On Friday night, Bill Maher displayed that courage by going on an angry and hateful tirade against Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year-old Sudanese Muslim-American who was recently arrested after a teacher thought his homemade clock was a bomb. Since Maher didn’t think his bullying of the teenager was sufficient alone, he made sure he brought company in the form of Mark Cuban, Chris Matthews, and former New York Governor George Pataki to gang up on Ahmed with their relentless victim-blaming racism and Islamophobia.
All of the white male panelists agreed that Ahmed’s arrest was “wrong,” yet devoted most of their time defending the school and blaming Ahmed. This is absolutely appalling. For instance, Maher expressed that Ahmed’s clock “looks exactly like a fucking bomb,” while Mark Cuban blamed Ahmed for not “opening his mouth” and “not having a conversation with his teacher.” Pataki said the incident had nothing to do with Ahmed’s race and religion, and Matthews blamed Ahmed for not being “forthcoming.” Matthews also whined about how people always rush to side with “the minorities.” With all of the cheering and applause that came from the audience each time someone bashed on Ahmed, Muslims, and Islam, I’m surprised I didn’t hear “U-S-A” chants.
What is atrocious about the commentary from Maher and the other white male panelists is their attempt to vilify Ahmed and depict him as “treacherous,” “deceitful,” and “conniving.” Mark Cuban spoke about his phone interview with Ahmed and mentions how he could hear Ahmed’s sister giving him the answers. I should note here that Cuban said this with a really odd and disturbing tone of enthusiasm and excitement, as if he just solved a mystery or was revealing something that would raise everyone’s suspicion about Ahmed.
“The kid is a super-smart kid, a science geek,” Cuban said. “I talked to him about science. But when I’m talking to him on the phone, as I asked him a question, ‘Tell me what happened,’ because I’m curious, right? His sister, over his shoulder, you could hear, listening to the question, giving him the answer.”
Like, can you believe that? His sister was telling him what to say! See how conniving and suspicious these Muslims are! This is an utterly despicable and cruel attempt to depict Ahmed and his family as “untrustworthy.” What was Cuban expecting? Ahmed is 14-years-old and he was just arrested by a school that saw him as a criminal and terrorist. Cuban is going to insult Ahmed and his sister for wanting to guide him through an interview, during a time when Muslims, Black people, and other people of color are constantly demonized in media and society?
What Cuban fails and refuses to understand is that Black children, Muslim children, and other children of color are not trained in schools on how to deal with racist discrimination. That is why people of color rely on their parents, siblings, relatives, and other support systems to help them through these situations. I cannot speak for Ahmed’s sister or family, but I would not be surprised if they wanted Ahmed to be careful about what he said to the media, especially if there’s a condescending, victim-blaming racist like Cuban interviewing him.
But Cuban didn’t stop there. Watching how hyper he was to keep speaking reminded me of typical high school bullies who like to shout their insults, but then, only seconds later, are eager to chime in to spew more insults. Like, “Oh oh wait, let me say this about him too!” After Matthews made his absurd complaints about Ahmed not being “forthcoming” (which I’ll get to in a minute), Cuban jumped in, saying: “Do you know who the big winner is? Ahmed. When I talked to him, he got all the attention, right? His two hours were taken. But he told me, ‘I’ve been getting all these offers. I’m not going back to MacArthur. I’m going to pick which school I want to go to because everyone’s offering me scholarships.’ The kid came out way ahead.”
So, Ahmed is the “big winner” here because he got all of the “attention” he was supposedly seeking? Look at all those schools offering him scholarships, Cuban says. See how using the “race card” gets Muslims and people of color ahead? See the advantages of being a racial and religious minority in the United States? Sure, you may get shot, arrested, fired, expelled, bullied, attacked in hate crimes, and so on, but look at all the attention you can get! Cuban’s comments are not too different than Richard Dawkins’ recent tweets accusing Ahmed of wanting to be arrested. Maher went further and diminished the impact of Ahmed’s arrest by saying, “We put a kid after school for a couple of hours, this is not the end of the world!” As if there is nothing potentially traumatic about being arrested in handcuffs and humiliated in your own school, not to mention being interrogated by 4 police officers who repeatedly refuse to let you notify and talk to your parents.
What is inconsistent about the attacks against Ahmed is that they obscure the truth. Ahmed told his teacher that he made a clock, not a bomb. How much more “forthcoming” did Matthews and the other white panelists want him to be? But we have seen these efforts to vilify and demonize Black youth before. Kiera Wilmot, a Black teenager in Florida, was arrested and expelled from school in 2013 after her science project exploded by accident (no one was injured). Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown were accused of “not being saints” by the media after their murders. The message is always loud and clear whenever people of color are discriminated against or even murdered: it was their fault.
Mexican-American journalist Jorge Ramos was the only person on the panel who defended Ahmed, but was shouted at and belittled by Maher, Cuban, Matthews, and Pataki. Maher knew that getting a majority of white men on his side would not only help him bash Ahmed, Muslims, and Islam, but also that no one in the audience would cheer or applaud Ramos for his defense of a Black Muslim teen. Ramos was ridiculed to the point where he was seen as “uneducated,” “incoherent,” and “irrational.”
At one point, after Maher reiterated the arrest of Ahmed was “wrong,” he justified the arrest because “for the last 30 years, it’s been one culture that has been blowing shit up over and over again.” One culture? Who has been blowing up Gaza over and over again? Who opened fire on Black people in Charleston, South Carolina? Who massacred Sikhs in their Gurdwara in Wisconsin? Who massacred children in the Newtown school shootings or the attacks in Norway? What about the white Christian terrorist who planned to massacre a predominately Black Muslim population in the town of Islamberg, New York? Who murdered the three Arab Muslim students in Chapel Hill or the Somali Muslim teen in Kansas City? What about the U.S. bombings of Iraq, Afghanistan, as well as the drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia? Which “culture” is responsible for that?
Maher says a Muslim adult should have taken Ahmed aside and told him, “Look what happened to you was wrong, but maybe one of the reasons why it happened to you is because, in our religion, we were responsible for 9/11, the Madrid bombings, the London bombings,” etc. In case if it isn’t obvious, Maher believes Muslims — all 1.5 billion of us — are collectively responsible for attacks that were carried out by other people. I want a white adult to explain to Maher that the reason his Islamophobia and racism is so dangerous to Muslims and people of color is because “our people (white people) have been responsible for so much demonization, racism, misogyny, violence, and terrorism committed against black people, indigenous peoples, Muslims, and other people of color.” In fact, his Islamophobia fuels the kind of attitudes and behaviors that impact Muslims like Ahmed Mohamed.
But Maher loves to deflect. On the show, he mentioned Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, a Shia activist who is being horribly sentenced to death by the Saudi Arabian government for participating in anti-government protests. What is repulsive about Maher mentioning al-Nimr is that he’s trying to deflect attention away from Islamophobia in the west, but also that he’s exploiting al-Nimr to make his political points about Islam being a “religion of violence.” In other words, Maher doesn’t really care about al-Nimr; he just cares about “proving” his point about how “barbaric” Islam and Muslims really are. He is also trying to create the impression that there aren’t any Muslims outraged about al-Nimr’s sentencing. Anyone who believes in a religion, especially Islam, is seen as “brainwashed” by Maher, so what does he think about Muslims like al-Nimr? That they’re “brainwashed” by their own religion?
What also needs to be emphasized here is that Maher’s statement about Ahmed’s arrest is something a lot of people believe. The narrative that Islamophobia is a result of 9/11 is one that many, both Muslims and non-Muslims, buy into. We need to denounce this narrative and understand that Islamophobia is not caused by the actions of other Muslims.
But let’s deconstruct this belief. Let’s follow the logic that Islamophobia is, in fact, a result of 9/11, the Madrid bombings, and the London bombings, as Bill Maher claims. Let’s forget that, before 9/11, there was the brutal dispossession of Palestine, western colonialism and imperialism in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, or the demonization of Muslims and Islam in the media, including in U.S. cinema. While we’re at it, let’s forget about the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades, too.
So, the logic goes, if a member of a particular group of people commits an act of violence, then the response from the general public and the state is to target said group with stereotypes, hate crimes, negative media depictions, and policies, right? For example, if a Muslim person carries out an act of violence, then the entire Muslim population will be held collectively responsible, face bigotry and discrimination, and will be subject to racist policies and laws. Oh, and countries that have a Muslim-majority population will be bombed. So, this should mean that when white Christians commit violent atrocities, the entire white Christian population will suffer the same consequences too, right?
But we know the latter does not happen. We don’t see institutionalized racism against white people as a response to the crimes and actions of individual white people. This is because we live in a white supremacist society where white people, especially white men, are privileged and valued over the lives of people of color. Because white supremacy is foundational to the United States, it is deeply ingrained in society — so ingrained that we accept it as a norm. This is why anti-racist leaders, activists, and writers teach us that we all need to unlearn racism. White supremacist socialization and logic is the reason why people are able to make distinctions between white male terrorists and the rest of the white population, while not making the same distinctions for people of color. This is why politicians, the media, and the general public see Dylan Roof as a “lone wolf.” White people are not treated as a racialized group that need to be put under surveillance, racially profiled, demonized, and bombed.
The uncomfortable reality is that it’s not just Bill Maher who reinforces this idea that Islamophobia exists because of Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda, and ISIS. We hear this narrative from Muslim-American political commentators and representatives of U.S.-based Muslim civil rights groups, too. Granted, Maher diminishes the existence of Islamophobia and describes it as “not being a big deal,” but Muslim-Americans who claim to be speaking for us in the mainstream media need to stop saying Islamophobia is the result of 9/11 and ISIS. As I mentioned above, if this logic was true, then it would apply to white Christians, too, but we know it doesn’t.
Islamophobia is not simply about ignorance or individual acts of bigotry, but rather an institutionalized form of oppression that has existed long before 9/11. As Maher demonstrated on his show, his attacks against Ahmed are also his attacks against Islam and Muslims. Furthermore, these hateful views go beyond sentiments; they fuel hate crimes, oppressive policies, and imperialist violence against Muslims.
In order to challenge Islamophobia effectively, we need to understand it within this context of white supremacy, not by Maher’s victim-blaming “Muslims-caused-Islamophobia” definition of it.