Bill Maher's slippery slope: Why his war on Islam could hit closer to his own home

It's true, parts of the Quran may condone violence. Does Maher want other books and media held to this standard?

By Heather Digby Parton


Published November 13, 2014 4:49PM (EST)

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

Critics of Islam like Bill Maher and Sam Harris have been strongly challenged by those who believe that one shouldn't hold an entire religion responsible for the actions of a fringe that interprets their sacred book in a way that encourages violence.  There are, after all, nearly 2 billion Muslims in the world and while it's true that there are passages in the Quran that can be interpreted as condoning violence the mere fact that the vast, vast majority of its adherents do not interpret it as a literal call to arms argues that Maher's and Harris' critics are right.

But one has to wonder if a person who thinks that a book, however sacred and meaningful, can induce people to commit acts of violence, is equally concerned about other forms of influence? Does Bill Maher think that because television and movies glorify violence they should also be held responsible for many of the violent acts perpetrated here and around the world? After all, if Islam is responsible for the violence of a handful out of nearly 2 billion adherents you'd think Hollywood should be held responsible for the violence of a handful out of the billions of people who watch their violent programs, wouldn't you?

There is a history of trying to hold the entertainment business liable for inspiring the criminal activities of its customers. There was the famous case of Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers" allegedly inspiring a long list of copycat crimes and a lawsuit that was rejected numerous times on both First Amendment and the grounds that the filmmakers did not make the film with the intention that its audience should commit violence. The music industry has been similarly accused of inspiring violence, one of the most notorious being the infamous case of Body Count's 1992 album called "Cop Killer," which resulted in a national hissy fit featuring politicians of both parties wringing their hands over what they saw as incitement to violence against the police.  Under corporate pressure the group eventually pulled the song from the album and released it as a free single. There was even a lawsuit alleging that Judas Priest's song "Better by You, Better Than Me" contained subliminal messages that inspired a couple of teenagers to commit suicide. (That one was dismissed when the judge found that the "message" was actually a mixup in the studio.)

The only reason to bring all this moldy history up is simply to point out that people often seek to blame an outside influence for violent and destructive actions of individuals. And when it comes to our entertainment industry, which is clearly very violent, we have always found that individuals themselves are responsible.

Take, for instance, this young man:

Daniel Milzman, 20, was sentenced today to one year and one day in prison on a federal offense stemming from the discovery of a plastic bag of lethal ricin in a dormitory room where he was staying while he was a student at Georgetown University.

Following the prison term, Milzman will be placed on three years of supervised release. Judge Jackson ordered that Milzman complete 400 hours of community service during that time, to be focused on tutoring underprivileged students in math and physics. She also required him to participate in a mental health program.

That could have been a terrorism charge and undoubtedly would have been if he'd been a Muslim under the influence of radical jihad literature or even the Quran.  But he was under the influence of something else:

[D]uring the period January 1, 2014, through March 18, 2014, Milzman used a Netflix account to watch various episodes of the television show, “Breaking Bad.” In approximately thirteen of the “Breaking Bad” episodes the Defendant watched during that time period, the plot contained references to ricin being used to injure or kill someone.

This young man was possibly planning to retaliate against an associate and was influenced by the hit show "Breaking Bad" to use ricin to do it. Nobody has suggested that the show itself is a malign influence on our young because that would be ridiculous. We seem to have learned that just because one depressed college student was inspired by the show it doesn't mean the show is an inspiration to depressed college students to make their own ricin to kill people. The fact that many millions of people watched the show and took a completely different message from it argues the opposite.

Unfortunately, we have taken a very different approach to young, disaffected American Muslims who are being influenced by something much more powerful than a movie or a sacred book: They are being "influenced" by members of U.S. government law enforcement to commit crimes they otherwise would not think of committing. This report from last summer by Human Rights Watch and the Columbia University Law School's Human Rights Institute tells the story of hundreds of American Muslims being trapped into committing crimes. It's called "Illusion of Justice: Human Rights Abuses in US Terrorism Prosecutions," and it lays out a pattern of U.S. government "cajoling, pressuring and bribing" young Arab Americans and Muslim Americans to participate in bogus terrorist plots created by the government --- and then taking credit for thwarting their own terrorist plots. Al Jazeera reported:

"The report details account after account of overzealous prosecution, unfair trials, over-aggressive informants, targeting of vulnerable young men, and encouraging them to do things they wouldn't have otherwise done and then incredibly long, harsh sentences," said David Cole, a professor at Georgetown University Law School who specialises in national security issues...

"I think the government's view is, if we are getting convictions and they are being upheld on appeal and we haven't had another serious terrorist attack in the United States, you know, we must be doing something right," Cole said.

I'll bet the parents of the young man who googled about ricin were very happy that he hadn't googled the Quran or some other Islamic radical sites at the same time. No matter that the crime itself would have been exactly the same -- possession of ricin -- he'd be looking at a whole lot of jail time if he had done that instead of watched "Breaking Bad" on Netflix.

As Marcy Wheeler aptly observed about this case:

Now, to be very clear, this kid has a history of major depression. That was clearly not invented to dodge the charges. He, like many of the young Muslims who get caught in stings with “WMDs,” needs treatment for mental illness, not a long sentence.

In other words, this is what should happen when mentally ill kids do stupid things.

Certainly, we should be able to expect our own government not to seek out young men with problems similar to this young man and induce them into committing crimes so they can pretend they are beating back the boogeyman. Setting up unstable young people as terrorists so that you can tout your prowess in stopping them has to be the cheapest kind of law enforcement there is.

Bill Maher seems to think that the Muslim religion is at fault for acts of terrorism committed in the name of Islam. But, in fact, it's the radical imams who are "cajoling, pressuring and bribing" young disaffected men to commit violence in the name of Islam -- which is not all that different from what the FBI is doing, is it? It's not the idea or the book or the religion that's encouraging them to make these bad decisions; it's older men in authority manipulating younger men to carry out their plans. There's nothing new or unusual about that. It's a human problem, not a religion problem.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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Bill Maher Books Hollywood Islam Islamophobia Judas Priest Movies Natural Born Killers Sam Harris Violence