The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ben Affleck and Bill Maher are both wrong about Islamic fundamentalism

On Friday, Bill Maher and Ben Affleck got into a heated debate on the question of radical Islam. Maher's general point was that fundamentalist views are highly prevalent in predominantly Muslim societies, and that well-intentioned Western liberals too often give them a pass on it. Affleck objected, saying that Maher was caricaturing 1.6 billion people based on the actions of a minority.

So who's right?

In 2013, the Pew Research Center surveyed 38,000 Muslims in 39 countries to sketch an outline of global Muslim opinion on everything from Sharia law to interfaith relations to the role of women in society. Pew polled Muslims about a number of  abhorrent practices, like honor killings, stonings for adulterers and death for apostates. Here's what they said.

Honor killings

In 14 of the 23 countries polled, at least half said honor killings for premarital sex were never justified when the accused is a woman. Overall, Muslims were more apt to find justification for honor killings for women rather than men, particularly in the Middle East. But there is a lot of variation between countries.

In Azerbaijan and Indonesia, more than 80 percent of Muslims say honor killings are never justified, regardless of the gender of the accused. By contrast, less than a third of Iraqis and a quarter of Afghan Muslims say the same.

Death by stoning — a particularly heinous form of punishment for adultery — is supported by strong majorities of Muslim respondents in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Palestinian Territories. Somewhat smaller majorities support the practice in Egypt, Iraq and Malaysia.

By contrast, support for stoning runs in the single digits among Muslims in many Eastern European countries.

A similar pattern holds true when it comes to the question of whether Muslims who leave the faith — apostates — should be killed. Majorities of Muslims in seven countries say this should be the case. Support is particularly high in Afghanistan. By contrast, Eastern European Muslims are much less likely to support the practice.

Overall, the picture that emerges of fundamentalism among the world's Muslims is considerably more complicated than either Affleck or Maher seem to realize. There's no doubt that, particularly among some Middle Eastern Muslims, support for intolerant practices runs high. It's quite easy to criticize these practices when a repressive regime is inflicting them upon an unwilling population. But things get much more difficult when such practices reflect the will of the people, as they seem to do in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Egypt.

On the other hand, majorities of Muslims in many countries — particularly Western countries — find these practices abhorrent. Maher tries to speak in broad brushstrokes of a "global Islam," but Pew's data show that such a thing doesn't really exist.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece contained charts with data based on an incorrect calculation from Pew's numbers. Those charts have been removed.