Last night I was catching up reading one of my favorite bloggers, Ta-Nehisi Coates, when I came upon a video of Bill Maher declaring his unapologetic fear of Muslims. Maher points out that Mohammed recently became the most popular name for baby boys in Great Britain (at least, when you count all variations of the name), and asks with his customary belligerence, “[A]m I a racist to feel I’m alarmed by that? Because I am. And it’s not because of the race, it’s cause of the religion. I don’t have to apologize, do I, for not wanting the Western world to be taken over by Islam in 300 years?” When members of his panel politely object, he acts incredulous.
By the end of the clip, conservative political commentator Margaret Hoover laughingly tells Maher that baby names aren’t the issue, but that “…sharia law being institutionalized in England is probably a bigger problem.”
Maher responds, “Well, then I’m right. I should be alarmed, and I don’t apologize for it.” His audience cheers.
Video is via HBO via MediaIte. My transcripts and commentary are below.
As a commenter on Coates’ post says, Maher’s not being racist but he is being a bigot. His alarm would only make sense in two scenarios: if all Muslims were intent on overthrowing the “Western world,” and therefore any evidence of increasing numbers of Muslims was proof of increasing numbers of anti-Western warriors, or if naming a baby “Mohammed” was an indication that the boy’s parents planned to raise him as an extremist. (In the second case, the fear would be akin to Juan Williams’ — the fear that this child is identifying first and foremost Muslim and is therefore likely to be someone frightening.)
Both of those viewpoints are, frankly, ridiculous. There are those who insist that “there’s no such thing as a moderate Muslim,” but I suspect those people have never interacted with a real live Muslim, or invested any energy in considering how illogical their position is. And Mohammed might show loyalty to Islam, but it’s hard to make the case that it’s evidence of extremism unless you believe, again, that any identification with Islam is automatically evidence of extremism (“Think Baby Names” tells me Mohammed means “praiseworthy” — isn’t that nice?).
Bill Maher would likely defend himself by brandishing his opposition of all religion, but in this case he’s positing Muslims as a threat to the “Western world,” which at this point is far from secular. Maher’s position is — unapologetically — not anti-extremism or even anti-religion, it’s anti-Muslim.
The point Margaret Hoover brings up, about the institutionalization of sharia law, is worth discussing. I don’t know much about what’s going on there — Ta-Nehisi Coates has a couple of posts up about it on his blog, where the various implications are being discussed. The facts seem to be that in the United Kingdom, Muslims (and Jews, a quoted article points out) can try civil cases in religious courts. That means they can handle issues like divorces, but not that they’re imposing floggings and stonings like we see in sharia-governed areas like the Swat valley. Acknowledging my limited information on the subject, I will say that I oppose these courts. I think British citizens should be subject to uniform, secular laws. I’m especially concerned about whether the rights of women will be fully protected. (That would be true of any alternative court system based on religion, or even those not based in religion — for instance, while I support the right of Native American/First Nation peoples to govern themselves, it’s come to light that the failures and confusions of overlapping jurisdictions have left Native American women extremely vulnerable to sexual violence.)
I have to point out, though, that talk of institutionalized sharia law is something of a red herring. Maher seizes on it as proof that he’s right, Muslims are taking over, but there’s a huge distance between baby boys being named Mohammed and sharia law in the U.K. courts. I don’t deny that the religious beliefs of a population can affect the laws of the land — after all, the U.S. recently had a Senate candidate who insisted that school boards should be able to decide to teach creationism and evolution as equal “theories,” and at least two Senate candidates denied the Constitution provided for the separation of church and state. When Maher says Muslims are moving toward taking over the U.K., though, remember that we’re not only talking about a far-from-monolithic group with widely varying beliefs, we’re talking about a group that is rapidly growing but still makes up less that 4% of the U.K.’s population. In addition, it’s been suggested the reason more British citizens are describing themselves as Muslim (and, perhaps, naming their children identifiably Muslim names) is because their sense of Muslim identity has been strengthened in the face of increasing anti-Muslim prejudice and the “war on terror.”
But then, it’s Maher’s schtick to strip the nuance out of a situation, reducing it to an antagonistic, proudly “politically incorrect” soundbite. I’ll be honest — I’ve never thought Bill Maher added much to the political conversation. His contempt for women (one example of many, many, many examples here), what I see as his oversimplified view of religion, and his apparent delight in nasty mockery turn my stomach even when I agree with him. Many viewers appreciate Maher for his willingness to shout, “The emperor has no clothes!”, which is an admirable quality. Unfortunately, Maher often chooses to target not the emperor, but people who are easy to kick — it’s like he’s dancing along the edges of the emperor’s parade shouting, “You don’t have clothes, because you’re POOR!” at beggars and “Your clothes are weird, you foreigner!” at the guy from out of town. Attacking vulnerable groups who are already the objects of scorn, prejudice, and even violence isn’t speaking truth to power, even if you preface your remarks with “I’m sticking up to the political correctness machine!”
To be fair, the problem isn’t just Maher. But when Maher uses his national platform to assert that he’s alarmed the U.K. contains Muslims, he’s normalizing Islamophobia and reassuring other non-Muslim members of the “Western world” that they’re brave and edgy for being prejudiced against anyone who practices Islam. Bill Maher, I don’t know how I can say this more clearly: it’s not brave and edgy, it’s cowardly, intellectually lazy, and reinforcing a Crusades-like “clash of civilizations” narrative about the world that a man who professes to understand the dangers of religion should abjure.
Perhaps we need a “Guys Named Mohammed And Variations Thereof” tumblr. (“Pictures of Muslims Wearing Things,” which was created in the wake of the Juan Williams, is one of my new favorite things in the world.) I have some ideas we can start with: Mohamed Zidan, striker for the Egyptian national football team and for a German club team, known for shaving fabulous patterns into his hair. Mohammed Taher, M.D., seen here working with Project Access NOW, a community initiative to increase access to affordable health care. Mohammed Azharuddin, campaigning to become president of the Badminton Association of India. Muhammad Yunus, economist who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with microcredit. Muhammad Ali. Muhammad Zahid Chaudhry, veteran of the U.S. Army, disabled during Operation Iraqi Freedom and trying to become a U.S. citizen. My personal favorite from my few minutes of googling: Mohammed Rashid, possessor of the world’s longest mustache.
Now I have to go call my father. I’m pretty sure the fact he’s named after the oldest gospel in the New Testament means the United Methodist Church is planning a hostile government takeover, and I, for one, am alarmed.
Title: “Bill Maher Afraid Mohammeds, Islam Taking Over Western World”
Video: Bill Maher, Margaret Hoover, Zach Galifianakis, Reihan Salam, and Lawrence O’Donnell sit around a table. At times, the five talk over each other, which I’ve tried to communicate without making the transcript too confusing.
Maher: “…have another question. The most popular name in the United Kingdom, Great Britain, this was in the news this week, for babies this year was Mohammed. Am I a — am I a racist to feel I’m alarmed by that? Because I am. And it’s not because of the race, it’s cause of the religion. I don’t have to apologize, do I, for not wanting the Western world to be taken over by Islam –?
Margaret Hoover: “Well if you’re –”
Maher: “–in three hundred years?”
Hoover: “If you’re with NPR you’d be fired.” (laughs)
Maher, sarcastically: “Right. That’s so similar to Juan Williams, who said last week ‘I’m nervous when I –’”
Lawrence O’Donnell, interrupting: “No no — it’s worse. It’s way worse than what Juan Williams said.”
Maher: “What I’m saying?”
O’Donnell: “Yeah, what you just said.”
Hoover, simultaneously with O’Donnell: “What you said was way worse.”
Reihan Salam, cutting in: “I’ve got to say, as a Reihan Salam I’m pretty comfortable with Mohammeds. I have a couple of uncles named Mohammed, and I think they’re pretty decent guys. Throw it out there.”
Hoover, interjecting: “I think the name Mohammed isn’t the problem.”
Reihan Salam, gesturing to Zach Galifianakis: “Mohammed Galifianakis is um, one of them.”
Galifianakis, deadpan: “It’s my aunt’s name.” (Everyone laughs.)
Hoover: “I uh, I think England has bigger problems with Islam than they do with the names of their children. I think sharia law being institutionalized in England is probably a bigger problem.”
Maher: “Sharia law is being institutionalized?”
Hoover: “It’s, it’s, yeah, it’s a parallel [ish? she adds something to parallel, but I can't tell what] legal system in England. That’s a bigger problem than kids named Mohammed.”
Maher: “Well, then I’m right. I should be alarmed, and I don’t apologize for it. [applause] Okay.”
Photo of Bill Maher from Zac Bowling (zbowling)'s flickr, reused with thanks by Creative Commons Attribution License.