Maher, Biden, and the Problem with American Rhetoric on Islam

In his famous speech at the Islamic Centre of America in Washington, DC six days after the 9/11 attacks, then-President George W. Bush said, “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace”. In the intervening thirteen years, much ink has been spilt in the same vein, characterizing the global religion as this-or-that, and comparing individuals, organizations, and governments to the standard of a general and an historic understanding of Islam. This perception of Islam tends to skim over geographic and cultural inconsistencies and perpetuate attitudes that affect American foreign policy.

Photo Courtesy of Michael Ng ©2013, some rights reserved
Photo Courtesy of Michael Ng ©2013, some rights reserved

This debate has continued to rage with particular in recent weeks after comments Bill Maher made on Real Time about the connection with Islam and the Islamic State sparked public rebuttal from actor Ben Affleck and academic Reza Aslan. Critics have said that Maher’s conclusions and the surrounding media coverage are indicative of underlying Islamophobia in the media and amongst the public. It’s easy to dismiss this as another instance of “othering” stemming from ignorance and fear. There is also much to be said about internal disagreements about what American values really are (especially when it comes to religion) and what role America should play on the world stage. However, what I’d like to highlight is the unhelpfulness of the very debate that has surrounded the Maher-Affleck-Aslan controversy. It is dangerous to argue over statistics about how many Americans perceive Islam to be a global threat, or inherently violent, or any other generalization, because it serves to reinforce the “us vs. them” dichotomy that underlies those sentiments. North America as a whole is home to 3.5 million Muslims[1] (although only 38% of Americans know someone who is Muslim[2]), and so it is, in a sense, incoherent to discuss the two as if they’re not related.

And so even in response to Maher’s claims that Islam is an exceptional and intolerant religion that shares “too much in common with ISIS” and his co-host Sam Harris’s claim that Islam is the “mother lode of bad ideas”, Aslan and Affleck failed to erode the toxic foundation of Maher’s claims. Even in Aslan’s frustrated response to Maher,[3] he fell into the quagmire of painting America and Islam not only with incredibly broad brushes as unified and static entities but by pitting them as against each other in the same sense. In response to Bill Maher and his CNN host’s claims that poor treatment of women is ubiquitous in Islam, Aslan retorts that while that generalisation carries weight in Iran and Saudi Arabia, it is ultimately “facile” because Islamic countries have elected seven female heads of state “while some Americans still debate whether the United States is ready for a female president”. This comparison between America and major world religion of 1.6 billion peoples is like apples and oranges. America vs. Islam is ultimately a constructed dichotomy that proves misleading. To engage in a discourse which, even in an attempt to rectify inaccuracies, legitimizes the reductive posturing of both entities feeds back into this simplistic and distorted perspective.

Still, Maher, Affleck, and Aslan all made their inflammatory rhetorical points, which actually served to debate very little aside from the definition of bigotry, but which have garnered much exposure. Entertainers and media moguls have an obvious interest in publicity and viewership, and so it is easy to dismiss the ridiculousness of a debate that springs from misunderstanding and that is expressed by the simultaneous shouting of competing generalities.

Vice President Joe Biden catastrophically misspoke in an address to students at Harvard University last week, which proved equally as problematic as any of the aforementioned pundits because of the way he characterized US-Islamic relations. Biden essentially suggested that the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia had encouraged the rise of ISIS in Syria by providing, “billions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons” to anti-Assad rebel forces, some of whom would join al-Qaeda and the Nusra Front. Biden lumped several Muslim states together that have discrete relationships with the US and completely different roles in relation to the recent clashes in Syria. It’s not a question about his empirical correctness—which is also up for debate in terms of each separate state and it’s role at various points in the growing conflict. What’s notable is that here again, we see global events being characterized as America’s fight versus the world with Islam as an external and unitary force competing for fundamentally different aims than US interests. Is it really any wonder that Islamophobia is accepted in America when its media and elected officials not only “other” Islam and Muslims, but grossly mischaracterize them?

For their part, Emirate’s Foreign Minister Gargash called Biden’s remarks “amazing” because they “ignored the role of the Emirates in the fight against extremism and terrorism”. The UAE is one of many Muslim-majority states that are fighting alongside the US in Iraq and Syria, a fact that was made obvious within the US after Fox News mocked the first female UAE pilot Mariam Al-Mansouri by referring to her as “boobs on the ground”. The issue isn’t even so much at the fact that Biden misspoke, but rather that in doing so he revealed the dangerous way the US lumps Muslim regimes together as related and dangerously susceptible to Islamic terrorism, even if they’re our allies, or if they’re as opposite as secular Turkey and ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia. Of course, American ally does not equal benevolent, and there are scores of instances, past and present, of US-supported regimes sponsoring groups the US viewed as terrorist organizations. But the rhetoric surrounding this reveals dangerous assumptions and prejudices that colour debates in mainstream media and foreign policy in America. It’s equivalent to Italy having to defend it’s religious practice and international position based on violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or the past behaviour of the Irish Republican Army being treated as part and parcel of Guatemala’s foreign policy. Why do we hold dozens of distinct countries to a single particularly high standard when it comes to denouncing “Islamic” terrorism?

Biden blamed states which are crucial to the fight against terrorism, calling them the “biggest problem”, instead of looking at the failures of the US-backed moderate rebels in Syria or the role the US played in creating the conditions for Islamic State’s rise in Iraq. It seems nonsensical to expect that any and all of our Islamic allies vigorously denounce “Islamic” terrorist groups whose doctrine has very little in common with their own, and move heaven and earth to halt transient funds, arms, and fighters to prove the righteousness of their faith and their loyalty to the US. Their failures to effectively prevent terrorist activity in the way the US would like it to does not equate to support, and it certainly has little to do with a shared religion. In terms of diplomacy, Biden made a gross mistake of revealing a private conversation between himself and Turkish President Erdogan, which may threaten Ankara’s willingness to assist an American-led anti-ISIS coalition. Turkey is a NATO member, and its airbases near the Syrian border are of strategic interest to the US to train moderate Syrian rebels. The ISIS attack on Kobani, which has displaced more than 100.000 people near the Turkish border, proves that Turkey has much to lose in the fight against terrorism.[4] Even assuming Biden’s misstep comes from a place of empirical accuracy, the issue is that it came packaged as a gross generalisation about the role of many Muslim countries, American allies, which too closely resembled the glib generalisations of talking heads. Biden’s comments indicate the “us-vs-them”, American-centric worldview which fails to take into account that ISIS poses a direct threat to Muslim regimes in the region. An Islam versus America narrative, which Maher is just one of many proponents, creates a roadblock to multilateral cooperation between the US and Muslim-majority states, of which there are 49 in the world.






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