Over the last several weeks, social critic/comedian Bill Maher has found himself in conflict with various groups of people for espousing some unpopular views regarding Islam. He recently stated on his television show Real Time with Bill Maher, for example, that “Islam is the only religion that acts like the Mafia and will f**king kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture, or write the wrong book.”
He is, of course, referring to various acts of murder and violent reprisal by Muslims against Western writers, artists and authors, including fellow Muslims, for perceived offenses and crimes against their religion or their prophet.
Recently, Maher managed to brook the ire of the U.C. Berkeley student body, who find his opinions so unforgivably offensive that they protested his invitation from the university regents to deliver a commencement address in December, demanding that the invitation be withdrawn.
Maher’s first offensive political view seems to be an assertion that there is something inherent in the Islamic religion that gives rise to institutional, organized violence by some of its adherents towards others including both non-Muslims and other Muslims. His second offensive political view seems to be an assertion that Islam is antagonistic towards, and/or its teachings antithetical to, the personal freedoms we take for granted in the West, which puts Islam in direct conflict with Western values.
In that light, Maher has been lately admonishing liberals to publicly uphold ‘liberal’ values. “Liberals,” Maher said, “need to stand up for liberal principles. Freedom of speech. Freedom to practice any religion you want without fear of violence. Freedom to leave a religion. Equality for women. Equality for minorities including homosexuals …”.
Maher may be right about his assertions … or he may be wrong. That is for you to decide. But the more important, underlying, question of the moment is not whether he is right or wrong, but whether he has a right to voice his opinions in the arena of public discourse regardless of how unpopular they may be in some quarters. He is not wrong in simply asking the question whether there is something inherent in Islam that leads to institutional, organized violence by some of its adherents. Nor is he wrong in suggesting that that inherent something — if it exists — would put Islam in direct cultural conflict with Western values.
Whether Maher is right or wrong, he has posed assertions worthy of examination. That others see in them evidence of bigotry, and in their zeal move to suppress both him and them, only lends weight to his arguments. First, if there is nothing in the practices and teachings of Islam that can give credence to his assertions, why is the reaction by Muslims and others to damn him for bigotry quite so immediate and strident? Why not simply answer those assertions with calm, deliberative argument? Secondly, doesn’t the zeal for suppression by Muslims itself evidence a conflict with Western values?
Unsettling, even disturbing, questions often challenge us to rational examination through open-ended inquiry, which leads to a newer, better understanding of the world around us and our place within it. Accordingly, in Western culture, we have learned over time to allow all to speak their opinions freely and to uphold the rational over the dogmatic in sorting out truths from falsehood. We see evidence every day that some sects or groups within Islam have not yet learned how to do this, and tend to uphold the dogmatic over the rational even to the point of violence and murder. However, in my view, that failing on the part of some does not make it inherent to the whole of Islam. Furthermore, we see the same failing within groups in Western culture: Flat-earthers, Creationists, White Supremacists, and the Berkeley student body. Does their predilection for the dogmatic over the rational prove a broadly inherent failing of Western culture? It does not.
What is dead-certain in any society’s bifurcated search for truth, as conducted by those whose predilections run to the rational versus those who uphold the dogmatic, is that the dogmatists will always first attempt to suppress the rationalists. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s Neo-Nazi’s, Christian Fundamentalists, 15th-century Spanish Jesuits, modern-day Sunni Salafists, or a student body living in a distorted world seen through the coke-bottle lenses of political correctness — the reaction by the dogmatists to suppress is as predictable as the sunrise. The reason is quite simple: the revealed truths of rational, open-ended inquiry always poses an existential threat to the convenient, comfortable, received truths of dogma.
Let’s examine Maher’s assertions in the light of open-ended inquiry.
Consider the accompanying advertisement depicting a bacon-loving Jesus. There’s no doubt that the ‘Jesus Loves You’ graphic may be offensive to a good many people. There are those who will condemn it for using an image of Jesus at all, no matter how cartoonish it may be, in a commercial advertisement. There are those who might feel compelled to point out that Jesus, as an observant Jew, would NEVER partake of bacon and Korn King Bacon simply didn’t exist in his day, so the advertisement doesn’t really make sense. And there are those who will be outraged that a religious figure they revere is used in what seems to them a disrespectful manner.
But there’s little reason to fear that anyone will decide that the graphic designer or art director should be killed for a perceived insult to Christianity, or that someone in the Risen Lord’s Light Militia or the Silver Shirt Legion will issue an order to have it done. The reason is that we Westerners have a long history of tolerance for free speech, which includes all kinds of disturbing and unsettling assertions, ideas and opinions.
Now ask yourself what the reaction might be if — in place of Jesus — the illustration used an image of Mohammed, the Prophet? Is it possible that halfway across the world a mullah might call for my execution, a man he has never met and doesn’t know? Is it likely? And if that were to happen is it then possible that another man might carry out my execution; again, a man he has never met and doesn’t know? Since the two acts would be conducted by two different individuals at two different times and probably in two different places, wouldn’t that fact argue that there is something inherent in Islam, perhaps a common understanding, that motivates their actions? If the action is carried out by a collective of individuals, as it has been in the past, wouldn’t that fact argue the same thing?
If violent reprisal is possible, perhaps even likely, then is it fair to ask (as Maher does) if there is something in Islamic practice or teachings that tends to incite some of its adherents to institutional organized violence? Isn’t a call to Jihad just that — a call to institutional organized violence? Don’t the commands by some Islamic clerics for obedient Muslims to murder persons who have committed perceived offenses against their religion or their prophet serve as prima facie evidence of something inherent in Islamic teachings and practices that gives rise to violence reaction? Do we know of religions other than Islam that similarly call the faithful to holy war for similar reasons? Do we know of religions other than Islam, even within subordinate sects, that frequently take recourse in violent reprisal? If so, which religions are they, which sects? If not, doesn’t that absence single-out Islam as having an inherent tendency toward institutional organized violence as Maher suggests?
If individual Muslim clerics can issue a call to holy war — Jihad — against the perceived enemies of Islam, which observant Muslims are then obligated to obey, conversely can a collective of Muslim clerics issue a call to holy peace that Muslims also must obey? Can observant Muslims be commanded to lay down their weapons as easily as they are commanded to take them up? If not, how can Islam justify its claim to be a religion of peace and brotherhood, when a call to violence must be obeyed, but a call to peace must not? If so, why haven’t a collective of Muslim clerics issued a call for holy peace with the expectation that the armed militant groups among them will answer that call and lay down their arms? Expanding on that idea, if a large collegiate of Muslim clerics around the world put their names to a document commanding all armed militant groups in the middle-east who claim the defense of Islam as their cause to lay down their arms immediately and join in a worldwide peace conference to create a lasting peace and prosperity in the region for the benefit of the innocent, would they obey? If not, why not? If so, why hasn’t it been done?
Doesn’t the foregoing suggest that cultural conflict between the West and Islam is inevitable and intractable? If not, why not? If so, what steps should we Westerners take to protect our values and our freedoms against the violent cultural incursions of the East which may prove debilitating and unending?
Therein lies the trouble with free speech and rational inquiry. The questions are many and inconvenient and open-ended. Answers are few. Oftentimes, someone or another is offended by what you may ask, or by what others may have to say in response. But in order for any of us to enjoy the benefits of free speech, it first must be truly FREE. It must be free of suppression by governments or religions. It must be free of the encumbrances of political correctness. It must be free of censorship by the well-meaning but witless dinks among us who think they know better than you what may be said, what may not be said, what ought to be said, what must never be said, how it may be said, and who may say it. It must be free of threats of violence reprisal by those who may feel insulted or demeaned because a question was asserted at all, or contained within its folds a perceived challenge to the established order of things, or threatened to punch a hole in the vessel of a convenient and comforting received wisdom.
As Americans, including Muslim Americans, we should never be afraid of unpopular ideas. I would argue with Maher that the ‘liberal’ principles he cites are not by and of themselves liberal in nature. Our cherished rights to a free press, free speech and free association, for example, I would simply call American values. The difference between liberals and other dwellers in the political woods is what the role of government should be in protecting our constitutional rights and how much of political speech should fall within the bailiwick of protected speech. On those things, liberals and conservatives have differed and will continue to differ until the end of days.
What we agree on is the immeasurable benefits that devolve from our legacy of free speech and of protected speech. In the socio-political crucible of 1770’s colonial America, in that rough-and-tumble marketplace of free-thinkers and free ideas, with lisping soapbox orators and wild-eyed pamphleteers elbowing and jostling each other for light and space in the public arenas and assemblies, each with a keen eye for the main chance to claim the vox populi and represent the power of a new, angry and energized constituency, there the foundations of free speech in this country were laid. There, in that free market of thought and opinion, an aristocracy of the mind and heart was forged among a people, the former aristocracy of blood inheritance and divine right was forever abandoned, and a revolution was birthed from the hearts of patriots and cast at the feet of one of the world’s great superpowers.
It succeeded. Afterward, the founders and framers understood very well the enduring power of free speech freely applied and enshrined it in our Bill of Rights. Maher demands that we honor that inheritance, stand for our values and examine potential threats to our freedoms and our way of life in the cold, clear light. As to that, too, he is quite right.
“Whoever told you,” Maher challenged Real Time panelist Rula Jebreal when she objected to some of his assertions about Islam, “that you only had to hear what didn’t upset you?” Who indeed. Maher might well ask the same question of the Berkeley student body when he sees them. If he sees them.
In truth, the speech that upsets us is the very discourse we should heed most closely to ascertain whether at the source of our disquiet there isn’t some nugget of truth we might benefit from. Free and open-ended inquiry quickly leads to an understanding of what is true and what is false. It is while standing toe-to-toe with the unblinking mendacity and self-serving deceit of the guileful, the fraudulent, and the corrupt that we should be most on our guard for new truths to emerge. What is long hidden is always more telling than what is is long revealed. It is while sifting through the dross and dreck of false equivalency, tendentious argument, and presumptive dogma that the precious jewel of truth so often is found.
And while we may not like what someone else has to say, we should love the freedom they have to say it and give them the opportunity to have their say. Then let the same courtesy be afforded to you.
From Dan: Very well said. I think some of the critics also may not be familiar with Maher, who is not a fan of Christianity or any other religion. He may be an ass but I think he is at least consistent in this area.