Monday, March 21, 2011

Dear Bill Maher, Ignorance is Not Funny

By Garrett FitzGerald

I find Bill Maher to be an incredibly frustrating individual. Despite the fact that the man can often get a chuckle out of me with his social and political commentary, Maher insists on routinely maligning organized religion through some of the most hackneyed critiques available. While some of Maher's critiques do highlight very real problems and excesses within certain religious traditions and communities, Maher belongs firmly to the New Atheist school of religious debunkery, and as such regularly conflates his occasionally poignant particulars with grand claims and sweeping generalizations about religion writ large.

Consider a recent segment from HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher, in which Maher interviews Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim elected to Congress, about Ellison's role in decrying the recent congressional hearing on Muslim radicalization. For the most part, I agree with everything Maher says for the first few minutes of the interview. But Maher dramatically oversteps the line of the appropriate - and the factual - as soon as he starts weighing in with his personal feelings about Islam as a religion. The really objectionable stuff starts around the 7:10 mark.

What is really frustrating about Maher's claims, aside from their offensive, baseless assertions, is that although Maher's whole smarmy schtick is predicated on how well-informed he is supposed to be, every one of the claims he makes as been repeatedly debunked by much more credible sources. Rather than offer anything approaching a new or novel contribution to the way in which his audience can think about Islam, religion in American civil society, or issues of national security, Maher trundles out a short hit parade of New Atheist and conservative Islamophobic talking points, and then has the gall to up his already dangerously high levels of smarm when the actual Muslim to whom he's speaking takes some issue with his wildly inaccurate claims.

Let's look at Maher's specific assertions about Islam:
1) "It's been going on a thousand years, this problem between Islam and the West. We are dealing with a culture that is in its medieval era."

2) "It comes from a hate-filled holy book, the Qu'ran, which is taken very literally by its people."

3) "They are trying to get nuclear weapons [...]"

4) "It's a culture of suicide bombing"
Ok, for starters we've got a classic Samuel Huntington The Clash of Civilizations type narrative which pits these monolithic entities, "Islam" and "the West" against one another. Huntington's "clash" thesis has been so expertly debunked by scholarly luminaries like Edward Said, Amartya Sen, and Paul Berman for its over-reliance on problematic concepts like "civilization" and "culture" that I won't even get further into it here, suffice it to say that the only people who still take this idea seriously are conservative social and political commentators (and apparently Bill Maher) who have likely never cracked The Clash of Civilizations, much less read its many and expert critiques.

Next, the "hate-filled holy book" that is the Qu'ran. Not a lot of surprises here, considering who Maher indicates as having shaped his understanding of the holy text of some 1.4 billion people across the globe. Rather than ask, say, any of these 1.4 billion Muslims themselves about the Qu'ran, Maher instead cites New Atheist poster-boy Sam Harris, who has absolutely no credentials regarding the study or practice of Islam as a whole or the Qu'ran in particular. In the past, Harris has made repeated anti-Muslim and Islamophobic claims, including a 2004 statement in which Harris observed, "It is time we admitted that we are not at war with terrorism. We are at war with Islam."* When quoting someone with such a blatantly skewed, not to say outright bigoted viewpoint, Bill Maher and all Harris' readers should know better than to repeat claims like "On almost every page the Qu'ran instructs observant Muslims to despise nonbelievers," without a Sam Harris-sized grain of salt (which, given Harris' striking physical resemblance to Ben Stiller, I would put at approximately 171 lbs (h/t Google)).

For the sake of brevity, let's lump claims three and four together, as they are guilty of the same rhetorical sins: generalization and reductionism. Maher is completely unapologetic about his use of incredibly broad generalizations ("They are trying to get nuclear weapons," "It is a culture of suicide bombing"), despite the fact that it is precisely these sorts of generalizations which defined the hearings he and Rep. Ellison had just spent minutes picking apart. Absurd generalizations remain just that whether they are being spoken by a conservative congressman or a self-professed liberal political commentator. While Maher immediately backtracks on these claims when challenged by Rep. Ellison ("No one is disputing that the vast, vast, giant majority of Muslims are not the problem"), he then qualifies his generalizations with the equally outrageous claim that "We're talking about a very small percentage, but it just takes one." So in under a minute Maher effectively swings from the unqualified assertion that Islam is a "unique" threat because all Muslims ("they") apparently want nukes and belong to a culture ("it") that supports suicide bombing, to the claim that Islam is a "unique" threat because, as a religion with 1.4 billion followers (can't stress that enough), there might be one person who can distort the teachings of Islam enough to consider obtaining nuclear weapons and carrying out suicide attacks to be in line with that religion's teachings. Let's be real: the first claim can be dismissed outright as a baseless over-generalization, and the second claim, that "it only takes one" individual with distorted beliefs to implicate all of Islam, completely eradicates Maher's rationale for the "unique" threat of Islam over any other religious, political, or economic system of belief by which an individual has ever justified the taking of a life.

The interview above is regrettable for a number of reasons. Not only does Maher rehash some of the most tired claims and stereotypes in currency with Islamophobic circles in this country, but his willingness to do so and the apparent conviction behind his assertions drives home the point that these harmful distortions are not the sole purview of conservative pundits. As Maher's uninformed remarks demonstrate, ignorance and Islamophobia remain very real problems at both ends of the political spectrum. And if individuals like Maher are going to claim to be a part of the left, religious leftists must be ready to stand up and challenge the debunked arguments and generalizations upon which he and others of his ilk rely.

*As a passing thought, given the incredible similarities between the views of arch-conservative religionists and New Atheist demagogues like Sam Harris, one can hypothesize a bizarre sort of circularity to the spectrum of belief and non-belief. Perhaps going far enough in one direction just pops you out the other side. This is something to be investigated further, and may change the way we view the most extreme atheists and conservative Christians forever. Assuming, of course, that anyone can stomach the practically unparalleled vitriol upon which the research process will necessarily have to focus.

1 comment:

  1. My thoughts exactly. It was frustrating to witness such deep political/social insight, shortly followed by bigoted ignorance. You captured it perfectly, much thanks.