On Oct. 3, the comedian Bill Maher reignited the long-standing debate over whether Islam is a “violent” religion. Over the course of an episode of his hit HBO show “Real Time,” Maher argued that Islam doctrinally incites brutality, viciousness and a “mafia” sense of terror in its followers.
In the month following these remarks, scholars, politicians, journalists and increasingly young people alike have lambasted Maher’s condemnation of Islam. Over 3,300 students at the University of California, Berkeley signed a petition this week urging administrators to rescind Maher’s invitation to speak at a university ceremony in December.
Maher ought not to be spared the brunt of the criticism against him. His comments reflect the very unadulterated, ignorant generalizations that he’s made a career of mocking. Never mind that Islamic extremists committed just 6 percent of domestic U.S. terrorist attacks between 1980 and 2005 according to FBI databases. Forget that, when polled, as recently as April of 2013, Muslims across the world overwhelmingly reject the use of any justified violence for religious or political ends. Maher’s comments ignore actual Islamic scripture, which preaches “justice and the doing of good to others.”
But as easy as it is to dismantle Maher’s assault on Islam with words — the most potent weapon in the arsenal of the ivory tower – it’s equally important to leave intact Maher’s right to argue. Behind the veneer of ignorance, there is unexpected value in his argument.
Many people have made Maher’s argument before. They are not original in nature. Just turn on Fox and you’ll see half a dozen pundits insult Islam frequently. But the value of this episode stems from Maher’s political allegiance. Because Maher is one of the comic chieftains of the American left, liberals are forced to confront his arguments in a manner unlike the way they would respond to some blowhard on conservative radio.
After all, it’s simple enough to turn the other way from the endless fountain of Islamophobic vituperations. In reality, it takes a self-proclaimed liberal such as Bill Maher, who publicly touted a $1 million donation to President Obama’s re-election campaign, to denounce Islam for the defensive machinery of the tolerant-minded to snap into motion.
This isn’t a conspiracy between Bill Maher and conservatives. Rather, it’s an unintentional yet healthy process by which the national discourse advances on an important issue in the wake of an unhealthy public utterance. If nothing else, it is a moment for destructive, unenlightened opinions to be overpowered by the undeniable weight of the facts.
Bill Maher does not deserve a medal for his unwitting support of the progressive movement. And, after criticizing the Yale Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics on his show for not supporting Ayaan Hirsi Ali — “You’re atheists! You should be attacking religion, not siding with the people who hold women down and violate them.” — it’s doubtful the University will confer speaking privileges on the HBO star anytime soon.
But maybe Yale should. Because in the same way Hirsi Ali in her much discussed visit to New Haven in September generated significant campus dialogue over issues of free speech, human dignity and Islam, Maher can also be an unexpected source for constructive conversation on campus. If Maher can’t express his views at an academic institution like Yale, then where can he? This University is and should be committed to the collision of opposing ideas, however onerous and grotesque they may be.
Maher’s status and credentials would have the legitimacy to muster a real, honest, intellectual response from those who find issue with his positions.
Schools such as Yale and Berkeley are the perfect environments for public intellectuals and personalities to debate theology, history and culture. If the academy turns away Maher and others who share his sentiments, then we can’t feign surprise when his hurtful aspersions continue on television. On television, he controls the debate. There may be no intellectual checks and balances on “Real Talk.” Maher can get away with lazy simplifications of Islam in front of Ben Affleck, but he won’t be able to do the same in front of one of a university’s many qualified scholars.
Only words in head-to-head confrontations can ameliorate the plague of hate speech. The media today is polarized. It is too easy for the left and right to shout across from one another without ever actively engaging. Universities should play a greater role in fostering bilateral dialogue.
Graham Ambrose is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.