Bill Maher and George Bush: Closer in thought than we ever knew?
You might be reading the title, Bill Maher Sounds Like Jerry Falwell and thinking to yourself, “What?! Bill Maher hates religion, and if I recall he blasted Jerry Falwell at the time of his death for being an intolerant, huckster con-man.” It is true that Maher has made a lot of money out of mocking religion, all religion, he made a movie about it called Religulous. In fact, Maher is constantly seen with his anti-religion crew promoting atheism and agnosticism.
So how could he possibly sound like a Christian fundamentalist such as Jerry Falwell? An analysis of Maher’s work and comments about Islam reveal he has a special and unique bias against Islam that goes well beyond his condemnation or mocking of other religions, which is unfortunate because he has a lot of hilarious and witty things to say about various topics.
Maher’s bias leads to moments where he loses his rationality and rather than comment with his usual sardonic logic, he falls into emotion and repeats worn out stereotypes and caricatures of Islam and Muslims. If that weren’t egregious enough, he also makes statements that are flat out empirically false.
So how does an atheist who prizes rationality and empirical evidence fall so hard off of the beaten path? Some might say it’s the weed but let’s look at the evidence for a second.
The first piece that I want to draw to your attention is a five minute section of the New Rules portion of Bill Maher’s Real Time.
Maher is on the wrong foot from the very beginning. He starts his monologue by creating an exclusive frame that depicts Islam as the “other,” something that is “outside” and does not belong to the West. This might have something to do with Maher’s ignorance of history since Islam has been a part of the West for over a millennium now. There is no need for me to go into detail about the historical interplay and exchange of commerce, goods and ideas between the Muslim world and the West, nor of the presence of Muslim communities, but if the construct of the “West” is to mean anything it has to include Islam and Muslims.
Omar Baddar makes just such a point and a further rebuttal in his excellent article in the Huffington Post on Maher’s recent confusion,
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.
I would just add one more comment to the prescient points raised by Baddar above. Our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did and do have an active religious component in them. How else can we characterize the war briefings read by Donald Rumsfeld that were always headlined with quotes from the Bible? The Daily Times reported at the time,
The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was sold as a fight for freedom against the tyranny of Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction.
But for former U.S. defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his elite Pentagon strategists, it was more like a religious crusade.
The daily briefings about the progress of the war that Mr Rumsfeld gave to President George W Bush were illustrated with victorious quotes from the Bible and gung-ho photographs of U.S. troops, it has emerged.
One of the top-secret ‘worldwide intelligence updates’, which were hand-delivered to Mr Bush by Mr Rumsfeld, includes an image of an F-18 Hornet fighter jet roaring off from the deck of an aircraft carrier.
On it were the words of Psalm 139-9-10: ‘If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast, O Lord.’
The cover of another featured pictures of U.S. soldiers at prayer with a quote from Isaiah: ‘Whom shall I send and who will go for us? Here I am Lord, Send me.’
A photograph of Saddam Hussein included a quotation from the First Epistle of Peter: ‘It is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.’
The religious theme for briefings prepared for the president and his war cabinet was the brainchild of Major General Glen Shaffer, a committed Christian and director for intelligence serving Mr Rumsfeld and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In the days before the six-week invasion, Major General Shaffer’s staff had created humorous covers for the briefings to alleviate the stress of preparing for battle.
But as the body count rose, he decided to introduce biblical quotes.
Mr Bush, a born-again Christian, believed the invasion was a ‘mission from God’.
Another of his briefings included the words ‘Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and your plans will succeed’ alongside a photo of a U.S. marine with a machine gun.
And on an image of U.S. tanks rumbling through the Victory Arch monument in Baghdad was a quote from Isaiah: ‘Open the gates the righteous nation may enter, the nation that keeps the faith.’
A photograph of U.S. tanks in Iraq used a further passage from Isaiah: ‘Their arrows are sharp, all their bows are strung, their horses’ hoofs seem like flint, their chariot wheels are like a whirlwind.’
These are wars that have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and were instigated and supported in large part by right-wing Christians and Zionists. It is also salient to mention the involvement of Erik Prince the leader and founder of Blackwater, a security service hired by the State Department and who many consider to be nothing more than a squad of mercenaries. Prince himself is a Christian supremacist and in an affidavit from a former employee is accused of viewing “‘himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe,’ and that Prince’s companies ‘encouraged and rewarded the destruction of Iraqi life.’”
There are many more examples that we can give, the Lord’s Resistance Army, Christian witch-hunts, American Evangelical collusion in the Uganda gay death bill and the war on Gaza in which Israeli soldiers were told by Rabbis in pamphlets to be “cruel” and not to “spare” the Gazan population, even “innocent civilians.”
So the claim that Muslim “wackos” are somehow uniquely more dangerous or wacky than extremists in other faiths is not only false, it is disingenuous.
However, Maher’s bigoted rant didn’t stop there, it also included his preaching about how “our culture” is better than their “culture.” I thought Maher would have realized by now that NOT ALL MUSLIMS are alike. Not all Muslims speak Arabic, live in caves, beat their wives 24-7, etc. It’s a point that As’ad Abu Khalil made painfully obvious to Maher and his guests ten years ago when Maher hosted Politically Incorrect (video at bottom). Did Maher just forget that convenient fact or is he just fulfilling the buffoonish American caricature he so often loves to lampoon?
Omar Baddar commented on Maher’s incoherence quite succinctly,
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.
The incoherent ramble got even more incoherent, after making a mealy mouthed and half-hearted disclaimer that “in speaking of Moslems we realize that the vast majority are law abiding, loving people who just want to be left alone to subjugate their women in peace” Maher went on to preach to Moslems saying,
“but I got to tell ya, civilized people don’t threaten each other…threatening, that’s some old school desert s***, and I am sorry, you can’t bring that to the big city. I am very glad that Obama is reaching out the Moslem world, and I know Moslems living in America and Europe want their way of life assimilated more, but the Western world has to make some things clear, somethings about our culture are non-negotiable and can’t change and one of them is Freedom of Speech, seperation of Church and State is another, women are allowed to work here and you can’t beat them, not negotiable, this is how we roll, and this is why our system is better, and if you don’t get that and you still want to kill someone over a stupid cartoon, please make it Garfield.”
The fact is Muslims didn’t react to the South Park cartoon. This was a controversy completely whipped up by the media that gave a group of four-nobody-morons far more attention than they deserved. If Bill Maher and his staff had done a little research, instead of focusing on Revolution Muslim, they would have asked the far more penetrating and relevant question of why so much attention was given to an unknown group that has zero credibility or support amongst American Muslims. Of course this would not fit into the preset narrative that the “Godzilla of crazy religions” (as Maher would put it) “must be offended and threatening.”
Bill Maher also should be put on notice, about how people who don’t believe in his “us vs. them” mentality roll. He should be put on notice about what democracy really is about. It isn’t about high voltage diatribes, and self-congratulatory head nodding, or putting down “the other”. There is also a duty to uphold justice and equality. Muslims don’t want to “assimilate more,” (last I checked that isn’t a condition for being Western) they are already here, they are integrated and they are contributing, and he should know the highest incidences of domestic violence occur here in America, where 2 to 4 million women are the victims of domestic violence every year and in which a quarter of the population will have been victims of domestic violence in their lifetimes.
After this show Bill Maher was on Anderson Cooper 360, and in my opinion it was one of the worst interviews I have seen in a long time. It was so bad that I wished I was watching Bill O’ Reilly or Glenn Beck. On the show Bill Maher repeated many of things he said on Real Time, but one thing was exceptionally noteworthy:
“I haven’t read the Quran in its original, when you read the translation there are many, many, many passages that are not peaceful at all, that are about killing the infidel and so forth, there are many passages like that in the Bible too, not as many.”
Is he serious? The Quran itself is about the size of the Psalms, and only a few hundred of the 6,000 verses relate to fighting and all of them have a context and explanation. None of them command a Muslim to just “slay the infidel.” However, the Bible is filled with exhortations to violence, wiping out whole nations, slaying pagans, enemies and non-Jews who live in Israel. This is one of the reasons that the Israel-Palestine conflict is so intractable, the view by religious Jews that not one centimeter of historic Israel should be owned by a non-Jew.
I would challenge Bill Maher to find one verse in the Quran equal or even a quarter equal to this odious commandment in the Bible,
“How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against the rock.” Psalm: 137:9
He will be unable to as there are no verses that come close to advocating such horrendous behavior in the Quran. As far as his retort that Jews and Christians don’t follow such things, a simple search on the internet will disabuse him of that and reinforce the fact that there are people who take the Bible literally and are willing to exact Biblical commandments such as the one above (see Sabbath breakers getting stoned, and license to murder babies).
Part of me believes all of this is for attention. It seems that Maher desperately wants a fatwa on his head. He wants the status it would give him: the fame and the soaring ratings. He’ll have ensured himself a position next to Salman Rushdie as one of the victimized on the pantheon of atheist stardom. Maybe it will give him some meaning in an utterly purposeless life?
This whole episode reminds me of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a story in which the pigs lead the other animals in a coup overthrowing the human beings who rule the farm. Once the pigs come to power, they take on the same odious traits of the human beings that had led to the revolt in the first place. The pigs became intolerant, manipulative, chauvinistic, and shallow. Orwell meant it to be a story about the failures and potential flaws of communism but the analogy could be applied equally to many of the new atheists, of whom Bill Maher is one, who rant and rave about the intolerance, shallowness, and wide sweeping claims of the religious but like the pigs are taking on those very same traits.
Please check out this very instructional episode of Politically Incorrect a few months after 9/11. It is very interesting and highlights the psychology of Islamophobia that languishes deep even in self professed liberals. As’ad Abukhalil really lays it into them,