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Bill Maher's Muslim problem

By Dean Obeidallah
updated 8:17 PM EDT, Tue October 7, 2014
  • Dean Obeidallah: Bill Maher is becoming infamous for bashing Islamic religion
  • Obeidallah: Maher has made a series of anti-Muslim comments that some call racist
  • Painting all Muslims by the most extreme of our faith is wrong and reckless, he writes
  • Obeidallah: Just because Maher is progressive does not excuse his bigotry on this issue

Editor's note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is a columnist for The Daily Beast and editor of the politics blog "The Dean's Report." He's also the co-director of the documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" Follow him on Twitter: @TheDeansreport The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Bill Maher, the man famous for hating religion, is now becoming infamous for hating one religion in particular: Islam.

On last week's episode of his HBO show, "Real Time," Maher got into a heated exchange with Ben Affleck over Maher's use of sweeping generalizations to define Islam. In fact, Affleck went as far as to dub Maher's views of Muslims as "gross" and "racist." (Maher had no Muslims on the panel in discussing Islam -- but that is typical for his show.)

Maher's anti-Muslim comments are nothing new. I first noticed Maher's Muslim problem in 2010 when he said on his show, "The most popular name in the United Kingdom, Great Britain -- this was in the news this week -- was Mohammed. Am I a racist to feel that I'm alarmed by that? Because I am. ... I don't have to apologize, do I, for not wanting the Western world to be taken over by Islam in 300 years?"

Dean Obeidallah
Dean Obeidallah

This was not about so called "radical Islam." Rather, Maher seemed alarmed that Muslims were growing in population.

Flash forward to 2012, when Maher discussed how women are unfairly treated in certain Muslim countries, which is truly an issue deserving of discussion. But Maher chose not to rely on facts; instead, he offered anecdotal evidence to support his argument, saying things like, "Talk to women who've ever dated an Arab man. The results are not good."

Well, my Sicilian mother not only dated an Arab man, she married him. And by all accounts, "the results" were great.

Maher kept on advancing stereotypes about an entire people based on little evidence. He ratcheted up his anti-Muslim commentary while a guest on "Charlie Rose" last month. He said that it is "naive" to think that Islam isn't more violent than other religions and mocked President Obama for commenting that the terror group ISIS was not Islamic.

Maher's remarks dismayed American Muslims across the country but won applause from all the hosts on Fox News' "The Five." When you're a progressive and a gaggle of Fox News hosts praises your views, you know something is seriously wrong.

Aslan: Maher 'not very sophisticated'

In recent weeks on his show, Maher gave us a long rant rallying liberals to stand up to Islam. For support, he cited the high instance of female genital mutilation in the Muslim-majority countries of Somalia and Egypt.

Look, I agree with Maher that FGM is horrific. But as religious scholar Reza Aslan pointed out on CNN, FGM is based on African culture -- not Islam. African Christian-majority nations also have very high rates of FGM. In fact, there are far fewer reported cases of FGM in Muslim nations outside of Africa.

Maher continued his personal jihad by claiming that Islam is like the Mafia, in that you will be killed if you attempt to leave the faith.

Maher then cited a Pew Research poll that he claimed found that 90% of Egyptians supported the death penalty for those who left Islam. I'm not sure where Maher got his numbers, but a 2013 Pew poll actually found only 64% of Egyptians supported this -- still alarmingly high, but not 90%.

More importantly, Egypt does not define the Muslim world. Rather, Egypt is simply one of 47 Muslim-majority nations. That same poll found that in Turkey, a nation that has almost as many Muslims as Egypt, less than 5% supported the death penalty for leaving Islam. Maher also has left out that only 13 Muslim nations have penalties for apostasy, while 34 do not.

So who truly defines Islam? To Maher, clearly it's the worst of our faith. That's something you would expect to hear from a far-right bigot, not a liberal.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who was also a guest on last week's show, attempted to make that very point. Kristof, who was interrupted before finishing his thought, remarked about Maher's comments on Islam: "This does have a tinge a little bit of how white racists talk about African-Americans." Kristof was right. How can Maher not see that he's mimicking that same type of hateful mindset?

I'm all for a discussion of the need to reform the laws in certain Muslim countries, especially on issues of rights for women, minority faiths and gays. But painting all Muslims by the most extreme of our faith is wrong. This is the kind of bigotry that Maher would've rallied against in the past.

My fellow liberals should no longer give Maher a pass. His continuous drumbeat of reckless comments about Muslims is contributing to a climate where American Muslims are increasingly seen as "the other" -- or worse, as the enemy. Just because Maher is progressive on certain issues does not excuse his bigotry on this issue.

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