Bill Maher has been getting a lot of press recently about how “right” he is about what he could just as well be calling “The Muslim Menace.” Even liberal news and opinion outlets have been saying that he is correct in his evaluation about how Islam is a threat, how liberals are giving them a pass, and most recently, how Arab countries are unwilling to take on the forces of Daesh.
The thing is, he’s not right. He’s close on a few things, and hopelessly blind on most others. But not right.
First of all, he’s trying to have it both ways. He blames Islam as a whole for the actions of the extremists, as if it were a problem endemic to the religion and not the fanatics, but at the same time, he denies painting all Muslims with a broad brush. He asked on his show why some people refuse to use “Islamic” and “extremist” in the same sentence. A guest replied that the term “jihadist” is much more appropriate—and they were correct. The question is, why use the term “Islamic” when that term is far broader than what is being discussed? Maher claims that he’s not criticizing Islam as a whole, but gets upset when Islam is not considered the problem.
You can’t have it both ways; either you’re condemning the whole religion, or you’re not. At first I thought he might agree to the idea that the problems are due to the extremists, and there are more of them than we see in other cultures and religions, but each time I hear or read his arguments, I find little support for that point of view. And I have known too many Muslims who are quite kind and loving people to believe that just being a Muslim makes you part of the problem.
Second, he takes liberals to task for “supporting” despicable practices in Islamic states. Strangely, he often mentions female genital mutilation when he brings this up, which is odd because it is not a patently Muslim tradition; it is practiced widely in Christian cultures as well, and not practiced in many Muslim ones. It is, as Reza Aslan pointed out, mostly a Central African problem. This shows up the flaw in Maher’s central focus: he blames Islam for problems that are not really centrally about Islam.
However, what gets my back up is Maher’s virtually right-wing take on this: if liberals are not constantly and stridently calling Muslims barbaric, we must love the worst of their practices. Maher: go frack yourself. It’s a facile claim, one that is no less despicable coming from a Libertarian with liberal leanings than it is from a hard-core right-winger.
Here’s the reason why the claim is bullshit: liberals, as a rule, focus inward, not outward. We focus almost all of our public energies at home, where we can actually make a difference, and we know that huffing and puffing about what Saudi Arabia does will make little difference there. We don’t make any more an issue of Boko Haram than anyone else, or civil rights violations in Southeast Asian countries, or any one of a number of cases where we would vehemently condemn what’s going on—unless America is somehow involved. We don’t make a big deal about what Saudi Arabia does, but we do make a big deal about how the U.S. conveniently overlooks such things when we want a partner in the region. We don’t rise up in protest over Chinese labor practices—we only do when American companies take advantage of them. Hell, we don’t even make a fuss when conservatives in Canada or the U.K. do stuff that we disagree with virtually right next door to us. We simply don’t make noise unless it’s a home-turf issue.
However, just because we don’t make a cause célèbre of loathsome and barbaric practices in Muslim countries when you find it convenient to demand one, it does not, in any way, shape or form, mean that we “support” them, you mindless idiot. I note, by the way, that Maher has not, because he can not, name one accepted liberal spokesperson saying that they “accept” much less “support” crap done in the countries because of “cultural tolerance” or “political correctness.” That’s because none of us actually do that, as much as Maher claims otherwise. The claim is utter bullshit.
Finally, we now have Maher making noise about how Middle Eastern countries don’t take care of Daesh when they vastly outnumber them in military force. Salon backs him up, and Politifact judges his claim “Mostly True.”
This argument of Maher, however, serves as an excellent example of Maher’s shallow thinking, and the general media’s mindless willingness to accept what he says.
Yes, as Politifact points out, his numbers are pretty much correct: Daesh has maybe 20,000 or 30,000 fighters, as opposed to around 5 million troops in 13 countries in the general region.
However, beyond just a simple head count, Maher’s implied thesis is utterly bone-headed. Look, I would love to agree and have local forces take on the task so we don’t have to be involved. There’s just one little problem: it’s a hopeless pipe dream of a desire.
Think about this: what if some insurgency popped up in South Korea, and started wreaking havoc in the region. Would you suggest that Japan, North Korea, China, Taiwan, and Russia form a military coalition to handle it? Such an idea would be laughably absurd; these countries tend to hate each other’s guts.
And what would happen if one of these countries acted alone? Would Japan be okay if China invaded South Korea, or the other way around? And forget North Korea doing anything, or accepting anyone else doing anything.
We’re looking at much the same thing here. Maher’s blind simple-mindedness in which he conflates all Arab and Muslim countries and cultures into one hateful blur ignores the realities of the region. The biggest forces in the region are Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. These nations are hardly close friends. Relations between Turkey and Iran have always been strained, at best. Recent Turkish involvement in Syria have been strongly criticized by Iran. While Turkey and Saudi Arabia get along okay financially, they clash politically and ideologically. And let’s not even talk about how Iran and Saudi Arabia get along. To imagine one capable force moving in and essentially taking over huge swaths of territory within Syria and Iraq is virtually unimaginable. Similar rivalries and factions in various countries tend to preclude any viable force bringing about a successful solution in the region.
To make an alliance that would work better than what exists now is nearly hopeless. Again, I would love to see it, but I am not holding my breath. Beyond this huge obstacle, there are a host of other issues which make such actions highly improbable.
So, yeah, Maher can add. But apparently, his analytical talents end there.