The University of California’s recent decision to have comedian and political critic Bill Maher deliver the commencement speech has become the center of a new debate concerning the limits of free speech. Citing Bill Maher’s record of denigrating remarks about Islam, Muslim students circulated a petition to get the university to rescind its invitation. Bill Maher responded to the effort claiming that the invitation was protected by free speech. Invoking liberal values and referencing a recent interview with scholar Reza Aslan, Maher defended himself from the charge of bigotry. A second group of students decided to support Maher’s invitation by circulating a counter petition. Although these students acknowledged Maher’s controversial statements, they nevertheless supported his speech on the principle of free speech. The university ultimately responded by defending the invitation. Bill Maher will speak at Berkeley.
To weigh in on the matter, we’ve asked a panel of writers to respond to the boycott effort and answer the following questions:
Were the Muslims at UC Berkeley undermining free speech or were they challenging the imbalance of power in the arena of public discourse? Was their effort justified?
Stand up to bigotry, don’t boycott
I have to say, as much as I agree with the students that Maher’s views on Islam are grossly misinformed and bigoted, attempting to disinvite him from the commencement only adds fuel to the fires of those like him who regard Islam as intolerant. If I were a member of the student Muslim organization at UC Berkeley, I would instead invite Maher to sit down with representatives of the organization and engage in meaningful dialogue. He might come away with a changed perspective. As much as the students resent it, the format of the commencement is not one of dialgoe, but of monologue. So I agree with Maher and those who support him in his defense of his own rights to make his speech. If any students object, they can refuse to attend. Surely the university is not going to deny them their degrees just because they did not attend the ceremony. And as meaningful as a commencement ceremony is, after four long years of hard work, wouldn’t it be better to recall it as the day you stood up to a bigot by refusing to listen to him?
Tom Verde is a freelance writer who has published extensively on religion, culture, the environment, and travel in major national and international publications including The New York Times, Boston Globe, Saudi Aramco World, Biblical Archaeology, National Geographic Adventure, and more.
A right to debate
In six weeks, some five hundred UC Berkeley students will be celebrating the culmination of years of discipline, sacrifice, and hard work by participating in what is supposed to be one of the most exciting milestones of their lives: graduation. For many of these students, however, the enthusiasm leading up to this event is largely overshadowed by the knowledge that the speaker scheduled to deliver remarks at their commencement ceremony is a bigot who is on record making inflammatory and inaccurate comments about the faith of over 1.5 billion people.
Despite an onslaught of media controversy and an online petition launched by students who have collected 5,000+ signatures, campus administrators refuse to rescind their invitation to Islamophobic political commentator and talk show host Bill Maher – citing his opinions and beliefs as protected under the Constitution.
Bolstered by Maher’s supporters, free speech advocates, and petition critics, they counteracted that to drop Maher would jeopardize free speech and undermine an open campus environment that invites exchanging of diverse ideas. The official statement reads that UC Berkeley has a long-standing tradition of “tolerance and civility,” and taking such action “poses a threat to that tradition.”Ironically, Maher’s remarks calling it “naïve to think that Islam isn’t more violent than other religions,” and his comparison of Islam to the mafia, are a far cry from exemplifying tolerance and civility. In fact, many would rightfully argue that not dropping him as a commencement speaker poses the true threat to UC Berkeley’s tradition.
UC Berkeley has a well-established reputation for championing freedom of speech. This reputation should encourage a healthy, robust debate on the merits of extending commencement speaker invitations to any Islamophobic or anti-Semitic individuals. As Americans who value our nation’s ideals, many of these petition organizers and activists calling for a replacement speaker also strongly support the First Amendment. But erroneously packaging legitimate grievances against Maher as “an impediment to free speech” diminishes the very valid and real concerns of UC Berkeley’s historically marginalized student populations that have already been negatively impacted on multiple levels by his blatant Islamophobia.
The purpose of any commencement speech is to inspire graduates through sharing personal life experiences, values, and advice. The debate is not whether Bill Maher is entitled to his beliefs or if he has the right to express himself – it’s whether a commencement ceremony is the appropriate forum for him to promote his disturbing, incendiary views.
On arguably one of the most important days of their lives, graduates of a university that prides itself on its tolerance and inclusivity should not be subjected to listening to a speech by an individual who not only has a history of making intolerant, divisive comments, but who also does not exemplify the institution’s values. Equally importantly, retaining Maher as commencement speaker at a prestigious university like UC Berkeley lends his convictions dangerous credibility. It serves to more firmly establish him as a reliable expert on topics that he is clearly ill-informed on.
Everyone is entitled to their views – regardless of how misinformed and irrational they may be. But the newly minted members of UC Berkeley’s graduating class also have the right to debate the selection of their commencement speaker, and not have such a momentous occasion be blemished by the ilk of Maher and his opinions.
Zainab Chaudry is the Maryland Outreach Manager of the Council on American Islamic Relations – the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization.
A platform for speech, not bigotry
A petition to rescind Bill Maher’s commencement speech invitation at UC Berkeley has led Maher and others to say that that those students are undermining the very principle of free speech. “We’re liberals, we’re supposed to like free speech,” said Maher. To the contrary, Bill, UC Berkeley is exercising a long and rich history of protest to further, not undermine, freedom of speech.
Maher stated that liberals should be open to these discussions. They should! Liberals, conservatives, and everyone in between should enjoy and fight for freedom of speech. It is through vigorous debates that we progress intellectually and arrive to higher-level thinking on issues.
Though Maher has stated that he is using statistics to come to his conclusions about Islam, he in fact is merely stereotyping. When he uses polling on Egyptians’ views on apostasy, he takes the liberty to apply those numbers to Muslims at-large. Painting a community with such a broad brush is not only intellectually untenable, it’s bigoted.
History has shown that there will be pushback and even shutting down of speech (by private actors) when it is deemed offensive or hateful. This is not the first time that students have expressed their first amendment rights over a university commencement speaker. Condoleeza Rice declined her invitation to speak at Rutgers’ commencement after students protested due to her role in the Iraq war and approval of waterboarding techniques. Students staged sit-ins because they did not believe someone with such views should be given a platform at their university.
Even media companies deny a platform, or even punish, those with views that they disagree with. When Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson made disparaging comments against homosexuals, his show was suspended by A&E. Were Rutgers and A&E undermining free speech? Not really. Robertson and Rice were free to talk about their views all they wanted. All Rutgers and A&E were saying is that those comments should not be made on their platform.
Why do students not want Maher to use Berkeley as a platform? Because they feel their university is a place for elevated discourse and not for peddling oversimplified and offensive generalizations. They feel one who compares a religion to the mafia, makes broad statements on over a billion people based on polls from individual countries, and cloaks anti-Muslim rhetoric in the shroud of liberalism is not someone who should be honored to speak at a public university, let alone one as prestigious as Berkeley.
“Whoever told you you only had to hear what didn’t upset you?” Maher asked on his show. Bill, you’re absolutely correct. Nobody should force you to not speak if they do not like it. If, at the end of the day you do speak at the commencement, the students must either sit and listen, or exercise their right to free speech by walking out or protesting during the speech.
So Berkley students asking their university to rescind the invitation of Bill Maher, who has made bigoted statements, is not undermining free speech, but in fact part of a tried-and-true method of showing disapproval of hateful speech, whilst still preserving the right to spew it.
Saif Inam is Muslim Public Affairs Council’s new Policy Analyst in the Washington, DC, office. He is a native of Atlanta and has lived in DC on-and-off since 2004. He has a bachelor’s degree in Business Economics and Public Policy from George Washington University (GWU) and a law degree from Georgia State University. During his time as the president of the MSA at GWU, he led interfaith coalition-building and community development initiatives.
Allow speech, and counter speech too
As a staunch believer in broad rights of free expression, my response to most any government restriction on speech—no matter how gross that speech is—is to permit it. I am a deep believer in the free marketplace of ideas; a marketplace unhindered by governmental attempts to force people and society into frameworks the government decides are “right” and “good” for us. Society needs to regulate itself instead of being infantilized by the State—and that includes dealing with and, through its own means, overcoming, offensive speech.
So: government restrictions are bad; social solutions are good. That’s my mantra when it comes to free speech. And when I talk about social solutions, I am referring to things like Michael Richards’ (Seinfeld’s “Kramer”) career falling apart after he went on an anti-Semite rant. Society decides what constitutes unacceptable speech, then works to get rid of it through its own, non-legal means. People aren’t thrown into jail for saying mean things, but they do face very real, adverse social consequences.
Where does the petition to withdraw Maher’s invitation fall along this legal—social spectrum? UC Berkeley, as a state school, is an arm of the government. It must respect constitutional principles, including those related to free speech. And so I support its decision to not withdraw Maher’s invitation.
But as a Muslim, a free speech advocate, and a believer in the transformative power of a free marketplace of ideas, I would urge Berkeley to go further. As a university—whose very purpose is to foster open and free discussion—Berkeley should not only host Maher, but also provide a forum for counter-speech. Speech that counters not just Maher’s specific, offensive speech, but also counters his anti-religion position generally. Speech that celebrates not just Muslims, but people of faith more broadly.
Asma T. Uddin is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of altmuslimah.com. She is also a Legal Fellow with the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) and Legal Counsel at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a non-profit, non-partisan, public interest law firm based in Washington, D.C.
Unworthy of the invitation, but worthy of free speech
When Muslim students petitioned UC Berkeley to disinvite the provocative talk show host, Bill Maher, from speaking at this year’s commencement, they were not seeking to undermine free speech even though it may have appeared that way. Bill Maher has built his notoriety on controversial and sometimes ridiculous assertions on his show, the earliest of them being his praise for the courage of the alleged hijackers who crashed into the Trade Towers and Pentagon on 9/11/01, which led to his show being cancelled. It seems that unless Mr. Maher is saying something incendiary, he and/or his program manager don’t feel that there is much incentive for people to watch.
Free speech is a universally acknowledged right. Without it, the Prophet Muhammad himself could have never fulfilled his mission, which has led to the presence of approximately 1.5 billion Muslims on the planet today. If anything, it can be said that his own fight for religious freedom in Mecca had everything to do with the aim of solidifying the freedom to speak his mind and preach God’s word. The Qur’an declares unequivocally, “There is no compulsion in religious conviction. Right direction is distinct from error” (Q 2:155). Rituals and acts of obedience that are not performed willfully and with sincerity are not acceptable to God according to the Islamic teachings.
Is Bill a racist? Hard to say. Bigot? No doubt. Should he have been disinvited because of that? I’m not sure that I agree. But, I do understand why many people, including James Dillon, author of the “Do Not Withdraw Bill Maher Invitation…” petition would feel that he is unworthy of the invitation at such a prestigious “academic” institution.
Did Muslims overreact? I think not. I, however, believe that they could have done better to make their case against Maher and others of his ilk. You cannot call someone a racist without determining which race(s) he/she is maligning. This would mean that in order for “Islamophobia” to have the same impact as “anti-Semitism” in the public sphere (if that is the real goal), Muslims would need to acknowledge that they are not merely a religious but also a racial category. This is already very much implied by the use of the term Islamophobia, since it points to “white” assumptions about Islam and Muslims. In other words, Islamophobia references racism since, in the U.S., “Muslim” is used as a racialized term: “non-Christian people from the east with brown and olive (non-white) skin color.” But so far, relying on Islamophobia instead of “anti-Muslim racism” has backfired on Muslims since it doesn’t clarify how important race is to the kinds of acts referenced by Islamophobia. More needs to be done to demonstrate how Islamophobia is, in fact, racism.
If Bill Maher is not a racist, what is he? He is a secular statist. In his critique of Islam, Maher is focused on religion not states. Religion is his scapegoat. He loves state violence especially if it is used to suppress religion but he hates religious violence. He decries the violence of religious states but not the violence of secular states even though secular states are more violent than religious states, and states are the greatest purveyors of violence in the world.
That notwithstanding, there is one point where I actually agree with Bill Maher. Too many Muslims, learned and lay members, are too obsessed with the idea of forcing people to “remain” Muslim when they no longer are convinced of Islam’s truth. However, statistics themselves do not tell the whole story about Muslims. Firstly, lay Muslims typically defer to scholars on official teachings of the faith, so just because one may agree that an apostate can or should be killed does not mean that the average Muslim is pursuing or considering the murder of an apostate. Secondly, the results which appear in statistical reports presume two things: one, that respondents are truthful, and, two, that they are informed. If that is so, Bill and Co. should accept the claims of Muslims when they say they mean no harm instead of implying that they are practicing dissimulation (taqiya) or a fifth column.
Abdullah bin Hamid Ali is a full-time faculty member specializing in Islamic Law, Theology, and Hadith Science at Zaytuna College in Berkeley, CA.
Challenge, provoke, disrupt…but don’t prevent
The Muslim students who lead the effort to prevent Bill Maher from delivering the commencement speech at the University of California, Berkeley, are a brave and intelligent bunch. They understand that speech does not occur on a level playing field. They know, for example, that no Muslim has access to a venue comparable to that of Bill Maher’s HBO program. Thus almost every week, Maher can express his uninformed, dangerous, and denigrating perspectives on Muslims and Islam with no serious challenge save from the few guests he brings on his panel (for which he deserves some credit). For this reason, the students understandably tried to block Maher’s visit. His anti-Muslim bigotry, they argued, undermines his status as a figure worthy of speaking before one of UC Berkeley’s graduating class. They also feel that his presence would be a serious offense to graduating Muslim students who would be forced to sit through a speech by a man who routinely insults their beliefs and their communities.
Despite my sympathies with the Muslim students’ position, I disagree with the boycott effort. While I acknowledge that speech is not equal (some speech gets a lot more opportunity to speak than others), I also recognize that the principle of allowing speech must be preserved. Doing so not only protects Bill Maher’s rights but it protects ours. In fact, it protects everyone’s. Allowing him to speak does not, however, mean that Muslims must be silent. There are other things Muslims (and others) can to do challenge Maher without violating Maher’s right to deliver his speech. For example, students could quietly hold up signs during the ceremony with things like “bigotry is un-American” or “your speech is welcomed, your bigotry isn’t” written on them. And/or, students could hand out flyers at the commencement with a list of Maher’s bigoted statements informing the public of his despicable record. Students could also stand up en masse as Maher takes the stage and hand-deliver a letter explaining their position. The point is that while Maher has a right to speak, students also have a right to challenge that speech without blocking it. The power that denied Muslims a say in who they have to listen to at their commencement can be disrupted by the power Muslims have to speak back, strategically. Challenge, provoke, and carefully disrupt. But don’t prevent. Everyone’s rights are at stake.
Michael Vicente Perez is Senior Editor and contributor for The Islamic Monthly. He is also Lecturer in anthropology at the University of Washington, Seattle.
This is not a simple matter of freedom of speech
As a professor and administrator at an academic center that puts on conferences, I’ve thought a great deal about the politics of invited speakers. Put simply, this is not a simple matter of freedom of speech or not. There are clear political dimensions, but these need not prevent productive compromise. First of all, I agree fully that universities are bastions of free speech and the free exchange of ideas. I believe that, in some university forum or another, all persons and ideas should have an opportunity for expression. None should be denied this opportunity outright simply because a person or idea is unpopular, controversial or repugnant. Second, there are a variety of forums at a college or university. A panel on “Is Islam a Bad Idea or Not?,” for example, provides an idea opportunity for views to be presented, challenged and discussed. In such a forum, I think it is very dangerous and unprincipled to exclude any viewpoint from ordered discussion. At such a panel, Maher should be welcomed. A commencement speech is a very different forum. Whether explicitly stated or not, an invitation to speak at a commencement carries with it some endorsement of the speaker’s contributions and persona. Furthermore, there is (understandably) no opportunity for discussion or challenging the speaker. Critics of Maher’s invitation are right to point out the unqualified and uncontested approval that an invitation to deliver a commencement address entails, and they have every right to argue against such an approval. Yet universities should never be allowed to turn into vortexes of media- or socially-driven rage, where divergent points of view are denied a hearing due to pressure from those who dislike them. Perhaps, at this point, Maher’s invitation to deliver the commencement address could be modified to include a condition that he appear immediately soon thereafter on a university panel addressing his views on Islam.
Jonathan Brown is Associate Professor and Associate Director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim Christian Understaning at Georgetown University. His book publications include The Canonization of al-Bukhari and Muslim: The Formation and Function of the Sunni Hadith Canon (Brill, 2007), Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World (Oneworld, 2009), Muhammad: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2011) and Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenges and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy (Oneworld, 2014).
Have more to say? What’s your position?