Bill Maher: When Bigotry and Racism Are Liberal!

The University of California, Berkeley invite for comedian Bill Maher to deliver the Fall 2014, Commencement speech has generated intense opposition from student groups and community organizations due to Maher’s bigoted, racist and generalized statements concerning Islam and Muslims. In response to the students’ petition and protest, the University administration released a public statement dismissing the protest and refusing to rescind the invite on the basis of free speech: “the administration’s position on Mr. Maher’s opinions and perspectives is irrelevant in this context, since we fully respect and support his right to express them. More broadly, this university has not in the past and will not in the future shy away from hosting speakers who some deem provocative.”

Let me get this straight, the “opinions and perspectives” of Bill Maher are irrelevant, which means that racism and bigotry toward Muslims are not important enough to warrant an out right condemnation by UC Berkeley administration!

Recent polling data from Arab American Institute reveals a decline in American favorability attitudes toward Muslims “from 35% in 2010 to 27% in 2014.”  The Islamophobes’, including “liberal” Bill Maher and Sam Harris, who maintain that the problem is Muslims themselves, and a natural outcome because of Islam itself, which in Maher’s view is the “mother load of all bad ideas.” Thus Bill Maher and Sam Harris have found a comfortable and receptive place to translate bigotry and racism into a “liberal” virtue.

For a moment with all the constant negative news coverage, one can begin to agree with both of them and blame Islam. In this context, the bigoted and racist efforts are directed at making an immediate link between criminal and insane events taking place in Iraq and Syria with ISIS and Boko Haram’s actions in Nigeria with the rising tide of negative sentiments directed at Muslims in the US. This is a case whereby existing latent Islamophobia is mobilized to reinforce the negative certainty about what Islam and Muslims are all about and distant events, which provide the rich soil for expressing the most outrageous and generalized notions on a daily basis.

Bill Maher’s case is important and relevant at present and the attempt to cloak essentialist arguments about 20-25% of the world population in “liberal” garb and donning the mantel of the enlightened defender of “universal” values that are supposedly violated by Islam and its followers. For sure, Bill Maher and his side kick on the essentialist track Sam Harris hide behind simplistic arguments and assert that they are merely critiquing Islam and not Muslims since their case is against the supposed backwardness of the religion demonstrated by items from polling data coming from the Muslim world and conducted by Pew researchers. You can see the fickleness of the argument creating a distinction between Islam and its followers on the one hand, then using the responses of Muslims to offer a sweeping condemnation of the religion and all its followers, as a class.

Sam Harris, who made a career out of essentialist notions, generalized arguments and published books that postulate the unique threat to liberalism. Islam supposedly present and engaging in fuzzy math on polling data to push a most sweeping bigoted and racist views concerning the jihadi threat. Maher and Sam, in this context, take the terrorist events and criminal actions or opinion of any Muslim to be indicative of a single causality:Islam itself and nothing more or else is needed to understand what is taking place. In a previous article, I introduced the concept of sudden ignorance syndrome that befalls Islamophobes and bigots who are fixated on a single causation in the Muslim world, Islam itself. Indeed, the Muslim world has terrorists’, violence, corruption, sexism and homophobia but the causes and complexities are many that are not reducible to racist and bigoted singularity focusing on Islam. Iraq had not a single suicide bombing prior to US invasion and only afterward did this ugly calamity rear its head. What happened and what are the changing factors that brought about this development? Can we really reduce the crisis to Islam itself as the Islamophobes self-servingly assert rather than understanding all the factors at play.

Defending “liberalism” through essentialism and generalization is no defense at all; rather it is sheer surrendering to popular racism, bigotry and dumbing down stupidity in pursuit of cheap laughs.It is historically and philosophically understandable when these arguments come from the extreme xenophobic right but a “liberal” claim runs contrary to the basic foundation of the liberal tradition itself. Popular and media savvy attention or sound bytes is not the same as upholding or defending a “liberal” tradition.

In arguing against the students who demanded the university rescind the Commencement speech invite, Bill Maher simplistically argued that he can’t be a racist because Islam is not a race and pointing to the irony that Berkeley as the birth place of the Free Speech Movement would rescind his invite. The liberal claim on the basis of racism is a far more powerful irony than the one charged against the students. Indeed, Maher is correct Islam is a religion not a race. However, in putting this argument forth Bill Maher’s demonstrate a higher level of compounded ignorance on the construction of race, racism and the various manifestations it takes: a sure failure in the test of liberal discourse.The response to student groups is both condescending and doubly ignorant on racism.

Racism is not only a function of skin color; however because Bill Maher has no knowledge or real interest in the subject itself and only wants to escape from the bigoted cave he set-up for himself by implying that UC Berkeley students opposing the invite are ignorant on the question of racism by calling his statements racist. For the students at Berkeley must be in error and lack the fountain of “liberal” wisdom both Sam and Bill possess on the subject of race!

One is not a bigot for speaking against Islam and Muslims asserts Maher and Sam! Maybe we can begin to include their major academic and theoretical work on race and racism in future courses on the subject for they know the subject first hand and it appears they have done primary research on it on the show. For sure and if anything I know about Berkeley students is that they are fairly versed on race, a socially and historically constructed phenomena that emerges out of a complex set of economic, political, social and religious interests as well asbeing aware that racialization can take many forms including religion, language and culture to name the obvious.

A more critical issue for the university is the fact that Bill Maher’s views on race and racism runs completely opposite the major academic contribution of UC Berkeley faculty and ethnic studies in particular. Is the administration accepting the simplistic and ignorant definition of what race and racism are and allowing Bill Maher to walk in the faculty ranks, take the stage and speak to graduates’ and their families while demonstrating a total ignorance of race and racism that Berkeley faculty and departments have been pioneers’ for over 40 years! The invite is an insult to all the books, articles, conferences and graduates who worked countless hours to disentangle the concepts of race and racism and build a better and more inclusive society. Bill Maher’s invite is honoring ignorance and silencing sound scholarship. Furthermore, the invite in essence demonstrates a total disregard by the university of the body of scholarship on race and racism that is used as a standard across many classrooms around the world.

The University defending the invite on the basis of free speech is such a weak claim since countless speakers in the past and at present have not been given the honorific Commencement stage due to the content of their speech. The University administration on more than one occasion in the past made sure to issue statements of condemnation when a student group or department invited “controversial” speaker and on more than once taking the expensive step of putting a full page advertisement in the campus newspaper to this effect.

Furthermore, the University leadership went out of its way a number of times to issue condemnation based on the content of speech or protest activities of Arab, Muslim and Pro-Palestine student groups on campus. The issue is not free speech but University recognition and honoring a person insisting on bigoted and racist statements, who will walk into the auditorium with the Chancellor and faculty, dressed up in the campus’ pageantry and colors: the university is bestowing an honor upon him and in the process giving consent to his speech by granting an exclusive institutional welcome with no counter response. In reality and up to this point, the University administration and the Chancellor have not issued any public statement concerning Bill Maher’s bigoted and racist generalization and essentialist statementsabout Islam and Muslims while hiding behind the defense of free speech. Not wanting a Commencement speaker is not limiting Bill Maher’s free speech since the students who pay tuition and are graduating have the right to oppose a given speaker and the university can chose to invite the person on their own in an event that student, faculty and the general public can voluntarily chose to attend or opt to spend the time drinking coffee and reading a book in a café.

By having Bill Maher give the Commencement speech without the possibility of the graduates’ being able to opt out, challenge his arguments in the same spirit of free speech, or out right condemnation of the content by the Chancellor and the administration,then it implies on the one hand an agreement with the content in principle. On the other hand, racism directed at Muslim members of the campus community, faculty, students and staff is normalized by this recognition and not considered a serious issue warranting rescinding an invite to bigoted speaker. Does the Chancellor consider Maher’s statements acceptable and if not then where is the condemnation.

Lastly, whatever happened to calls for “tolerance and civility,” and “community” or does it only apply to those assumed to belong and are welcomed on campus while bigotry and racism toward Muslims are not part of this rubric since they are outsiders to the “civilized” norms. When Maher refer to Islam as a Mafia, how does that stand for “tolerance and civility.” These become empty words uttered by the university while the action demonstrates the opposite. Are Muslims “the barbarians” at the gates of free speech!

By honoring Bill Maher with this invite, UC Berkeley is joining the popular discourses that essentialize and generalize the living experiences of a quarter of the world population and in doing so undermines the basic mission of the university and education in general. The university is asking Muslim students, faculty and staff to accept bigotry and racism as the basis of inclusion and to demonstrate their emergence from sub-humanness into the “liberal civilizing” norms. Bill Maher’s free speech rights are amplified regularly on HBO and the massive media access he enjoys on a regular basis but the voice of Muslim students and students of color is silenced and the university is party to it by honoring their collective demonization by a guest who will wear Berkeley’s colors at the Commencement. The Free Speech Movement was for students to have a voice and not about the university imposing a bigoted and racist speakerwho has a weekly TV show speaking to millions whileengaged in the marginalization and silencing of the already silenced!