"It makes me sad to see people spread violence in...

"It makes me sad to see people spread violence in the name of Islam and send the wrong message to others," writes reader Mirza Ghulam Haseeb. Credit: iStock

The rise of the Islamic State, a radical army so terrifying it makes al-Qaida look tame, has revived the ongoing debate about Islam and violence.

The discussion took a particularly contentious turn recently on Bill Maher's "Real Time" show on HBO, when Maher and one of his guests, outspoken atheist writer Sam Harris, chided liberals for not denouncing oppression and intolerance in the Muslim world for fear of being labeled Islamophobic. Actor Ben Affleck called their arguments "gross," "racist" and "ugly." Another guest, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, asserted that the real issue was the split "between the fundamentalists and the moderates in each faith."

The controversy still goes on -- ironically, with many secular liberals backing the defense of Islam from its atheist foes and many Christian conservatives cheering the atheists. Sadly, this skirmish encapsulates how polarized, simplistic and counterproductive our polemics on Islam have become.

One side admits Islamic extremism is a major problem but treats it as an issue common to all religions, to varying degrees. The other paints Islam as uniquely and inherently prone to fanaticism and violence. (Harris called it "the mother lode of bad ideas.")

Today, extremism occupies a vastly greater space in Islam than in other major faiths. It's not just about terrorism. Egyptian theologian Yusuf al Qaradawi, who heads the International Union of Muslim Scholars, has condemned terrorism and is considered a moderate; yet he defends capital punishment for homosexuality and apostasy. Pew Research Center polls find that more than 70 percent of Muslims in Egypt, Pakistan, the Palestinian autonomy and many other countries favor stoning for adultery and death for conversion to another faith. Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria notes that all 21 countries that ban conversion are Islamic.

These are troubling facts. In The Huffington Post, Egypt-based academic Timothy Kaldas attempts to counter these facts with another Pew poll showing Christians and Muslims in Africa are similar in moral opposition to homosexuality and abortion. But those are mainstream traditionalist views, not radical ones. "Abortion is immoral" is not equal to "stone unfaithful wives."

But critics like Maher and Harris have their own blind spots. They paint Islam as far more monolithic than it is -- or was historically. Today, Muslims in many countries including Turkey and Lebanon overwhelmingly reject brutal punishments for religious or moral transgressions. During the Middle Ages, the Muslim world was far more tolerant toward Jews and other religious minorities -- and open to scientific inquiry -- than Christian Europe. While some point to the Quran and other Islamic scriptures as the foundation for militancy, interpretation of foundational texts is as important in Islam as in other religions. Today, there are Muslim scholars who advocate a revision of orthodox views on women's rights, religious freedom and tolerance. In 2004, more than 2,500 Muslim academics from 23 countries signed a document condemning theologians who use the Quran to justify political violence.

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While it's absurd to equate criticism of a religion with racism, attacks on a religion can turn to bigotry against believers. (Quite a few "anti-jihadist" websites push the idea that all Muslims are potential terrorists.) Besides, as Zakaria points out, telling 1.6 billion Muslims their faith is bad to the core does not encourage the reform and modernization of Islam that should be the priority. Islamist extremists tell ordinary Muslims that the West hates them. Critics of Islamism shouldn't reinforce that message.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.