Bill Maher: Islamophobe or One of the Last True Liberals?

'How did we get to this place where just describing something is demonizing?' Bill Maher’s one-man crusade to 'wake liberals up' to the social injustice he sees in Islam.

Bill Maher with his guest author Sam Harris on HBO's show 'Real Time,' October 6, 2014.
Youtube screengrab

Bill Maher finished the 13th season of his HBO show ‘Real Time’ with a bang this past weekend. Currently one of the most controversial, if not most hated, men in America, Maher is often referred to as arrogant, smug and profane - and that's by people who like his show. A dyed-in-the-wool liberal, who gave Obama $1 million in 2012 and works to flip Republican-held Congressional seats to the benefit of Democrat contenders, Maher in the past year has become a target of liberal anger, who have often called him xenophobic, a pseudo-intellectual and a bigot.

Maher is no stranger to controversy. His first late night comedy show, 'Politically Incorrect', was cancelled in 2002 after he disagreed with President George W. Bush’s assertion that the 9/11 hijackers were “cowards.” He came back to the airwaves unshackled a year later with 'Real Time' on HBO, attracting A-list celebrities and politicians (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been a regular guest) to his weekly panel where he discusses and satirizes the news to a live studio audience and over a million cable viewers.

In this final episode, Maher focused his commentary and comedy on ISIS, Islam and the Syrian refugee controversy.  Maher discussed a new opinion poll showing a majority of Americans believe the values of Syrian refugees seeking asylum are at odds with their own, noted, ‘“If you are in this religion, you probably do have values that are at odds. This is what liberals do not want to recognize. You may be from a country—as there are many, many Muslim countries—that either have Sharia law or want Sharia law. Those values are not our values.” (His comments are backed up by research from the Pew Research Center whose 2013 poll found that overwhelming percentages of Muslims in many countries want Islamic law (sharia) to be the official law of the land where they live).

This line of reasoning has been grabbing Maher headlines and ratings since October 2014, when, with author Sam Harris (the 'New Atheism' advocate) at his side, he tussled live on air with Hollywood star Ben Affleck.

During the exchange Harris asserted that Islam is “the motherlode of bad ideas,” while Maher exclaimed that Islam is the only religion that acts like the mafia, “that will f--king kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture, or write the wrong book.” To which, Affleck, getting visibly upset, shot back, denouncing Maher’s take as “gross” and ”racist.’” "It's like saying, 'you shifty Jew!'" he declared.

Maher’s critics accuse him of simplistic generalizations that amount to racism. On CNN, Reza Aslan slammed Maher, saying that on religion he is not very “sophisticated in the way he thinks,” noting that Maher makes broad generalizations about the planet’s 1.6 billion Muslims based on the acts of a few. “We're using two or three examples to justify a generalization. That's actually the definition of bigotry."

For his part, Maher responds to these critics, many of whom sit across from him during his show, with the simple refutation that: “I’m not demonizing, I’m just reporting! We’re saying the ideas need to be changed.” In his own defense Maher attempts to separate individual Muslims from the practices of Islam; he time and again asserts he is not talking about all Muslims, but is criticizing instead the ideas within Islam that go against ‘universal liberal values' – standing up for the rights of women, gays, apostates, democracy, and his favorite - freedom of speech. 

A voice like Maher’s has been seen on the American left before in the face of an existential threat. In 1949, historian Arthur Schlesinger coined the term ‘doughfaced progressives’ to label those on the left that he saw as soft on emerging communist totalitarianism, either because they felt sympathetic to its underlying ideology or because they believed that progressivism required the tolerance of otherness. Schlesinger dubbed these doughfaced progressives “democratic men who support totalitarian principles.” Schlesinger, the proto-Maher, fought within the American left at the beginning of the Cold War for liberals to address Soviet communism for what it was – illiberal. 

In the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks, John Kerry stirred controversy that fed straight into Maher’s argument about liberal America’s blind spots, or lack of courage. Kerry was quoted as saying that it was possible to find “legitimacy” or “a rationale” behind the January 2015 attacks on Charlie Hebdo (which openly satirized the prophet Mohammed) as opposed to the most recent attacks in Paris which were in Kerry's words “absolutely indiscriminate.”

The night of the Paris attacks, Maher happened to be taping live and in an interview with Muslim feminist author Asra Nomani. They both urged liberals in America to wake up. “How could liberals, who stood for black people getting to go to college in the 60’s and then when I was in college they were protesting apartheid in South Africa How can they not stand up against sharia law, which is the law in so many Muslim countries, which is a law of oppression?”

Exactly where Maher falls in the divide between bigot and truly enlightened, it's hard to say. Bill Maher, as a devout atheist, slams all religions. Having been raised Catholic, despite having a Jewish mother, Maher left his faith at a young age and has since been poking religion in the eye, exposing its hypocrisies and every week, to his HBO audience, has been calling out religious believers for holding 'fairy tales' above science and fact.

Is Bill Maher bigoted against Islam? I don’t think so. He takes broad aim at Islam as an ideology (which certainly does leave him open to intellectual criticism), and just like someone who has factual, value-based disagreements with capitalism or communism or any other ideology that governs people’s way of life, it is perfectly legitimate to criticize and make a case for why an ideology contains bad, damaging ideas.  (When it comes to Mormonism however, a faith he refuses even to acknowledge as a religion and likes to simply call “stupid,” Maher might be a bit of a bigot, but that’s another story.)

Maher has undoubtedly made an enemy of the PC left on this issue; Steven Colbert and Maher got into a heated exchange on Colbert's late-night show last week, after Colbert berated Maher for his willingness to leave no joke untouched. "Bill, they say at a dinner party you should never talk about sex, politics or religion. Have you ever been invited to a dinner party in your life?" To which, Maher retorted, "I probably wouldn't be invited to your dinner party." The exchange deteriorated quickly from there with Colbert concluding, “My religion teaches me humility in face of this kind of attack,” before switching to ‘safer’ topics.

At the end of last year, Maher was disinvited from giving the commencement address at UC Berkeley after 6,000 students signed a petition to that effect.  Maher eventually gave the address amid protests, in which he began by saying, "C'mon, it's Berkeley. I think I can speak freely here. I mean, I hope I can."

The same day that Maher finished his season, Pew published a survey showing that 40% of Millennials agree with censoring speech offensive to minorities, an all-too real exemplar of the PC culture inundating America that Maher has so long fought against. It's just too bad Maher didn't have one more episode left to make a joke, or ten, about that finding.

Alexander Griffing is the director of digital outreach at Haaretz English edition. He has a master's degree from Tel Aviv University in political science.