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Response to David Pakman's Claim that Reza Aslan is a Liar

[Please read Links to Some Facts about Muslims & Islam also]

by John Spritzler

February 28, 2016

This is a response to David Pakman's video attack on Reza Aslan at .

It seems to me that Pakman's point is what I will call Proposition A:

"The virtually exclusive cause of some very bad aspects of some societies is the fact that people in those societies say, 'I am a Muslim; Islam is my religion'; therefore the only way to eliminate these bad aspects of a society is to somehow persuade people to stop saying, 'I am a Muslim; Islam is my religion'."

Pakman also seems to be saying that the only way to challenge Proposition A is by lying, and Aslan is a liar.

Reza Aslan's point is that Proposition A is false. Aslan directs people's attention to aspects of reality that are hard to explain on the basis of Proposition A. One can quibble with some statements Aslan makes, but--for the reasons I spell out in detail below--I don't think these quibbles constitute a basis for saying "Aslan is a liar." I think Aslan does in fact point out truthfully that there are aspects of reality that conflict with Proposition A. Now for the details:

David Pakman says:

Pakman assertion #1. Reza Aslan doesn't have a Ph.D. in Religion.

Here's what his Ph.D. thesis adviser, Mark Juergensmayer, says:

Since I was Reza’s thesis adviser at the Univ. of California-Santa Barbara, I can testify that he is a religious studies scholar. (I am a sociologist of religion with a position in sociology and an affiliation with religious studies). Though Reza’s PhD is in sociology most of his graduate course work at UCSB was in the history of religion in the dept of religious studies. Though none of his 4 degrees are in history as such, he is a “historian of religion” in the way that that term is used at the Univ of Chicago to cover the field of comparative religion; and his theology degree at Harvard covered Bible and Church history, and required him to master New Testament Greek. So in short, he is who he says he is.” It’s fine if you disagree with Aslan about religion, but to simply make things up about him because you don’t like him is wrong. Yes, Aslan focuses more on writing books for the general public rather than academic articles, but he certainly isn’t a “fraud” and does have academic training in the history of religions. And yes he does teach creative writing now, but he previously has taught courses on religion. It’s quite hypocritical for atheists to call out ignorance from religious people and then turn around and spout off their own misinformation. This is just another example of why atheism does not always equal skepticism.

By the way, whoever wrote the book Zealot is a historian, because that book is the kind of book historians write, and it is the writing of such books that MAKES a person a historian. Aslan wrote that book. One can argue whether or not he is a good historian, but the same goes for the earliest historian, Herodotus, who, by the way, did not have a "degree in history" but nobody says he was not a historian.

If there was an academic conference and Aslan gave a talk at it and somebody criticized him for "misrepresenting his credentials" I think that person would be considered an idiot by the people at the conference.


Pakman assertion #2. Aslan lies about female genital mutilation

PunditFact examined Aslan's claim, and looked at the very same map that Pakman displays, and concludes:

Our ruling

Aslan rejected Maher’s characterization of female genital mutilation as an Islamic problem, saying instead that it’s actually "a central African problem."

Due to immigration, the term "central African" may be too restrictive, but his larger point -- that this is not a problem in only Muslim countries -- is valid. Countries with majority-Christian populations also carry out this practice, while Islamic-majority countries like Iraq and Yemen have rates on the lower side.

We rate Aslan’s claim Mostly True.

Pakman infers (wrongly!) from the fact that most nations having FGM are Muslim, the conclusion that being a Muslim nation is the thing that causes a nation to have FGM, or in other words that Aslan is wrong to deny that FGM is a "Muslim thing." But this is not logical. It's like saying that the fact that most of the powerful people in the United States are white shows that being white causes a person to be powerful in the United States.

Pakman infers (wrongly!) from the fact that some Muslims in nations with FGM say that Islam requires FGM, the conclusion that Islam requires FGM. But this is not logical. It's like saying that the fact that the Christian leaders of South Africa during apartheid insisted that opposition to apartheid meant opposition to Christianity (i.e., that Christianity required apartheid)  shows that Christianity requires apartheid. It's also like saying that the fact that most jurors say that a jury cannot legally do jury nullification shows that juries cannot legally do jury nullification.

Pakman says "FGM is almost exclusively a Muslim problem." Why "almost" if it is Islam and only Islam that causes it? Furthermore, racial apartheid was exclusively a Christian problem, but did Christianity cause racial apartheid? Pakman is clearly not a logician!

Consider Eritrea:

According to this source the prevalence of FGM in Eritrea is 94.5% and according to this source the population of Eritrea is 50% Christian and 48% Muslim. This implies that many non-Muslims are practicing FGM, i.e., that something other than Islam causes FGM even if something in Islam also provides support for it. "The prevalence [of FGM] varies with woman's religion, as well as by their ethnic group; FGM is prevalent in 99% of Muslim women, 89% of Catholics and 85% of Protestants.[46] Eritrea outlawed all forms of female genital mutilation with Proclamation 158/2007 in March 2007.[33][76] The law envisions a fine and imprisonment for anyone conducting or commissioning FGM.[77]"

Consider Niger:

In Niger, where the population is more than 94% Muslim, this source reports: "Advocacy and social mobilization interventions related to the fight against FGM/C [I think the C stands for "cutting" here] have led to:

  • The passing of a law banning FGM/C (2003). The law has been translated into all of Niger's local languages for wider distribution, and judges and police officers have received training.
  • The involvement of traditional and religious leaders--through their effective participation alongside technical staff in awareness-raising campaigns and in television and radio debates where they present Islam's position on the subject--as well as the involvement of young people, judges and social workers.

Due presumably to such efforts "the prevalence of FGM/C has fallen noticeably: from 5% in 1998 to 2.2% in 2006 among women aged 15-49." [same source as above]

Another source reports: "Female genital mutilation is present in Niger.[52] According to 2006 survey, about 2% of Niger women have undergone FGM/C.[8] In 1998, Niger reported a 4.5% prevalence rate.[93] This survey data is potentially incorrect because, adjusted for age group, the women who claimed to have experienced FGM at the previous survey still are, albeit in a different age group. However, the 2006 survey implies more women had never experienced FGM than previously reported. The DHS surveyors claim the adoption of criminal legislation and fear of prosecution may explain why Niger women did not want to report having ever been circumcised.[94] A WHO report estimates the prevalence rate of FGM in Niger to be 20%.[95] Other sources, including a UNICEF 2009 report, claim FGM rates are high in Niger.[96][97][98] A law banning FGM was passed in 2003 by the Niger government.[99]"

Note that the prevalence of FGM in Niger is, by any measure, very low, even though the population is more than 94% Muslim, which implies that the great majority of Muslim families were NOT practicing FGM, i.e., the great majority of Muslim families were refusing to act according to whatever words in the Koran may tell them to engage in FGM. Furthermore, if an overwhelmingly Muslim nation like Niger can pass a law in 2003 banning FGM, and if Muslims can engage there in helping to make the ban on FGM more effective by discussing the relation between Islam and FGM, it indicates that Islam, per se, is not the obstacle to eliminating FGM.

The fact that some Muslim nations, such as Indonesia, do have a very high prevalence of FGM certainly shows that being a Muslim nation does not prevent FGM, but--contrary to the "logic" of people like Pakman (and Bill Maher)--it does not show that Islam is a cause (never mind the only cause) of FGM.

The fact that in Eritrea 89% of Catholics and 85% of Protestants practice FGM, whereas in Niger (94% Muslim) 80% (more according to some surveys) of the people do NOT practice FGM shows clearly that it is not at all true that, as Proposition A asserts, the key to eliminating FGM is to persuade people to reject Islam as their religion. This was Aslan's point--which, granted, he did not make perfectly and Pakman can claim to have won a debater's point or two if that makes him happy. But Aslan's point is true; it is what the actual data logically imply.

It is true that Aslan wrongly omitted to say that some non-African majority-Muslim nations (such as Indonesia) also have high FGM prevalence. Some say this omission was deliberate deceit on Aslan's part. Who knows? It may have been simply that Aslan was relying on the map taken from the July 2013 UNICEF Report on FGM that is also displayed here, which shows only African nations.


Pakman assertion #3. Aslan lies in saying that Indonesia and Malaysia and Bangladesh are free and open societies for women

Aslan's response to the CNN reporter's claim that Muslim societies are not "free and open" for women was to point out that not all Muslim societies are the same with respect to whatever is actually meant by the extremely vague phrase "free and open"--a phrase that the CNN reporter did not even try to define precisely enough to make a sophisticated response even possible. There are a zillion ways that one can define "free and open" and a zillion criteria that one could choose with which to answer the question for a given society, "Is it 'free and open' for women?" Person A, for example, can choose to look at whether men but not women are forced to register for the draft, and whether--all relevant things about the mother and father being equal--women are given child custody in divorce and not men, as two good criteria for judging whether a society is biased in favor of women against men. By those criteria, the U.S. is a society that is much less "free and open" for men than for women. And by these criteria, one could say that a person B, who claims that there is gender equality in the United States and hence that it is a society that is "free and open" for men, is a liar. But if person B is merely using criteria different from person A for evaluating if a society is "free and open"then person B may have a perfectly reasonable basis for his/her claim, and it would be silly to frame the disagreement as merely a reflection of the "fact" that "person A is telling the truth and person B is simply lying."

Aslan distinguished Iran and Saudi Arabia as not "free and open" for women, versus Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh as being "free and open" for women. I don't know what criteria Aslan had in mind and neither does Pakman.

What if Aslan's criterion was the participation of women in the national government? How do Saudi Arabia, Iran, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Indonesia (an the United States, as a non-Muslim reference point) compare on this measure?

Saudi Arabia:

"Until the announcement last September by King Abdullah to give women the right to vote, stand for election in municipal elections and be appointed to the Shura Council, the Gulf country remained the only country in the world where women remained excluded from the political process," the IPU said in a statement. [source: ]

Note: the Shura Council is only an advisory body. Hence:

Women in parliament: Zero %


Nine out of 290 members of the Iranian parliament are women. This 3% membership puts Iran near the bottom of the international measures of female parliamentary representation. Women have never been more than 5% of the parliament, but they have always been among the key political players on both sides of the political divide in the Islamic Republic. [source: ]

Women in parliament: 3% (based on the above)


The status of women in Bangladesh is defined by struggle to massive improvement over the years. The Bangladeshi women have made massive gains since the country gained its independence in 1971. The past four decades have seen increased political empowerment for women, better job prospects, improved education and the adoption of new laws to protect their rights. As of 2013, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, the Speaker of Parliament, the Leader of the Opposition and the Foreign minister were women.

Women in parliament: 19.7% (in 2012)

[source: ]


After the UN's Universal Periodic Review of Malaysia in 2009, the government ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in August, 1995, although with certain reservations. The status of women in the country is complex, and partly dependent on their religion and on where they reside in the states and federal territories of Malaysia, factors which affect certain legal issues. The issue of women's rights in the country is subject to ideological disagreements between conservative and liberal interpretations of Islam, and between more secular forces.[3][4]

Women in parliament: 13.2% (in 2012)

[source: ]


Women in parliament: 18.2% (in 2010) [source: ]

United States:

The Center for American Women and Politics reports that, as of 2013, 18.3% of congressional seats are held by women [source: ] This is less than in Bangladesh.

Women in Congress: 19.4% (in 2015) [source: ] This is STILL less than in Bangladesh.

And compared to other nations, the United States is losing ground. America now ranks ninety-eighth in the world for percentage of women in its national legislature, down from 59th in 1998. That’s embarrassing: just behind Kenya and Indonesia, and barely ahead of the United Arab Emirates. [source: ]

Using the criterion of percentage of people in the national government who are women (which is not an unreasonable criterion in this context), Aslan's statement is reasonable. Based on this criterion, there is a basis for saying that Saudi Arabia and Iran are not "free and open" societies for women but that "Malaysia and Bangladesh and Indonesia are. Pakman may prefer a different criterion (or criteria), and that is his right, but to label Aslan a "liar" because Pakman doesn't like his choice of criterion (criteria) on the basis of which he responded, off the cuff, to an exceedingly vaguely worded CNN question, is absurd. Given the criterion of participation of women in the national government, there is a huge range of "free and open"-ness for women in Muslim nations, with one (Bangladesh) being (by this criterion) more "free and open" for women than even the United States (which some could argue is a society biased in favor of women against men!) Clearly "being a Muslim nation" is not what determines how "free and open" for women a society is, based on at least one reasonable criterion for measuring how "free and open" a society is for women. This is evidence against Proposition A, and it does not require lying to present this evidence.

Pakman assertion #4: Aslan lies in saying that the Koran forbids slavery

Pakman doesn't quote Aslan on this, so it's not clear what Aslan actually said. Both the Bible's New Testament and the Koran have passages that endorse slavery. For example, in the Bible's New Testament, Ephesians 6-5 uses the word "bondservant" to mean "slave" (according to here) and says,

"Bondservants,1 obey your earthly masters2 with fear and trembling, wwith a sincere heart, xas you would Christ, 6 not by the way of eye-service, as ypeople-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, 7 rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, 8 zknowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, awhether he is a bondservant3 or is free. 9"

According to this source, the Koran contains the following:

"And marry the unmarried among you and the righteous among your male slaves and female slaves. If they should be poor, Allah will enrich them from His bounty, and Allah is all-Encompassing and Knowing" Quran 24:33:[26]

Very few (not zero, but very few!) Muslims or Christians today defend slavery, no matter what words appear in their scripture.

Pakman assertion #5: Aslan lies in denying that Hamas uses civilians as a military shield

The television clip that Pakman shows to make this claim actually shows Aslan asserting that Israel killed many civilians in Gaza. Another guest then says this killing was justified, on the grounds (apparently, the audio is garbled) that Hamas used civilians as a shield, and Aslan replied, "that is nonsense." The real debate here, obviously, is over whether Israel's massacre of civilians in Gaza was justified or not, and Alsn is 100% correct in saying that any justification of this massacre is "nonsense." For some discussion of this one can start by reading "Israeli Leaders and Hamas Need Each Other" and other articles here.

Pakman assertion #6: Aslan's brand of oversensitivity regarding Islam makes it "nearly impossible to criticize certain strands of bad ideas in the world without being labeled an Islamaphobe."

If this were true, then Aslan would not have said that Saudi Arabia and Iran were not "free and open" societies for women. But he DID say this.

Pakman implies that Aslan defends ISIS. But Pakman includes no clips in his video of Aslan doing any such thing. Surely if Aslan had anywhere defended ISIS Pakman would have shown this in his video, so Pakman must not have been able to find any actual evidence that Aslan ever defended ISIS.

Pakman insists, quite illogically, that Aslan is an "oversensitive" and "politically correct" liar because he (Aslan) does not agree that there are some very bad things in the world that can only be ended by persuading people to stop saying, "I am a Muslim; my religion is Islam." Pakman and people like Sam Harris use this kind of "reasoning" to defend Israel's racist and violent ethnic cleansing of non-Jews (mostly Muslims and also some Christians) from the 78% of Palestine called Israel. Because most Palestinians are Muslims, Pakman's narrative is that they are therefore bad people who deserve to be ethnically cleansed, and if they fight back they deserve to be massacred because, well, they're Muslims and therefore they have bad ideas and do bad things.

Pakman lectures: "All true bigotry and racism must be condemned." But he doesn't say a word in condemnation of Zionism, which is the thoroughly racist movement to make most of Palestine a Jewish state. The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel stresses that the sovereign authority in Israel is the Jewish people, not the people who live there: "This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state." It repeatedly uses phrases to emphasize this point: "Jewish its own country," "Jewish people to rebuild its national home," "Jewish state," "right of the Jewish people to establish their state," "Jewish people in the upbuilding of its state," "sovereign Jewish people." Israel uses violent ethnic cleansing to drive out and keep out as many non-Jews as possible, so it can purport to be a "democracy" and a Jewish state at the same time. Thus 70% of the people in Gaza are refugees from what is called Israel, and Israel violently prevents them from returning, from exercising their Right of Return, which they have according to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 13(2), which says, "Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country."

Section 7A(1) of the Basic Law of Israel explicitly prevents Israeli citizens – Arab or Jewish – from using the "democratic" system of Israeli elections to challenge the inferior status of Arabs under the law; it restricts who can run for political office with this language: "A candidates' list shall not participate in elections to the Knesset if among its goals or deeds, either expressly or impliedly, are one of the following: (1) The negation of the existence of the State of Israel as the State of the Jewish People. …" In a 1989 Israeli Supreme Court ruling (reported in the 1991 Israel Law Review, Vol. 25, p. 219, published by the Faculty of Law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem) Justice S. Levine, speaking for the majority, ruled that this law meant that a political party could not run candidates if it intended to achieve the cancellation of one of the fundamental tenets of the State – namely "the existence of a Jewish majority, the granting of preference to Jews in matters of immigration, and the existence of close and reciprocal relations between the State and the Jews of the Diaspora."

Until Pakman condemns the utterly racist project of Israeli Zionism, his utterances about how "All true bigotry and racism must be condemned" cannot be taken seriously, and his accusations that people such as Reza Aslan are liars if they defend Muslims from such injustice must be seen for what they are--an effort to help injustice gain some ill-deserved popular support.

Reza Aslan does not, as Pakman claims, "label everyone who criticizes bad ideas in the Koran or bad ideas held by some Muslims" as an "Islamaphobe"; he lables as an "Islamaphobe" people such as Pakman who wrongly insist that some very bad things in the world can only be ended by persuading people to stop saying, "I am a Muslim; my religion is Islam."



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