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Bill Maher, Jingoist

May 3, 2010

Via Sullivan, here is Bill Maher pronouncing the superiority of American to Islamic culture:

Although America likes to think it’s number one, we have to admit that we are behind the developing world in at least one thing: their religious wackos are a lot more wacko than ours. You may applaud that. When South Park got threatened last week by Islamists incensed at their depiction of Muhammad it served — or should serve — as a reminder to all of us that our culture isn’t just different than one that makes death threats to cartoonists. It’s better: because when I make a joke about the pope, he doesn’t send one of his Swiss guards in their striped pantaloons to stick a pike in my ass; when I make a Jewish joke, the Rabbis make a vetsch about it, but they don’t pull out a scimitar and threaten an adult circumcision; and when I threatened scientology, the worst that happens is…[lights go out]

To some extent, sure: Islam should be held responsible for its wackos. When the child acts out, shame on the parent. But let’s not conflate the child with the parent. The fanatics who threatened Trey Parker and Matt Stone are not identical to Islamic culture any more than South Park is identical to American culture. Maher, in failing to make the distinction, simply inverts the error of Jihadists — who condemn all Americans on the basis of the haughtiness of George W. Bush and the trashiness of Baywatch.

Toward the end of the monologue, Maher comes close to acknowledging that the generalization doesn’t hold true for everyone:

Before I conclude, it should in fairness be noted that, in speaking of Muslims, we realize that, of course, the vast majority are law-abiding, loving people, who just want to be left alone to subjugate their women in peace.

Notice that the punchline (Muslims just want to “subjugate their women in peace”) undercuts the distinction Maher purports to make between the “vast majority” of Muslims and Muslim extremists. Not only are most Muslims are just as wacko as the violent fringe, Maher insinuates, it would be laughable to think otherwise.

Maher concludes with a condescending word of advice for Muslim immigrants:

I’m very glad that Obama is reaching out to the Muslim world, and I know that Muslims living in America and Europe want their way of life to be assimilated more, but the Western world needs to make it clear: some things are not negotiable and can’t change. And one of them is freedom of speech. Separation of church and state is another. Not negotiable. Women are allowed to work here and you can’t beat them. Not negotiable. This is how we roll, and this is why our system is better.

As a fellow Westerner, I share Maher’s commitment to these ideals. I also know from experience — I have worked with Somali immigrants for over seven years — that there is some truth to what Maher is saying. Islam does at times conflict with secular, Western values. At the same time, I recently helped a student write a paper contrasting the Quran’s teaching on the importance of respect for women with the cultural practices of many Islamic countries. Nor do immigrants reject free speech: an Imam recently told me that Islam “accepts disagreement” and teaches its adherents not to “force anyone to accept your religion.” (Admittedly, the Imam told me that he believes free speech should have limitations — but, then again, I believe that too.) Maher’s clash of civilizations rhetoric is, in short, a gross oversimplification that — ironically — recalls the very worst excesses of the Bush administration.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. Catullus59 permalink
    May 7, 2010 2:41 pm

    It isn’t conflation when the record more or less bears Maher out. Never mind Theo Van Gogh or South Park; Michel Houellebecq would never have been tried if he’d refer to Christianity as “*the* dumb-ass religion”. And in point of fact, Houellebecq made jibes about both Christianity and Judaism in the same itnerview that got him in trouble.
    Only adherents of Islam routinely expect this level of deference. They either forget or simply aren’t interested in how vital insult is to civilization (v. Freud). Unless they’re the ones hurling the insults; I’ve seen crossword puzzles in Algeria and Pakistan where all the answers were epithets for Jews, along the line of “kike” and “sheeny.” It was if I were on the set of Truffaut’s “The Last Metro.”
    Maher is hardly engaged in “clash of civilizations rhetoric” and if he oversimplifies, it isn’t by much. Muslims could help by being candid about what their creed does teach. I have a feeling I’ll have baked a lot of loaves waiting for that to happen, though.

  2. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    May 7, 2010 3:19 pm

    You are certainly correct that Islam expect more deference than Judaism or Christianity does. I wasn’t suggesting otherwise. The point I was making is that there is a world of difference between a Jihadist and an ordinary Muslim immigrant. Sure, both desire to suppress certain forms of speech, but it is highly significant that one is willing to use violence and the other isn’t.

    While I don’t agree with the Islamic leaders in Paris and Lyon who took Houellebecq to court, I would not put them in the same camp as the extremists who murdered Van Gogh. Incidentally, nor would Bill Maher — who says in the monologue that “civilized people don’t threaten each other, we sue each other.”

  3. Catullus59 permalink
    May 8, 2010 10:54 am

    Another thing civilized people do is take it on the chin from time to time, which should have been done in l’affaire Houellebecq. The wasted learning opportunity here is that people aren’t reducible to their creeds, even creeds that are deeply believed. They certainly don’t want such reduction to happen to them and theirs. But umbrage on the part of moderates precludes taking such a lesson to heart and in this sense, it becomes the fodder of the extremist.

  4. May 16, 2010 4:23 pm

    Notice that the punchline (Muslims just want to “subjugate their women in peace”) undercuts the distinction Maher purports to make between the “vast majority” of Muslims and Muslim extremists. Not only are most Muslims are just as wacko as the violent fringe, Maher insinuates, it would be laughable to think otherwise.

    Well, re: his “punchline,” it isn’t always as simple as what you’re saying. Of course the “regular” Muslims aren’t the same as jihadists; the remark, though, applies to most practicing Muslims. The idea that a woman should be more modest that a man, for example, is, quite simply, perpetuating misogyny. While perpetuating misogyny isn’t a big deal to most men and even many women, it is a very big deal to many other people, who are quite justified in their concern for the matter.

    Of course, a whole lot of other groups and people and corporations and religions are guilty of perpetuating misogyny, and other social injustices. While it’s important to avoid scapegoating Islam and therefore Muslim individuals as the bringers of injustice in the world, it’s important not to let people off the hook for their own bad behavior or beliefs just because what they do doesn’t cause an immediately tangible negative result.

  5. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    May 16, 2010 5:17 pm

    I’m not sure what you mean by misogyny. Is the hijab inherently harmful to women? By what standard?

    • May 20, 2010 6:52 pm

      I wanted to say first that I hope my first comment didn’t sound too passive-aggressive in the way that I said that other people pay not see misogyny as a big deal. I just meant to communicate that the misogyny in that particular instance isn’t readily apparent to people who may not have to deal with it on a regular basis, which sucks, but is also understandable.

      My opinion of the hijab is that it quietly perpetuates the idea that women are– and should be– subservient to men, and that women’s physical differences to men are dangerous and shameful. If women and men were held to the same expectations of modesty, that would be entirely different, but men in Islamic culture are allowed to exist “as is,” whereas a woman is expected to cover hair or even her entire face and body with the burqa.

      Now, I can easily see a woman wearing a hijab and feel that her choice to wear that garment has no effect whatsoever on my life, or how others treat me. But those seemingly insignificant choices can affect the way that others view women as an entire group. Even a white, atheist boy from Minnesota may see Muslim women wearing hijabs, respect them as people, but take away from the experiences he has with these women that, even if he doesn’t expect the same thing from women he knows, women are inherently different enough from them to justifiably have restrictions put on their behavior, their sexuality, their appearance, their health benefits, etc., that they themselves shouldn’t have to abide by. For example, the recent health reform debate raised a lot of questions about women being charged more for health insurance because women generally require more services, by virtue of being born with cervixes and other apparently strange body parts. But this just puts males in the position of “normal,” and women in the position of “deviating from normal.” Perpetuating the belief that womanness is so inherently different, as Islam does with the hijab and burqa, feeds this belief and continues to damage women politically, socially, and personally.

      Of course, like I said in my first comment, Islam shouldn’t be seen as single-handedly forcing these sexist ideas, but they are still responsible for taking part in perpetuating them.

      As far as by what standard this may be seen as misogynist, that’s a great question. I guess I don’t have an “answer” so much as a perspective for that. Of course, from the Western, white feminist perspective (and not all Western white feminists will agree with me, but many would), the mere idea that women should be held to different standards of physical appearance or modesty is sexist, without question. In areas where Islam informs most citizens’ values, many, if not most, practicing Muslim women are not only perfectly content with their lives, their culture, and their hijabs, but believe that Western, Americanized culture actually oppresses women more than their hijabs ever could, in the sense that we’re an overtly sexualized culture and women here are expected to be sexually available in order to attract a man. I can certainly see how they have a point there, too. For example, here’s a quick poem about the topic, if you’re interested.

      I don’t feel comfortable trying to lay out some kind of objective truth about this issue, because I realize that if I feel so strongly about my position, so would the “opposing” side feel with theirs; on the other hand, I don’t feel that true gender equality can be reached while we as a human race are okay with woman being held to what I consider unfair and unequal standards or modesty, sexuality, and dress.

  6. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    May 21, 2010 10:48 am

    I appreciate this very thoughtful response. You really have done an excellent job encapsulating the feminist position.

    I do think it’s useful to look at how privileged groups set up the categories “normal” and “deviant”. My post on the epistemic closure debate was, for example, largely an attempt to make liberalism see itself for what it is — not mere objectivity, but a “limited, partial, and epistemologically ‘closed'” view of things.

    At the same time, the analysis has its limitations. Just as it is possible for you to argue that the hijab puts women in the position of “deviant from normal”, so might a Muslim argue that the anti-hijab argument puts Islam in the position of “deviant from normal” — serving to advance liberal individualism, the West’s preferred ideology. Defining equality as “the right of each and all to self-determination,” it seems to me, reduces the analysis of gender to identity politics — to thinking of women as just another interest group seeking to assert its preferred notion of “normal” over and against the others.

    In my view, the only coherent way to define equality is in relation to some larger moral framework. That most traditional moral frameworks have been the brainchild of men is, of course, a significant problem. But perhaps feminists can create new moral frameworks — whether Christian, Kantian, or Marxist — within the shells of the old.

  7. May 29, 2010 2:40 am

    Just as it is possible for you to argue that the hijab puts women in the position of “deviant from normal”, so might a Muslim argue that the anti-hijab argument puts Islam in the position of “deviant from normal” — serving to advance liberal individualism, the West’s preferred ideology.

    Really excellent points– although I would counter them with my own definition of “gender equality”: men and women are entitled to equal rights, opportunities, and treatment. Islam, when part of the practice of Islam is made by wearing a hijab or burqa, cannot, under that definition, be seen as equal. If another culture sees women wearing hijabs and/or burqas as “normal,” then I see them as a culture or society that is not equal. I can’t agree with a philosophy on equality that doesn’t allow for women to be respected on the same basic level as men, or allow for the same level of personal autonomy as men, despite our physiological or hormonal differences.

    In response to your proposal that we can find a common ground with many of these perspectives, you might be interested in reading bell hooks, if you haven’t already. She writes about feminism and civil rights through a Marxist lens that is really quite illuminating, and she doesn’t rely on “othering” to get her point across.

  8. May 29, 2010 2:49 am

    I do think it’s useful to look at how privileged groups set up the categories “normal” and “deviant”.

    I wanted to touch on this, too. Predominantly white, Western societies do have the advantage of setting the standards for “normal” and “deviant.” And while the white, Western privilege that I have certainly informs my opinion of Islam, whether I mean it to or not, the privilege doesn’t negate my basic tenants of “equality,” nor do they absolve other, more oppressed societies, of their deliberate perpetuation of sexism, or inequality.

  9. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    May 30, 2010 12:56 am

    It seems to me that you are very committed to the notion that sameness and equality must be synonymous. I guess I’m a bit more of a relativist on this one. Traditional gender roles don’t seem to me inherently reprehensible — but they don’t seem inherently good, either. They just seem like an attempt to make do within a given set of cultural constraints.

    Conversely, I’m not sure that the current arrangement is necessarily a boon to women. Does careerism benefit women always and everywhere — or might many find staying home with children more fulfilling than mundane office work? Have women been truly empowered by the loosening of sexual mores, or merely objectified in new ways? I don’t mean to take a reactionary position here, but to point out some of the possible trade-offs.

    I would strongly agree that women and men are equals in dignity and worth (for religious reasons, incidentally). I would also agree with feminists that, historically speaking, the treatment of women by men has been shameful and wrong. But the question remains: what is the best way forward?

    I’m not sure that the answer is as simple as sameness or difference — or any other abstraction, for that matter.

    • June 8, 2010 12:04 pm

      Traditional gender roles don’t seem to me inherently reprehensible — but they don’t seem inherently good, either.

      Does careerism benefit women always and everywhere — or might many find staying home with children more fulfilling than mundane office work? Have women been truly empowered by the loosening of sexual mores, or merely objectified in new ways?

      I agree with you here; the point I want to emphasize is choice. I see a lot of benefits to traditional gender roles in many contexts, as long as they are chosen by the people participating in them. I don’t see certain religious traditions as being entirely chosen, though, so much as mandated by the religious community in question. One of the largest and most oft-cited “tenants” of feminism is that of choice. A woman can be a stay-at-home mother, but she doesn’t have to. And vice-versa.

      It’s difficult to answer these questions, though, especially about the unintended consequences of said choices on the rest of society. I made the decision to put on mascara this morning, which is furthering the idea that women should wear makeup to correct their appearance. I chose to shave my legs last week, which does the same thing. I can’t very well claim that those choices aren’t a big deal, while wagging my finger at Muslim women who wear hijabs.

  10. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    June 9, 2010 9:49 am

    I would agree that religious traditions aren’t chosen. I certainly didn’t “choose” to be a Catholic — by which I mean that I didn’t impartially weigh the claims of each religious tradition and conclude that Catholicism was the truest or best. But I would argue that the same holds true for secularism. Secularism is, like religion, a tradition that imposes itself arbitrarily on individuals (though it often fails to realize this). In that respect, even though I profess to be a Catholic, I am inescapably a secularist — for I am also an American. (Similarly, you are a feminist, but say that you shave your legs and wear mascara.)

    I don’t mean to describe reason and choice as mere cultural constructs (a view that I was strongly encouraged to adopt in grad school, but ultimately rejected). What I mean is that our notions of what is “reasonable” and “freely chosen” necessarily arise within some existing cultural framework — whether religious or secular, traditional or modern. As I attempted to articulate in the post “Commentary on Doubt, Round Two” (probably unsuccessfully), my view on this follows Nagarjuna, the Buddhist philosopher. Reason, culture, and choice are, according to Nagarjuna, empty of intrinsic reality (along with all other concepts), but “dependently co-arise.”

    As Terry Eagleton has observed, capitalist societies require very little of their citizens, other than that they “get out of bed, roll into work, consume, pay their taxes, and refrain from beating up police officers.” Everything else — religion, gender roles, sexuality, and so on — becomes a matter of lifestyle choice. To define traditional gender roles as one of many potentially beneficial lifestyle choices is thus to approve of them only insofar as they might arise within the context of an individualist, advanced industrial society such as our own.

    There are, in my view, strong merits to liberal individualism — but also many faults. It is certainly not an ideology I would like to see imposed always and everywhere. And that is where I apparently differ from feminism.

    (As an aside, you are a totally kick-ass commenter, and I am deeply grateful for your continually engaging with this blog!)

    • June 13, 2010 5:20 pm

      As I attempted to articulate in the post “Commentary on Doubt, Round Two” (probably unsuccessfully), my view on this follows Nagarjuna, the Buddhist philosopher. Reason, culture, and choice are, according to Nagarjuna, empty of intrinsic reality (along with all other concepts), but “dependently co-arise.”

      I’m a little familiar with the concept of “dependently co-arising” from a philosophy class I had last semester, so I’m glad you used that example. I understand your perspective better. I agree, actually. Where I trail off from this perspective, though, is where you say that:

      To define traditional gender roles as one of many potentially beneficial lifestyle choices is thus to approve of them only insofar as they might arise within the context of an individualist, advanced industrial society such as our own.

      When I think about choices that women who wear a hijab make, for example, I consider those choices in June, 2010. When I consider the choice to be problematic, it is because I’m seeing the decision now, in a time where I find misogynist socialization to still be rampant enough for a Muslim woman’s choice to wear a hijab could indirectly have a negative impact in my life. If we were free from that socialization, I believe (other people’s) religion would also be less tied to our collective judgment and national identity, which would make it more possible for that type of choice to be less of a problem.

      Same thing could apply to leg-shaving and makeup. If US-centric society at large no longer expected women to shave their legs, and the choice to do so and the choice to not do so were seen as equal to most people, then shaving my legs would no longer hold any ethical or moral weight for me. It would simply be a choice.

      As Terry Eagleton has observed, capitalist societies require very little of their citizens, other than that they “get out of bed, roll into work, consume, pay their taxes, and refrain from beating up police officers.” Everything else — religion, gender roles, sexuality, and so on — becomes a matter of lifestyle choice.

      Absolutely. I completely agree. This pretty well describes why I am sympathetic to Libertarianism. The only problem I have with this succinctly stated perspective on life is that, at present time, it’s not practical, and only very privileged individuals will be able to live life in this particular way. Many Muslim women can’t, for example, choose not to wear a hijab. That’s where I think liberalism and the various social justice movements come in; they’re/we’re trying to steer humanity closer to being able to make genuinely free choices for ourselves. In the meantime, though, wearing a hijab means more than just a personal choice.

      (As an aside, you are a totally kick-ass commenter, and I am deeply grateful for your continually engaging with this blog!)

      Thanks! This discussion has been quite enlightening. Your blog is exceptionally welcoming of progressive dialogue, which, as a blogger and blog-reader, I appreciate a great deal!

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