“They Bring That Desert Stuff To Our World”
Bill Maher and Islamophobia

In case you missed it, Bill Maher has been at it again with religion. Which is nothing new–after all he did make a movie called Religulous. But he is not just grinding his religion axe, which I have been known to swing; he’s been dragging Muslims through the mud in a way that is, well, getting unseemly and personal. In the process he’s managed to exhibit the same loathsome character traits he assigns the religious “whackos” he is so fond of excoriating. At one point in this ongoing, disgraceful rehashing of the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ thesis Maher, exasperated at all the ‘hate’ he’s stirred up, suggested he might shut up on the topic.

Please do. It’s getting to the point I want to throw a shoe at you.

Maher and his sidekicks Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins–those instant atheists ever at the ready to demolish whatever straw man caricature of organized religion is offered up for sacrifice–are playing an odious game. It is really difficult to watch the three of them play shills to political forces eager to have an expanded war in the Middle East. They serve at the pleasure of war mongers, all sniggling aside, as their signature adulation of a virtuous ‘West’ is counterposed to a malevolent ‘Orient’. This reeks of intellectual dishonesty and a noxious repackaging of neo-colonialism and xenophobia, albeit with all the trappings of postmodern irony on offer for a forthcoming retreat behind plausible deniability–”we were just joking.” And while it’s painfully familiar, it still sucks because, well, he’s kind of one of us, like Christopher Hitchens. Or Alexander Cockburn.

Such an old ploy, this brutal cleaving of the world into two irreducible and distinct, warring civilizations. Their framework for discussion (if one can call it that) studiously ignores what most liberals and anyone who can legitimately be called a leftist knows to be necessary when addressing this subject: power relations between peoples within and among nation states. As in what forces are arrayed against the democratic aspirations of Muslims? Ah. But therein lies the rub. Maher doesn’t have this problem, as by definition a ‘Muslim’ is anti-democratic. So no need to discuss what role the 21s Century Leviathan plays in this drama. How about in Egypt? Was that a Coup d’etat, Bill? Or perhaps a conscientious, independent, and benevolent military gracefully sidelining a nasty, backwards, Islamic dictatorship intent on murdering those precious standard bearers of Western culture, the cartoonists behind Southpark? How is it that Maher can be a trenchant critic of American influence both at home and abroad but shit the bed when it comes to Islam and Muslims? Answer: He succumbs to classic Islamophobia. But this is nothing new for him in kind; only perhaps in degree. Which raises the question as to how this jackass can pass himself off as a leftist.

But before we get to that, let’s get a working definition for the inelegant but necessary term ‘Islamophobia’. How about unfounded hostility towards and fear of Muslims. Unfounded is the operative term here; and in Bill Maher’s case that will be abundantly clear–no mean Muslims at his door calling for his head.

What would we look for among Maher’s comments that might conform to the defining elements of Islamophobia? How about the following definitive exchange between Maher and Anderson Cooper. In it, Maher manages to hit on all cylinders when responding to a characteristically sophomoric question from Cooper, who has never encountered an unstated assumption he could articulate nor one he would shy away from to please a guest: “Why is Islam the one religion about which so many in America–and the West–censor themselves…? Is it just fear?”

Maher responds: “Absolutely. Because they’re violent. Because they threaten us. And they are threatening. They bring that desert stuff to our world …We don’t threaten each other, we sue each other. That’s the sign of civilized people. And they don’t … People who want to gloss over the difference between western culture and Islamic culture and forget about the fact that the Islamic culture is 600 years younger and that they are going through the equivalent of what the west went through with our middle ages, our dark ages when religion had way too much power … do so at their peril.”

Elsewhere Maher has added:

“New Rule: Although America likes to think it’s number one, we have to admit we’re behind the developing world in at least one thing. Their religious whackos are a lot more whacko than ours! [Laughter]…Our culture isn’t just different than one that makes death threats to cartoonists. It’s better. [Applause]” –Real Time with Bill Maher 2011.
Let’s unpack that load.

Islam is archaic and backwards (‘desert stuff’, ‘dark ages’). Check.

‘Islamic Culture’ is inferior to ‘Western Culture’. Check.

Muslims lag behind more advanced peoples (600 years!). Check.

Islam is uncivilized (lacking the signs of ‘civilized people’). Check.

Muslims are inherently violent (we sue, they fight). Check.

Islam is a religion of violence and supports terrorism (Fatwas against cartoonists). Check.

Elsewhere Maher and his cohorts Harris and Dawkins peddle other stereotypes.

Muslims reject democratic values (otherwise they would have democratic states! Ignore Indonesia. Ignore Egypt before the Coup. etc.). Check.

Islam does not share common values with other major faiths (Even the Pope won’t send his “Swiss Guards” to hunt apostates down). Check.

Islam is monolithic and cannot adapt to new realities. Check.

What’s perhaps more chilling than Maher’s ranting is the disposition of his audience. Was there no one in his studio audience with a conscience? Couldn’t someone even cough to signal opposition?

Maher at once cuts too broad a swath with his biting humor and yet displays an obsession with the flesh and blood particulars of his subject matter that is worrisome: he’s always returning to graphic images of heads being lopped off, suicide bombers and all the rest. Maher would be better off examining the tomfoolery of religion across cultural boundaries than allowing his pathology full bloom in regards Islam.

It’s indicative of his neo-liberal moorings, laden with a culturally permissive patina, that Maher doesn’t bother with the messy notion of a North-South split. That would involve too much heavy lifting and unpacking of his heroic notion of the ‘West’ and the so very unheroic effects of Western imperialism in the third world. Such a different perspective wouldn’t help him render an ‘other’ so different from ‘us’–a rhetorical operation absolutely necessary for demonization–which is what Maher is doing.

All of this reminds me of another American popular culture expression of Islamophobia, the 2007 film 300, described as a ‘porno-military fantasy’ by one reviewer and as a film that trafficked in neo-fascist aesthetics by myself where “so completely is the ‘other’ rendered different that it is difficult to conceive of them as human.”

Coming from national security state war boosters this kind of jingoism is not surprising; but it shouldn’t be welcomed within the liberal left, where Maher moors his ship of fools. I am at a loss as to how any decent person would ever forgive or forget these transgressions. They are despicable.

What’s at play here is a familiar Western superiority complex that needs dismantling. I’m particularly fond of a quote by the late Uruguayan novelist Eduardo Galeano from his book Open Veins of Latin America: “Underdevelopment isn’t a stage of development, but its consequence.” Just that one sentence explodes Maher and company’s narrow, moralistic and ahistorical stance. As in who carved out all those ridiculous state borders from the Ottoman Empire and what effect has that had on the subsequent development of civic society there? How about all those so-called ‘Banana Republics’?

Must we continue with the likes of Ben Affleck as the standard bearer of reason in opposition to Maher and company? Meh. What Affleck lacks in erudition he makes up for in enthusiasm; but sometimes you’ve got to be more than just right, sometimes you need to drop the etiquette and just slap the smile off his face.

Besides, if you must divide the world into the West vs. Islam, secular rationalism vs. religious superstition, how about this: The thoroughly religious injunction against financial interest and debt at the center of Islamic economics is far more rational than the fairy tale of Adam Smith’s ‘Invisible Hand’ or Alan Greenspan’s modern rendition spun from algorithms. How difficult would it be to make that argument for a more just and equitable world?

Although after having suffered through the ignorant ramblings of these Three Wizened Blowhards (Maher, Harris and Dawkins) you wouldn’t think so, I still maintain it is possible to be an atheist without being an asshole.

Jonathan Mozzochi
November, 2014