EXCLUSIVE: Rula Jebreal sounds off on Bill Maher Islam spat: "What he is doing is un-American"

The journalist tells Salon about her heated debate with Maher on Friday -- and the "dangerous" impact of his ideas

Published November 3, 2014 10:11PM (EST)

Rula Jebreal, Bill Maher                (HBO)
Rula Jebreal, Bill Maher (HBO)

Last weekend witnessed yet another fierce debate over Islam on HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher," just four weeks after the comedian tussled with actor Ben Affleck on the issue. This time, Maher's interlocutor was the Italian-Palestinian journalist Rula Jebreal, who took Maher to task for what she called his "offensive" criticism of the religion.

The impetus for the latest debate was the controversy surrounding Maher's upcoming commencement address at the University of California-Berkeley, where a group of students circulated a petition protesting the choice of Maher, whom the petition described as a "blatant bigot and racist." The university ultimately stood by its decision to bring Maher to campus, and during his Friday show, he assailed the attempt to cancel his address as an illiberal effort to shut down free speech. Similarly, Maher has couched his criticism of Islam in liberal terms, arguing that true liberals have a duty to oppose Islamic "illiberalism."

Jebreal would have none of it, objecting to Maher's framing of the Berkeley controversy as a free speech issue and castigating his criticism of Islam as grossly simplistic. Now, in an interview with Salon, Jebreal sounds off on her "Real Time" appearance, the debate over liberalism and Islam, and whether she'll ever be back on Maher's show.

Your “Real Time” appearance came just a few weeks after Maher sparked a firestorm of controversy following his heated debate with Ben Affleck. Did you expect Islam to come up during your appearance on the show?

I was told, actually, that he wanted to discuss the Berkeley thing, and I was told that he wanted to discuss the connection between torture applied by the CIA in prisons like Camp Bucca and the rise of extremism, and also the fact that ISIS is utilizing the same techniques. So I knew that he wanted to discuss that.

I thought that Berkeley would open up the conversation about that issue. So I thought that he wanted to talk about Berkeley, and make it about free speech – and that was not true. The whole point for me was that nobody is banning him. Actually the students asked to invite him for a debate, where they can have real dialogue. And a commencement speech does not offer that opportunity – and saying it’s a free speech thing and it’s about the principles of liberalism, I don’t think that’s a correct reporting of events.

Do you think this ongoing debate over Islam is a productive one? And is “Real Time” a good venue for it?

No, no.

Look, I think it’s a productive one if it’s a real debate on this issue. It’s an important issue, no doubt. However, my fear is that even if you’re a secular Muslim or Sufi or Sunni Shafi’i who looks at the jihadis and is appalled by them – and look at the father, the Nigerian father of the Christmas bomber, who actually denounced his own son – and look at the rise of ISIS with a lot of concern and worry – then hear on TV shows that this is Islam, it’s a sweeping generalization. It’s collective. There’s no nuance. No history.

To say that the rise of ISIS is Islamic is simply wrong. There is a theology that’s wrong and needs to be reformed. But also, unfortunately, the rise of ISIS is a byproduct of the Iraq War and the terrible way that Iraq was administrated. And it’s connected directly to that war. And to exclude the sectarian policies of Maliki – or even to exclude the responsibility of the way we acted inside prisons like Camp Bucca or Guantánamo – not to see the connection is naïve and dangerous. Even people like Gen. James Gerrond, who was in charge of Camp Bucca, he said that he had an impression that they were not there to hold detainees. He had the impression it was a pressure cooker for extremists. And it is true.

So it’s easy to view it as “this is about Islam” and it’s harder to actually address these real issues. The real issues are Maliki’s policies, the way we invaded Iraq, the terrible administration of Iraq, the responsibility of our allies like Saudi Arabia, which is financing jihadists, which actually supports Wahhabism. Or even look at the responsibility of the Egyptian government. Today we have 20,000 people sitting in jail. Twenty thousand Islamists who are not violent. The next bin Laden is sitting in jail.

To your point about these sweeping generalizations that Maher makes based on the thoughts and actions of a well-organized minority of Muslims – how can the vast yet disorganized majority amplify its voice?

I think they can.

We had an example of success in Iraq in 2007-08. How did we fight al-Qaida on ideology and theology in Iraq? We separated the Sunni tribes from al-Qaida and the jihadists. The Sunnis were cornered after the war. They were excluded from government. They were harassed by the Shiites, not protected. They didn’t have anywhere to go. And al-Qaida found its way inside Iraq.

Then Petraeus went, and he made a political deal. He cut a deal with Sunni tribes. He included them so that it was not only an American surge, it was an Iraqi surge. We need to go back to that formula. It’s a political formula where you address political grievances – whether it’s in Iraq, in Syria, or elsewhere. I would say also in Egypt.

Egypt is very important because everybody is looking at Egypt and probably they are thinking democracy was killed in that place. One of the suicide bombers in Iraq was actually somebody that was a candidate in one of the Egyptian elections. I thought, this guy could have been included in government.

But we also need to think beyond terror and tyrants. When Bill said on his show, on “Overtime,” the question was, “Do we stand up to Saudi Arabia?” I said yes, but also, we stand up to Egypt. We give these countries military and economic aid. We need to link that to political reform. And [Bill] said yes, but if [Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-] Sisi was not there, then you would have Islamists. I mean, Bill stands for liberal values, but he’s telling me we should accept dictators and tyrants who are terrorizing their own people, who put their people in jail? A person who gunned down 10,000 people a year ago – a war criminal? This is liberal values?

The problem we have comes from a basic issue. And the basic issue is we don’t consider Muslims as equal. We consider them inferior. You wouldn’t accept to be a people run by dictators – and brutalized, and oppressed, and imprisoned. If you were really liberal, you wouldn’t accept that. But to say, “I’m liberal because I agree on gay rights” – it’s a selective way of being liberal. I want gay rights, but also I want freedom. I want freedom of movement, freedom of electing a government. You know, Bill brought up the gay issue in Gaza, and I just thought Bill and the whole panel were very hostile.

What do you think that says about the tone of the public debate on these issues?

I’m concerned. It’s becoming very propagandistic. It’s skewing the debate – it’s distortion. And it comes from a place of people who are ill-informed.

And we have somebody who’s from the region, who can tell you more. And I look at the reality on the ground. Tunisia, for example, voted for Islamists – and then they voted them out. And you had the [Islamist] Ennahda party calling the opposition, congratulating them. But we don’t want to see that. We want to see that every Muslim is an enemy. And it is such dangerous thinking because we are pushing them in the corner.

And this is the question I should have asked him, and I would love for him to answer it one day. In terms of policy, if you go after an entire community, then in terms of policy, that would mean segregation, racial profiling, and maybe targeted killing – like the one of Anwar al-Awlaki’s son, who was 16 years old, who never understood why he was killed, except that his father was a terrorist, and he was Muslim. And I’m not sure that with these attitudes we can win the war on terror. After the debate, I went home and thought, “Oh my God, if they can’t listen to the nuance and the history, and put everybody in one pot, then the jihadists won.”

And now I see more and more people who are disaffected and with a crisis of identity in the Muslim communities around the world, and instead of creating a community of inclusion. You are making them very defensive, and accusing them of things that they have nothing to do with.

Now obviously, anyone who knows anything about Bill Maher knows that he’s no fan of organized religion. But it seems like, in recent years, Islam has become his go-to piñata. Why this focus on that particular community?

If he focused on Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia, I would be with him on that. If we would focus on going against extremists – jihadists, the Haqqani network in Pakistan, al-Qaida in Yemen.

It’s true that there’s an ideology called Wahhabism that is extremist, that fights the pluralistic Islam of which I’m a product.

I’m married to a Jew and have a Catholic daughter. That’s the Islam I came from. That’s the way I see this world. I wish his debate were a constructive one about how to push Saudi Arabia to reform politically. I wish he would push and instead of going collectively, focus on where the problems are, whether it’s Saudi Arabia or Pakistan or Afghanistan or certain groups that are operating.

I mean, look – it’s not an excuse to note that because jihadists have been tortured and imprisoned and have been bombarded or lived under occupation, and to ask if the way they are acting is connected. To ignore that these are factors that drive extremism – this is what I find dishonest. This is what I find dangerous. Because then you are doing the work of jihadists for them.

And now you have ISIS recruiting among Muslims in Britain and other Western countries, because they have a compelling message. What is the compelling message that we’re giving Muslims? What are we doing to get them on board? The responsibility of intellectuals is to explore the problem and to address the problem – not to punish collectively.

Speaking with Salon last month, Maher mentioned that he’s noticed his audiences become increasingly supportive of his criticism of Islam over the last few years. Do you think the liberal community is increasingly receptive to Maher’s viewpoint?

I can’t judge liberalism in America. I’m in no position to judge that. But when we talk about the rise of extremists … how can we not examine our policies? We can’t ignore that what we’ve done in Iraq and in the Middle East – backing Israel, backing dictators, the dysfunctional administration of Iraq after the war – absolutely brought us to ISIS. These are some of the factors. But we don’t look at that. Because it’s hard to hold up a mirror to yourself and reflect on your own responsibilities. It’s easier to point a finger at the others.

One curious thing about Maher, though, is that he espouses ideas about Muslims that you’d typically hear voiced in neoconservative circles. But he’s been a critic of interventionism as a foreign policy. What are your thoughts on the link between the ideas people like Maher articulate and the United States’ foreign policy misadventures in the Muslim world?

Bill also said the other day about Egypt that we need to have a dictator, otherwise you will have Islamists. I don’t know how liberal this idea is, but it’s a dangerous idea to me. Because you’re sending a message – yes, you need to be enslaved in your own country. He doesn’t understand that this is what fuels extremism. I don’t know if he can connect the two.

But there’s also his support for Israel – how can you be liberal and not understand the aspiration of Palestinians to have a sovereign state? How can you expect that a nation should be enslaved or occupied? So can these liberals please stand up to these powerful people and tell them that what they’re doing is creating extremists and creating anti-Americanism? Look at what John Kerry said recently about the Israeli-Palestinian issue and how that explains anti-Americanism in the region.

These are simple facts. I don’t know why he ignores them. It makes me think sometimes, and I don’t know if he really has any profound thoughts about these things. Does he really even care about an extensive conversation on these things?

Bill inspires people, no doubt – in a good way and a bad way. What if he were to inspire a real racist who would go out and commit a hate crime? Because after I went on the air, the hate and the threats were staggering. But I’m a public figure; I expected these things. Can you imagine an ordinary Muslim or Sikh or people that look like Muslims – what would happen to them after they hear Bill Maher? They’d probably think that he was justifying their actions.

And this is dangerous. This is alarming. He has a responsibility, because he inspires people. The New York Times [columnist Timothy Egan] called him a “clown.” I don’t know if he’s a clown. I think even clowns – and I don’t think he is a clown – even people that are in entertainment can be responsible, and can think.

When you watch this conversation play out, do you think that Maher’s liberal critique of Islam lends Islamophobia a respectability it otherwise wouldn’t have? Now people with deeply anti-Muslim views can seize on Maher’s words and say, “See, even the liberal Bill Maher agrees with me …”

Yes, yes. But this is what was done in the ‘20s and the ‘30s in Europe against Jews. This is what has been done – we’ve seen this in history. This is how it started – by normalizing a collective, negative image.

Imagine if Bill Maher would have said that Judaism acts like a mafia. Imagine something like that in the ‘20s. Let’s go back. It would be considered anti-Semitic – and it is anti-Semitic. But he gets away with it, because now the thing is to be anti-Muslim. And this is where I would love for him to reflect deeply. Because these things have an impact. … What he is doing is un-American – going after a whole group of people.

So when Maher makes these broad, sweeping statements about Muslims, do you think that there’s actually an underlying bigotry at work, or that he just harbors a fundamentally simplistic worldview?

It’s absolutely misguided, misinformed. Bill never traveled in the Arab and Muslim world. He doesn’t know how they look. He doesn’t know the political and social dialogue that’s taking place. He doesn’t read Arab scholars or Arab authors. A few of them, maybe – the people who share his views.

But if he would look and travel to any of these countries, as I did, he would find there’s one phenomenon in all of society – on top of every house, every tent, the antennas are pointing west. They want to listen to what the West is saying. They want the entertainment. They want the ideas. They want the freedom that we have here in this country. They dream of freedom, dignity, and a better life – the dream of a country where a minority can become president.

That is the dream that we are not addressing. ISIS is addressing it for them in certain areas, exploiting these aspirations. The more they are oppressed, the more they are vulnerable to ISIS.

We are not seeing that. I don’t think Bill sees that. As I told him, I’m willing to do a debate with him whenever he wants. I actually left him a book, and the book is Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad, a beautiful book that was written after September 11 about how Muhammad behaved in his life. He said don’t go after others, because that would mean you are going after me. If you hurt Jews and Christians, you will be hurting me, the prophet used to say. … If he wants to talk about these issues, it’s good for him to be more informed.

Lastly – after your appearance, Maher added a photo to Instagram showing the two of you in a jokey sort of embrace and wrote, “See, it’s all good with Rula and me!” Will we be seeing you back on “Real Time” any time soon?

Yeah, I saw that picture, and I thought, “OK, Bill. What are you trying to say? Is that an indication to go back and discuss this issue seriously?” I’m happy to do that. If that picture means I’m condoning what he’s saying – no, no, my friend. I am not. And I will not.

I want America and the West to win the war on terror. And unfortunately, his goal is just more and more provocation. I’m not sure he’s interested in a serious and reasonable debate. I told him – on-air and off-air – I’m willing to go with you, wherever you want, and have a serious debate.

Actually, the book that I gave him – he took it and left it on a chair. He said, “Oh, thank you for the book,” and then took it and left it on the chair. I said, “You know what, I gave him this book, he took it and left it on the chair.”

So if that picture meant everything’s OK and I will be invited, then I’m happy to go back. It would be good for both of us and for the American community, actually. We are engaged in the Middle East for decades to come, as President Obama said. So the way we approach it and the way we treat our minorities will be key in winning this war.

By Luke Brinker

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