Talk-show host Bill Maher stoked controversy again this weekend for making insensitive jokes about Muslims, a familiar story given his infamously callous views on Islam. But Maher’s detractors argue his most recent quip is just the latest in a sustained campaign against Islam, and progressives are beginning to speak out against the increasingly offensive rhetoric of the liberal pundit.
In a web-only segment of his show Real Time With Bill Maher, the often-inflammatory host discussed the recent departure of musician Zain “Zayn” Malik, a Muslim, from the popular British boy band One Direction. After sarcastically dismissing the news blitz regarding Malik’s career move, Maher, who identifies as a “proud liberal,” placed a photo of the pop singer alongside an image of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and asked “Where were you during the Boston marathon?”
Watch a clip of the sketch below:
The joke immediately set off a firestorm of criticism on Twitter, where Zain’s fans — including many British and American Muslims — chastised Maher using the hashtag #RespectForZayn. Thousands of Zain’s supporters have already signed a Change.org petition insisting Maher apologize for the segment.
terrorist jokes aren't funny and being a muslim doesn't make you a terrorist #RespectForZayn
— H. (@pinkfloydharold) April 5, 2015
Ibrahim Hooper, the spokesperson for Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), echoed the disapproval of Zain supporters, saying Maher’s joke promotes racism and Islamophobia.
“This is just another example of [Maher’s] casual racism and anti-Muslim bigotry,” Hooper told ThinkProgress. “It has become part of his public persona, and that’s unfortunate.”
But Hooper also argued that the segment, while offensive on its own, is part of Maher’s unsettling tendency to drum up anti-Islam sentiment within progressive circles — something he said liberals should reject.
“He legitimizes Islamophobia on the left,” Hooper said. “I don’t view bigotry or intolerance as liberal or progressive.”
Indeed, while this weekend’s sketch riled a group largely unfamiliar with Maher’s show (Zain fans), he has made bashing Muslims — or Islam in general — a recurring part of his act in recent months. In October of 2014, he called Islam “the only religion that acts like the mafia — that will (expletive) kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book.” Maher and another guest, prominent author and “New Atheist” Sam Harris, insisted this position was the “liberal” stance, but actor Ben Affleck, another guest on the show who claims to be a “moderately liberal guy,” defended Islam, saying Maher’s comments were “gross” and “racist.”
A month prior, Maher frustrated journalist Charlie Rose by claiming that all of Islam was complicit in the actions of ISIS, the terrorist group currently committing atrocities across the Middle East. Maher said there was “connecting tissue” between ISIS and the broader Muslim world, noting “The Qur’an absolutely has on every page stuff that’s horrible about how the infidels should be treated.” Maher singled out Islam again in January after the tragic killing of Charlie Hebdo journalists by terrorists who claimed to be acting in the name of Islam. Referencing remarks he made earlier that week on the “Jimmy Kimmel Live” show, Maher said of Islam, “what we’ve said all along, and have been called bigots for it, is when there’s this many bad apples, there’s something wrong with the orchard.”
His criticism of Islam has become so common that students at the famously liberal UC Berkeley campaigned last December to have Maher removed as their college’s commencement speaker, saying his views did not represent those of the graduating class. The school ultimately allowed him to speak (although several groups protested the administration’s decision), but many progressives remain uncomfortable with Maher’s treatment of Muslims: over the past few months, Maher’s comments about Islam have been criticized by writers at the New York Times, the New Republic, Salon, Daily Kos, and Vox, among others.
“While Maher isn’t just the loudest and most candid voice on the left in his bigotry toward Muslims, he is the ideological counterpart to Fox News that helps make hate bipartisan,” Max Fisher wrote at Vox.
Progressives are also concerned about the growing popularity of Maher’s perspective among liberals. Last week Cenk Uygur, speaking on his popular left-wing show The Young Turks, railed against what he called the “Sam Harris, Bill Maher” wing of progressivism for their anti-Islam views. He compared Islamophobia to McCarthyism, or the anti-communist paranoia of the 1950s, explaining that while he shares Maher’s distaste for religion (Uygur, like Maher, is a proud atheist), he cannot abide mistreatment of Muslims in the name of liberalism.
“They think that they’re liberals, this whole Sam Harris, Bill Maher wing,” Uygur said. “You want to call yourself a liberal? You don’t know what a (expletive) liberal is. You want to call yourself a progressive? You’re not remotely progressive … You’re a foaming at the mouth neoconservative, and, yes, you’re discriminating against [Muslims].”
The Left’s criticism of Maher isn’t limited to his disparagement of Islam, as his fellow progressives have long accused him of of being insensitive, racist, and ultimately self-defeating as a liberal. In 2010, he drew fire for joking that President Barack Obama was not acting like a “real” black president, wishing aloud that he would “[show up] in a meeting with the BP CEOs, you know, where he lifts up his shirt so you can see the gun in his pants.” He then assumed a stage voice, presumably in mimicry of a black man, and shouted “‘We’ve got a motherf***ing problem here?’ Shoot somebody in the foot.” Similarly, Maher was also widely criticized last summer for what many called a sexist tweet about slapping a woman, and infuriated women’s rights advocates in 2011 for calling Sarah Palin a “dumb twat” on his show.
In almost all of these instances, as with his anti-Islam comments, Maher defended himself by citing free speech, a closely-held liberal value. But his critics — especially those on the Left — are becoming less and less enthused with his exclusionary brand of humor, and many are determined to fight fire with fire.
“The only way to challenge hate speech is with more speech promoting tolerance,” Hooper said. “He has a right to be a bigot if he wants, but we have the right to speak out against his bigotry.”