Bill Maher, atheist fundamentalist: Why he gives nonbelievers a bad name

The comedian loves to rail against religious fanatics, but his treatment of Islam is no less radical and intolerant

Published October 10, 2015 11:00AM (EDT)


This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet I really want to like Bill Maher. He calls out Islamic fundamentalist regimes for their brutal oppression of women, and that is absolutely righteous. When he points out that not enough people criticize Saudi Arabia for torturing and murdering political dissidents on fake charges, he is completely right. He slams liberals for being too easy on Islamic radicals, and in many cases he is correct.  He believes rational thought — not religious superstition — should govern society. I can get behind that.

As an atheist, it has taken me a good deal of time to articulate what exactly angers me about Bill Maher, and I've finally figured it out. Bill Maher pisses me off because at the end of the day, realizing that there is no god doesn't absolve him or his homies from having to use critical thinking skills ever again. Atheism doesn't excuse his propagation of absurd conspiracy theories, even if they are presented in secular language. Nor does atheism exonerate people from parroting untruths without investigating the facts.

And atheism certainly doesn’t vindicate Bill Maher from demonizing other cultures based mostly on propaganda and rarely on history.

It is exactly because I reject superstition that I see Bill Maher as less of a critic of Islamic fundamentalism than an apologist for every other form of back-asswards fundamentalism. Instead of digging into the endless litany of atrocities committed in the name of every religion, every day, all over the world, he seems to suffer from some kind of selective blindness specifically obsessed with Islam, often at the expense of rationality. His dramatic statement that "It has been one culture blowing shit up for the past 30 years" happens to be bullshit by any empirical metric. Just last week a Hindu Mob killed a Muslim man in India for eating beef. Over the past few years Buddhist mobs in Myanmar have killed hundreds of Muslims who do not have equal status with their Buddhist countrymen. Maher seems to completely forget that the siege of Sarajevo even happened or that the Tamil Tigers perfected modern suicide bombing in Sri Lanka. He seems to think the brutality of the Christian militias who massacred civilians in Lebanon by the thousands was part of the history of the Middle Ages and not the 1980s.

Maher’s recent inquisition against wrongly arrested Texas teenager Ahmed Mohammed is perhaps the ugliest example of his abandonment of rational thought in favor of superstition. When speaking of Mohammed's now notorious clock, Maher justifies the absurd incident by citing his belief that the clock "looks exactly like a fucking bomb.” If rationality is at stake in this particular debate, Bill Maher is firmly in the kook camp here. The fact is that Ahmed Mohammed's clock did not look like a bomb at all, but rather it looks like a prop in a bad action movie. Hollywood favors using suitcase bombs in movies because accurate portrayals of explosive devices make for very awkward props. Actual IEDs resemble the ugly and awkward-looking pressure cooker bombs that were used by the Boston Marathon bombers. Actual bombs have large explosive components and don't require much overt wiring. Maher’s limited perspective shouldn't be a surprise because the entire premise of his show is Hollywood or D.C. personalities debating issues they aren't qualified to comment on. If Maher is such an expert on bombs, I suggest that next time an actual bomb is found he step in with a pair of pliers and cut the red protruding wire. After all, this is exactly the way they do it in the movies that guide his so-called rational opinion of what looks like a bomb.

Maher's guests rarely have insight into the issue he seems most passionate about — yet he seems baffled that Ben Affleck and Mark Cuban haven't been able to spell out the complexities of the Middle East from his L.A. studio. In tragic irony, Maher's views on the current exodus of Syrian refugees are remarkably similar to those of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. Maher recently stated that he "would be more sympathetic if there was a better track record in the Muslim world of moderates standing up to extremists." If he did just a little bit of reading, he would surely find out that massive numbers of people have been displaced for trying to snatch their humanity out of the jaws of snarling extremists like Assad and ISIS. Maher asks where the Muslims who stand up to ISIS are, yet when they come in the hundreds of thousands, he perceives an invading ISIS army. Maher frequently invokes Hamas's desire to "push Israel into the sea," yet when the outlandish statement becomes a reality — with millions of Syrians literally pushed into the sea — he is mute.

There is nothing sincere about Maher’s fear of an imminent collapse of western Christian civilization. Maher repeats the rhetoric of nativists in Europe who insist that the presence of a sizable Muslim population somehow makes it impossible for French or German culture to survive. Maher believes being anywhere near people practicing Islam somehow makes it impossible to write music or satire — that Serge Gainsbourg and Charles Aznavour, both children of immigrants to France, would have been incapable of playing piano or writing while breathing the same air as Muslims. He claims that the arrival of migrants will inherently lead the the rise of the radical right, and that there are “a lot of young Muslim men in European cities who, even though they are newcomers to the land, really are not humble about adapting to the ways of the western world.” Never mind that Europe is stable and has been home to tens of millions of Muslims for all of my lifetime. Maher has joined the ranks of westerners who bemoan the imminent collapse of western culture, yet have absolutely nothing to contribute to said culture. I find it hard to imagine what he sees as so wonderful about a culture that, according to him, couldn't survive the arrival of 2 million immigrants.

Maher has gathered a posse of similarly "rational" Islamophobes who frequent his program, notably Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. When Sam Harris lashes out at Islam as "the motherland of bad ideas," he cites an endless backlog of statistics which, if true, are indeed disturbing. For example, Harris asserts that most U.K. Muslims believe that blasphemy should be punished, and that most Egyptians believe that death is the appropriate punishment for leaving Islam. This doesn't surprise me, because that’s religion. When the focus shifts to anything else, however, Harris loses interest in statistics and critical thinking.

Last summer Harris read a widely circulated statement on his podcast titled "Why I Don't Criticize Israel" in which statistics, history and facts seemed to matter far less. Harris said that "Whatever terrible things the Israelis have done, it is true to say that they have used more restraint against the Palestinians than the Americans or Europeans have used in any of their wars” and that “the Israelis are surrounded by people that have specifically genocidal intentions towards them." However, unlike his convenient statistics about the wacky things he claims Muslims in the U.K. believe, he doesn't have any evidence to back up these allegations. But if Sam Harris were a rationalist, he would realize that Israel's democratically elected leaders frequently call for genocide against Palestinians. Within only a few months of Harris's infamous podcast, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called for disloyal Arabs to be beheaded; Moshe Feiglin, the speaker of the Knesset, called for the deportation of all Palestinians from Gaza; and the current Minister of Justice of Netanyahu's coalition, Ayalet Shaked, has said that "the entire Palestinian people is the enemy" and called for the demise of “its elderly and its women, its cities and its villages, its property and its infrastructure.”

Unlike Sam Harris, I am not a bigot, so I am disgusted at the slightest insinuation that these genocidal statements have any relation whatsoever to what it means to be Jewish or Israeli. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who says they do is an anti-Semite. Because I believe in rational thought, I understand that people own the words that come out of their mouths and that oppression and mass murder are not as accidental as Harris or Maher would have us believe.

Richard Dawkins is another of Maher's frequent guest experts. He has long been the self-appointed pope of atheism. However, the Ahmed Mohammed incident made him sound more like Alex Jones than a critic of stupidity. First, Dawkins took to Twitter and argued that Ahmed Mohammed, though innocent, was still a potential terrorist caught up in a rational policy of racial profiling. "We were all fooled," tweeted Dawkins. Subsequently, Dawkins tried to suggest the entire incident was an elaborate plan by Ahmed to gain notoriety, Tweeting "If this is true, what was his motive? Whether or not he wanted the police to arrest him, they shouldn't have done so." If this wasn't stupid enough, Dawkins and Maher joined forces, launching into a vile invective against the 14-year-old’s credentials and pointing out that Ahmed did not invent the clock.

Bill Maher seems suddenly keen to weigh in on the quality of high school science projects, but doesn't seem terribly interested in learning history. Time and again, Maher has excused his racism by presenting hypotheticals that he doesn't even realize are chillingly similar to actual historical events. Maher recently attempted to justify Netanyahu's election campaign in which the ultra-right prime minister warned of the dangers of Arab voters. Maher speculated that if America were surrounded by black nations that had attacked us in the past, we would not allow black people to vote. This hypothetical perfectly mirrors the actual situation of 1980s South Africa, which was fighting African National Congress-allied guerrillas in Namibia, Mozambique and numerous other majority-black nations that surrounded it. It was a piss-poor excuse then, and it's a piss-poor excuse now.

For all the talk of rationality, a little perspective is needed. Maher’s sin is not pure bigotry, but rather intellectual laziness. He thinks that no Muslims spoke out against the Charlie Hebdo shootings because he doesn't follow Hani Abbas or Raed Fares on Twitter. Maher believes that no one who criticizes Islamophobia in America has ever said a thing about how fucked up Saudi Arabia's policies are. Bill Maher is a man that is slightly more informed than the general public but thinks he is vastly more intelligent than the general public. He should speak to more aid workers and journalists — or God forbid he should speak to an actual Syrian refugee. While this would be nice, I am not naive. It looks like the roster is all Hollywood celebs and pseudo-intellectuals for the foreseeable future.

By Patrick Hilsman

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Alternet Bill Maher Christianity Islam Islamophobia Muslims Religion