Thinking Further And Acting Better Than Bill Maher On Muslims, Terrorism and The Charlie Hebdo attacks

Bill Maher has been growing in popularity as of late. People are really jumping on his no-shit direct opposition to religion. In particular, he was recently on the Jimmy Kimmel show where he stated that “there are no great religions. They’re all stupid and dangerous.” This was in the middle of his rant about the hundreds of millions of Muslims that support the attacks in Paris last week and how horrible some Muslims are with their belief that you “get what is coming to you, which is death” for things like leaving their religion or making fun of their prophet and that “this is a problem in the world that we have to stand up to.” Bill Maher shoots straight to the heart of how we all feel. We feel outrage. We feel sadness. We see injustice. However, what Bill Maher suggests isn’t anything that will ever do anything that will get us closer to peace. He totes an anger directed towards massive groups of people with no direction on what to do with that anger besides rally more watchers to his TV Show.

There is nothing good about what happened in Paris. It was horrendous from start to finish and no excuses should ever be made for it.

No situation happens without a history of why it happened. If Bill Maher is right, that hundreds of millions of Muslims support such an attack, then at the very least we should make an attempt to figure out why they support this attack. For Bill, it is the very fact that they are Muslim, their religion tells them anyone that mocks the prophet deserves to die. But there is more to it. It isn’t that simple. Educated Muslims and non-Muslims all around the world are responding to this situation in particular and trying to help us understand it, and where to direct our rage, and some even give practical pointers of what we can do about it.

Maybe there is a need in America to shoot straight and not beat around the bush and Bill fills that gap and a growing audience that likes his direct approach. Hell, even conservative Christians are jumping on his bandwagon for this one. He does this convincingly well and rallies many supporters by quickly saying what the problem is. The issue I take with this though is that it’s just not helpful. In fact I think this is deadly and will lead to more hate and mis-informed hype that preys on our desire for justice and our need for safety. Bill Maher saying that “we need to do something about it” alongside of a stat that hundreds of millions of Muslims are stupid and dangerous is just empty rhetoric and easy insults. He quickly dives into how he stands up for the oppressed in his interview and then the interview ends.

What are we supposed to “do about it” Bill? Well, we can do what we are best at. We’ll start a war on terror. Oh wait. We tried that. It didn’t work. Maybe we’ll mock the religions and really show the rest of the world how stupid they are? Or maybe we can get really mad on TV and social media at all those terrorists and pay more taxes so our governments can protect us?

As we see throughout history, it is much easier to oppose than to learn and actually make changes. We saw this with the Black Power movement. So many shrug off the entire movement and everyone who was part of it as violent, non-reasonable and dangerous. So what do we do? Instead of listening, hearing them out – we fight them and we assume all black people are the same and it gets much more bloody that it has to. History will repeat itself. We need something to blame, something to hate, and if we listen to Bill Maher it will be 10% of Muslims – what 10% well, you’d have to be in a conversation to figure out which 10%. But in the meantime, we will just make the 10% include the entire Middle East and any Muslim or Arab I don’t know. Joe Sacco has a brilliant comic that ends with the line:

“And if we answer, Because something is deeply wrong with them” –certainly something was deeply wrong with the killers–then let us drive them from their homes and into the sea..For that is going to be far easier than sorting out how we fit in each others world.”

This comic is the opposite of Bill’s approach, and it is the better one. Here is some further reading if you are interested in knowing more about what is going on here and if you really want to listen to Bill and “do something about it.” May I suggest what we do is learn and listen. Here is a thirty minute news piece on Breaking the Set that is worth watching, and I’ve summarized some of the reading I’ve done below if it’s of any interest.

And then the third thing that I would add to this now is that we have to come together in the West as Western citizens and understand that it’s not a Muslim business. We are not talking here about, you know, these are murderers, and it’s only Islam that has””or Muslims who have to talk about this. We have to come together to understand that we have a common enemy, which is, of course, violent extremism, and all the reasons and causes that are upstream nurturing this, when it comes to supporting dictators, not giving the freedom for the people to find their way in the future. We need to be consistent as to our condemnation of the consequences in our analysis of the causes and the principles we stand for.

– Tariq Ramadan in Scholar Tariq Ramadan, Harper’s Rick MacArthur on Charlie Hebdo Attack & How the West Treats Muslim

The operatives who carried out this attack exhibit signs of professional training. They spoke unaccented French, and so certainly know that they are playing into the hands of Marine LePen and the Islamophobic French Right wing. They may have been French, but they appear to have been battle hardened. This horrific murder was not a pious protest against the defamation of a religious icon. It was an attempt to provoke European society into pogroms against French Muslims, at which point al-Qaeda recruitment would suddenly exhibit some successes instead of faltering in the face of lively Beur youth culture (French Arabs playfully call themselves by this anagram term deriving from wordplay involving scrambling of letters). Ironically, there are reports that one of the two policemen they killed was a Muslim.

The only effective response to this manipulative strategy (as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani tried to tell the Iraqi Shiites a decade ago) is to resist the impulse to blame an entire group for the actions of a few and to refuse to carry out identity-politics reprisals.

– Juan Cole in Sharpening Contradictions: Why al-Qaeda attacked Satirists in Paris

This week’s events took place against the backdrop of France’s ugly colonial history, its sizable Muslim population, and the suppression, in the name of secularism, of some Islamic cultural expressions, such as the hijab. Blacks have hardly had it easier in Charlie Hebdo: one of the magazine’s cartoons depicts the Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira, who is of Guianese origin, as a monkey (naturally, the defense is that a violently racist image was being used to satirize racism); another portrays Obama with the black-Sambo imagery familiar from Jim Crow-era illustrations.

The scale, intensity, and manner of the solidarity that we are seeing for the victims of the Paris killings, encouraging as it may be, indicates how easy it is in Western societies to focus on radical Islamism as the real, or the only, enemy. This focus is part of the consensus about mournable bodies, and it often keeps us from paying proper attention to other, ongoing, instances of horrific carnage around the world: abductions and killings in Mexico, hundreds of children (and more than a dozen journalists) killed in Gaza by Israel last year, internecine massacres in the Central African Republic, and so on. And, even when we rightly condemn criminals who claim to act in the name of Islam, little of our grief is extended to the numerous Muslim victims of their attacks, whether in Yemen or Nigeria””in both of which there were deadly massacres this week””or in Saudi Arabia, where, among many violations of human rights, the punishment for journalists who “insult Islam” is flogging. We may not be able to attend to each outrage in every corner of the world, but we should at least pause to consider how it is that mainstream opinion so quickly decides that certain violent deaths are more meaningful, and more worthy of commemoration, than others.

– Teju Cole in Unmournable Bodies

When you hear, for example, Sam Harris and Bill Maher recently arguing that there’s something inherently violent about Islam “” Sam Harris said something like “Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas” “” when you hear something like that, how do you respond?

It fills me with despair, because this is the sort of talk that led to the concentration camps in Europe. This is the kind of thing people were saying about Jews in the 1930s and ’40s in Europe.

This is how I got into this, not because I’m dying to apologize, as you say, for religion, or because I’m filled with love and sympathy and kindness for all beings including Muslims “” no. I’m filled with a sense of dread. We pride ourselves so much on our fairness and our toleration, and yet we’ve been guilty of great wrongs. Germany was one of the most cultivated countries in Europe; it was one of the leading players in the Enlightenment, and yet we discovered that a concentration camp can exist within the same vicinity as a university.

There has always been this hard edge in modernity. John Locke, apostle of toleration, said the liberal state could under no circumstances tolerate the presence of either Catholics or Muslims. Locke also said that a master had absolute and despotical power over a slave, which included the right to kill him at any time.

That was the attitude that we British and French colonists took to the colonies, that these people didn’t have the same rights as us. I hear that same disdain in Sam Harris, and it fills me with a sense of dread and despair.

– Karen Armstrong on Sam Harris and Bill Maher

There is only one conclusion to draw from this difference of response, which is that the humanity and work of some journalists is simply more valuable than others according to Obama, Hollande and also Harper in Canada. Never do we see such theatrical moral outrage invoked when journalists are killed in the global south, as they are regularly, week-by-week, month-by-month, year-by-year, often in killings linked to very governments armed and supported by France, the US and Canada.
By extension, the political gains for both France, the US and allies, stemming from the Paris shooting are clear. Although politicians now are claiming to be beyond ‘politics,’ most certainly we can clearly read within the statements made by politicians, that the shootings at Charlie Hebdo magazine are already being exploited for political gains.

Most directly, politicians like US Secretary of State John Kerry in recent remarks in Paris, or the national address by Hollande a couple days ago, are using the blood of the killed cartoonists to blur the injustices of the ongoing ‘War on Terror.’ Politicians are figuratively tagging the bombs being dropped right now on Iraq and Syria, supposedly to save the people from the Islamic State (ISIS) group, with the blood of the dead media workers in Paris. All the pronouncements about not being intimidated and standing in solidarity are ludicrous, simply opportunistic slogans being mobilized to justify current neo-colonial military adventures.

– Stefan Christoff in Selective outrage on Paris journalist killings shaped by racism and colonialism

In condemning the killings at Charlie Hebdo, can we please not forget that it’s a racist publication, that attacks on certain religions are racialized (and hence are racist attacks), that free speech/satire is not a sacred cow (especially when it becomes violent, hate speech), and that the backlash that will ensue will disproportionately target certain communities for scrutiny and surveillance (in the context of ever-rising anti-Muslim backlash in Europe under the guise of state/racialized secularism and anti-migrant sentiment). This is not to justify the murders (obviously), but this publication should continue to be condemned and not suddenly be let off the hook (like how the hell is there suddenly social license to reproduce their racist images as some kind of gesture of ‘solidarity’?), and to be vigilant about the rationale that the state will deploy for further enacting violence.

Harsha Walia

The shooting of any person or, as in this case, group of people, always has a tragic element to it, and a lot of anger and grief have been expressed in response to this shooting. However, I fins myself greatly saddened by what seems to be the dominant response — a response that appears to be popular even amongst people I know, notably those who identify as sensitive, well-meaning and open-minded Christians.

Basically, what is being presented is a story of the artists and magazine staffers — and, by extension, anyone who exercises his or her right to free speech — as victims of an irrational attack. Once again, the innocent enlightened West is under attack by a barbaric and less developed people. Consequently, a number of people speak of “standing with” Charlie Hebdo and they show their support by reposting cartoons made by the artists who were murdered and further reaffirm their commitment to the values they believe make us great — we will not be broken, we will not become enslaved to a barbaric ideology, we will continue to be free and brave and morally superior.

I think this is precisely the wrong reaction to have. It is a terrible reaction. I think we need to contextualize the shooting as we think about how to respond. So let’s say the witness statements are accurate and the shooters had some kind of (desired or actual) connection with Al-Qaeda Yemen. How did Al-Qaeda come to Yemen? Well, when the Americans were expanding their military presence in the Middle East as a part of their so-called War on Terror, they decided to expand into Yemen. Consequently, they reported they found an Al-Qaeda training camp in Yemen and they blew it the fuck up with missiles launched from a ship. Well, as journalists and others later discovered, there was no Al-Qaeda training camp in Yemen. Instead the Americans had annihilated a regular little village full of regular little men, women, and children. Just blew them all to pieces. Understandably, this angered a number of people who took up arms in the pursuit of justice and vegeance and, voilà, Al-Qaeda came to Yemen. The War on Terror has greatly facilitated the spread of Al-Qaeda in this way. For example, Al-Qaeda only really came to Iraq after the Americans and in response to their occupation. The same is true elsewhere like in a number of African nations.

Speaking of Africa, in 2010 the French Prime Minister declared “we are at war with Al-Qaeda” and this declaration became the basis for the escalation of French military actions in West African nations like Niger, Mauritania, and Mali. Here (with the assistance or US Special Forces) France used the War on Terror to expand its colonial foothold — and in 2014, France expanded military operations in Nigeria and Cameroon, declaring war on “Al-Qaeda linked” Boko Haram.

Of course, everywhere Western nations have gone in their war against Al-Qaeda and against “terror” (generally Muslim majority nations rich in natural resources or located at strategic locations for the transportation of things like oil and natural gas), devastation has followed. Not just devastation but brutal malicious devastation. I don’t simply mean the massive civilian death toll that accompanies contemporary war, I also mean the raping of children on front of their parents deployed as a torture technique in Abu Ghraib, and soldiers laughing and pissing on dead Muslim men in Afghanistan, and entire villages of civilians deliberately bombed in Yemen, and the use of depleted uranium on munitions in Iraq, leading to cancers and birth defects that will continue for who knows how many generations. We’re talking about people sexually assaulted and maimed and robbed and uprooted and shot and killed. Even the land and air and water are torn and poisoned and contaminated.

This is the war that maintains our privileged Western status and undergirds our freedom and human rights. It is the source of our wealth. But we are not content to simply steal from the people of Nigeria and Iraq and Syria (etc), we also choose to exercise our right to free speech by mocking the most deeply cherished and sacred beliefs of the people who we have colonized, assaulted, and murdered. Hence, the (xenophobic and racist) cartoons of Mohammed. Yet even even this is not enough for us! We also use the publication of these mocking cartoons as evidence of *our moral superiority* and our civilized and enlightened way of being in the world! This is appalling to me and I think that it must be our pathological desire to deny our own violence that leads people to say they stand with Charlie Hebdo. People rush to repost images of the cartoons so that the myth of our innocence and high ethical standards can be reaffirmed lest we end up turning the mirror back on ourselves and discovering a smoking gun in our own hands.

Finally, noting the xenophobic and racist nature of what Charlie Hebdo published should, even without all that I just wrote, make people wonder about how to best respond. Imagine we change the scenario slightly: a group of male cartoonists hate feminism and women and draw cartoons of men engaging in forced sex acts with women. One day, a woman who identifies as a feminist and who volunteers at a local rape crisis centre shoots and kills these male cartoonists. I imagine people would still have things to say about free speech but would they rush to make heroic martyrs of the men who were killed? Would the repost the images of the forced sex acts drawn by the cartoonists to show their solidarity with them? I hope not. So why, why, why do we think this is okay when the target of the cartoons is not a group identified by a certain gender performance and is, instead, identified by a certain race or religious conviction?

Dan Oudshoorn

This attack is not about religion but about an ideology that claims religion in order to inhibit free speech, and that assaults or assassinates those who uphold it as a right in the democratic public square of urban communities, especially capital cities of Western Europe and North America.
– Bruce Lawrence, a professor emeritus of Islamic Studies at Duke.

To portray this episode as the struggle of satire vs. Islam misses the fact that Muslims themselves have a proud legacy of political satire. In places like Iran, Turkey, and Egypt there are many journalists and satirists languishing in prisons because they have dared to speak the truth “” often against autocratic and dictatorial rulers. For my own money, these are the champions of free speech, the Jon Stewarts of Muslim majority society. Bassem Youssef, who was often called the “Egyptian Jon Stewart,” is yet another example of a voice of satire who was instrumental in the Arab Spring.

– Omid Safi in 9 Points to Ponder on the Paris Shooting and Charlie Hebdo

France’s focus on Islam as a national problem says most about its own struggle with religion in society, says Daughton. It stems from its view of the colonial past as a “civilizing mission” in its colonized territories “” and from its internal revolt against the Catholic Church.
“The French have not come to terms with their colonial past,” he says.

– Olivia Ward in Paris attack exposes old colonial wounds

So France is home today to many Arabs, some of them Muslims, who were chased away from their home country by fundamentalists as early as the 1960s. They were exposed to racism of course, especially in the workplace ““ it’s the story that goes back to the Middle Ages of workers who fear the threat of outsiders ““ and also bullied by the police and treated like second-class citizens. They fought for equality and justice, with the support of many on the left of the political spectrum, for instance during the 1983 Marche des beurs. Believe it or not, none of the protagonists of the march were making religious claims; they were not walking as Muslims but as French citizens who demanded that France truly provides them with Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité.

– Olivier Tonneau in On Charlie Hebdo: A letter to my British friends

We have engineered the rage of the dispossessed. The evil of predatory global capitalism and empire has spawned the evil of terrorism. And rather than understand the roots of that rage and attempt to ameliorate it, we have built sophisticated mechanisms of security and surveillance, passed laws that permit the targeted assassinations and torture of the weak, and amassed modern armies and the machines of industrial warfare to dominate the world by force. This is not about justice. It is not about the war on terror. It is not about liberty or democracy. It is not about the freedom of expression. It is about the mad scramble by the privileged to survive at the expense of the poor. And the poor know it.

– Chris Hedges in A Message From the Dispossessed and a great interview on Breaking The Set with him about the situation in relation to the 2000 dead in Nigeria soon after the Paris attacks.

But there’s an important context that somehow got left out of the story this week, the “history corner” that many Frenchmen as well as Algerians prefer to ignore: the bloody 1954-62 struggle of an entire people for freedom against a brutal imperial regime, a prolonged war which remains the foundational quarrel of Arabs and French to this day.

The desperate and permanent crisis in Algerian-French relations, like the refusal of a divorced couple to accept an agreed narrative of their sorrow, poisons the cohabitation of these two peoples in France. However Cherif and Said Kouachi excused their actions, they were born at a time when Algeria had been invisibly mutilated by 132 years of occupation. Perhaps five million of France’s six and a half million Muslims are Algerian. Most are poor, many regard themselves as second-class citizens in the land of equality.

– Robert Fisk in Charlie Hebdo: Paris attack brothers’ campaign of terror can be traced back to Algeria in 1954

But, you know, if you watch how these attacks are discussed, every time there’s an attack where the assailant or the perpetrator is unknown, the media will say it’s unknown whether or not terrorism is involved. And what they really mean by that is: It’s unknown whether or not the perpetrator is Muslim. And as soon as they discover that the perpetrator is a Christian or is American, a white American, they’ll say, “We now have confirmation that this is not a terrorist attack.” It’s something else””someone who’s mentally unstable, some extremist, something like that. It really is a term that functionally now means nothing other than Muslims who engage in violence against the West.

– Glenn Greenwald in How to Be a Terror “Expert”: Ignore Facts, Blame Muslims, Trumpet U.S. Propaganda

The debate should not be about freedom of expression and extremism. The real debate should be about France and how it deals with its Muslim population. Attacking and killing journalists is highly symbolic, as was the attack on the Twin Towers in New York. Why are the media and politicians pushing us to choose a side: liberty or oppression, freedom of expression or violence, secularism or religion?
In their pursuit to make us choose the “right” option, politicians and media pundits create a new holy entity called freedom of expression. It becomes another sacred, holy, untouchable “cow.” Another religious concept which if you’re “killed” promoting, you become a “martyr.”

– Monia Masigh in The false debate between freedom of expression and religious extremism

Isaac Herzog, then, is mistaken when he says that “Terrorism is terrorism. There’s no two ways about it.” There are quite definitely two ways about it: terrorism is not terrorism when a much more severe terrorist attack is carried out by those who are Righteous by virtue of their power. Similarly, there is no assault against freedom of speech when the Righteous destroy a TV channel supportive of a government that they are attacking.

– Noam Chomsky in We Are All – Fill in the Blank

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