Since 9/11, Muslim Americans have struggled to overcome the suspicions of their non-Muslim neighbors. These doubts have often manifested themselves in outright discrimination, and Muslims have been targeted by bigots in hate crimes across the country. In my own hometown in southern West Virginia, the mosque has been repeatedly vandalized, and local students report being subjected to routine racist bullying from their peers, as I reported for Al Jazeera America earlier this year.
This is not atypical. According to a survey conducted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, half of Muslim-American students in California schools report being bullied for their religious beliefs. The FBI has also catalogued a sustained increase in hate crimes targeting Muslims since 9/11. These crimes are occasionally violent, and they often target non-Muslims whose only crime is fitting the description of what a bigot thinks a Muslim looks like.
The anti-Islamic sentiment that fuels these ugly incidents is exacerbated when negative stories pertaining to Islam dominate the media cycle. Whether it’s a terrorist attack or a contentious debate involving Muslims, such as the proposal for the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” there is typically an uptick in anti-Muslim bigotry following these events. It is for this reason that every time news of a mass violent crime breaks, we in the Muslim-American community collectively hold its breath in the hope that the perpetrator is not a Muslim.
With the rise of ISIS and its beheading of many Westerners, we are currently experiencing another one of these events that accentuate Islamophobia in America. This time around, comedian and political provocateur Bill Maher has been at the center of this discussion. For weeks, Maher has advanced the argument that Western liberals are soft on Islam, which he says poses a distinct threat to “liberal principles.” This is not necessarily a new position for Maher, who has long criticized Islam. What inspired his latest series of denunciations of the religion was President Obama’s repeated assertions that “ISIL is not Islamic.” For Maher, Islam “is not like other religions.” It is “like the mafia that will fucking kill you” if you cross it, and there is “connecting tissue” that binds the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims to ISIS (also known as ISIL, or IS) and its savage practices. In the hours following a shooting that left a Canadian soldier dead, Maher had this to say: “Turns out the attacker was Islamic—what are the odds, huh? Its almost like there’s an elephant in the room.”
Maher is not alone among Americans in his distrust of Islam and its adherents (they’re called Muslims, not “Islamics,” Bill), as illustrated by a recent Zogby poll. This survey found that a plurality of Americans—45 percent—hold an “unfavorable view” of Muslims, while only 27 percent espouse a “favorable view.” This data undermines the preposterous notion that Maher is somehow taking a courageous stand by expressing his negative opinions of Islam. Richard Dawkins, another prominent critic of Islam, tweeted that Maher’s latest stand exemplifies his “typical bravery.” What is brave about expressing an opinion that is already held by a plurality of Americans?
With powerful media personalities like Maher perpetuating the notion that Americans should associate the horrible atrocities committed by ISIS with their Muslim-American neighbors, it shouldn’t be surprising if anti-Islamic sentiment continues to grow. That possibility alone is enough reason to condemn Maher’s fear-mongering. When one delves deeper and uncovers the simplistic, reductionist nature of Maher’s argument, it is clear he is also guilty of intellectual laziness, if not dishonesty.
First of all, one has to wonder which Islam Maher is talking about here. As Reza Aslan eloquently described in his recent essay in The New York Times, religions take on different flavors in different cultural, ethnic and geographic contexts. As a religion that spans the entire globe, Islam encompasses a tremendous diversity. The Islam of President Barack Obama’s Indonesian stepfather, which he describes in Dreams from My Father as an “Islam that could make room for the remnants of more ancient animist and Hindu faiths,” is not the same as the Sufi-brand of Syrian Islam I grew up with. Nor is the Islam that inspired the historic advances in science, mathematics, medicine and philosophy that precipitated the Western Enlightenment the same as the Islam of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. We are talking about over 1.5 billion people here. The notion that there is a single, unified Muslim world that has the same problems and requires the same solutions is beyond absurd.
In addition to the utter lack of nuance when it comes to his generalizations about the Islamic world and its perceived backwardness, it is worth paying particular attention to Maher’s attempts at emphasizing the supposedly Islamic roots of ISIS. Incredibly, in none of his discussions on this topic has Maher or any of his panelists pointed out the role American foreign policy has played in creating this monster. As Tom Engelhardt recently argued here, “Thirteen years of regional war, occupation and intervention played a major role in clearing the ground for [ISIS].” The Obama administration has repeatedly pointed out that ISIS traces its origins to Al Qaeda in Iraq, a group that did not exist until the Bush administration’s ill-conceived 2003 invasion. Instead of blaming Islam for ISIS, it might behoove Maher and his proponents to consider the complicity of their own government in its rise.
There is no denying that many Muslim communities across the world have a long way to go when it comes to women’s rights, minority rights and freedom of expression. We can have an honest, nuanced discussion on how to approach these problems, which vary from community to community, without reducing it to a simplistic attack on Islam as a whole. The fact that many of the countries where these problems are the worst are governed by politically repressive dictatorships should not be absent from this debate. Nor should the negative impact of American foreign policy in particular, and the legacy of Western colonialism in general, be ignored. Just in the span of President Obama’s presidency, the US military has bombed seven Muslim-majority countries. It has also continued to prop up several authoritarian regimes across the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, the chief exporter of the fundamentalist Wahhabism that serves as the ideological foundation to many extremist militant groups, including ISIS.
Since 9/11, Muslims in America have been subject to discrimination, hate crimes and racial profiling. Their own government has illegally spied on them, arbitrarily detained and in some cases tortured members of their communities. A disturbingly large portion of their fellow Americans view them with suspicion and associate their religion with violence. There is nothing courageous about a white, wealthy male with a privileged position in the media utilizing his platform to perpetuate the negative stereotypes that encourage mistreatment of a vulnerable minority group. Maher’s fixation with Islam is not constructive, and it certainly isn’t brave—it’s bigotry, plain and simple.