Hey Bill Maher, Being Liberal Doesn't Excuse You From Islamophobia
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Comedian Bill Maher puts himself in the company of “9/11 liberals” who believe that Islam as a religion is different and decidedly worse than all other religions. He said Friday that ‘at least half of all Muslims believe it is all right to kill someone who insults ‘the Prophet.’ His bad faith is immediately apparent in the reference to 9/11, not the work of mainstream Muslims but of a political cult whose members often spent their time in strip clubs.
Now, it may be objected that Maher has made a career of attacking all religions, and promoting irreverence toward them. So Islam is just one more target for him. But that tack wouldn’t entirely be true. He explicitly singles Islam out as more, much more homocidal than the other religions. He is personally unpleasant to his Muslim guests, such as Keith Ellison. His reaction to the youth of the Arab Spring gathering to try to overthrow their American-backed dictators was “the Arabs are revolting.” Try substituting “Jews” to see how objectionable that is.
Maher ironically has de facto joined an Islamophobic network that is funded by the Mellon Scaife Foundation and other philanthropies tied to the American Enterprise Institute, etc. which is mainly made up of evangelical Christians, bigoted American Jews who would vote for the Likud Party if they could, and cynical Republican businessmen and politicians casting about for something with which to frighten working class Americans into voting for them.
Maher is a consistent liberal and donated $1 million to the Obama campaign, so he is in odd company in targeting Muslims this way. So what explains this animus against Muslims in particular? The only thing he has in common with the Islamophobic Right is his somewhat bloodthirsty form of militant Zionism. He strongly supported the Israeli attack on helpless little Lebanon in 2006, in which the Israelis dropped a million cluster bombs on the farms of the south of that country. He talks about how the besieged Palestinians of Gaza deserve to be “nuked.” His interviews with Likudnik Israeli officials are typically fawning, unlike his combative style with other right wing guests.
In short, Maher is in part reacting as a nationalist to Muslims as a rival national group, and his palpable hatred for them is rooted not in religion but in national self-conception. It is a key tactic of militant Zionism to attempt to demonize and delegitimize Muslims; you don’t have to apologize for colonizing or imposing Apartheid on Palestinians, after all, if they aren’t really human beings. In addition, like many Americans, Maher sees the United States, Europe and Israel as ‘the West’ locked in a rivalry with an alien, Islamic civilization that is intrinsically fanatical and backward (his fellow-traveller on this issue, Pamela Geller, uses the word ‘savage.’) Maher is aware of the history of Christian bloodthirstiness, of course, but he often speaks of it as being in the past. He seems to see contemporary Muslims as having the same sorts of flaws (Inquisition, Crusades) as medieval Christianity.
Maher is not important, but his thesis is widely put forward, and it matters in real people’s lives. There is a nation-wide campaign by religious bigots (most of them sadly evangelical Christians) to prevent American Muslims from building mosques in their communities, and one of the reasons often given is ‘fear’ that the Muslims are homicidal and so the mosque is a conspiracy to commit murder waiting to happen. Maher’s singling out of Muslim as different willy-nilly encourages people to treat them as different, i.e., to discriminate against them.
It is significant that Maher tries to pin the label ‘murderer’ on the Muslims (or half of them?) Because one of the centerpieces of classical Western hatred of Jews was the blood libel, the allegation that they stole the babies of Christians and sacrificed them in secret rituals. It is hard to see what the difference is between that and arguing that some 3 million American Muslims are walking around like a grenade with the pin pulled out. Both blood libels configure a non-Christian group as homicidal, and locate the impulse for their alleged killing sprees in secret religious beliefs opaque to the normal Christian.