Bill Maher and the US conversation on Islam
WASHINGTON - US comedian Bill Maher recently ruffled a few too many feathers with a joke. He likened a young pop singer Zayn Malik, who happens to be of Muslim heritage, to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the convicted Boston Marathon bomber.
The joke triggered a barrage of disapproval on Twitter, where the hashtag #RespectForZayn continues to trend.
It was not the first time Maher triggered controversy with a joke about a Muslim or Islam, nor the first time he encountered a damning response to his humour. CNN.com ran Bill Maher’s Muslim Problem and the Daily Beast published Maher’s Lamest Muslim Joke Yet?, which ranked among the top-read articles on the site.
Salon magazine ran an opinion article titled: Bill Maher, Listen Up: 30 Do’s and Don’ts for Covering Muslims and Islam, with advice such as: “Do not assume Arabs = Muslims and Muslims = Arabs,” and “Do not lump Islamist with jihadist with Salafist with Traditionalist.”
Even some of Maher’s self-professed fans were critical, such as religion scholar Reza Aslan, who dismissed Maher’s Islam jokes as “not very sophisticated”.
Maher’s supporters rushed to his defence. Maher is “an equal opportunity” basher, they argued, sparing no one his satire, including Jews and Evangelical Christians and, they argue, no one pays attention. So why the Muslim exceptionalism?
All the hoopla goes beyond political correctness and hurt feelings. Perhaps unknown to Maher, his joke captured the tenor of the conversation about Islam in the United States. On the one hand, there is widespread fear and disgust with Islamist extremism, on the other, Maher’s joke challenged a taboo for liberal sensibilities: to generalise the sins of a few onto the whole on the basis of creed, religion, ethnicity or race.
It is in this polarised atmosphere that Maher cracked his joke and then responded unapologetically with a segment called “Explaining a joke to idiots”.
Comedians serve a powerful role.
In oppressive countries, comedians can challenge and subvert the status quo. Satirising the Islamic State (ISIS) is widespread in Arab countries and seems to help people cope with stress of the turmoil.
In a democracy like the United States, comedians can frame the narrative and give it gravitas. Some comedians, such as Jon Stewart, do this brilliantly and are admired even by those they satirise, including Muslim Americans.
Maher targets the same liberal audience as Stewart, regularly bashing America’s conservatism but when it comes to satirising Islam he is as polarising as the topic itself.
When Maher put Malik’s headshot next to that of Tsarnaev and said, addressing Malik, “Where were you during the Boston bombing?” it was Maher’s own audience that was momentarily shocked before a few broke into lukewarm applause. The joke was particularly crass because Malik, at the tender age of 22, has been the target of several racist cyber-attacks.
Not long before the Malik joke, Maher rattled viewers when he convened a panel discussion about Islam, but did not invite a single Muslim or Islamic scholar.
“Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas,” said panellist Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith.
“We’re misled to believe that fundamentalists are the fringe.”
“It’s the only religion that acts like the mafia, that will (expletive) kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book,” Maher added.
Other panellists disagreed, including Hollywood actor Ben Affleck, who has grown indignant with Maher’s sweeping generalisations.
“You can’t say: ‘Because I’ve witnessed this behaviour … I’m willing to flatly condemn those of you I don’t know and I’ve never met’… That’s like saying: ‘You shifty Jew,’” said Affleck in what became a shouting match between two “poster boys” of American liberalism.
The topic of Islam is one of the most polarising in America, with Islamophobia at its highest level ever, worse even than in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. An ABC poll indicated 47% of American respondents in 2001 had a favourable view of Islam. That fell to 37% in 2010 and 27% in 2014.
But as Aslan points out, all the talk is a good thing.
“A much-needed conversation is finally being had, not just about the problem of religion and violence but about how we talk about it,” he said.