Column: UC Berkeley Muslim students are wrong to silence Bill Maher

HBO talk show host and political satirist Bill Maher, center, with actor Ben Affleck, left, and author Sam Harris.
HBO talk show host and political satirist Bill Maher, center, with actor Ben Affleck, left, and author Sam Harris.
(Janet Van Ham / Associated Press)

There’s a special kind of irony emanating right now from the UC Berkeley campus. A group of offended students is trying to get the political satirist Bill Maher banned as the school’s winter graduation speaker, even as the campus is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement.

Now, I am actually the last person to defend the content of Bill Maher’s speech. I find him grating, unfunny and smug. Not to mention sexist. But I would never argue that HBO should cancel “Real Time With Bill Maher” because I don’t like his show. I simply choose not to watch.

No one can blame Muslim students for objecting to Maher’s virulent and frequently expressed anti-Muslim sentiments. Earlier this month, one episode in particular generated a lot of controversy because of a heated exchange about Muslims that he had with Ben Affleck, who was on the show to promote his new film, “Gone Girl.”


Affleck found himself in the position of having to explain to Maher that not all Muslims are radical Islamists after Maher went on one of his not infrequent rants.

“Freedom of speech, freedom to practice any religion you want without fear of violence, freedom to leave a religion, equality for women, equality for minorities, including homosexuals, these are liberal principles that liberals applaud for,” Maher said, “but then when you say in the Muslim world this is what’s lacking, then they get upset.”

(As Maher well knows, “liberal” values are lacking in many other religions, too. Abortion doctors in this country, for instance, have been slain by Christian extremists. The Mormon Church financed California’s anti-gay marriage initiative, Prop. 8. The Catholic Church has fought hard against the women’s reproductive rights, including against insurance coverage for birth control.)

But that critique was mild compared to the other things Maher said about Muslims that night.

Islam, he said, “is the only religion that acts like the Mafia -- that will [expletive] kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture, or write the wrong book.”

When Afflect objected, Maher asked, “Why are you so hostile about this concept?”

“Because it’s gross, it’s racist, it’s disgusting,” Affleck replied. “How about the more than a billion people, who aren’t fanatical, who don’t punish women, who just want to go to school, have some sandwiches, pray five times a day, and don’t do any of the things that you’re saying all Muslims do?”


And so it went.

Students from Berkeley’s Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian Coalition started an online petition asking the school to disinvite Maher as graduation speaker on Dec. 20. As of Tuesday evening, the petition had garnered 3,400 signatures.

In an email to my colleague Larry Gordon, UC student regent Sadia Saifuddin, who is Muslim, said she supported the action.

“I can’t condone the university inviting a speaker that threatens the campus climate of our university,” she wrote. “I believe there is a fundamental difference between free speech and hate speech as well as a difference between Maher being allowed to express his views, and being given the honor of giving the keynote address sponsored by the university … I don’t stand for anay university-sponsored action that makes students feel unsafe and unwelcome.”

Maher may be willfully ignorant, and he may be insensitive, but surely the graduating students of Berkeley are smart enough -- and resilient enough -- to grasp that the man does not threaten their safety. He may be promulgating stereotypes, but he’s not advocating violence.

These constant fights over college commencement speakers are becoming so tedious.

Last year, Brandeis University disinvited the feminist and outspoken Islam critic Ayan Hirsi Ali, whose anti-Muslim sentiments are offensive to many, but are deeply rooted in her personal experience.

When her invitation was withdrawn, she was philosophical. She acknowledged in an interview with the Fox News Network that her views could be “offensive,” “maybe insulting” and “controversial.” But she also said she thought that was the very purpose of the university. “We send our kids to school so they can be confronted with ideas that they are not comfortable with.”


Exactly. The only way to fight offensive speech is to counter it with righteous speech.

Berkeley students should stand up to Maher by challenging him rather than trying to shut him up. Invite him to debate the issue of religious violence and religious intolerance before his speech. Hold up a critical sign during his speech. Or stand up and turn your back when he starts to speak.

But don’t try to silence him.

That’s what the university tried to do to its students 50 years ago. It’s as bad an idea now as it was then.

Express yourself on Twitter: @robinabcarian