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. Tony

    Religion is overrated. Christians, Muslims and Jews all get their stuff from Assyro-Babylonian religions and I'm sure those religions got it from previous religions. The only truth in life is to accept us all living on the same damn planet and to tolerate and respect another.

    P.S. All Abrahamic religions follow the same God yet we align ourselves with Generals ( Jesus, Moses, Mohammed ). Makes no sense, I don't see me pledging my allegiance to a Governor over the President.

    April 15, 2011 at 7:50 pm |

      ya well i think talk is overrated and we'll see when you die one day. we all die. its a fact. btw muslims belive in jesus moses and muhammad as prophets and belive in their original teachings not the ones placed in the bible which have been altered by pagan romans.

      April 15, 2011 at 7:55 pm |

    Your right, the quran doesnt specifically mention every race or nationality that ever existed or will exist that would be useless and redundant. its a message for all mankind not based on race

    but i'll tell you this the quran does mention ignorant people like you and honestly you can say what you want but your gonna die someday. we'll see my friend we'll see

    April 15, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
  3. Bibletruth

    Believing in Jesus is 100% = to keeping God's commandments. Any so called belief in Jesus that does not produce commandment keeping is not belief (based on what the bible defines belief) but just some level of mental ascent. Faith in Christ works by love and purifies the person, i.e. produces a commandment keeper). A commandment keeper is a person that loves. There is no such thing as a commandmet keeper (can only be done with Christ within) that does not love........and tell the truth.

    April 15, 2011 at 7:47 pm |

      muslims believe that jesus was a messenger of god and was a blessed man and love him very much. they don't need to associate him with the creator of the heavens to respect him and believe him. the point is to believe him not believe in him. he was sent to tell us to believe in god. do you think he prayed to himself if you think he's god? simple question answer it.

      April 15, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
  4. Wink Ledbetter

    This is a much better article than the last one you did, MrProthero.
    Thanks and have a good weekend. At the beach. With that woman. You naughty boy.

    April 15, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
  5. Rumana Maryam

    Let me tell you that Muslims are the most depressed people in the world, so maybe Colbert can help. Islamic year begins with Muharam and we start it by cry for Hussain grandson of prophet Mohammad, who was murdered 1400 years ago, We have no fun holidays, and Mullah's tell us celebrating birthdays is haram and we will go to hell, and some how mass murderer Osama is getting 72 virgins. NOT FAIR. As woman I resent that.

    April 15, 2011 at 7:33 pm |
    • Kearns

      Shi'a Muslims, that is. Seek out a Sufi Masjid, you'll find they are very happy, and have no issues with birthdays, and instead of crying for Imam Hussain, they study his life and the life of the other martyrs to learn and reflect.

      April 15, 2011 at 8:23 pm |
  6. ronindavid

    Evidently the writer of this article, Stephen Prothero, doesn't have much experience with Muslims or knowledge of Stephen Colbert.

    Is he trying to get him killed, because they would kill him. I love Colbert. Please don't get one of my favorite comedians killed to prove some sort of point.

    I'm sure Colbert is smart enough to know there are some audiences that are not known for tolerance of others viewpoints...and then there are Muslims who would kill him. Colbert ripped Bush a new hole once. Can you imagine what he would say about Islam?

    April 15, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
    • Xugos

      You're a moron. Colbert is a celebrity, there are hundreds of loons out there who would want to kill a celebrity just for the attention. Colbert and other celebrities are used to it.

      April 15, 2011 at 7:36 pm |

      dude calm down

      April 15, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
  7. Joseph

    Everybody talks about breaking down stereotypes. But stereotypes don't just *poof* into existence out of nowhere. A lot of them have valid backgrounds. And when I think of Islam, I don't just think of of Bin Laden and his AK-47. I think of all the dead innocent, of every religion, nationality, creed, gender, and age that have died from the bullets and bombs of Muslim terrorists and extremists. As far as Buddhism goes – It's never attacked American buildings and civilians with our own planes as far as I know.

    April 15, 2011 at 7:28 pm |

      ya and when i think of christianity i think of how hitler slaughtered millions of jews for absolutely no reason. come on. grow up im sure you know actions of individuals dont represent 1.5 billion people. stop being a bigot.

      April 15, 2011 at 7:57 pm |
    • BG

      @ thetruth (note the more appropriate and quiet lower case letters...)

      " ya and when i think of christianity i think of how hitler slaughtered millions of jews for absolutely no reason. "

      Really? Why? Interesting the way the muslim mind works...

      April 15, 2011 at 9:39 pm |
  8. Mudassar

    If Steve Colbert wants to accept Islam, he is welcome but Islam does not need him. He needs Islam for his salvation. On the Day of Judgement everyone will be accountable for his own actions in this life. As far as the comment of Islam has a PR nightmare then let me suggest that more people are converting to Islam in the USA ,not because of Islam being preached by Islamic centers but because of Fox news because there is no such thing as bad publicity. Because of Fox and ther media outlets, people are picking up tand reading the Quran and making their own minds about Islam.

    April 15, 2011 at 7:23 pm |
  9. Brian Holbrook

    Yesterday you write the "I Have Nothing To Say, So I'm Going to Say it On CNN" article. Today you write the "Even Less to Say, But Just as Much Space to Say It" sequel... Sweet Christ I hope you aren't getting paid to spit this drivel onto a page...

    April 15, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
  10. Moderate Muslim

    This column belongs on Comedy Central's website, not CNN's.

    April 15, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
    • Jim

      No difference between the two news-wise. The only difference is Colbert is funnier...

      April 15, 2011 at 7:44 pm |
  11. Breed11

    With the whole Priests and little boys thing, Catholicism is just as bad as Islam.

    April 15, 2011 at 7:18 pm |
  12. Sami

    Islam doesn't need a PR. We know about the dark time we live in. Have a faith my friend. All the world problem will be fix when Jesus (Peace and blessing of God be up on him) returns to this earth by permission of God. His return would be the worst nightmare for Luciferian Illuminati.

    April 15, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
  13. D.L. Kisting

    Sorry, I just don't trust the majority of Muslims.

    April 15, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
    • Ryan

      Well, I'm an Atheist and I don't trust morons...so I don't trust you.

      April 15, 2011 at 7:16 pm |
    • Jim

      I don't trust Ryan because he is an atheist...

      come on – keep it up and continue this type of "intelligent" retort to morons and morons who call others morons...

      April 15, 2011 at 7:40 pm |
    • Ryan

      and morons who call other people morons for calling other people morons.

      But seriously, If you don't trust the majority of a group of a billion and a half people just because they are Muslim, then you are pretty moronic.

      April 15, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
  14. Goodnews

    Islam's turn in the barrel. Religions and the socioeconomic conditions in which they exist do evolve, slowly and painfully. Let's hope the recent "awakening" in the middle east will result in further movement toward maturity. The stupidity and prejudice of all religions, especially Islam, makes my blood boil. We cant beat our values of equality and freedom into others, we have to lead by example, a difficult path that requires more patience and forgiving than most of us posses. Example, I want to lash out whenever I see "progressive" educated Muslims treat woman like chattel...wrong no matter how you try to rationalize it. Breathe deep...

    April 15, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
  15. MichLaw

    I love this article. I'm an American Muslim and I've been thinking the same thing. We need people out there to debunk stereotypes, because these sorts of things don't get fixed on their own. Previous generations had the likes of Muhammad Ali, but it appears that there aren't any break through Muslim celebrities today.

    April 15, 2011 at 7:07 pm |
    • America up for grabs

      Islam only wants to be loved. Until they have a majority that is.

      April 15, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
  16. Joemohammed

    OK then Take a hike, still an American and a Muslim with pride. BG the question is what are you? jewish American or a zionist American? maybe not even an American ?

    April 15, 2011 at 7:03 pm |
    • jonathan

      Ah, and there it is. Hi, Jew hater!!!

      April 15, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
    • BG

      @ Joemoh

      Ya' know, I just can't improve on jonathon's comment... well done!

      Sooner or later, if they keep talking, Muslims will discredit themselves. It's just a matter of getting through the "moderate" veneer of the "Religion of Peace." What's underneath is despi-cable.

      April 15, 2011 at 9:08 pm |
  17. StephenFan

    Stephen rocks!

    #Intended To Be a Factual Statement!

    April 15, 2011 at 7:03 pm |
    • paintpaintpaint

      Double that!

      April 15, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
  18. Joemohammed

    A new trend is happening in the Muslim community, its like a joke. every time a label is created against the muslims. the Muslims will use the same language for Jews and Christians,then they lough at it.... it is working so well. try it for yourself... it works every time. just switch jews or christians instead of muslims.... hahahahahaha ....

    April 15, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
  19. JoshE

    No, Islam does not need Stephen Colbert. Islam needs its followers to stop each other from blowing people up.

    April 15, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
    • Kai

      So, by your generalizing logic, all Christians should tell each other to stop molesting children and hating gay people, right?

      April 15, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
    • Ryan

      I know, I can't stand these idiotic generalizations.

      April 15, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
    • Jim

      Actually Josh is quite correct. Christians should be the first to saddle up next to others claiming the name of Jesus and speak truth to them when there are those going over an edge. Christians should be the first to denounce people like Phelps and the fool that "put the Koran on trial" and burned it in order to cause crap – they don't represent Jesus BUT their actions combined with words claiming to be followers of the Nazarene bring shame on those who do follow Jesus.

      If my biological brother is bringing shame to our family by his murdering or endorsement of murdering and maiming others in our family's name, we should be the first to hold my brother accountable.

      Same with Muslims, they are no different unless there is some special "Muslims shouldn't hold each other accountable so you get out of Hell free card" that no one else gets.

      April 15, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
    • larsonab

      "So, by your generalizing logic, all Christians should tell each other to stop molesting children and hating gay people, right?"

      Yes, Kai.

      April 15, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
    • Golyadkin

      Since when was every member of a group responsible for the actions of every other member of that group?

      April 15, 2011 at 7:48 pm |
  20. Joemohammed

    Hi guys just to let you know, I am a proud American, and so proud to be a muslim too. and I am in a class A too.
    now if you are not happy with it, get a Hike!

    April 15, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
    • Anti-bigot

      I wonder what a brain-dead bigot would say to this guy..... oh... there it is...

      April 15, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
    • LKJ

      @BG: I'm sure you know that the Qur'an says nothing about America or Americans. I'm also an American Muslim, born here and converted as an adult. And in terms of the article, I would be happy to be an A list celebrity if people want to buy my books. 🙂

      April 15, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
    • Ryan

      It's always funny when people who never read the quran tell other people what it says.

      April 15, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
    • -_-

      Yeah BG....The Quran actually doesn't mention anything about America/Americans.......I hope you realize its centuries old....go post your ignorant comments on Fox's website....

      April 15, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
    • Xugos

      BG, you're not fooling anyone. You can't read!

      April 15, 2011 at 7:33 pm |
    • David D.

      "Hi guys just to let you know, I am a proud American, and so proud to be a Muslim too."

      Do you have no awareness of why many Americans have negative feelings about Muslims? Surely, you know the Koran justifies killing "non-believers", and non-believer means any person of any other religion or anyone who follows no religion. This creates an irresolvable dilemma that threatens a large percentage of the human race. That any religion would call for its followers to embrace such a mindset is almost beyond comprehension. While many Muslims may not support this notion in their hearts, the fact that the Koran says this will always make it a very dangerous religion for all non-Muslims.

      April 15, 2011 at 7:45 pm |
    • Ryan

      Somebody never read the bible.

      April 15, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
    • larsonab

      David D., literal interpretations of the bible are full of chalked full sadistic commands.

      April 15, 2011 at 7:50 pm |
    • BG

      @ David D.

      Spot on.

      @ Ryan, Assorted Islamic "Converts" and Everyone Else of this Ilk.

      My comment has served this 'conversation' well. Ryan claims: " It's always funny when people who never read the quran tell other people what it says." To which I respond: "it's funnier when someone -assumes- that people haven't read the Koran (quran, Qu' ran, etc..). I happen to have a copy – it's written in both Arabic and English. I also frequent several Koran translation websites. I'm sure that all my Koranic references are the -wrong- ones, as are all the translations. Interestingly, someone has yet to tell me which printed publications and opinions are the "right" ones.

      This is a broken argument... and you know it.

      So, just to be safe, I obtained a copy of Robert Spencer's "The Infidels' Guide to the Koran". I highly recommend it.

      My comment stands.


      April 15, 2011 at 8:03 pm |
    • David D.

      I suspect I"m as familiar with the Bible as most people commenting here. Would you guys care to cite specific teachings in the Bible to support your position?

      April 15, 2011 at 8:03 pm |
    • lia227

      @David D. - Actually the Koran refers to Christians and Jews as "people of the Book" and recognizes them as followers of God; sort of predecessors of Islam. True Muslims aren't encouraged or supposed to or allowed to kill Christians and Jews.

      April 15, 2011 at 8:05 pm |
    • Travis

      Islam is rooted in brutality. Muhammed waged war on his own people to form his religion. Islam is intolerant, which is substantiated with the Koran, which urges Muslims to kill non-believers. Also, Muhammed took a 6 year old bride – but don't worry, he didn't consumate the marriage until she was 9. Most people's moral compass tells them something is wrong with that; not in Islam. Bottom line: A "good Muslim" is a bit of a misnomer; what Americans consider "good" is seen as "bad" by the fundamentalists, and vice versa. Good day.

      April 15, 2011 at 8:05 pm |
    • BG

      @ lia227

      You forgot the 'r' in your name.

      April 15, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
    • BG

      Can you tell that I'm not in the mood to put up with a lot of shi1 tonight?


      April 15, 2011 at 8:17 pm |
    • BG

      Here's my original comment to Joemohammed in this string. I just noticed that someone complained and my comment is now "awaiting moderation" after initially posting just fine.

      @ Joemohammed

      " Hi guys just to let you know, I am a proud American, and so proud to be a muslim too."

      Choose. The Koran says you can't be both.

      Or "take a hike" (In this country you "take" not "get" a hike.)

      April 15, 2011 at 11:08 pm |
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About this blog

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.