Bill Maher and his good friend, Richard Dawkins, sat down on his show Real Time Friday night for the fifth time in almost eight seasons. Their discussion, per usual, was an agreeable, tedious mix of self-victimization and indignation about why so many on the left - specifically the Twitter left - think their obsession with "radical Islam" makes them bigots.
"It's so dumb, because all the people who are accused of being Islamophobes like you and me and Sam [Harris], we're liberals." Maher said perplexed. "When I was a child in my home, I was seven and my parents said 'we're for Kennedy, we're for him letting black people go to college in the south" Maher fumed, as Dawkins nodded enthusiastically along with Maher's notoriously sycophantic audience.
"Why don't liberals love us?", they ask. "We're so goddamn liberal but for some reason our critiques of Islam are seen as hateful". And while Maher is correct that he's generally good on taxes and calling out Republican bigotry, this doesn't give him a free pass on his rank Islamophobia (a term he thinks is "meaningless".)
Firstly, no one thinks "Islam is a protected species" as Maher put it. This is a typical strawman New Athiest employ. Dawkins doesn't go after "all religions" equally. Quite the opposite, he has said that Islam is uniquely sinister, referring to it as "unmitigated evil", on numerous occasions. Accusations of bigotry against Dawkins, therefore, are not selective in favor of Islam, they are areaction to his selective, repeated highlighting of it - fair or not. Secondly, this position is dripping with libertarian false equivalency. The "I criticize all religions equally" is the close cousin to "I criticize all races equally" -- a principle that sounds cute in theory but willfully ignores the burden of history and imperialism.
To the Mahers and the Dawkins of the world, the connection between America's wars in the Middle East is cosmetic at best, and "silly liberal" relativism, at worst. That President Obama - who Maher gave $1 million to in 2012 - has bombed seven Muslim countries in as many years is seen as irrelevant. Western panic and outrage over "women in beekeepers suits" (what Maher calls burkas) is entirely divorced from the convenient "civilizing mission" of America's wars in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. America is always the reluctant warrior who is forced to bomb, occupy, and invade those hot-headed Muslims, the inverse - that Muslims may become radicalized because of our bombing, occupying and invasions - is never truly entertained much less factored in. It was fitting that around the time their self-indulgent interview was being recorded, the US was shelling a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killing 19 - including three children.
Never mind this. To them, religion is seen in a historical and political vacuum in the same way crime and economic hardship is to libertarians. A moral and cultural failing separate from material forces. To them, it's the year zero, and radical religion is an ideology that must be attacked as such, rather than viewed, at least in part, as the logical byproduct of years of colonial aggression. Just last week CENTCOM spokesman Steve Warren said, after Russia had bombed a CIA-armed rebel group, that he "didn't know" if the U.S. was aligned with al Qaeda in Syria. A recently declassified DIA report casuallysuggested that the U.S. support Salafist elements in Syria as a means of undermining the Assad government. The US, just last week, reinforced its support for radical Wahhabists in Saudi Arabia as they continue their war of aggression in Yemen. America doesn't just incidently create radical Islamists with its bombings, it continues to fund, arm, and protect them.
What say they of this? Almost nothing. Maher and his loyal band of Twitter partisans have little to say about colonialism, and when it's brought up, asGlenn Greenwald did to him in 2013, it's dismissed as irrelevant. It's excuse-making, end of story.
The ignoring of these power dynamics is dripping with the same type of reductionist handwringing one sees among the right's obsession with "black on black" crime. It's an appeal to objective standards that willfully ignores that history did not begin in 1970 and Islam's relationship with the United States isn't limited to light panel chats with Aspen Institute-vetted token Muslims. Without directly addressing American empire and its relationship to radical Islam their analysis will invariably be superficial. Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins have walked into a game between a Division III college football team and the New England Patriots and feel good about themselves for calling holding on both sides. In a very limited, morally O.C.D. way, they're correct, both sides are technically in violation given the rules of the game. But without addressing these rules or the broader power asymmetry at work, they're party to a farce, a rigged discourse that mistakes "consistency" for fairness and posturing for principle. In doing so, they help prop up a fundamentally uneven relationship between the west and the Muslim world that in effect, if not in intent, spreads bigotry every time it ignores this imbalance.