Bill Maher and the US conversation on Islam

Friday 08/05/2015
Bill Maher, no stranger to controversy

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. 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.