The words "We are not at war with Islam" have been uttered by everyone from President Obama and former President Bush to top-level military officials. As Andrew J. Bacevich points out in a recent piece, Syria has become at least the 14th country in the Islamic world that U.S. forces have invaded, occupied or bombed, and in which American soldiers have killed or been killed in since 1980 alone. So while we may be entrenched in Muslim nations, our leaders have taken great pain to emphasize the fact that we are not at war with Muslims, or the religion of Islam. If this is indeed the reality, then why is it that watching the nightly news, tuning into supposed liberal shows like Real Time with Bill Maher, reading the day's top stories or just listening to people speak about 'the Muslims' sure makes it seem as if we are? If we're simply rooting out extremism, and aren't engaged in some sort of modern crusade, then why is there such blatant dehumanization of Muslims in virtually all aspects of society? It appears that political correctness exists when it comes to everything unless of course it's about Muslims and Islam -- in that case, feel free to spew whatever nonsense you like.
There was a time when uttering "Muslim extremism," "radical Islam" or even "Islamists" was considered inflammatory, discriminatory and just unacceptable. Today, over a decade since the tragic attacks of 9/11 where, yes, Muslims died too, the previous phrases have not only become commonplace, but apparently they are now the more gentler terms used in our discourse in reference to Muslims and Islam. Because let's face it, outright bigotry and hatred towards this segment of the population is now okay in the eyes of some legal minds, and in the eyes of those who run many of our news outlets, or simply just run their mouths spewing their ignorant, ill-informed statements to the masses, i.e. Bill Maher and Sam Harris on Real Time.
During their tirade, both Maher and Harris openly shared their outrageous views by making statements like "Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas." Maher compared Islam to the mafia, while Harris doubled down with the notion that we are somehow "misled to think that fundamentalists are the fringe." As actor Ben Affleck countered their blatant bias by pointing to the fact that they were lumping billions of people together under their stereotypes, the dynamic duo attempted to throw out some "facts" to make their argument. Let's take a look at a few of those alleged facts.
First, we have Harris' claim that jihadists and Islamists make up 20% of the Muslim population (I'll save the discussion on the use of those terms for another time). When Affleck asked where Harris received this supposed fact, his response was simply that he could cite many places where he pulled this figure from. Well, I can cite many places that make the counter argument. But why bother sharing where I got that from, just like Harris didn't bother sharing where he got his "facts."
Maher tried to make the claim that Muslims will kill you for leaving the religion. He casually threw out figures from a Pew poll conducted in 2013 that supposedly backed up his argument. Only problem is, his figures were wrong and were selected piecemeal. He claimed that 90% of Egyptians think the death penalty is an appropriate response for leaving the religion. The actual figure was 64%. While that is still troublingly high, he failed to mention the fact that in places like Albania, only 1% held this belief, only 0.5% of Kazakhs did, or that in Lebanon less than 1 in 7 held the same view, as a Washington Post piece highlighted at the time. In short, he, like CNN anchors Don Lemon and Alisyn Camerota on their broadcast earlier in the week, put the entire "Muslim world" in one gigantic group, even though it is as diverse as humanity itself.
What Maher also conveniently left out was the fact that in that same Pew poll, in those Muslim countries that he so vehemently put down, a majority of the population supports religious freedom. According to Pew, more than 95% of Pakistanis and more than 75% of Egyptians support religious freedom. But since that doesn't fit the narrative Maher and Harris attempt to paint, why bother including it in the discussion?
If I took a poll of people's views on abortion, gay rights, or anything for that matter, bet the results would be vastly different in Maher's home state of California as compared to somewhere more conservative. His "analysis" and conclusions are akin to someone taking a poll in a heavily right-leaning district and saying that it is representative of all of America. Thankfully, the rest of the world knows that we are a diverse nation, with varying views, lifestyles, etc. Now if only we could understand that the proverbial Muslim world is just as diverse.
Maher and folks like Harris symbolize the growing threat of selling Islamophobia to the left. It's bad enough that places like Fox News and people like Sean Hannity push this nonsense virtually every single day, but when Maher does this, it takes the demonization of Muslims to another level. As he pointed out himself, the audience -- which used to boo him or remain silent when he made such statements -- was clapping and cheering him on that Friday. That is a problem.
If we don't see the inherent dangers of accepting hatred against groups without a voice (note: no Muslims on Maher's panel), we're kidding ourselves. The press and popular culture are all guilty in this regard, but we also now see it in our legal system. When a federal judge approved Pam Geller's Islamophobic subway ads, this judge sent a resounding message to the American Muslim community: you are second-class citizens whose safety and security takes a back seat to a hate-mongerer's self-expression. Free speech is a right we all undeniably cherish, but we also live in a society that provides protections against hate speech and words that may incite violence. As the old adage goes, one cannot yell fire in a crowded theater.
The idea that a federal judge made a legal decision to allow this kind of overt anti-Muslim advertising to be plastered where millions commute every single day is beyond reprehensible. And this isn't the first time; a judge apparently approved Geller's hate ads in 2012 as well. Do we really think these judges would have allowed ads from the KKK that spread vitriol against racial minorities? Or would they have allowed ads from a neo-Nazi group that were anti-Jewish? I don't think so. Passing laws that basically solidify Islamophobia on the books is a dangerous precedent that can easily be emulated in other facets of society. When legal protections begin to erode, what sort of recourse do marginalized individuals have?
It should come as no surprise that hate crimes against Muslims (and those perceived to be Muslim) have been steadily on the rise. In New York City alone, the so-called bastion of diversity, the issue is of major concern. Back in April, a man allegedly pushed and spat on a 15-year-old Muslim girl while calling her a terrorist aboard a City bus. Even worse? Apparently no one tried to help the teenager despite the fact that this grown man reportedly stated he wouldn't hesitate to kill her. Last year, a Columbia professor named Prabhjot Singh was assaulted while walking down the street as his attackers yelled anti-Muslim epithets, knocked him down and threw punches. Mr. Singh isn't even Muslim; he is a Sikh who wears a turban.
According to NYPD's own stats, anti-Muslim hate crimes are up 143%. Last month, an ex-marine allegedly attacked a Pakistani couple in Brooklyn and tried to grab their two year-old-son. According to reports, he yelled "What are you doing in my neighborhood? Get out, Arab" right before the assault. What's clear in many of these instances is that these accused attackers often don't know the difference between a Muslim and a Sikh, or a Muslim and a Hindu, or a person of Arabic decent and one of South Asian decent, or a host of other differences. But the bottom line is, it doesn't matter. The "othering" of many minority groups has been so successful that they are all perceived as one in the same, and one that somehow 'doesn't belong'. It is individuals from those communities that are then most vulnerable to hate attacks and biased assaults.
You see, when people are viewed as barbaric or inhumane, then who really cares if some of them are attacked every now and then? Who cares if their houses of worship receive threatening calls or its congregants are taunted? Who really cares if their rights are violated, or they are put under surveillance or they are profiled at airports, subways and everywhere they go? What do facts have to do with anything when discussing 'those people'? Hell, we can just make up stuff like Maher and Harris and people will eat it up. Actually, scratch that, they will cheer it on.
The one thing I will agree with Maher on is the notion that yes, liberals need to stand up for liberal principles. And a basic liberal principle is pushing back against bigotry in whatever form we see it. Unfortunately today, that bigotry is often directed at Muslims and the religion they practice and it is coming from all angles - conservatives and self-proclaimed liberals alike.
As the fight against ISIS/ISIL continues, and so do our campaigns to fight terrorism around the world, we are bound to be reminded that we are not in a war against Islam. But why is it that when I turn on the news, listen to people discuss Islam or look at images of Muslims in popular culture, it damn sure feels like we are.