OPINION: Free speech or incitement?

In response to one of Bill Maher’s recent anti-Islam tirades, a student group at the University of California at Berkeley petitioned the university to disinvite the talk-show host as their commencement speaker, citing Maher’s “offensive and dangerous rhetoric.” This petition, and Berkeley’s subsequent decision to not rescind Maher’s invitation in spite of the protest, has prompted many self-proclaimed guardians of liberal values to decry this petition as a restriction on free speech.

A recent article on The Atlantic linked this student protest to previous student protests of their university’s commencement speakers and award recipients, such as Brandeis University’s rescinding of their honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali due to her anti-Islam rhetoric, or Condoleeza Rice’s cancellation of her speech at Rutgers as a result of student protests of her involvement in the Iraq War. The article, written by David Frum, went on to label these student movements as a “danger,” due to their restricting Maher’s right to free speech and to criticize Islam.

I’m not going to bother to refute Maher’s hate speech towards Islam here, because it’s 2014 and if you’re still unable to make a distinction between political violence cloaked in the guise of religion and a 1400-year-old religious, philosophical, and legal tradition, I have nothing to say to you. But I’d like to address Maher’s anti-Islam rhetoric, or Islamophobia, within the broader context of its implications, as well as what this means for his freedom of speech.

Islamophobia is not about hurt feelings. Islamophobia has real impact on human lives, and incitement to Islamophobia has become so entrenched in the West that it’s difficult to understand where to begin to describe it to someone not on the receiving end of it.

At the individual level, Maher’s brand of incitement to Islamophobia led to the Wisconsin Sikh Temple shooting of 2012. Although Sikhs are not Muslims, of course, they are often perceived as Muslims, as are Arab Christians and Hindus. Also in 2012, a Hindu man was killed after being pushed onto the tracks of the subway in Queens, NY by a woman who later said, “I pushed a Muslim off the train tracks because I hate Hindus and Muslims ever since 2001…” Also in 2012, mosques were burned to the ground in Missouri and Tennessee due to arson. At the individual level, Islamophobia is a racist ideology that has everything to do with perception and nothing to do with reality, and often leads to Arabs and South Asians of different faiths feeling unsafe in the United States.

At the collective level, Maher’s brand of incitement to Islamophobia has resulted in the Iraq War, extrajudicial drone strikes in western Pakistan, veil bans, the NYPD’s spying on NYC’s Muslim community, and racial profiling at airport security. Similar to the way entrenched anti-black sentiment in the United States justified the murder of Mike Brown, age-old Islamophobic tropes justify the hundreds of thousands of lives lost in American military operations in the Middle East.

“…Liberal, western culture is not just different – it’s better,” said Bill Maher, the comparison being made to the “culture” of the Muslim-majority world.

This statement, with its racist, ethnocentric underpinnings, forms the basis of Islamophobia – that there is a monolithic, Other culture inherent in all Muslims (or people perceived to be Muslims.) This perceived moral superiority of the West, cloaked in the guise of rational atheism versus tribal religiosity, forms the basis of American militarism in the Middle East. It allows the Western mind to resolve the cognitive dissonance that comes along with condemning the barbaric violence of ISIS while being complicit in a war that has resulted in the barbaric deaths of more Iraqis than even ISIS has been responsible for. It allows the Western mind to justify the bombing of wedding-goers in Yemen because there was a report of a “militant” among them, regardless of the fact that the name or nature of the “militant” was never made public. It allows the Western mind to purport freedom of expression while sitting idly by while a woman wearing a face veil is ejected from the Paris Opera after cast members refused to perform because of her presence.

Bill Maher’s incitement to Islamophobia isn’t criticism of Islam. It’s harmful bigotry that has a profound effect on those perceived to be Muslims both abroad and in the United States. When the Berkeley administration refuses to listen to its students’ voices calling for Maher’s invitation to be rescinded, they are not protecting free speech, but condoning hate speech with wide-reaching implications.

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