Religulous: Prejudice in the Disguise of Rationality
By Omar Baddar
For months now, I've been watching trailers for Bill Maher's new film "Religulous" with the utmost anticipation, hoping to spend an hour or two laughing at the equal opportunity ridiculing of all those who hold unshakable and absurdly detailed faith in their dogma regarding the origins of the universe, the "after-life," miracles...etc. As an agnostic who thoroughly enjoys intelligent and rational critiques of religion (from Richard Dawkins' impressive book "The God Delusion" to Christopher Hitchens' over-the-top iconoclastic style and entertaining debates...etc.), I was predisposed to liking Maher's film, especially as a fan of his weekly HBO show. Despite this predisposition, I was disappointed with the film on several levels, most noteworthy among them was its prejudice towards Islam, and Maher's well-known Israel bias. I will deal with these issues in that order:
Islam: Rather than picking on some silly specific beliefs in mainstream Islam for ridicule as was done with a variety of Christian faith traditions, Maher thought it more fit to focus almost exclusively on the alleged violence and intolerance of Islam. It wasn't the bringing up of the violence of Muslim fanatics that I found problematic in a film like this; it was the singling out of Islam in this regard that was so revealing of Maher's prejudice towards it. But of course, Maher's rebuttal to the charge of "prejudice" is that he's not "pre-judging," but "judging." Let us then examine the accuracy of that judgment:
"Now go, attack [...] and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep..." What verse of the Quran is this you wonder? It's actually the Old Testament, Samuel 15:3, scripture that is taken to be true and sacred by Jews and Christians. The violent commands of the god of the Old Testament are simply too numerous to recount here, and have been thoroughly recounted by the likes of Hitchens, Dawkins and many others.
"God does not forbid you to be kind and equitable to those who have neither made war on your religion nor driven you from your homes. God loves the equitable. But he forbids you to make friends with those who have fought against you on account of your religion..." "If [the unbelievers] incline to peace, make peace with them, and put your trust in God." Yes, these verses are indeed from the Quran (60:7-9, 8:61), and they're the kind of context-setting verses that are frequently omitted by Islam's fanatical opponents who are eager to portray it as violent and intolerant when quoting the more combative verses.
Of course, none of this is relevant because, as Dawkins correctly points out, we today do not get our morality from scripture (Chapter 7; the God Delusion). The point of all this is that objective and rational people would find morally admirable as well as morally problematic verses in the scriptures of all Abrahamic faiths; and if a comparison were insisted upon, nothing comes even close to the Old Testament's endorsement of violence against civilians. Then certainly the singling out of Islam by Maher couldn't be attributed to scripture.
Ridiculing the 'Political' label on Violence
Maher didn't like it when Muslims blamed violence by other Muslims on "politics" rather than religion. I don't know why this is even worth substantiating, but since Maher thought it fit to dispute, I will point out the obvious:
If it were really all about religion, Muslims would be slaughtering Jews in Iran, Christians would be slaughtering Muslims in Britain, and Bin Laden terrorists would be flying plans into buildings in Switzerland. The reason why violence happens to break out between these groups in places where there are political problems like Israel/Palestine & Iraq & Afghanistan & the US is not exactly a mysterious coincidence. It's because it IS about politics (strategic control of territories and resources, the imposition of favorable policies...etc.), and religion in such a context is clearly a secondary factor.
On the Culture of Violence and Intolerance
Why were only Muslim Extremist preachers highlighted in the film? Why not Rabbi Meir Kahane who called for the ethnic cleansing of Arabs from Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza? Why not Pastor John Hagee who believes that Islam is evil and must be destroyed? Forget the preachers! Does Hitler come to mind? What religious faith was he affiliated with? And when Israeli leaders talk about obliterating entire villages in Lebanon, what accounts for that? How about the crowds of Israelis who gather to honor Baruch Goldstein who murdered 30 people praying in a Mosque? How about John McCain and Sarah Palin's empty-headed supporters who accuse Barack Obama of being "an Arab," a "Muslim," a "traitor," and calling for his death? To blame religion is to be overly simplistic. But to single out Islam is to be dishonest or severely misguided.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict
Maher doesn't talk explicitly about this conflict in Religulous, but plenty of undertones make it difficult to ignore the glaring bias we're dealing with here. There were several clips of Palestinian suicide bombings, but not a single clip of Israeli violence, despite the lack of shortage of footage of Palestinian men being shot, children getting beaten...etc. Maher also couldn't bring himself to utter the name of Palestine, or at least say "occupied territories," despite spending substantial time in the movie in the occupied Palestinian territories (including East Jerusalem) which Israel has absolutely no legal claim to, as evident by a mountain of UN Security Council resolutions (see resolutions 242 and 446), and a 2004 International Court of Justice opinion. Instead, Maher thought the subtitle "Israel" was fitting for those territories, thus (perhaps unknowingly) adopting a deeply and fundamentally religious view that has no legal, rational, or ethical validity by contemporary standards. One can't but find the irony humorous!
While in these territories, Maher had plenty of time to go visit the Jewish settlers of Hebron. You know, the ones who assault and severely injure the international peace and human rights activists who go there to protect Palestinian children from settler violence, and then chant "we killed Jesus, we'll kill you too" to intimidate those activists into leaving the area. These are the religious fanatics who are illegally and systematically taking over Palestinian land and are perhaps the single largest obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace, but Maher didn't think they were worth covering for some reason. Rather than including these Jewish extremists in his film, Maher decided to go to the other end of the spectrum and interview an anti-Zionist Rabbi. Now there is a Jewish fundamentalist that Maher can ridicule!
Brazenly ridiculing dogma, while of questionable consequences, can indeed be interesting and humorous. But if one is going to postulate "rationality" as the grounds from which s/he is launching a critique, one should first make serious effort to rid oneself of irrational biases and prejudices. Bill Maher's efforts in this regard have been impressive (he certainly is on the more thoughtful and open-minded end of the spectrum), but when it comes to Islam, or the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he still has ways to go.