A few weeks ago, a video of Ben Affleck and Bill Maher debating radical Islam went viral. After watching it the first time, I knew that I had to write about it. Not because I thought it was particularly interesting, but because I’m still unable to comprehend how it even happened in the first place.
So let’s set the scene:
The video is a clip of Maher’s show, “Real Time with Bill Maher.” It features Maher himself, along with Affleck, author Sam Harris, MSNBC political analyst Michael Steele and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. It opens with Maher saying that liberals have failed themselves because they’ve been unable to protect liberal principles, like freedom of speech, freedom to practice any religion, etc.
The debate begins by framing a discussion on Islam, specifically radical Islam in the Middle East, by centering it on American liberalism. The panel, who are all presumably experts on the topic, is made up of five non-Muslim men.
Sam Harris picks up right after Maher, saying, “We have been sold this meme of Islamophobia, where every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry toward Muslims as people.” Ben Affleck, yes, that Ben Affleck, attempts to counter, saying, “So you’re saying Islamophobia is not a real thing?” Maher smugly answers, “It’s not a real thing when we do it.”
The name of the game is positioning. Maher and Harris dominate the debate because it centers on the United States and operates under the assumption that the West is the authority responsible for combating the primitivity of Islam. It presumes that Maher and co., who do not have any actual connection to this issue, have authority on the subject, and as such they know better by default. Fortunately, they prove the opposite every time they open their mouths.
Harris interjects, “We have to be able to criticize bad ideas. Islam at this moment is the motherload of bad ideas.” Kristof rebuts by saying, “The picture you’re painting is to some extent true but is hugely incomplete.” They go back and forth until Bill Maher declares, “Let’s get down to who has the real answer here. A billion people you say, all these billion people don’t hold these pernicious beliefs? That’s just not true, Ben.”
Yes, let’s talk about bad ideas. A bad idea is making generalizations about a billion people. There are certain buzzwords that are invoked when Islam is covered; they generally begin with Muslim women, followed by LGBTQ, followed by apostasy, followed by the mother of all buzzwords: jihad.
Herein lies the root of my discomfort. Maher is not the only member of the mainstream media that invokes this type of discourse when it comes to Islam. This discourse operates under the presumption that the Muslim world is homogenous. It denies the simple idea that Muslims live complex lives. The examples are never nuanced; there is never a mention of intersectionality. Nobody attempts to contextualize the discussion.
Muslims are often denied the right to be present in the conversation. We’re rarely invited to the table, to the panel, to the conference. An educated discussion on Muslim women and their rights is welcome. What is not welcome is using the state of Muslim women as a tool to propagate neoliberal ideology. What is not welcome is using their name to mobilize an ideology that advocates their inferiority. Who is Maher championing exactly? Why are they always talked about but never present?
By leaving Muslims out of the conversation you limit their ability to claim their reality. To quote Edward Said, you can control the East/Orient by “making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.”
Maher practices neo-orientalism, a reincarnation of orientalism that pits Islam against the West. The ideology is harmful. It compromises the safety of Muslims in the West and claims authority over Muslims everywhere. It creates a hierarchy on who gets to speak on the topic. Nobody asked Maher or Harris or Affleck or Kristof to present their credentials. Their authority on the topic is never questioned. Despite the fact that none of them is actually affected by the radical Islam they seem to discuss.
Maher never actually presents any solutions. He operates with a smugness that says, ‘I am superior, these people are terrible, let me provide my unsolicited opinion for ratings.’
Personally, I don’t find anything remotely funny or intelligent about his show. Then again, maybe I’m just one of those oppressed Arab, Muslim women who doesn’t understand the work good liberals like Maher are doing on my behalf.
Haya Alfarhan can be reached at email@example.com.