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Bill Maher and Sam Harris: Racism, Critique, Theology and Islamophobia – Khalidah Ali

Posted by: on Feb 20, 2015 | No Comments

In the now-infamous episode of “Real Time with Bill Maher,” politically and socially charged topics such as purported violent tendencies in Islamic belief and practice, racism, Islamophobia, and defining the “essential essence” of religion were hotly debated among guests Sam Harris, Ben Affleck, Michael Steele and Nicholas Kristoff. With student protest against Maher’s invitation to speak at the December 2014 UC BerkeleyScreen Shot 2015-02-20 at 1.01.22 AM commencement, the question of free speech has been added to the mix of issues surrounding this controversial figure. In this article, I focus on the topic at the centre of this debate, the critique of Islam and Muslims, to problematize the ways in which Maher and Harris defend secular-liberal critique on this episode of “Real Time.” I take seriously the question of whether accusations of racism are warranted or whether this is a legitimate defence of liberal principles. First I look at “Muslim” as a possible racial category to discuss whether racism is an appropriate label in this discussion, arguing that Muslims do in fact form a racialized category. Second, I argue that that Harris’s and Maher’s arguments are not examples of mere liberal critique, given that they claim to know the “truth” of Islam and set up a standard of Islamic religiosity. Finally, I argue that Islamophobia is an apt description for the claims made in this segment because they encompass both racism and attempts to define the Muslim “Other.”

In the episode, Maher and Harris present several arguments about Islam and Muslims that cause Ben Affleck and the other panelists to charge Maher and Harris with racism. The first argument is that Islam is the “mother lode of bad ideas” and that those ideas include death sentences for apostates. Though Affleck sarcastically asks Harris if he is the person who understands officially codified doctrines of Islam, Harris assures him that he is well-educated on the topic. Maher and Harris defend their critique saying those who believe in liberal principles should be free to make these claims; that they are not criticizing Muslims, just ideas; and that the label Islamophobia or racism prevents open liberal criticism of these practices. As Harris says, “We have to be able to criticize bad ideas and Islam at this moment is the mother lode of bad ideas.” They go on to conclude that a high percentage of the over one billion Muslims across the globe believe in the “mother lode of bad ideas” as many are jihadists, Islamists and conservatives, and that Islam is the only religion that “acts like the mafia.” Finally, Harris argues that the hundreds of millions who are horrified by ISIS and do not want to kill apostates are only nominally Muslim. I want to note first that while they claim they are simply discussing ideas, they at the same time attempt to reductively characterize all Muslims by attributing violent beliefs to the large majority of them. Second, there is a standard being established: those who are highly committed to Islam are violent or believe in violent ideas, and those who are not violent are only Muslim by name alone. These assertions are supposedly based on evidence (Maher and Harris partially cite numbers from polls whose names are not given) and reflect, according to Maher, “reality.”


While for some, this exchange manifests obvious racism, I want to explore the question of whether allegations of racism make it impossible to critique religious ideas that encourage violence and hatred toward others. Why is it a problem for Maher and Harris to make such criticisms of Islam as a religion, or of Muslims? Isn’t the defense of liberal principles a legitimate objective? During the 2005 “Danish cartoon affair,” issues of racism and critique were also debated. Critics of Muslim protests against satirical Danish newspaper cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (such as those depicting him as terrorist) claimed that the cartoons were an expression of free speech. Additionally, they argued that the charge of racism could not be applied to critiques of Islam and Muslims because racism is based on biological markers of distinction, while religion is a matter of choice. One defender of the cartoons, András Sajó, insisted the cartoon depictions of Muhammad indicate the “factual” link between terrorism and one strain of Islam. He further argued that the use of the term racism causes self-censorship, thereby blocking criticism of religious terrorism, though in his view religion itself “really does have its finger in the terrorism pie.” [1] Thus, according to Sajó, such critique is necessary for security and safety from religious violence. What was highly controversial about the cartoons, however, was the choice of Muhammad as a stand-in for terrorists given his centrality to the faith. The question was whether this was about Islam, about all Muslims, or about just one fanatical brand of religion.

Commenting on Sajó’s statement as well as on other defences of the Dutch cartoons, Saba Mahmood pushes back against notions that religion is simply a matter of choice, that “one can change one’s beliefs just as easily as one might change one’s dietary preferences or one’s name.” Religion, according to Mahmood, is beyond a set of ideas to which one simply gives his or her assent.[2] Religious identity and belonging are formed in complex ways and cannot be easily reduced to choice. Salman Sayyid, professor of Sociology at the University of Leeds, comments on arguments that racism cannot be applied to the category of “Muslims” by also explaining that race is not is not solely based on biological markers:

“Scholars of racism […] moved to the understanding that racism was not predicated on the existence of race as understood in primarily biological terms, but rather that race was the product of the process of racialization. As such, a mix of elements including histories, cultures, geographies and bodies were articulated to forge ‘race’ as the condition of possibility of the exercise of racism.”[3]

Sayyid also argues that “Muslim” is a racialized category that is now recognized as such, at least in Britain.[4] I would argue that the category of “Muslim” as a racialized group is also applicable to Muslims in other parts of the world.

The positions put forth by Mahmood and Sayyid do not mean that critique of Muslims is necessarily racist, but that generalized, negative, and unfounded claims which do not acknowledge the complexity of variations in Islamic practice and belonging are racist. “Muslim” as a racialized category is actually invoked by Sam Harris himself, who highlights a subset of Muslims who allegedly do not take Islam seriously – namely, the non-violent ones. He therefore demonstrates an understanding that “Muslim” can be a category even without a connection to religiosity. Maher and Harris claim that this discussion centres on Islam as a set of ideas, but go on to make broad generalizations about Muslims and assumptions concerning what Muslims believe. In fact, Maher insists that his assertions are “based on reality” and that the violent beliefs that offend liberal sensibilities are “mainstream belief” across the Muslim world. Maher also claims that Islam is the only religion which acts like the “mafia that will f**king kill you if you say the wrong thing.” It may not be necessary to point out that Islam itself, being a set of ideas, cannot act; Muslims act. While no one doubts that there are violent Muslims, the numbers given by Maher and Harris are based on poll information that is not explained or given any context, and the titles of the studies or the institutions that created them are never mentioned. The accusations of racism therefore seem applicable. Even if we do not agree on the use of the term racism, perhaps bigotry – hatred and intolerance shown to others with whom one disagrees – is an apt description for Maher’s argument that Islam is a set of bad ideas and that the majority of Muslims willfully assent to violent precepts. Racism, however, does not cover all that is problematic with this segment of “Real Time.”

Liberal Critique and Defining Religion

While Maher and Harris defend their liberal critique, I question whether theirs is in fact critique, or something else. I would argue that liberal critique is a valid practice, but in cases where the “essential truth” of religion and characterizations of levels of religiosity are debated and defined, the lines between theology and critique are muddled. In this segment of “Real Time,” Maher and Harris are constructing a standard of religiosity and articulate necessary tenets of belief as the basis of their critique of Islam. For example, Harris sets up definitions of what is Islam and what is Islamic: Islam is essentially violent, committed Muslims assent to these violent beliefs, and if you are not violent you are among those who do not take Islam seriously. What I find troubling is the implication that if you are not violent, you are not religious. The presence of millions of non-violent Muslims and those across the globe who eschew violence in their religious practices is not, apparently, enough to problematize Harris’s definitions; Harris seems to have constructed a gradation of religiosity that does not take these realities into account. Rather than reflecting “reality,” Maher and Harris’s claims actually seem to parallel the definitions of Islam put forth by radical Islamic theologians who claim that beheadings and stonings are necessary to the correct practice of Islam. However, at least radical theologians know they are in the business of making religion claims. The arbitrary religious standard articulated by Maher and Harris is a creative process rather than a descriptive one. They are therefore entering the realm of theology, by outlining a system of belief and practice disconnected from the widely differing practices of actual Muslims, who make up between 20 to 25% of the world’s population. According to Maher and Harris, for Muslims to fit into the role of the non-violent liberal subject, they would have to reform themselves to the point where they do not take Islam seriously. While it may seem ridiculous to argue that Harris and Maher are playing at theology, I believe that this argument highlights how the practice of defining and dehumanizing the “Other” figures into recent academic explorations of the phenomenon of Islamophobia.


Islamophobia is the neologism mentioned by Harris used to describe discriminatory attitudes toward Muslims. Though it is considered a form of racism, newer definitions transcend racism and involve the process of defining the “Other,” particularly the West’s “Other.” Some critics of Islamophobia contest the term, arguing that as “political correctness gone mad” it stifles productive liberal debate.[5] Others find the term productive for describing a newer form of discrimination not quite captured with “racism” or “bigotry.” The 1991 Runnymede Trust Report in Britain defined the term as “unfounded hostility towards Muslims, and therefore fear or dislike of all or most Muslims.” The report claims that the term reductively characterizes Islam as “inferior to the West” and Western practices; as “archaic, barbaric, irrational;” as a religion that cannot adapt to modern realities; as “a religion of violence” that supports terrorism.[6] The Islamophobia Research & Documentation Project at the Center for Race and Gender at UC Berkeley defines Islamophobia as a new form of Orientalism that is associated with racism. They use the Runnymede Trust definition and add that Islamophobia rationalizes the deployment of violence to counter the “Muslim threat” for the sake of “civilizational rehab,” and that it “reaffirms a global racial structure.”[7] While the Runnymede definition seems to encompass common understandings of Islamophobia, the Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project definition gives a longue-dureé perspective that acknowledges global systems of power.

Though there is much to unpack in the above definitions beyond the scope of this paper, I want to analyze the practices of Maher and Harris in relation to the criteria above. Harris and Maher set up a reductive definition of Islam and claim that this Islam threatens liberal principles. Harris and Maher describe a large percentage of Muslims in ways that their backwardness and barbarism and imply their inferiority to the West (or at least to Western liberals). While it is necessary to critique the violent practices of radicals, their overgeneralizations silence the voices of millions who eschew violence. In this particular television segment, they construct an image in which the Muslim committed to Islam necessarily agrees with women’s oppression, the suppression of minorities, and punishing apostasy. Their claims therefore exemplify some of the important criteria for measuring Islamophobia. Connecting this conclusion to the larger discussion of liberal critique, I argue that it is not the accusation of Islamophobia which bars productive liberal critique, but the practice of Islamophobia itself. In discussions of human rights violations, terrorism, and the rights of women and minorities, it is not helpful to mirror the claims of radical theologians or privilege the definitions of Islam espoused by them. The diversity of the expressions of Islam must be recognized as a precondition of real debate, exploration, and critique.


In this article, I have argued that in this segment of “Real Time with Bill Maher,” Sam Harris and Bill Maher made broad, unfounded claims about Muslims – claims which form a racialized category and may therefore potentially be racist. I also argued that Maher and Harris cross the line between critique and theology by outlining specific criteria for Islamic beliefs and practices. Setting up these criteria in fact models the practices of radical Islamic theologians. Finally, using definitions of Islamophobia, I showed that by making racist claims and presuming to define Islam and the Muslim “Other,” Maher and Harris are Islamophobic, and that their Islamophobia is what bars productive critique of violent religious practices. While radical Islamic groups are a serious global problem, discursive space should be made for those who are constantly being spoken of in discussions like the one on “Real Time.” Ben Affleck makes the point that the voices of Islamic radicals remain dominant among Muslims. I also contend that Maher and Harris add to the voices that promote a one-dimensional Islam that promotes radicalism and violence. What constitutes “Islam” is regularly contested; its meaning varies based on complex factors such as context, regional histories, and politics. For example, ISIS has attacked mostly Muslim targets. What does that imply about ISIS, or the Islamic practices of its victims? This is not about a simple dichotomy between East and West, but rather involves a vast array of factors that cannot be easily understood or explained. There should be a push to understand those complexities, away from Maher and Harris, ISIS and al-Qaeda. The differences that exist between these two poles make up hundreds of millions of voices.


[1] Saba Mahmood, “Religious Reason and Secular Affect: An Incommensurable Divide?,” in Is Critique Secular?: Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech (University of California Press, 2009), 80-83.

[2] Ibid, 81.

[3] Salman Sayyid, “A Measure of Islamophobia,” Islamophobia Studies Journal 2, no. 1 (2014): 13.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Sayyid, “A Measure of Islamophobia,” 13.

[6] UC Berkeley Center for Race & Gender, “Defining ‘Islamophobia,’” Islamophobia Research & Documentation Project, accessed November 17, 2014,

[7] Ibid.


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