Shame on you, Michael Moore: Why his defense of Bill Maher was unacceptable

Last week, Moore said that anger over Bill Maher's Islamophobia was misplaced. Here's why he's very wrong

Published November 16, 2014 7:00PM (EST)

  (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)
(Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

On the afternoon of October 21, the day Michael Zehab-Bibeau killed an unarmed soldier in Canada’s capital, Ottawa, and attacked the Parliament building, I knocked on the door of my babysitter’s house. She is a wonderful, older lady of Iraqi origin with an infectious smile. That day she wasn’t smiling. The name of the shooter had not yet been announced, and neither was the fact that he was a French-Canadian Muslim convert, son of a very high Canadian government official, who had suffered previously from drug abuse and mental illness. She asked whether I’d heard of the news, a question to which I nodded.

“They say he is a Muslim,” she said, adding: “This is bad for us.”

Her words stuck with me. Here was an older Muslim lady who had absolutely no relation to Bibeau’s violent act, but who for some reason feared repercussions in the aftermath of it. She knew, like every Muslim in the West, that she and her religion would be blamed for what had happened. She knew that the media would point also at her, unrelated to the subject as she was, that society would stone her for something she didn’t do.

The role of Muslims and Islam as political actors in the countries where they reside has been wildly debated. Despite the fact that all media engage in it, the portraitization of all Muslims as inherently compromised because of their faith has most visibly been the domain of right-wing republicans. Recently, however, the tide seems to have turned, as liberals who previously were strongly opposed to that idea are now joining in. One of them, Bill Maher, certainly doesn’t need any introduction to controversy. He has always been a critic of religion, but also a critic of racism based on religion. However, his recent comments about Islam have rightly given rise to accusations of Islamophobia. And in his defense has now come Michael Moore, another well-known liberal champion

As a Muslim man, over the years I have looked at people like Michael Moore and Bill Maher, along with the likes of Jon Stewart and many others as an inspiration, and an indication that there are decent people in the West who are willing to stand up for truth, and against oppression. When it comes to Muslims and Islam, that indeed is something rare. As a young lad, I clearly remember my admiration at Maher's courageous statement on "Politically Incorrect" right after 9/11, and the horrendous reaction of his own channel, the media and the political elite who named him a traitor to his country, ready to hang him dry. It was inspiring. As for Moore’s work, I own all his films -- "Roger and Me" being one of my all time favorites -- and watch them from time to time.

However, Moore’s siding with Maher came as a surprise. After reading his article, published on his page on Facebook, my opinion is that he has not understood Maher’s argument and what it entails; nor does he seem to have a clear understanding of what I would call the “Muslim consciousness.”

The main confusion comes from his conflation of the 1.6 billion Muslims of the world (one-fifth of humanity) into a single character, and of all Muslim-majority countries into a single, unchangeable, undifferentiated entity. He does the complete opposite, however, when he speaks of Westerners or Western countries. For example, when it comes to beheadings, Moore compares Christians in the US with Muslims in the whole world.

“Sure, I can make a daily list of all the horrible things so-called Christians still do in this country. Rarely, though, do their actions involve decapitation,” says Moore.  If he wanted a fair comparison, however, he should have stayed within the U.S., where maybe there aren’t many professed Christians beheading each other -- but neither are any such acts being carried out by Muslims. Moore could also make a world comparison for followers of both religions. In that case, he would probably be surprised to find out that there are a lot more Christians than he thinks carrying out beheadings of other Christians and very often also of Muslims.

Moore also strips his subject of historical context and, therefore, fails to grasp the politico-economic causes that have brought about the situation as it now exists in the Middle East. And it disregards that, while something like a beheading is abhorrent and gruesome, the scale of its destruction pales in comparison to the damage wrought but something like a high-tech bombing campaign of the variety regularly carried out in the region, and their effects of such campaigns on the political and social fabric. Hence, he fails to make this very important connection: immoral behavior breeds immoral behavior, no matter the ideology behind them.

Moore viewed one particular exchange on "Real Time" with journalist Rula Jebreal as indicative of the soundness of Maher's reasoning:

Two weeks ago on Bill's HBO show, he had on the wonderful Palestinian writer Rula Jebreal. They had a good and testy back and forth (Bill often has Muslims who disagree with him on his show, like the great Ben al-Afleck). Rula was giving it to Bill pretty hard, but when he paused and asked her if he were a Muslim, living in certain Muslim countries, and he walked into the Men's Club one day and announced he was now a Presbyterian, would that be ok? She paused, and then said "No."

This could be true in certain Muslim countries -- among them, notably, United States ally Saudi Arabia. I presume the reaction would be somewhat similar to that of a former Presbyterian walking into a men’s club somewhere in rural south United States and declaring his conversion to Islam. But no one would care in Turkey, certainly no one would think much of it if that happened in Malaysia, and frankly he’d look stupid if he tried it in Kosovo or Albania. As a matter of fact, the opposite is true in Kosovo, a country ruled by a corrupt Catholic-secular minority where conversions from Islam to Catholicism are shown live on state TV, where Christian proselytizing is open and where proclaiming your Islamic faith too strongly might land you a stint in jail, as was the case recently with the arrest of many imams and civil society activists.

In the West, Muslims are accused of not belonging, and seen as externals in their respective societies. They are often told to “leave their baggage at home” when they immigrate and asked to “adapt” and “integrate,” euphemisms for abandoning their tradition, faith and consciousness. They are constantly looked upon with suspicion, continuously reminded that they don’t belong here, and very often told to “go home,” as was written on the main entrance of a vandalized mosque in a completely different province in Canada, after the attack on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

In this respect, let’s make something very clear. Michael Moore’s claim that “your middle name can be 'Hussein' and you can still win the state of Virginia if you're running for President,” is false: If your middle name is “Hussein” and you want to be president of the United States, you have to publicly assure everyone that you are not a Muslim, but a churchgoing Christian who has been thoroughly purified of any connection to Islam. Only then can you win Virginia.

When Bill Maher attacked Islam during his original debate with Ben Affleck, also present was Sam Harris, an author and collaborator of Maher's. According to Harris, Islam is a religion composed of concentric circles, at the heart of which there are the “jihadis,” followed close behind by the “islamists.” The former are represented by the ISIS “type of Muslim,” and the latter by any movement or group of Muslims rooted in Islamic ideals, oftentimes working within a democratic system in a sinister attempt to, as Harris put it, “use democracy against itself.”

“Those two circles arguably are 20 percent of the Muslim world,” Harris declared on the show, although no specific sourcing for that number was given. The rest of the 80 percent, or at least the large majority of his third concentric circle, are "conservative muslims" who "hold views about human rights, and about women, and about homosexuals that are deeply troubling." Maher disagreed with none of this.

Thus, Muslims are widely painted as untrustworthy and backwards citizens. At best, the Muslim is a conservative bastard who keeps his wife locked in his house. At worst, he is a West-hating, throat-slitting, self-detonating savage looking to destroy our freedom and way of life. Even those in the third concentric circle are depicted as trying to attack democracy from within, by simply participating in it through political or civil society organization. Their only difference from more extremist elements being in their chosen method of subterfuge.

(The argument is not a new one. It is similar to the discourse which earlier in U.S. history nominated Native and African Americans as backwards, untrustworthy and impervious to internal reform. It is this very same discourse which declared their incompatibility with “our values” and “our way of life,” calling for reform from the “outside,” while at the same time legitimating the use of violence upon their communities or military intervention in their countries.)

The image of concentric circles with the “jihadis” at the center is not chosen at random. It is meant to show that all the other larger circles share the same epicenter and feed from it. Hence, all are suspect.

So, it is not that Bill Maher thinks all Muslims are a bit nuts or that they follow a book, the Quran, which for Maher is “all coo coo for cocoa puffs.” Maher thinks Muslims are all guilty just for being Muslim. It is no different from saying that all Americans are responsible for the actions of the American government and the invasion of Iraq. (In fact, that is exactly what Al Qaida has said before; while, more recently, ISIS has asked that all people in the West be considered legitimate targets by “jihadis.”) But I’m sure Michael Moore doesn’t feel responsible for it. And I, as a Muslim, would be insane to hold him responsible. Yet, Bill Maher and Sam Harris have just made me and my babysitter responsible for acts to which we are completely unrelated.

In his defense of Maher, Moore also talks about Jon Stewart’s new movie, "Rosewater," which depicts the imprisonment in Iran of Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari. Moore writes of the movie that “[a]t the very least, it will be the first thing Jon Stewart has done that the Republicans will like.” He then asks: “Does it mean [Stewart] shouldn’t make the movie just because it is critical of Muslims and Islam?” The implication is clear here: That Maher's incorrigible hate speech is indistinguishable from Stewart's mostly inoffensive (if still somewhat problematic) film. And that both are earnest expressions of speech above rebuke.

Moore doesn’t seem to grasp the problem in this suggestion. Indeed, it might be the problem: To those uninterested in understanding the intricacies and contradictions of a religion comprising one-fifth of the world population, it all just blends together. A specific incident in a specific Muslim-majority country -- whether it be the abduction and imprisonment of an innocent, western-educated journalist in Iran; or a gruesome act of political violence in Iraq -- can be earnestly depicted by a well-meaning communicator, and still end up as fodder for bigots. Because the nuances don't matter to someone who has already decided that everyone is guilty, that every one of the billions is complicit in a crime against civilization.

Of course, none of these observations mean that I think Stewart shouldn't have made his movie. And it doesn't mean that Bill Maher's freedom of speech should be revoked (as some Maher sympathizers would suggest). But it does mean we need to disabuse ourselves of the idea that our words don't have consequences. Especially when those words are coated in the worst sort intolerance; and especially when those words come from a man with a platform on cable television and a captive audience. We are all of us responsible for our words --including and especially Bill Maher. And to defend his hideous statements without seriously considering their consequences, as Moore has done, is more than just discouraging; coming from a man I've always known to be on the right side of history, it's downright depressing -- the kind of disappointment bound to make more and more Muslims lose hope of ever living a life free of automatic suspicion.

I look forward to the day when I can knock on my babysitter's door, and she can open it without having to worry about what other Muslims have done in the world. But I’m not getting my hopes up.

By Ilirjan Shehu

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bigotry Bill Maher Islam Islamophobia Michael Moore Racism Real Time With Bill Maher