Diss-Course

Apparently, taking on Batman – even without the suit – is a dicey proposition.

Bill Maher was the subject of a recent viral debate on his HBO show, Real Time, when he characterized Islamic culture as violent and oppressive, sparking actor Ben Affleck to call the host “gross” and “racist.”

The result, besides plenty of page views, has been a fascinating turnabout: the widely outspoken and unapologetic Maher, often the defender of liberal causes like marriage equality and marijuana legalization, is now being tagged with typically conservative terms.

That juxtapostion is likely what spurred the segment’s rapid dissemination online. In what started as discussion of the Islamic nations, a plethora of side discussions emerged about how we can constructively criticize other cultures and the true definition of liberalism.

Maher will no doubt touch on Islam and a slew of other topics when he arrives this month – he is often diverse in his targeting. In the lead-up to his November 9 Palace Theater appearance, he took time with (614) to have a dialogue about religion, generalization, and well…dialogue.

You came under fire for that still-fresh debate on Islam, on your show with Sam Harris. You never shy away from a tough debate, but you seemed more perturbed at Affleck’s tunnel vision on this particular point… I think it’s more frustrating when [someone] doesn’t even let the other speaker start. I think it’s more frustrating when they know what they’re going to say before they even hear the argument. But it’s gratifying to know that in this debate, there’s an awful lot of people on basically the side that Sam Harris and I were arguing. I think the majority of liberals now get it, that we are the liberals in this debate. To be a liberal, you have to stand up for liberal principles like free speech and equality for women, equality for minorities, including homosexuals, freedom of religion, freedom to leave a religion without the threat of violence, freedom to make fun of anything without the threat of violence. Anyone who stands up for those principles is the liberal.

What do you say to people who entirely misconstrue what you’re arguing? Welcome to my world. I’ve been doing this for 21 years on television, and it’s not just this issue. It happens a lot. I just wish that the people who are arguing with me would at least concede the facts. We can argue about what we should do about it, but just concede that it’s a fact that 10 Muslim countries in the world will kill you just for being gay. That’s a fact. We shouldn’t need to argue over that. It’s a fact that hundreds and hundreds of millions of Muslims, according to reliable polls, say that if you leave the religion, the appropriate punishment is death. These are just very illiberal viewpoints. We, meaning Sam and I, and people like that, are the liberals in this place.

Being an atheist, do you think that if religion were obsolete there would be a sense of broad equality that we, as a society, are lacking?

I would never say that all of our problems would go away without religion, but religion only makes those kinds of problems worse, and yes – that’s absolutely true that the source of so much homophobia and misogyny is books like the Bible and the Quran. These were books, of course, that were written by men, not by gods, thousands of years ago in a desert culture that resembles ours not at all. They were written in a time before men knew what a germ or an atom was, or where the sun went at night. It’s not a secret that it’s stupid to use these books as sources of morality.

Affleck, in particular, seemed to take umbrage in your “generalization” of Muslim culture… I know people on the other side of this debate like to say that you can’t make generalizations about the Muslim world. Well, of course you have to make generalizations about everything you’re arguing about. We don’t have time to go and interview individually each of the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. That would be ridiculous. It’s a ridiculous argument to say that you can’t make generalizations. No discipline advances without generalizations.

There are variations across the Muslim world, but it seems like the liberals that are making this argument are basing everything they know on people they know personally. And a lot of Muslims living in the West, or their parents, came here to avoid this kind of behavior.

So, in that sense, you are pointing out hypocrisy in the oppressive nature of Muslim society and the fight for women’s rights in modern Western culture. Right. [In] Saudi Arabia – this is well known – women cannot drive. They can’t vote. They can’t leave the house without a male companion. They can’t get divorced without permission. They can’t hold a job. Now, I would concede that Saudi Arabia is much more conservative than a lot of Muslim countries, but it is the center of the religion. It’s where Mecca is. Mecca is the equivalent of Vatican City. If in Vatican City, they were cutting off the heads of homosexuals and women couldn’t leave the house without a man, I think there would be a greater outcry than there is. That’s what we call the soft bigotry of low expectations.

This whole debate started because the week before [the Ben Affleck show], I did a monologue at the end of that show that was talking about what you’re saying now. I think I used the example of Jonah Hill saying, “F*ck you, f***ot” to a paparazzi and how that was a giant offense here in America. I was saying, “Ok, well it’s not the right thing to do, but is it worse than the 10 Muslim countries that have the death penalty for just being gay?”

So, I’m curious: if political commentary and politics in general is so easily scrutinized, then why choose political comedy? Why not just politics? Why not just comedy? I wouldn’t have it any other way. This is a great example: we have literally started a national debate on this issue, and it needs to be debated. People need to talk about it. You can’t get that if you’re doing observational comedy about dogs and cats.

It’s just what interests me, first of all. It’s always something that was talked about in my house because my father was a news guy. I wouldn’t be happy doing anything else. I’m proud that I cannot just make people laugh, but also make people think about things. It seems like a greater calling than just doing comedy. 

Maher will take the Palace Theater stage on November 9. For more, see capa.com.

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