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My Take: Why Islam needs Stephen Colbert
Stephen Colbert at the 'Rally To Restore Sanity And/Or Fear' in Washington in October 2010.
April 15th, 2011
12:57 PM ET

My Take: Why Islam needs Stephen Colbert

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

Quick question: When you think of Buddhism, whose name comes to mind?

What about Islam?

A few nights ago, I spoke at the University of North Alabama on an interfaith panel that included a rabbi (Micah Greenstein of Memphis, Tennessee), an imam (Sheikh Ossama Bahloul of Murfreesboro, Tennessee) and a Protestant minister (Bishop William Willimon of Birmingham, Alabama).

During the spirited dinner conversation that preceded the event a group of us got to talking about the important role that high-profile public figures can play in breaking down religious stereotypes.

At the local level, for example, getting to know your town's rabbi can undercut prejudices you may have toward Jews. Having dinner with your Muslim neighbor can debunk stereotypes about Islam. At the national level, though, public figures control the conversation.

One reason Buddhists are accepted more often than they are feared in the United States is that when we think of Buddhism we think of the Dalai Lama and his trademark smile.

When we think of Islam, however, many of us think of Osama Bin Laden and his AK-47.

As aficionados of The Colbert Report have doubtless heard, Stephen Colbert has given up Catholicism for Lent. He became a Jew for a while but he liked that so much he guilt-tripped himself into giving up Judaism, too.

So a couple weeks ago he invited me onto his show to serve as his personal religion shopper.

I told him a little (you can't get too many words in edgewise) about Quakers and Hindus and Shakers and Jains, but when I tried to sell him on Islam he responded, “It’s got kind of a PR nightmare on its hands.”

Last week, however, Colbert converted to Islam in an effort, he said, to prove that moderate Muslims really do exist. It’s a gag of course, and he’ll be back to being one of America’s most beloved Catholics as of Easter.

But this gag does raise a serious question: where are the Muslims to whom Americans can look without fear or trembling?

There is Muhammad Ali, of course, and Yusuf Islam (the former Cat Stevens) but their heydays were in the 1960s and 1970s. And there are some current NBA players and international soccer stars who practice Islam.

But these are all B-list celebrities, at least in the United States. There isn’t anyone here like Stephen Colbert (who, by the way, has probably done more than any other celebrity, to repair the public image of Catholicism in the wake of the sex abuse scandals, at least among young people).

Until there is, Islam will continue to suffer from its "PR nightmare."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Catholic Church • Interfaith issues • Islam • Opinion • TV

soundoff (369 Responses)
  1. bob marlin smith

    Buddhist terrorist invented the suicide bomber as we know it today(strapping a bomb to your body and going POP in a crowd). they also pioneered the idea of strapping bombs to unwilling people and using remote detonation.

    the Muslims on the other hand simply stole the 2 ideas. damn thieves!

    April 15, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
  2. Tod Jones

    Colbert has done nada to repair the rep of Catholic priest behavior....I only wonder why he is still a "believer"!

    April 15, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
  3. JNN

    Why can't everybody in the world just shut up for a second and think?

    April 15, 2011 at 6:28 pm |
  4. Pecos Bill

    I really don't want the image of Catholicism restored for what they did is reprehensible and unforgivable.

    -An EX-Catholic (that wasn't molested)

    April 15, 2011 at 6:28 pm |
  5. David K.

    Perhaps Islam could repair its image with less drastic measures by having its leaders publicly denounce acts of terrorism and extremist sects. They don't need a celebrity, they need a leader willing to take a risk.

    April 15, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
    • AlisonNoelle

      Wow was that an actual intelligent comment right there?

      April 15, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
  6. damn yank

    people aren't afraid of buddists because they don't live in the holy land.....today's anti islamic propaganda is just part of the modern day crusades.

    Ask yourself this question....had Muhammed been born a Jew like Moses ( instead of an Arab), would you be this prejudiced against him and his message? If you think about it ..... both men brought identical messages...

    one more thing, Islam is not in need of anybody. it is a religion that is protected by God. you can try to fight Islam with your words, your propaganda, and your hate.....you can try to slander the prophet of islam like you're forefathers did before you....but like them, you will be dead and forgotten, your name not ever mentioned again.......while islam will still exist and the prophet muhammed will still be remembered as the greatest man who ever lived.

    so go ahead and do/say what ever you want. God gave you the free will to do what ever you want. You want to burn the Quran....burn it. You want to force believing women not to wear a veil? do it You want to draw silly cartoons of the prophet Muhammed? go ahead....you're really only hurting yourselves because one day, you will be dead and gone....one day you will have to stand naked in front of God and answer for the things you said and did....whether you want to believe it now or not....

    April 15, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
    • qanerd

      Muhammad was born a Jew (a religion) AND an Arab (an ethnic/national group). Ooooh I feel a fatwa coming on!

      April 15, 2011 at 6:29 pm |
    • KBinMN

      "one day you will have to stand naked in front of God and answer for the things you said and did" – The trouble is getting radical Islamists to worry about that instead of some teenage s_x fantasy regarding virgins.

      April 15, 2011 at 6:37 pm |
  7. T Diddy

    Islam s u c k s no matter who is in it. It is a religion of idiots for idiots. Mohammed gives good head though!

    April 15, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
    • justin

      you know nothing. I can tell from just a few of your words.

      April 15, 2011 at 6:29 pm |
    • ScottK

      You had it Almost right... It should read:

      Religion s u c k s no matter who is in it. All religion is of idiots for idiots. Priests like good head though!

      April 15, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
  8. Jeus Is Lord

    Islam needs Jesus Christ. He is the only begotten Son of God and the ONLY way to Heaven. Peace.

    April 15, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
    • justin

      Another radical christian!

      April 15, 2011 at 6:28 pm |
    • lolumad

      They have Jesus Christ...... do you literally know absolutely nothing?

      April 15, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
  9. Nick

    I've seen Mohommad. He was maybe an 8, if she's drunk. 6 or 7 otherwise. Needs a better wardrobe, robes are so 2000 years ago.

    April 15, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
  10. isaiditbeforeiwillsayitagain

    Michael, get me the fnl outta here

    April 15, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
  11. livingfree

    Not to burst the author's bubble, but Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) openly supported the murder of Salman Rushdie http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2-wjxwpvqps So much for nothing to fear, eh?

    April 15, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
  12. Religulous

    'nuff said

    April 15, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  13. mattmchugh

    Daily Show correspondent/actor Aasif Mandvi is among the most successful Muslims working in the entertainment industry, and a generally smart, articulate, and non-threatening type guy. He'd get my vote as a good frequent talk-show guest for Islam.

    April 15, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
  14. ScottK

    Did you know that Senator Kyl renounced Christ and urinated on a picture of the pope while getting a proctology exam from a cirque du soleil clown?...

    #NotIntendedToBeAFactualStatment

    April 15, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
    • Greg

      Really? We're still doing that? Can you try to be more of a "Me-Too"er next time?

      April 15, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
  15. TMZ says

    Stephen Colbert will find out how peaceful Muslims are when he "converts" out of it, they have no choice but to kill the infidel of which he will be top of the list by leaving Islam. Joke or not he is stupidly wandering the mine field of this so-called peaceful religion.

    April 15, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
  16. PulTab

    catholicism, islam, what's the difference. one blows up adults, the other blows children. all religion sucks!

    April 15, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
    • JohnMH

      Well, PulTab, you're almost as smart as the genius that wrote this article. If you think there's no difference between Islam and Christianity then you should move to California, if you're not already there. The writer here answers his own dumb question. It's obvious why there are no popular Islamists. The only question here is if the Islamists will go after Colbert and cut his head off for leaving their religion. That's what all the other religions would do, right, PulTab? PS PulTab, you're a moron.

      April 15, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      Prothero'sw articles always have such a slant which normally does not make for good reading. How many times have we heard the statements that he answers his own stupid questions, in past threads?

      April 15, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
    • justin

      No JohnHM, you're the moron. You ought to get out a little!

      April 15, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
    • budman

      I could not agree more! Well said.

      April 15, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
    • Kane

      @John, no, Christians wouldn't cut off their heads (today). But they did used to burn them at the stake, or crush them under a pile of rocks, or hang them, or drown them, etc, etc. Thank goodness we had that spat of reasonable people who came in and realized that was wrong, and that states shouldn't be controlled on a religious basis...and it's too bad we, the western world had to go and exploit the middle east and Africa so much that we'd drive their oppressed peoples into the arms of fanatical extremists

      April 15, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
  17. Tim

    This raises the question: what would they do with him if they got him?

    April 15, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
  18. Jack

    When Colbert converts back to whatever he was he'll be handed a death sentence for apostasy. Islam is a really fun religion in that regard.

    April 15, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
    • Belingo

      How great it is that such things aren't known to have happened in Christianity...

      There are two questions here:
      Can Islam, and hence the Muslims, go through the same evolution that has made Christianity a largely peaceful religion that accepts secularism? Of course it can...
      How can that happen? That's a more tricky one. Maybe current events in the Middle East show that we are moving a step towards it.

      April 15, 2011 at 6:38 pm |
    • lolumad

      well he had to have converted for real anyways. There is a deal of work involved in that more than a gag on a show.

      April 15, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
  19. morphius

    Hey Stephen,

    One of the daily show correspondent is a muslim too. I don't think it's so much that there are no A list muslim celebrities but rather that it's more juicy and media centric to focus terrorist aspect of it. Also, I consider Kareem Abdul Jabbar and

    April 15, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
    • lolumad

      Aziz Ansari from Parks and Recreation.

      April 15, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
  20. Serenade

    The reason people aren't afraid about Buddhists is because their religion is more of a philosophy rather than a death cult. Buddhists in history are pacifistic and will not fight to attain their goals ( See Vietnam war and burning monks). Islam is however like most Abrahamic religions extremely violent in nature and to make matters worse unlike Judaism or Christianity has not been pushed aside from the major public view by science and technology. The fact is that moderate Muslims exist through out America. However their numbers are almost minimal in the Arab world as that world is still living in the past and demands their dangerous religion be the law.
    Fact is Stephen Colbert or not most educated individuals see the danger of religion and they see the extreme danger Islam poses towards tomorrow. It is not just a hick or morons creed, but rather one that even the most intellectual of persons see.

    April 15, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
    • Jack

      Buddhists also practice self-immolation as a form of devotion. Other than that, it's pretty cool.

      April 15, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
    • Mitch

      There have in fact been a good number of Buddhist terrorist attacks on Christians and Tamil's within Sri Lanka. They've even used suicide bombers

      April 15, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
    • AB

      Well, moderate Muslims are everywhere – they're not minimal. You don't have a proof to support that. I know a moderate Muslim at my workplace. He was actually catholic before converting to Islam. He changed his legal name to a Muslim name, but most of his colleagues have no idea that he converted and they keep using his old name. The reason is simple. There's so much generalized hate against Muslims (instead of directing that hate to extremists and radicals only). Moderate Muslims are attacked and harmed as well ... sometimes, denied jobs. So how do you expect them to raise their voice if you can't support them in spreading their modesty?

      April 15, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
    • In Nashville

      Buddhist Monks have been known to put to practice their martial skills in war just as ably as any other warriors. The image of monks as peaceful these days is because no militant Buddhist sects are conducting violent acts in their traditional garb however 4000 people were injured in a poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway system by a Buddhist group.

      April 15, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
    • justin

      Mitch, You need to brush up on history. It was the Tamil Tigers (mostly Hindus) using suicide bombers on the Buddists (Sinhalese).

      April 15, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
    • johnny america

      Shaolin monks kill people. No one's hands are clean

      April 15, 2011 at 6:29 pm |
    • Ideacanon

      Serenade; you comment hints that you are ill informed. "Death cult"? Islam is a way of life, one of tolerance, peace, and devotion to knowledge and self sustainability.
      Moderate Muslims are the majority- even in Yemen. Most radicals are not educated on religion, they have secular educations and start as moderates ( they become radical as a means of political escapism).
      Attributing words like "danger" and "violent" to Islam would leave people to wonder about your literacy level. Not amount of study would lead one to conclude that Islam has a history of, or is presently engaged in violence (don't confuse Arab/Asian leaders with Islam). There is in fact an Abrahamic religion that has a very violent past, one ridden with; war, slavery, colonialism and intrusive missionaries- it is not Islam.

      April 15, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
    • Taf

      AB, I am one of those Muslims who is being denied jobs. I have an above average resume from a top quality engineering school and I have been rigorously applying. Out of the 50 companies that I have applied I received call backs from maybe 2 or 3 unenthusiastically. What the heck did I do? I am a good student with a quality resume and they're pretty much telling me they won't hire me because of my Islamic name. I know people with worst gpa than mine and who are international students who are receiving job offers left and right. This is truly unfair and I am not sure what to do at the moment. I can't go back anywhere this is my country and it's a damn shame.

      April 15, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
    • lolumad

      "4000 people were injured in a poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway system by a Buddhist group."

      Actually that wasn't a buddist group, it was really a cult not any accepted form of that religion. IIRC they were also Shinto based which isn't buddhism.

      April 15, 2011 at 6:48 pm |
    • lolumad

      "AB, I am one of those Muslims who is being denied jobs. I have an above average resume from a top quality engineering school and I have been rigorously applying. Out of the 50 companies that I have applied I received call backs from maybe 2 or 3 unenthusiastically."

      Hate to break it to you but im in the same boat and I am a white non-religious.... had to accept a job that paid 30k a year until I got laid off there and joined the military.

      April 15, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.