Comedian, television host, and atheist extraordinaire Bill Maher is finding himself in the midst of a media firestorm after spending the last couple episodes of his late-night talk show blaming Islam for everything from ISIS to female genital mutilation. Maher, despite making broad generalizations about a religion of 1.6 billion people spanning 47 countries, had the audacity to claim that he’s in fact not a bigot, just an ardent defender of liberal principles.
“Liberals need to stand up for… freedom of speech, freedom to practice any religion you want without fear of violence, freedom to leave a religion, equality for women, equality for minorities including homosexuals,” Maher said. “These are liberal principles that liberals applaud for, but when you say that in Muslim world, this is what’s lacking, then they get upset.” He went on to say that the Qur’an directly inspires violence and terrorism, and that we need to be honest about the link between doctrine and behavior.
Well, Bill, violent video games certainly inspire school shootings, but not everyone who plays “Call of Duty” becomes a killer. Reaching that level of lunacy requires a certain cocktail of narcissism, psychopathology and poor social support. By the same token, groups like ISIS are born out of a combination of religious, political, socioeconomic, personal, and historical factors—not out of Islam alone. There is no one-word explanation for how a terrorist develops, be it a terrorist from Syria or from Isla Vista.
For the record, I support defending liberal principles around the world; what I take issue with is the accusation that Islam lies at the root of violence and injustice in the Middle East. Blaming Islam for terrorism is lazy and irresponsible, especially because it attaches a dangerous stigma to the large majority of Muslims who, as Ben Affleck said on “Real Time with Bill Maher,” “just want to go to school, eat a some sandwiches, and live their lives in peace.”
As one of the panelists on Maher’s show, Nicholas Kristof, pointed out, the way Maher defines Muslims by extremists “has a tinge of the way white racists talk about African Americans, and define blacks by black criminals.” What are the consequences of stereotyping an entire group of people based on high profile atrocities committed by only some of them? Well, unnecessary violence against that group of people—just look at Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. We should not be okay with living in a culture where police officers are allowed to murder innocent black teenagers in the name of self-defense, nor should we excuse our government for taking thousands of civilian Muslim lives in the name of homeland security.
Maher claims that he escapes the label of “racist” because he criticizes ideas, not necessarily people. Islam, unlike black skin, is an idea. Conservative Republicans use the same rhetoric to explain their disapproval of homosexuality. They hate the sin, not the sinner; they hate ideas, not people. Maybe so, but at the end of the of the day, a bakery can legally refuse to cater a gay wedding, and women wearing headscarves get “randomly selected” at airports more often than white blondes.
At the heart of Maher’s Islamophobia is plain arrogance. He believes, as he said on air, that “western culture is not just different [than eastern culture], it’s better.”
Such a claim is hardly different from Jihadists believing that they are the true enlightened ones—the “better” ones. We cannot go around spreading democracy using the same holier-than-thou, we-have-all-the-answers rhetoric that extremists are using to spread Islam. Frankly, that would be undemocratic.
As Kristof first noticed, Maher left a very important liberal principle off of his list: tolerance. Liberalism must include looking at the world through the lens of cultural relativism, rather than the much more sinister lens of American exceptionalism. We cannot keep excusing ourselves for harboring the same hateful, better-than-you ideology as the terrorists just because we’re, well, us, and we invented cars, the Internet, and twerking.
At the end of the day, our tendency toward bigotry finds its roots in biology. Human brains are predisposed to categorize. Most of the time, it is highly efficient to say “this thing barks, so it must be a dog.” But what is otherwise an adaptive brain mechanism gets us into trouble when we reason that “this person is a Muslim, so they must be a terrorist.” Society evolves faster than physiology, so it is our responsibility as a so-called advanced civilization to understand the shortcomings of our own biological brains. We all carry around neural machinery adapted for tribal living—machinery fine-tuned for separating people into in-groups and out-groups. But certainly someone as enlightened as Bill Maher is above such primal temptations toward bigotry and racism.