Awkward exchange: Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher on terrorism and religion

An awkward, at times profane, exchange between comedy talk show host Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher reflects the conflation of Islam with terrorism – and the debate over how to respond to the terrorist attacks in Paris. 

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert/CBS
Late-night host Bill Maher of HBO's "Real Time" on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" on Monday night.

CBS's "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" on Monday began with a profanity-laced discussion on the terrorist attacks in Paris and led into a broader – if relatively short – debate on faith and how to respond to militant Islamists.

"Any time one of the country's most famous Catholics sits down with one of its most outspoken atheists just days after a terrorist attack motivated by religious extremists, sparks are bound to fly," Meredith Blake wrote for the Los Angeles Times.

Bill Maher said during the show that the only way to stop the extremism that motivated the terrorist attacks by Islamic State (IS) in Paris is to "wipe out the idea" that even mainstream Muslims have.

"We have to change those ideas, women as second-class citizens, gay people don't deserve to be alive," he said. "These are mainstream ideas unfortunately."

Later, Mr. Colbert, a practicing Catholic, told his guest "the door is always open" for Maher to return to to his Catholic faith. "All you have to do is humble yourself before the presence of the Lord and admit there are things greater than you in the universe that you do not understand," said Colbert.

Maher declined the offer with general put-down on religion.

"I do admit there are things in the universe I don't understand, but my response to that is not to just make up silly stories, or to believe intellectually embarrassing myths from the Bronze Age, but you believe whatever you want to," Maher responded.

Meanwhile, in France, Secretary of State John Kerry tried to separate the motivations of terrorists and those of peaceful Muslims in a speech Tuesday at the US Embassy in Paris.

"It has nothing to do with Islam; it has everything to do with criminality, with terror, with abuse, with psychopathism," Mr. Kerry said. "All of the leaders of the Muslim world, the real leaders, all of the leaders of every country in the region that are affected – Jordan and Lebanon and Iran and Turkey and Saudi Arabia and the Emirates and Kuwait and Egypt – they’re all opposed to Daesh (another name for IS) and all distressed by the way in which a great religion is being inappropriately presented." 

But Kerry was sharply criticized for trying to draw a distinction between the the Charlie Hebdo attacks by Al Qaeda and this week's IS attacks in Paris. Eleven people died when the French satirical magazine was attacked in January, which the attackers justified by claiming the publication had insulted Islam’s prophet Mohammad by publishing cartoons of him. 

Kerry said:

There’s something different about what happened from Charlie Hebdo, and I think everybody would feel that. There was a sort of particularized focus and perhaps even a legitimacy in terms of – not a legitimacy, but a rationale that you could attach yourself to somehow and say, okay, they’re really angry because of this and that. This Friday was absolutely indiscriminate. It wasn’t to aggrieve one particular sense of wrong. It was to terrorize people. It was to attack everything that we do stand for.”

When shown Kerry's comments, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush said, "There should be no empathy and there’s no rationale for barbaric Islamic terrorists who want to destroy Western civilization," The Wall Street Journal reported. 

Parts of Kerry's comments would seem at odds with The Islamic Society of North America, one of America's oldest and largest Islamic umbrella organizations, which condemned the attacks in Paris with a specific rejection of the terrorists' religious motivations.

Many who have joined Islamic State are learning about Islam from IS-sponsored social media, not local religious leaders, ISNA communications director Edgar Hopida says in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor.  

"Most terrorists out there are religiously illiterate," Mr. Hopida says.

He says faith can be part of the solution to terrorism, disagreeing with Bill Maher's view that even mainstream Islam is problematic.

"We should not demonize each other, we should try and help each other regardless of what religion people are," Hopida says. "A very open-minded atheist would be able to differentiate between what Islam teaches and what these terrorists do."

Polarization is part of the terrorist playbook, note experts, as attacks on mosques have risen in recent days. 

Dividing the world into ideological groups has long been a tactic of extremists, says Randall Law, associate professor of history at Birmingham-Southern College, and the author of "Terrorism: A History."

"Terrorism as a strategy rests on the use of symbolic violence, particularly violence that provokes," Prof. Law says in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor. "And one of the most effective ways to do this is by using provocative violence that destroys the middle ground, that destroys the possibility of compromise, condominium, and negotiated settlement – the very backbone of life in a modern, multiethnic, multifaith liberal democracy."

He added, "This has become the essence of modern terrorism. And it has become a staple of radical Islamist and jihadist violence."

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