Wake up and oppose theocracy: Bill Maher, Rula Jebreal and the urgent Islam debate

There is a pressing need for frank talk about Islam and Christianity. Liberals should be on the side of real debate

Published November 15, 2014 2:15PM (EST)

  (Comedy Central/HBO)
(Comedy Central/HBO)

Since he delivered his "Real Time" monologue against liberals who treat Islam with excessive deference a month ago, the comedian Bill Maher has suffered all sorts of ill-informed censure aiming to set him on the Straight and Narrow about the faith of 1.6 billion Muslims the world over. Reza Aslan, a frequent guest on "Real Time," chided him for coming from “a place of complete amateurness on religion” and using “facile” arguments against it. In an emotional confrontation on the show, Ben Affleck pronounced Maher’s (factual, poll-based) statements about Islam “gross” and “racist.” Yet another "Real Time" invitee, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, declared in print that those (including Maher) who “generalize” about Islam are tantamount to bigots and racial profilers.

Pundits are paid to opine, of course, and at times err, and few expect that actors will think straight about issues such as politics and faith as well as they perform on screen. But one might imagine that at least university students would always come down on the side of the Enlightenment and seek to keep their minds open. One would, however, be wrong. In one of the most stupendously incoherent betrayals of the progressive cause in recent decades, more than 5,000 people signed an Internet petition demanding that the University of California, Berkeley -- long a beacon in the history of the American free-speech movement -- rescind the invitation to Maher to deliver the fall 2014 commencement ceremony address because of his “blatantly bigoted and racist” comments about Islam. The university administration has declined to cede to this babyish online tantrum, at least for now, and Maher is still scheduled to speak.

Yet Maher’s fiercest rhetorical assailant spoke out only last week, and, as has become the custom, did so on his show. After Maher had delivered his monologue denouncing the petition against his upcoming appearance at Berkeley, one of his guests, Rula Jebreal, a hard-hitting Palestinian-Italian journalist, took him to task, denying that free speech was at issue in the controversy, and delivering what to her, at least, seemed like a damning indictment: that Maher’s harsh take on Islam hurt people’s feelings and was thus wrong.

The Berkeley students trying to disinvite him, she said, “feel offended, feel offended, that . . . your views of Islam . . . the generalizations [that you’re making] perpetuate bigotry . . . .  I’m all for freedom of speech. I love debate, I hate monologues.”

Just why monologues should not count as free speech she did not say. In any case, Sen. Angus King, a panelist at her side that evening, pointed out the obvious -- that every commencement address involves one speaker, and by definition cannot be a dialogue. But Jebreal would have none of it. She demanded to know if Maher would accept an “openly anti-Semitic person” as a commencement speaker – thereby insulting him as the Islam-denying counterpart to of one of the worst sorts of bigots progressives can imagine.

This irked Maher sufficiently that he replied, “Even Reza Aslan says that I’m not a bigot, so I rather resent that I’m comparable to an anti-Semite.”

Ignoring this, Jebreal doubled down, trotting out what has become a standard accusation meant to discredit those who express negative views about Islam on the airwaves – insufficient expertise in the faith to opine on it. Maher’s criticisms lack merit because he does not, she claimed didactically, “know the difference” between “jihadists, Salafists, Sunni” and Sufis and sundry factions of Shiites, so he ends up “comparing all Moslems in one pot.” Moreover, “When you” – Maher – “talk about Islam it’s offensive sometimes,” she added.

The gist of Jebreal’s complaint: critical speech about Islam cannot be tolerated in a public forum if it causes “offense.” Sen. King cut into her harangue, voicing the objection Maher should have advanced himself: “It’s okay to be offensive. That’s what free speech is all about. If free speech is only speech you like, then it’s not free speech.” He left unsaid that our Constitution defends all free speech, including unpopular opinions, and even those that might cause offense.

To many it may seem impolite or improper to discuss religion frankly, but the First Amendment protecting free speech has everything to do with religion. In fact, the text first forbids Congress from passing laws “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” and only then proscribes abridging freedom of speech. The Founding Fathers well understood religion’s propensity to incite strife and slaughter -- after all, Europe in its day had just suffered through two centuries of devastating Catholic-Protestant wars, and the Catholic Inquisition would last in some countries until the nineteenth century. Thomas Jefferson explained that “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God.” Coining the phrase “wall of separation between church and state,” he championed a secular state that took no sides on matters of religion, one in which people of all faiths, or no faith, could, at least in theory, coexist peacefully, without fear of repression.

(Jefferson himself was a deist who denied the divinity of Jesus and considered the Book of Revelation “the ravings of a maniac.” For such speech -- by any traditional measure blasphemy pur et dur, and surely offensive to devout Christians at the time -- he might have been put to death in parts of Europe throughout much of its history.)

But back to "Real Time." Maher accurately summarized Jebreal’s position: Either he had to say what she wanted him to say about Islam, or else he was a bigot. He wanted to move on -- this segment of his show was, after all, supposed to be about his Berkeley address, and not meant to serve as a platform for Jebreal to hector and soliloquize. But she insisted on making more wrongheaded assertions and patently unfair claims (including that Maher’s criticism of Islam was aiding Bin Laden and hindering the war on terror, and casting the American Muslim community as “fifth-columnists”). As time ran out, she offered a coda that well illustrated a key misconstruance of liberals hoping to dampen criticism of Islam: “If you would have said some of the things that you would have said about African-Americans and about Jews, you would be fired.”

“But African-Americans and Jews,” Maher shot back, “don’t belong to a religion that wanted to kill Salman Rushdie for writing a book, if we want to get back to the free speech issue. So, I’m sorry, that’s called false equivalency.”

True, if somewhat beside the point. In his Berkeley monologue, he had already poked fun at those who treated Islam as a race, but that, apparently, had failed to convince Jebreal. This bears some dwelling upon. Islam, again, is not a race; it is a religion, one with adherents of all skin colors. (That there may be racists among Islam’s detractors is not the issue here.) Faith is acquired, not innate; we cannot be born Muslim. Islam explicitly recognizes this. To join the religion, all aspirants should swear the Shahada -- a testimony of belief in the one god, Allah, and that his messenger was Muhammad. The Shahada is nothing less than the first of the five Pillars of Islam; that is, one of the five obligatory acts those practicing Islam must (at least ideally) carry out.

One therefore consciously adopts Islam just as one might, on the basis of evidence or sentiment, choose to become a communist or a pacifist or a conservative Republican or a left-wing Democrat. In a free society, such an act of volition is everyone’s prerogative, and, in the United States, it enjoys First Amendment protection. As does speech, or commentary, positive or negative, by others on one’s choice.

Therein lies the issue. People of all faiths (or no faith) deserve respect, but speech, including upsetting speech about religious beliefs, does not necessarily deserve it, and is, or should be, liable to debate and criticism, approval and condemnation. No one has the right to determine whose words on religion are acceptable on the basis of their “offensiveness” or lack thereof. Puerile declarations of hurt feelings cannot be permitted to hinder or discourage open discourse on religion -- and especially on Islam, given its role in conflicts and bloodshed we see today in the Middle East and elsewhere. In fact, it is imperative that we talk openly about Islam, unimpeded by name-calling, unfettered by the dictates of political correctness.

The need for frank talk about religion is most pressing as regards both Islam and Christianity, which proclaim their validity for all humankind and thus should be subject to universal debate and scrutiny. But it is urgent concerning Islam, the canonical texts of which inveigh against "unbelievers" and advocate violence and even warfare against them, with, at best, subservient dhimmi status and a special tax, the jizyah, imposed upon Jews and Christians -- a species of “tolerance” stemming only from Islam’s roots in both faiths. Buddhists, Hindus and nonbelievers receive no such largesse. In view of this, atheists in secular countries can hardly be expected to exempt Islam from criticism. Loathsome iniquities such as female genital mutilation, honor killings and domestic violence, which are all problematic in Muslim communities in the West, also call Islam into question. More, not less, open discourse about these outrages is just what is needed to end them.

To discuss religion, do we need the “expertise” Jebreal (and Aslan) handily accord themselves and deny others? Though it would help, the answer must be a resounding no. The First Amendment does not and should not protect only “expert” speech. If speech is ignorant, then let that ignorance become manifest through unhindered discussion.

What of those who set out to offend religious sentiment? In the interests of free speech, they must be allowed -- indeed, they have a right -- to do so. Lest we forget, Maher opened the monologue about Islam that sparked the current controversy by referring to the Pennsylvania teen who posted online a picture of himself being “fellated” by a Jesus statue. This teen, later sanctioned by his state’s court, deserves the support of secularists everywhere. With faith-driven Republicans denying evolution, hoping to limit women’s rights to abortion and birth control, and opposing same-sex marriage, Jefferson’s wall of separation between church and state is coming increasingly under threat.

The same is happening in Europe, where, for example, the brave members of the Ukrainian-born topless protest group Femen engage in a similar mocking of religion, but with the aim of inciting debate about issues in which the faithful exercise undue influence. Femen stages vehemently anti-religious demonstrations (see, for example, here, here, and here) that have provoked public outrage and criminal prosecution demonstrating how strong religion’s hold over our psyche is, even on a continent far more nonbelieving than our own.

Did Jebreal really think she would help her cause by chastising Maher for speaking his mind and thereby reminding us of the intolerance that has so frequently characterized Islam? (To wit: the longstanding Muslim-led campaign to make blasphemy against Islam an international crime.) The rush among Muslims to condemn their faith’s critics discloses a valid underlying fear -- that possibly those critics are onto something, that maybe the religious beliefs in question are untrue and even ridiculous.

This fear is nothing new, nor is it by any means peculiar to those professing Islam. Recall Galileo, who faced the Roman Inquisition and subsequent decades of house arrest for his wildly “heretical” assertion of Heliocentrism – that the Earth and the planets orbit the sun. The Vatican’s Index of Prohibited Books grew to contain more than 4,000 titles, including those by the Enlightenment’s key proponents, by the time it was abolished in 1966. The Catholic Church can boast a gruesome roster of shameful acts, but most pernicious has certainly been the retrograde influence it has exercised on humankind’s advancement by blocking free speech and thereby stultifying its followers. The prohibition against condoms in AIDS-stricken Africa, the sheltering of pedophile priests and opposition to gay rights and abortion are other manifestations of the baleful, at times lethal, mortmain the Vatican still has on our affairs.

Maher’s detractors, and often their interviewers in the media, ignore the central point he made in his controversial monologue, which was that if being liberal means anything, it means opposing theocracy. He declared that, “It’s okay to judge that rule of law isn’t just different than theocracy, it’s better. If you don’t see that, then you are either a religious fanatic or a masochist. But one thing you are not is a liberal.”

Put another way, secularism and legal protections for free speech are the finest fruits of the Enlightenment. They merit spirited defense and should not be casually surrendered to those who, in the name of misbegotten notions of “multiculturalism” or political correctness, would institute their own versions of the Inquisition and decide for others what speech is permissible, what is not. Nonbelievers should not sit idly by as those who attack the single greatest historical enemy of human progress, organized religion, are intimidated or barred from the debating table (or the commencement-address podium). In Islam’s case, this is no easy task, given that for many Muslims the faith infuses their politics, customs and identity, and its critics have faced violence and assassination.

One thing is certain: You know you enjoy true freedom of speech when you can mock religion without fear of violence, persecution or ostracism. If, though, you deride faith and you suffer any of these ills, you know the Spirit of Medieval Darkness is still out and about.

What Jebreal, Aslan and others trying to stifle free speech about Islam need to know is this: With or without their permission, we nonbelievers will exercise our right to express our opinions about faith, even if we -- gasp! -- cause offense.

They had better get used to this. There is more on the way.

By Jeffrey Tayler

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His seventh book, "Topless Jihadis -- Inside Femen, the World's Most Provocative Activist Group," is out now as an Atlantic ebook. Follow @JeffreyTayler1 on Twitter.

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Ben Affleck Berkeley Bill Maher Editor's Picks Islam Real Time Reza Aslan Rula Jebreal Salman Rushdie Sam Harris