First and foremost, there's a new UC Berkeley petition in the name of free speech aimed at keeping Bill Maher's invitation to speak on campus. This petition makes reference to Berkeley being the "home of the Free Speech Movement" and is a relevant, thought provoking rebuttal to the petition against Maher's invitation. These two opposing petitions, and this debate, can only take place in a free society. Therefore, a further analysis of the controversy is needed before liberals on college campuses equate Bill Maher with a leftist Rush Limbaugh.
Before discussing the petition against Bill Maher by certain UC Berkeley students, it's important to separate real Islamophobia from emotionally charged, yet well-meaning debate. One type of speech should not be encouraged in pluralistic society and the other is the foundation of any democracy. To describe every outspoken viewpoint as "hate speech" stifles debate and discussion; something Islamists, fundamentalists in our country, and extremists around the world often times do when confronted with a viewpoint antithetical to their position.
When Bill Maher stated his provocative views on Islam alongside Sam Harris, I wrote a Huffington Post article siding with Ben Affleck. Nonetheless, I never made the mistake of equating Bill Maher with Bill O'Reilly. The truth is that Bill Maher, along with John Stewart, might be two of the greatest liberal voices of this generation. Now, this doesn't mean they're more influential politically than Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi. It means that since news and entertainment have merged in this era, Maher and Stewart are the liberal foils to Rush Limbaugh and the rest of the conservative media machine. Their satire, wit, and voices are heard throughout the country, combating the loud and singular voices of the Tea Party, Fox News, and conservative talk radio. By virtue of representing liberal ideas through comedy and political insight, they work to counter the true demagogues in our society. Imagine a conservative version of Stephen Colbert mocking Chris Matthews. It wouldn't be funny or relevant and there are several reasons for this fact.
That being said, if you've ever watched Bill Maher's show, or his comedy specials, you'd know that demagoguery of ethnicities, or hate speech, or prejudice against racial groups isn't a part of his philosophy. While conservatives might relish the opportunity to link ISIS sleeper cells with the welfare sucking illegal immigrants at the border, or enact laws banning Sharia law (over 7 state legislatures have done so), Bill Maher is the antithesis of this mentality. Confusing Maher with the numerous politicians and media personalities who utilize Islamophobia to further their careers is embarking on a twisted road towards a dangerous, liberal groupthink.
So, let's compare Maher to the real bigots in our society.
In 2010, I wrote a Jerusalem Post article titled, What if they opposed a synagogue? I felt the need to do my part in defending fellow Muslim Americans from the hysteria over the ground zero mosque debate. Examples of the genuine hate speech and vitriol surrounding the issue can be found in the words of Newt Gingrich and other Republicans:
"The folks who want to build this mosque - who are really radical Islamists who want to triumphally prove that they can build a mosque right next to a place where 3,000 Americans were killed by radical Islamists - those folks don't have any interest in reaching out to the community. They're trying to make a case about supremacy." - Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a potential 2012 presidential candidate.
Some of the Muslim leaders associated with the mosque "are clearly terrorist sympathizers." - Kevin Calvey, a Republican running for Congress in Oklahoma.
"Mr. President, ground zero is the wrong place for a mosque." - Rick Scott, Republican candidate for Florida governor.
Leave it to the GOP to accuse American Muslims of "making a case about supremacy" and sympathizing with terrorists because of a mosque near ground zero; even though there was already a mosque in the World Trade Center and there were already mosques near ground zero.
Just recently, Bill O'Reilly and other Fox personalities displayed their usual ignorance pertaining to Islam by lamenting over Robert Bergdahl's beard. As quoted in a Talking Points Memo article in June, Islamophobia again reared its ugly head among conservatives:
"But it is Robert Bergdahl, the father, who is also engendering some controversy. He has learned to speak Pashto, the language of the Taliban, and looks like a Muslim," O'Reilly said on his show. "He is also somewhat sympathetic to Islam, actually thanking Allah right in front of the president."
..."Fox and Friends" co-host Brian Kilmeade attacked Bob Bergdahl and his beard on Tuesday morning.
"I mean, he says he was growing his beard because his son was in captivity. Well, your son's out now. So if you really don't -- no longer look like a member of the Taliban, you don't have to look like a member of the Taliban," Kilmeade said. "Are you out of razors?"
Apparently O'Reilly and Kilmeade never watched the bearded stars of Duck Dynasty or saw a picture of the Boston Red Sox roster. Nobody ever accused Phil Robertson of looking "like a member of the Taliban" or looking Muslim, but that's an example of real bigotry in our country. A Huffington Post article by SALDEF's Jasjit Singh explains the impact of such bigotry by O'Reilly and highlights how Islamophobia hurts all Americans, including Sikh Americans.
Bill Maher, however, is not Bill O'Reilly. Yes, he's made some sweeping generalizations about Islam, but these statements were made from the vantage point of a man who passionately critiques all religions. Maher's intent was the antithesis of Bill O'Reilly's motivation to correlate Bergdahl's beard to something inappropriate, or un-American. Both Bill Maher and Sam Harris, on that now famous debate with Affleck, cited certain facts with the aim of furthering liberal principles; not promoting fear for a political objective or furthering prejudice because of disdain towards Islam. Being able to differentiate between hatred and intense debate is an important skill in democracy and politics; merging prejudice with confrontational viewpoints only hampers free speech.
The petition against Maher's graduation speech at Berkeley makes the following outlandish claims:
This year, UC Berkeley has chosen to invite Bill Maher to speak. Bill Maher has made comments that are blatantly bigoted and racist and has no respect for the values UC Berkeley students and administration stand for. In a time where climate is a priority for all on campus, we cannot invite an individual who himself perpetuates a dangerous learning environment. Bill Maher's public statements on various religions and cultures are offensive and his dangerous rhetoric has found its way into our campus communities...
Sign this petition to boycott the decision to invite Bill Maher as a commencement speaker at the UC Berkeley Fall 2014 Commencement Ceremony.
First, Bill Maher's views were not "racist" or "bigoted." At worst, his statements on Islam might have been an overgeneralization of certain facts, perhaps taken out of context or made without reference to political or global realities. Maher had no intent or incentive to promote any fear or hatred towards anyone, so to deem his words "racist" ignores the basis of free speech in America. Second, there's nothing "dangerous" about anything Bill Maher has stated about Islam. To use the word "dangerous" wreaks of fanaticism, especially since people like Bill O'Reilly and others actually do promote dangerous ideas and sentiments.
Furthermore, when Rula Jebreal compares Maher's invitation to Berkeley to an anti-Semite being invited to speak or to a talk show, she ignores one basic element of anti-Semitism: hatred. Maher doesn't hate Muslims, he is critiquing the lack of women's rights, or gay rights, or other rights within the Muslim world. Whether these critiques are fair is a matter of debate; something that takes place daily in American society and something that should never be stifled by crying wolf about racism.
Finally, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace published a report titled Islamist Movements and the Democratic Process in the Arab World, highlighting the issues Islamists face with democracy:
Nevertheless, two issues raise questions about the Islamists' commitment to pluralism: the constant references by even the most liberal among them to the Islamic marji`iya and their seeming reluctance to embrace tolerance for all viewpoints. In discussing their political views, Islamists invariably profess to share the same values as liberals on everything, from women's participation to diplomatic relations with Israel, as long as everything is handled "within the framework of Islamic principles" and "in accordance with the true interests of the community."
Islamist parties that seek power through the political process are ardent advocates of civil and political rights and liberties, insisting on freedom of speech, religion, and association--within the Islamic marji`iya, of course. To many liberals, this has the threatening ring of Orwellian new-speak...
There are sometimes strong incentives for Islamist movements to launch strong attacks on certain forms of expression. Islamist movements often clash with liberals on issues of religious freedom when that becomes an effective tactic for mobilizing supporters or isolating opponents...
While stated with a bit more eloquence and nuance, some of the views expressed in the Carnegie report can be equated with Bill Maher's take on Islam. Does this mean the Carnegie Endowment is dangerous, racist, bigoted, and must never step foot on the UC Berkeley campus?
The day liberals confuse real talk and passionate debate with bigotry is the day Bill O'Reilly and Fox News shape the narrative of our nation. This petition doesn't defend Islam, or protect against prejudice, or promote any liberal or pluralistic values needed in a democracy. When Bill Maher, a man with the courage to stand up for democratic principles and the conviction to have views that deviate from the liberal consensus, is equated with bigotry, then America has lost something precious. I might not agree with Bill Maher about Islam, but I know he's not a racist and I know he's not Islamophobic; these categorizations entail intent, political motivation, and hatred. If the students of UC Berkeley deny themselves of hearing one of the great liberal voices of their generation speak on their own campus, freedom in this country will have experienced a great defeat.