Fighting Islamophobic Stereotypes and the Hysteria of Bill Maher

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October 11, 2014; Huntsville Times

At a time when Islamophobia has reached an apogee under the impetus of HBO host Bill Maher, press attention for Muslims who believe in the traditional teachings of Islam as a religion of compassion has been scant. It is much easier to be ignorant and characterize all Muslims as latent ISIS warriors, an easy, simplistic, dramatic narrative for mainstream media to follow.

At Nonprofit Quarterly, we don’t buy into the latest attacks on Muslims and we never will. Stories that interest us are those that characterize, differently but accurately, the vast majority of Muslims. For example, in Birmingham, Alabama, Muslim doctors and dentists assisted by Muslim volunteers ran a free health clinic last week at the Hoover Crescent Islamic Center. The free health check-ups and testing truly count in a state that has chosen not to expand Medicaid eligibility, leaving many people in the state without adequate access to affordable healthcare.

Perhaps the Islamophobes don’t realize that Peter Kassig, one of the hostages being held by ISIS, is a Muslim who now calls himself Abdul-Rahman Kassig. While some say that Kassig might have formally converted to Islam while in captivity, the story from his hometown paper, the Indianapolis Star, portrays a young man who was culturally assimilating to Islam while volunteering to help Syrian refugees. His motivation for going to Syria was simply heartfelt, caring, compassionate humanitarianism.

Perhaps Maher should be reminded that the latest Nobel Peace Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai, is a Muslim. Like many, she stood up to the intolerance of the Taliban, which tried to have her killed for the audacity of believing that girls should be educated. In acknowledging her award, Yousafzai expressly mentioned her role and identity as a young Muslim woman.

More than a billion Muslims should not have to justify themselves to the West because of the actions of extremists claiming the name of their religion. Nor should the West feel itself somehow privileged to instruct Muslims on the meaning of their religion. But the West can address its counterpart to Islamic extremism: the growing threat of Islamophobia promulgated by the likes of Maher.

Perhaps, however, Maher has done a public service with his attacks. Zanaib Chaudry of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nonprofit Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, credited Maher with “exemplifying that Islamophobia is very much real…characterized by the tired generalizations and stereotyping recycled by folks like [Maher] who are determined to define the faith of billions by the reprehensible actions of a small minority.”

As a committed atheist, Maher well knows how scripture—Old Testament, New Testament, and the Quran—can be interpreted and misinterpreted to justify all sorts of horrible behavior and retrograde cultural mores under the cloak of religion. Think of the Bible-wielding pastors who in the nineteenth century proclaimed slavery as religiously permissible, and in the 20th continued to cite scripture to justify governmental “separate and unequal” policies. Eventually, these abuses of religious teachings disintegrate. ISIS, the Taliban, the Wahhabis, and others represent a dimension of Islam that will collapse under its own brutal weight, especially given that the vast majority of their victims happen to be other Muslims. If the media seems unwilling to present a picture of Islam that doesn’t fall prey to televised Islamophobes, the nonprofit sector ought to be prepared to counter that kind of bigotry.—Rick Cohen

  • mike malzahn

    Bill tried to point out facts about a pew survey on muslims beliefs. He ande Sam Harris couldn’t make their points because Ben Affleck just kept shouting them down with non sense. Rather than muslims crying Islamophobia everytime someone asks about this survey, maybe they should explain why their fellow muslims are wrong. If in fact they believe them to be wrong? Bill never equated ALL muslims to ISIS. he said it is the only religion that acts like the mafia, as in, they kill you if you leave. His number was a bit off, he said 90% of Egyptians favor killing an apostate. in fact it is 86% of the 74% who favor sharia as the offical law of the land. so if there are 70 million muslims in Egypt that is ‘only’ 44.5 million mafia memebers. (if my math is right) Until the so called moderate msulims start to challenge these beliefs within the umma, and manage to win the arguement within Islam that you have true freedom of religion, every person of conscience should point these thinks out. And for people like Affleck who claim to support liberal ideals to shout him down only goes to show who the truely ignorant are.

  • Iftikhar Ahmad

    Turkish president says new embodiments of famous British intelligence officer are “disguised as journalists, religious men, writers and terrorists.”

    Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed instability in the Middle East on new embodiments of the famous British intelligence officer T.E. Lawrence, known as Lawrence of Arabia, in a Monday diatribe at Marmara University in Istanbul.

    The French wire service AFP reported that Erdogan said that ”There are new voluntary Lawrence, disguised as journalists, religious men, writers and terrorists.” Erdogan did not name these manifestations of Lawrence.

    T.E. Lawrence gained international fame with his defeat of a Turkish garrison located in the battle of what is now the Jordanian port of Aqaba in 1917.

    “Lawrence was an English spy disguised as an Arab,” said Erdogan, “It is our duty to explain to the world that there are modern Lawrences who were fooled by a terror organization.”

    “They are making Sykes-Picot agreements, hiding behind freedom of press, a war of independence or jihad,” said Erdogan.

    French diplomat François Georges-Picot and British MP Sir Mark Sykes negotiated a secret agreement during the First World War to carve the Middle East into British and French mandates.

    According to AFP, Erdogan also blasted the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is living in exile in the United States.

    The EU and the US consider the PKK to be a terrorist organization. Turkey and the PKK were engulfed in a bloody war since the 1980s.

    The 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia depicted Lawrence’s military triumphs over the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.

    He is widely considered an enigma, and was criticized for pushing for Jewish settlements in then-Palestine and for favouring Arab independence. In a rarely cited remark, Lawrence said that “the sooner the Jews farm it all the better; their colonies are bright spots in the desert.”

    Lawrence died in 1935 in England as a result of a motorcycle accident.

    US Gen. David Petraeus ordered top military officers to read the Twenty-Seven Articles, a guide Lawrence wrote for British officers, during the US surge in Iraq in order to help them understand the minds of Iraqis.

    However, as Scott Anderson wrote his book Lawrence in Arabia, the general “presumably skipped over was Lawrence’s opening admonition that his advice applied strictly to Bedouin – about 2 percent of the Iraqi population – and that interacting with Arab townspeople ‘require[s] totally difference treatment.”’ Writing in the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, Jacob Rosen, a senior official at the Foreign Ministry and a leading Lawrence authority, noted that “Lawrence’s name has lived on in history and it would certainly behove those attempting to understand the Middle East – and to operate in it – to closely study his legacy.”

  • Anonymous Q. Anonymous

    I deplore Islamophobia and other forms of bigotry. Attacks on public intellectuals, like Bill Maher, that fail to accurately represent their views also leave me cold. I believe his views are fairly represented here:

    Bill Maher’s central claim appears to be that in many parts of the Islamic world, beliefs and practices are widely condoned that are a) rooted in various interpretations of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, and b) abhorrent. I strongly agree with this claim. He’s made similar claims about Christian thought and practice.

    In the US, for example, Christian scripture and teaching were used to support the institution of slavery. Until the weight of public opinion shifted significantly, we had large numbers of people who self-identified as Christians, and who, on the basis of their beliefs, supported the enslavement of others. It was not unreasonable, in my view, for people to conclude that there was something deeply flawed about a system of beliefs that condoned these atrocities—in spite of the fact that there were individuals who used Christian texts and teachings to reach other conclusions. I’m a gay Christian. I think it’s completely reasonable for my LGBT brothers and sisters to condemn Christianity when it is so often used, for example, to rationalize terrorizing and bringing violence to LGBT people across the world. Yes, there are exceptional Christians who embrace LGBT people, but those who denounce Christianity would argue that the exceptions prove the rule. What is Christianity? It’s not my interpretation of it; it’s how it’s lived and otherwise manifested in the world.

    Bill Maher is claiming that we know and understand the meaning of “Islam” through the kinds of beliefs and practices it engenders. The meaning of Islam is not an abstraction but is rather made manifest in the beliefs and actions of individuals who embrace it and, often by extension, in the practices and policies they support. These of course can change over time. In much of the Muslim world, Mr. Maher claims, Islam is at the heart of gender oppression and other harms, and we should oppose these harms and their basis. He would likely make the same claims about Roman Catholicism’s undermining of reproductive rights and its hostility to LGBT people in many countries with large Roman Catholic populations.

    While it may not be an argument we like, it’s neither irrational nor necessarily rooted in bigotry.