Maher is similarly armored today. It’s one thing to denounce the Saudi monarchy for its fanatical illiberalism. Like Stalin’s dictatorship, it’s a particular regime in a particular place. But to imply that Islamism—and by extension organizations such as Tunisia’s Ennahda Party or Turkey’s AKP, both of which have won democratic elections—are just milder versions of ISIS is dangerously sloppy. As Kennan insisted again and again, national circumstances often play a larger role in determining how cultures and political systems function than do transnational beliefs.
That’s especially true when the ideology isn’t even Islamism but Islam. Maher wants Americans to denounce Islam because while “all religions are stupid, Islam just happens to be the one right now, in this century, that’s most dangerous and violent.” That’s a wild overgeneralization. “Islam” is not violent or peaceful, dangerous or benign. Like every great religion, it includes a vast array of diverse and often contradictory teachings, which different people interpret in different ways in different places and times. Yes, in some Muslim-majority countries, women and religious minorities are treated brutally. But that has far more to do with their particular national circumstances than with the fact that Muslims populate them. After all, other Muslim-majority countries have elected female heads of state. To lump together Indonesia and Yemen because both countries are mostly Muslim makes about as much sense as lumping together Ireland and the Dominican Republic because both countries are mostly Catholic.
The second lesson from the Cold War is that while anti-totalitarianism is important, it can become an excuse for America’s own misdeeds. In 1954, eager to prove their anti-communist bona fides in the face of McCarthyite attacks, liberal stalwarts Hubert Humphrey, Paul Douglas, and John F. Kennedy introduced legislation banning the American Communist Party—thus using America’s crusade against Soviet repression to massively repress free speech here at home. America’s war in Vietnam, justified as a struggle for freedom and human rights, took close to a million lives.
When Affleck told Maher that America has “killed more Muslims than they’ve killed us by an awful lot … and somehow we’re exempt from these things because they’re not really a reflection of what we believe in. We did it by accident,” he was making a crucial point. As the great liberal Cold War theologian Reinhold Niebuhr stressed, nations, like individuals, are often unable to acknowledge the degree to which selfish interest infects their supposed pursuit of high principle. Restraining the evil that lurks within our own culture requires facing our own history of, and ongoing capacity for, terrible crimes. It requires trying to see largely Christian America the way we are seen by the Muslims whose cities we have bombed. By contrast, declaring that the essential barbarism in today’s world lies elsewhere—not even just in a foreign regime or movement but in an entire religion—lets us off easy.
“The pride and self-righteousness of powerful nations,” wrote Niebuhr, “are a greater hazard to their success than the machinations of their foes.” It took the Vietnam War for Schlesinger to truly appreciate that point. Given America’s experience in the Middle East over the last decade, Maher has no excuse.