By IONA BATCHELDER
Bill Maher, host of the HBO talk show Real Time with Bill Maher, has been under quite a bit of controversy lately over his remarks on Islam on his October 3 show. Maher had actor Ben Affleck and author Sam Harris as guests on the show, among a few other people. A long back-and-forth conversation between Affleck and Maher unfolded with Maher making comments about Islam, citing several statistics about the perceived violence of Muslims.
The segment with Maher and Affleck went viral, generating many reactions supporting Maher along with many others calling him a racist and a bigot. The controversy resulted in a meeting between the Californians, a University of California Berkeley committee tasked with selecting commencement speakers, and Berkeley administration.
After this meeting, the committee had decided to withdraw their invite to Maher, who had been invited to speak at the university’s December commencement, without the administration’s consent. The UC Berkeley administration has since released a statement saying that it “cannot and will not accept this decision;” however, members of the UC Berkeley campus advocacy group Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian (MEMSA) coalition started a Change.org petition in late October to stop Maher from speaking at the ceremony. The petition as of this date has garnered over 5900 supporters.
Maher has bashed other religions for years in just the same way that he attacked Islam. In fact, in 2008 he made a documentary film called Religulous, a portmanteau of the words “religion” and “ridiculous.” In the documentary, Maher attacked organized religion and mocked people of all faiths. That was in 2008; Maher was invited to speak at the UC Berkeley graduation in August 2014. The Change.org petition started by MEMSA says that “Bill Maher’s public statements on various religions and cultures are offensive, and his dangerous rhetoric has found its way into our campus communities.” Did the members of this petition just happen to forget that one of the things Maher does best is mocking organized religion? Apparently Maher could get away with attacking various religions for years, but when an argument with a Hollywood actor (and college dropout) goes viral, everyone decides that Maher is a racist bigot despite support from the other guest, an author with an undergrad degree from Stanford and a PhD in cognitive neuroscience from UCLA
The controversy escalated further when religious scholar Reza Aslan condemned Maher’s views on Islam on CNN and in interviews with several other news outlets. However, Aslan also said on HuffPost Live, “I’ve said repeatedly that Bill Maher is not a bigot. I know him. We are friends. We hang out with each other backstage.” He continued, saying, “He loves having me on the show despite the fact that we disagree on a lot of things.” Maher himself said during his October 31 episode, “If even my most respectable critic who’s a Muslim says [I am not a bigot], what leg does this protest have to stand on? He and I disagree on stuff but he’s always welcome on the show. That’s how it’s done, kids!” and, referring back to the racist claim, said, “I’m a racist. Right, because Islam is a race.”
I have to agree with Maher’s response to the allegations on the irrationality of MEMSA. Although we all can debate the legitimacy of his comments on Islam and other religions, the amount of controversy that his argument with Affleck has generated has been blown way out of proportion. Maher has practically made his career out of attacking organized religion, and the fact that the Berkeley students who wanted to withdraw him from the commencement did not seem to realize that or take that into account confuses me. Apparently MEMSA only took Maher’s comments seriously when Ben Affleck criticized them. Before Affleck spoke, MEMSA had no public objection to Maher’s appearance at the commencement.
Adding to the ridiculously sudden backlash from the MEMSA, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. The movement influenced many universities across the nation to revise their censorship policies. Without the Free Speech Movement, Maher would most certainly not have been able to speak at Berkeley, yet many students who spearheaded this reform do not want Maher to be able to freely speak on their campus. This opposition is hypocrisy of the highest nature, and I am very happy that the administration of the University stepped in and acted in a rational way. Maher speaks at Berkeley on December 20, 2014, and I cannot wait to see what other new realizations Berkeley students make about him in the next month.