Inviting controversy and resistance, the University of California, Berkeley’s recent decision to host raging Islamophobe Bill Maher as the December 2014 commencement ceremony speaker has sparked massive outrage. Following Maher’s most recent Islamophobic rant on his HBO television show, Real Time, in whichBen Affleck rightly accused Maher of being “gross and racist,” UC Berkeley has chosen to elevate the offensive rhetoric of this Islamophobic individual by granting him the opportunity to speak at UC Berkeley’s commencement ceremony.
Boasting a reputation of racist commentary and blanket statements condemning Islam and all of its followers, Bill Maher is a western media icon. Calling Christians more “evolved” than Muslims, Maher is one of the leading Islamophobes in today’s media. Representative of his political satire, an overwhelming amount of time on Maher’s show is dedicated to disrespecting, ridiculing, and insulting the religion of Islam.
Uncoincidentally, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, one of the most commodified and recycled events in UC Berkeley history. Propagating an empty liberalism in fierce decline, compromised in part by multi-million dollar corporate partnerships and the secretive hiring of Homeland Security executives as university presidents, the University of California, Berkeley continues to purport a hackneyed image as the “liberal” academic institution. At a time when corporate profits and political revolving doors dictate university campuses across the country, UC Berkeley is no exception. Reusing the Free Speech Movement as evidence of a glorious yet dead liberal past, the University is in dire need of events which will revive the infamous Berkeley liberalism. In particular, the University seeks a liberalism approved by the administration, definitely not the liberal values of student activists from Occupy Cal which challenge corporate profits from increased tuition fees. The University prefers an attenuated liberalism, which takes the form of hosting Islamophobic, yet “liberal” entertainers who bring the campus superficial fame.
It is amidst the context of UC Berkeley’s desperate attempt to keep alive the “liberal” image construct, which reaps in profits, stature, and power, that Maher was invited to speak. Rude, arrogant, and undereducated in his critiques of Islam, Maher publicly argues that “liberal western culture is … better, [than Muslim culture],” as well as blatantly denying that Islamophobia exists. To allow Maher, a proponent of western cultural supremacy, the opportunity to give the keynote speech is to allow someone who harbors racist, Orientalist, western hegemonic ideologies onto the stage. Inviting an individual who denies and dismisses the lived experiences of many Muslim and Middle Eastern students, in a world where anti-Muslim hate crimes have increased exponentially in recent years, is flagrantly offensive. How are Muslim students graduating this December supposed to feel knowing that the keynote speaker actively despises their most personal beliefs?
Furthermore, by inviting an overtly Islamophobic individual, the University has chosen to stand complicit in permitting Islamophobic discourses on campus. It is unfathomable that UC Berkeley, a claimed center of liberal values, has chosen to host an Islamophobe which sanctimoniously undermines and invalidates the experiences of students on campus. As a recent graduate of UC Berkeley, I am appalled and embarrassed that my University would invite such an overtly Islamophobic and racist individual to speak at such an important event.
Nonetheless, hiding behind his “liberal” label, Maher continues to utter violent Islamophobic propaganda. Simply identifying as “liberal” while continuing to participate in racism does not grant impunity to Maher, nor anyone. What we have here is the heavily invested manipulation of liberalism and liberal values to specifically target Muslims and Muslim communities. Contrary to Bill Maher’s self-serving understanding of “liberalism” as a necessary attack on all Muslims everywhere and all the time, is it even possible to consider oneself a liberal while continuing to discriminate against an entire population? It is logically, theoretically, and politically inconsistent to identify as a liberal and focus one’s efforts on demonizing the entirety of the Muslim population, as Bill Maher so self-righteously does.
If we are to accept Maher’s understanding of liberalism as fundamentally Islamophobic, then a reconsideration and reflection on the definition and meaning of liberal values is necessary. Therefore, the definition, use, and discursive context of “liberalism” must be constantly questioned, specifically when so neatly aligned with the political motives of U.S. militarism. The idea that liberalism stands for open-mindedness, freedoms, and liberties is fine and well, until people utilize that theory to attack one and only one community for violating those values.
As a former graduate of UC Berkeley, I am ashamed of my University’s decision to invite Maher, yet cannot say that I am surprised. It is necessary for us students, graduates, professors, and affiliates of the University who denounce racism, Islamophobia, and bigotry to publicize our outrage at UC Berkeley’s decision. Allowing Maher the esteemed position of keynote speaker at commencement is to espouse his nonsensical and violent ideologies. By hosting Maher, the University is publicly accepting his Islamophobia and condoning his violent rants as permissible, acceptable, and most importantly, not problematic. If the University of California, Berkeley intends to truly cultivate its image as a liberal institution, reviving the liberal values which motivated the passion and conviction of the Free Speech Movement and the Third World Liberation Front, it should begin by disinviting a publicly racist and Islamophobic entertainer.