Bill Maher's Confusion About Who 'We' and 'They' Are

HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher is one of my favorite TV programs. Besides being a funny comedian and a witty news commentator, Bill Maher is also a sharp political critic and an iconoclast whose devastating critiques, particularly of the religious right, are truly remarkable.

To his credit, Maher tries not to single out any particular religion for hazing: Jews, Catholics, Mormons, Muslims, Buddhists, Scientologists, and others have all been on the receiving end of some piercing ridicule (not to everyone's liking, of course!). But this open-minded critic is not immune from biases and gaps in rationality on some topics, as is the case with his frequent implication of a unique connection between Islam and violence. Sometimes the implication is subtle (as was the case with his film Religulous), and other times it's not so subtle.

In response to the now-infamous threat made against the creators of South Park by fanatical thugs belonging to "Revolution Muslim" (a bizarre group led by an "American-born Jew formerly known as Joseph Cohen who converted to Islam"), Maher went into a slightly incoherent "us vs. them" tirade:

Suggesting that Christian and Jewish extremists don't resort to violence the way Muslim ones do (citing a Taliban attack on a girls' school as an example), Maher argued that "their religious wackos are a lot more wacko than ours." He then ended his monologue with these comments:

I'm really glad that Obama is reaching out to the Muslim world, and I know Muslims living in America and Europe want their way of life to be assimilated more. But the Western world needs to make it clear: some things about our culture are not negotiable... one of them is freedom of speech..., women are allowed to work here and you can't beat them.

Now, Maher's implication is pretty clear, but it suffers from two noteworthy logical defects:

Our Wackos Are Actually Just as Wacko

The implied premise that Judaism and Christianity belong to a cohesive unit called "the West" which stands in distinction from another cohesive unit called "the Muslim world" is absurd. But even if one accepted this false dichotomy, why did Maher's example of "the craziest religious wackos we have here in America" stick to nonviolent fanatics? Why not abortion clinic bombers?

And what about Jewish extremists in the Palestinian territories? I haven't heard an argument for why their brutal attacks on western human rights activists accompanying children to school, routine vandalism, and other violent acts coupled with chants of "we killed Jesus we'll kill you too" are any less wacko.

Structural constraints are another obvious factor to consider. You see, the Taliban can act like they do because they live in a lawless state, and extremist settlers can act like they do because of a culture of impunity provided by the structure of Israeli apartheid. So while Pat Robertson may seem harmless, by comparison, when he issues a death fatwa on Hugo Chavez, or when he blames a hurricane or an earthquake on gay sex or a pact with the devil or something, a useful question to contemplate is whether he and his followers would be as benign (if one could describe them as such) if they could get away with worse behavior. Thankfully, we live in a system that can enforce law and order; and our wackos have the alternative outlet of lobbying the government for wars against Iraq and Iran, and they send over 100,000 emails to the White House for the perpetuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so direct violence from them is somewhat less likely.

The Mirage of "Muslim Culture"

I described Maher's tirade as incoherent because the "them" in Maher's equation shifted from "the developing world" at one point, to people whose culture "makes death threats to cartoonists," to "the Taliban," and eventually to "Muslims" (not exactly interchangeable terms). None of these categories can be lumped into a "Muslim culture" because the Muslim world is simply too vast to collapse into a cultural category. From Eastern Europe to Africa, from Lebanon to Pakistan, and from Iran to Indonesia, we are talking about completely and fundamentally different cultures. In all five Arab/Muslim countries where I grew up (and went to school with girls in all of them), women are an integral part of public life, and many of them dress like Western women do. So I can assure Maher that many of these societies are not waiting for "the West" to lecture them on whether women can work.

Had Maher merely stated that our culture is better than the Taliban's (which is truly hideous), I daresay the majority of Muslims would approvingly count themselves among "us" in that equation. Where he should be expressing solidarity with progressive Muslims who would stand with him in opposition to violent extremism, he instead alienates them by a fictitious cultural divide between simplistic categories of a tolerant West and a Muslim world which he defines by its worst elements.

The correct "us vs. them" divide is between those of us, in all societies (including Muslim ones), who value freedom of speech and thought and who oppose violent extremism on the one hand, and those who employ or endorse such violent intimidation on the other. Someone like Maher should've known this.