THE BLOG
10/11/2014 10:59 am ET Updated Dec 10, 2014

Taboo Nation: Bill Maher, Islam and the Censorship of Ideas

It's a familiar feeling. Post anything in the press or on social media that is unpopular and be prepared for a venomous backlash by those who disagree with you. That, of course, is the essence of free speech, but it is no longer free when the outrage expressed against unpopular opinions adopts the garb of moral righteousness and becomes personal.

That is what television host Bill Maher is now confronting on the heels of his criticism of liberals in giving Muslims a soft pass on Islamic extremism while fighting ferociously against those same medieval values on other fronts. People are welcome to assess Maher's thesis independently and share their own thoughtful opinions, but that is not what has happened.

Instead, actor Ben Affleck went on a tirade against Maher on his show and called his comments 'racist'. This, along with the other incendiary label of 'Islamophobe', has become a convenient hook for anyone who wants to shut down all discussion about Islam by painting the other side as evil for even bringing up a view that contradicts the popular zeitgeist.

Ironically, that is at least partly what Maher was talking about - hypocrisy and de facto censorship. Liberals may be champions of free expression but can also become exceedingly intolerant of opposing views. In this case, Bill Maher is a liberal darling when he attacks Christianity but suddenly becomes a demon when he criticizes Islam.

Constructive debates can only happen when both sides start with mutual respect, but the furious and visceral reaction to Maher's comments show that those who want to defend Islam are less interested in exploring the facts than they are in putting a stake in the ground for their personal views. That in itself borders on fanaticism.

While Maher's points were vastly generalized and his analysis incomplete, there was still some validity to them. In modern America, we are so wed to the ideas of fairness and sensitivity that we can sometimes become blind to the obvious, which is that there is a serious problem brewing within the global Muslim community. Sure, it is a problem that impacts Muslims as well as Non-Muslims, but that should not make the topic itself taboo!

Fundamentalism is certainly not the fault of all Muslims or prevalent only amongst practitioners of Islam, but neither is Islamic fundamentalism an isolated or minor phenomenon anymore. It is widespread and doesn't become immaterial simply because some pockets of moderate Muslims criticize groups like ISIS. While one side may unfairly generalize, the other one picks selective vignettes to paint the picture they believe in -- rendering both depictions disingenuous.

What Maher was getting at (although in TV-friendly metaphors that distracted from his actual arguments), and what his critics don't want to hear, is that there are deep contradictions and issues within Islamic doctrine itself, which should be discussed candidly in order to be resolved. But that can't happen with labels like 'racist' and 'Islamophobic' flying around. All that does is force people to keep their mouths shut for fear of being ostracized and socially shunned.

It is also worth noting that questioning or lampooning Christianity, Hinduism, or Judaism is entirely permissible and even encouraged, while the same rules don't apply when it comes to Islam.

Today's form of public censorship goes like this: "Say what you want. but if I consider it immoral or dangerous, I will label you a narrow-minded and despicable person and rally society to silence you." That is the antithesis of free speech and will turn America into a nation of sheep -- but not because everyone agrees; because people are shamed into submission by their 'morally superior' peers.

That may not be as bad as an Orwellian state but it isn't that different if the end result is the same.

Follow Sanjay Sanghoee on Twitter @sanghoee