When news recently broke of NSA spying on prominent Muslim Americans, most people were far from shocked. If anything, it was expected. After all, these individuals have Muslim names, either advocate on behalf of the Muslim community or speak on Islamic-related issues, and have some sort of connection to 'that part of the world.' Unlike previous NSA spying revelations that generated extreme outrage across the board, this latest development appeared to impact only, you know, 'those people' (though the larger implications are much greater).
Similarly, when continuous images of dead Palestinian children have emerged following Israel's current military assault on Gaza, a large and troubling sentiment appears to be that these innocents were simply collateral damage, or -- even worse still -- that they somehow deserved it because of the actions of their own family members. Make no mistake about it: the dehumanization of Muslims didn't just happen overnight. On the contrary, it's part of a long process of failed imaging, stereotyping, misrepresentation and flat out bias in the press, entertainment industry and society in general. And unlike many other challenges, this isn't a right vs. left issue; apparently, disparaging Muslims is universally acceptable.
On Friday night's "Real Time with Bill Maher", the always outspoken host focused a significant portion of his show on the current crisis in Gaza. Failing to bring a Palestinian, a Palestinian American or a journalist who has extensively covered the region (like an Ayman Mohyeldin of NBC News) on his program, Maher instead insinuated that kids in Gaza were dying because their mothers, fathers, uncles, etc. were likely launching rockets themselves. He emphasized that though it may be tragic to have young ones lose their lives, we must look at the actions of their family members. Never mind the fact that Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on the planet, or that most people have nowhere to go when these bombs are dropping. Never mind the fact that many live in abject poverty and couldn't even attempt to flee if they wanted to. Never mind the fact that UN shelters are over capacity, that hospitals are even being bombed, or that a majority of the over 550 Palestinians killed and thousands more injured are in fact civilians. Maher's "assessment" is akin to blaming a kid shot by a stray bullet for his or her own death because that child's family must be up to no good. And his approval of Israel's actions in Gaza is analogous to approving the idea of dropping bombs on a city like Chicago to catch criminals and if others die in the process, then so be it.
As if his one-sided, inaccurate discussion wasn't bad enough, Maher also took the opportunity to insult Muslims everywhere by stating that they as a group have won only two Nobel prizes, as if they as a group are somehow intellectually inferior. As a self-proclaimed science advocate, perhaps he needs to re-study the contributions of Muslims to science. And while we're at it, let's not forget math, astronomy, architecture, literature and the list goes on and on. It just might be time for Maher to have a history lesson or two.
On Friday's show, he referred to Palestinians as "professional refugees", and implied that they should simply get over their situation. And this following a tweet he sent earlier in the week that sparked outrage as it compared Hamas to a crazy woman that needed to be slapped. Failing to bring on a Palestinian perspective regarding a crisis that requires much more nuance and depth than he and his panel delivered is bad enough, but this isn't the first time that he has openly attempted to degrade Muslims and juxtapose them with violence and extremism.
Never one to shy away from controversy, Maher has been quite vocal about his views regarding Muslims, but in recent years he has become increasingly vitriolic. After the attack in Benghazi, Libya for instance, he openly stated on his broadcast that he truly believes a majority of Muslims behave in this manner. I can cite instance after instance of his troubling and outright xenophobic comments, but this isn't just about him; it's about the larger failure to include Muslim voices in the mainstream. Let's pause and ask ourselves, how often do we see Muslim Americans or Muslims in general as part of the conversation whether on cable news, in print or on shows like "Real Time"? And when we do see images of Muslims, why is it almost always in the context of some sort of extremism or violence? Why are they never portrayed as normal human beings who are trying to work, or raise their kids, or chase after their goals/dreams?
Take a look at any masthead online or in traditional print outlets, and guess how many Muslims you will find there? Walk into any newsroom, and see how many Muslim journalists, producers or editors will be present. What percentage of Hollywood screenwriters, producers or directors come from a Muslim background? How often do we see bylines with a Muslim name? At a time when the United States is so actively engaged in the 'Muslim world', wouldn't it make sense to hear from people who understand the complexities of issues involved, as opposed to hearing from individuals who have never traveled to the region, don't speak any of the languages, have no family connections there and can only provide limited insight? For years, the excuse from bookers, editors and other media execs was that they weren't aware of any Muslim journalists or experts. But in an age when social media and technology can connect you instantly with a reporter on the ground practically anywhere on the planet, why not utilize them, or at least include them in the discussion?
If we are to fully understand the 'Muslim world', Muslims here in the U.S. and everywhere for that matter, we must interact with individuals and groups that can share their perspectives on key topics, further advance the conversation and shed light in the process. Because let's face it, we are already entrenched in Muslim nations militarily, and from the looks of things, that won't be ceasing any time soon. Without a more inclusive dialogue, we will continue to be inundated with negative imagery, reinforcement of hostile stereotypes and abusive verbiage from every corner -- even from the supposed left/liberals.
When an entire group of people (an extremely diverse group I might add) is vehemently depicted as somehow evil, well then it's acceptable for society as a whole to dismiss the fact that civilians are dying as a direct result of our own actions overseas as well. Whether it's Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen or a host of other places where we have been actively militarily immersed, there are countless dead, wounded and traumatized innocents. But I suppose when they are all 'radicals' anyway, then it's ok to consciously or subconsciously ignore this reality.
In other words, when Muslims are collectively depicted as terrorists or extremists, it's a hell of a lot easier to look the other way when they are spied on, their civil rights are violated, or when their babies are dying.