. What you're [addressing Affleck] saying does not work out well for the Yazidis being starved on the side of a mountain. So, if you're going to say that we can't get our hands dirty because it is so inflammatory to have infidels encroach into the space—which is in fact the reality, this is why we can't do this, we can't be the world's cop because the moment—

Affleck: What's stopped us for the last 14 years?

Harris: No, we can't do it well, it doesn't have the effect that we want because this is anathema. We have infidel boots on the ground next to the holy sites in Mecca.

Affleck: I agree that was Osama's biggest problem

Harris: That only speaks to the problem of religious divisiveness. The reality is, we've got a genocide underway and we can't figure out how to stop it and the regional powers won't. If you're just willing to wash your hands and say well, ‘don't even drop a bomb to save these people,’ I think that's starkly unethical

Kristof: The air strikes did stop the slaughter of the Yazidis

Harris: But many liberals came out against that [crosstalk] before the first bomb fell.

[The panel then talks a bit more about the problems of intervention, and Maher switches over to another segment of the show.]


[1] Clip from Episode 331 HBO Real Time with Bill Maher, originally October 3, 2014.

[2] Clip from Episode 330 HBO Real Time with Bill Maher, originally September 26, 2014.

[3] Full Episode 331 Audio Only
[Update, April 5, 2017: The audio file is no longer available at omnyapp]

[4] Alternative Link for Full Episode 331 Audio Only
[Update, October 31, 2017: The audio file is no longer available at]


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