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?