Educating Bill Maher

11/03/2014 02:48 pm ET Updated Jan 03, 2015

Bill Maher is funny and insightful, and he will have pearls of wisdom to share with Berkeley students at their December commencement if they let him through the door. However, after Maher's recent statements about Muslims, I'm convinced that some of the undergraduates I know could offer Maher wise words on the shortcomings of stereotypes.

I direct an initiative that sends Americans to volunteer in communities throughout the Muslim World. One of our programs caters to university-age youth, and as part of our evaluation process, we ask returned volunteers to list a few words to describe the people they lived with, worked with, and came to know. Here is how 22 volunteers from 12 universities and colleges characterized the people they met this past summer in Indonesia, Morocco, Tajikistan, and Zanzibar:

Indonesia: comfortable, friendly, diverse, helpful, generous, interesting, cultured, and historic

Morocco: generous, welcoming, energetic, majestic, kind-hearted, respectful, enthralling, fascinating, and diverse

Tajikistan: friendly, hospitable, hard-working, proud, kind, unique, cultured, generous, strong, open-minded, beautiful, and welcoming

Zanzibar: peaceful, reverent, inviting, motivated, accepting, kind, welcoming, warm, grateful, friendly, gorgeous, sedentary, open, bright, beautiful, and interesting

"Friendly," "hospitable," "generous," and "welcoming" were the adjectives most repeated. That doesn't mean all Muslims share these qualities, nor do all Indonesians, Moroccans, Tajiks, or Zanzibaris. It also doesn't mean that there aren't extremists in these places or in the 50+ countries that make up the "Muslim World." However, when Bill Maher takes polling data and paints 1.5 billion people of the same faith with a broad brush, he presents an intellectually dishonest argument that fails common sense.

On the intellectual dishonesty, Maher ignores significant factors that have shaped communities and people from Tunisia and Turkey to India and Iraq. The influences of religion are just one factor into what goes into a person's decision-making process. Other pieces of the puzzle factor into who we are and what we do. For example, what is the impact on a society when there is no free media and conspiracy theories are a regular part of popular discourse? Or what are the reverberations of public education systems that don't teach critical thinking skills or the consequences of authoritarian leaders setting up patronage systems that rob their citizens of opportunities and their ambition?

Those attributes are factors in many countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. How can Maher parse among the many human development challenges that have been outlined in UN reports and conclude that because the majority of Egyptians are Muslim, female genital mutilation is practiced by more than 90 percent of Egyptians?

If Maher's position on Islam and Muslims were indeed the case, how can we reconcile it with the behavior of hundreds of millions of law-abiding, decent, and faithful Muslims who live in democracies? In the United States, we worry about unbalanced outliers who explain their extremist acts of violence as part of a holy war. We don't seek to throw a blanket over the millions of observant Muslim-Americans who live no differently than Jewish-Americans or Catholic-Americans, because as Maher's guest Sam Harris' asserted (and Maher endorsed), "Islam, at the moment, is the motherload of bad ideas."

On the common sense front, not everyone is afforded the opportunity of first-hand experience. Maher is smart and of means and he should know better, though. He could take a page from our student volunteers.

"I am constantly moved by the people here," wrote Deborah a junior at American University who volunteered this past summer at a public health NGO that does HIV testing in sober houses. 99.5 percent of the people who live in Zanzibar are Muslim, and Deborah conducted social media outreach and wrote funding proposals for this NGO. In a post she wrote for our blog, Deborah continued, "I can only hope that, upon returning as an unofficial ambassador, my conversations about my experience will reflect the connectedness and compassion of this Muslim community."

When Deborah returned home to Satellite Beach, FL this summer, she presented at her church about her experiences in an NGO, at Ramadan break-fasts in people's homes, and within the contours of everyday life in Stonetown. She didn't draw conclusions from polling data about other countries, she just told the stories of the actual people she met. What courage on her part and the part of her church to learn more, beyond the stereotypes.

Maher is right that we should stand up for liberal principles everywhere, but it does no justice to our principles if our arguments are stacked on a foundation of stereotypes. Let's choose to criticize the practices of female genital mutilation in Egypt or Somalia as Maher does, but impugning more than a billion people of the same faith, worldwide, for immiserating women is ridiculous and bigoted.

Bill Maher has taken courageous positions in the past, and the violence of radical Islam is real. He is entitled to the freedom of speech, but there are no solutions to the threats of ISIS and other extremists to be found in concluding that such radicalism is inherent to the religion itself. We are all in greater danger if we choose to stereotype, live in fear, and isolate ourselves, rather than address -- at their source -- the challenges that are the root of such extremist choices.