There was recently a dispute at the University of California, Berkeley, similar to the George Will controversy at Scripps earlier this year, regarding the school’s choice of commencement speaker. Bill Maher, a well-known liberal comedian, was scheduled to speak at Berkeley’s December graduation. However, on his show “Real Time” a few weeks ago, Maher criticized the lack of freedom of speech and restricted rights for women and for people who are LGBTQ in many Muslim countries. Maher said, “These are liberal principles that liberals applaud for, but then when you say in the Muslim world, this is what’s lacking, then they get upset.” Bill Maher contends that liberals should be critical of those who do not afford free speech and human rights to all. The question he asked was, simply: why don’t liberals care about these issues in Muslim countries as much as they care about them in the United States?
In response, many students at UC Berkeley protested the university’s choice to have Maher speak at their graduation, and started a petition to disinvite him. According to CNN, the petition stated that “Maher is a blatant bigot and racist who has no respect for the values UC Berkeley students and administration stand for…we cannot invite an individual who himself perpetuates a dangerous learning environment.”
According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, a bigot is “a person who hates or refuses to accept the members of a particular group (such as a racial or religious group),” and a racist is “a person who believes that one race should control all others.” Maher’s comments were critical of the discriminatory actions taken by some Muslims in the name of their interpretation of Islam, not with the doctrine of Islam itself. He did not indicate in any way that he hated, refused to accept, or believed he should have control over Muslims. Maher’s words do not “perpetuate a dangerous learning environment”—he spoke out against those who are opposed to open-mindedness and freethinking. In other words, Maher spoke out against intolerance; therefore, his support of individual freedoms is the polar opposite of bigotry.
Under radical Islamic governments, as Maher pointed out, women and the LGBTQ community have very few rights. A 2013 poll from the Pew Research Center confirms this, stating that, for example, 92% of Muslims in Iraq, 93% of Muslims in Tunisia, and 96% Muslims in Malaysia believe that “a wife is always obligated to obey her husband.” Furthermore, the Pew study found that a substantial number of Muslims believe homosexuality is morally wrong. Even in Indonesia and Malaysia, two moderate Muslim-majority countries according to Maher’s guest Nicolas Kristof (author of A Path Appears), the Pew survey found that 95% and 94% of Muslims, respectively, believe that homosexuality is morally wrong.
As Maher also stated, a large number of Muslims internationally believe that it is appropriate to kill anyone who leaves the Islamic faith. According to the Pew Research Center, many Muslims believe that Sharia law, also known as Islamic law, should be the official law of their country. Even in “moderate” Indonesia and Malaysia, 72% and 86% of Muslims believe, respectively, that Sharia law should be the official law of the land. Of the Muslims surveyed who support Sharia law, a large number believe that the death penalty is an appropriate punishment for those who convert from Islam, according to Pew. Many Sharia Muslims also believe in honor killings, and believe stoning is the appropriate punishment for adultery.
It is important to note that members of the Muslim faith are not alone in holding some of these opinions—as one example, only 41% of American Protestant Christians believed that gay and lesbian relations are morally acceptable, according to a 2012 poll by Gallup. Bill Maher merely pointed out the double standard that is present when we condemn the Christians who hold these beliefs while simultaneously ignoring the very same injustices in Muslim countries. He did not claim that Islam is the cause of the beliefs; rather, he pointed out a correlation.
Islam is one of the world’s largest religions, with approximately 1.6 billion people practicing the faith. Like any large group of people, there is tremendous diversity among the world’s Muslim population, and there are many different interpretations among the group, some of which look quite different from the picture painted by the survey. According to Aiman Chaudhary (PO ’17), a practicing Muslim who grew up in Pakistan, the results of the survey are caused by the cultures of the various countries studied, not by Islam itself. “This largely has to do with the sociopolitical systems in place in the areas that this research has been conducted in. I think a lot of theology is often grounded in the culture and not so much scripture, in my own experience. I don’t think it’s a matter of religion anymore, I think it’s a matter of socio-cultural factors that you have been exposed to.”
Had the survey included American Muslims, the results would have looked very different, Chaudhary said. “I think American Muslims would certainly answer the questions differently—anyone who has been exposed to Western influences and the ideals of democracy and egalitarianism will answer these questions very differently. If you ask Muslims in America whether or not LGBTQ rights should be recognized, whether there should be marriage equality, or whether women should have the right to divorce and inheritance, I think a lot of these questions would come across as ridiculous to a lot of Muslims in America.”
It is important to make a distinction between the Muslim faith and the politics of Muslim countries, particularly in countries like America where the two have little in common. In its 2013 Religion and Public Life Project, Pew Research states, “In their attitudes toward modern society and their relations with people of other faiths, U.S. Muslims sometimes more closely resemble other Americans than they do Muslims around the world.” The Pew Research Center assessed the beliefs of Muslim Americans in its 2011 report, “Muslim Americans: No Signs of Growth in Alienation or Support for Extremism.” It found that 90% of American Muslims either completely or mostly agree that women should have the right to work outside the home compared to 97% of the US population overall. It also found that 39% of American Muslims accept homosexuality while 58% of the US population accepts it. In contrast, 45% of American Muslims believe homosexuality should be discouraged compared to 33% of the US population. Regarding support for suicide bombing and other violent acts against civilians, 81% of American Muslims believe these acts are never justified and 8% that they are often or sometimes justified. In comparison, only 19% of Palestinian Muslims and 38% of Egyptian Muslims feel that suicide bombing and other violence against civilians is never justified, while 68% of Palestinian Muslims and 28% of Egyptian Muslims feel it is often or sometimes justified.
Though Maher’s opinions are not Islamophobic, a person unfamiliar with Islam or the differences in the attitudes of American Muslims and Muslims in the rest of the world could generalize Maher’s statements to the entire the Muslim community, which is Islamophobia. This, I argue, is deeply troubling. According to Gallup, there are only about 1.4 million Muslims in America (0.45% of the US population), which means that many Americans may not personally know anyone who practices Islam. The lack of interaction with Muslims makes it difficult for Americans to see and understand the difference between radical and non-radical Islam. The best way to gain a better understanding of the problems pertaining to radical Islam and the resulting Islamophobia that follows is to have an open dialogue examining multiple perspectives. Neither Bill Maher’s nor the UC Berkeley students’ criticisms are unreasonable, and for that reason it is important that both perspectives be respectfully considered. Much like Islamophobia, radical Islam is harmful and discriminatory, and protesting Bill Maher for speaking out against this is contradictory.
Berkeley released a statement in response to the students’ protest stating: “The UC Berkeley administration cannot and will not accept this decision, which appears to have been based solely on Mr. Maher’s opinions and beliefs, which he conveyed through constitutionally protected speech. It should be noted that this decision does not constitute an endorsement of any of Mr. Maher’s prior statements: indeed, the administration’s position on Mr. Maher’s opinions and perspectives is irrelevant in this context, since we fully respect and support his right to express them.”
The Berkeley administration got it exactly right: Maher has the right to express his opinions, and the fact that Berkeley invited him to deliver the commencement speech does not mean that it agrees with him on this, or any other issue. Let the dialogue continue. As it does, let’s also ensure that college campuses educate students about Islam, and the manner in which it is practiced in different regions around the world, including the US. In this way, we might ensure that discussions about radical Islam do not propagate Islamophobia.