Late on Friday night I was channel surfing and stopped for a few moment on Real Time with Bill Maher. I had stopped watching the show years ago because of Maher’s descent into paranoia about Islam, but it was a debate week, so I thought there might be a few minutes of lively conversation to catch, some Trump jokes, a few Jeb! zingers — something along those lines.
Of course, I had made a miscalculation. Within moments, Maher was openly wondering why everyone was so mad about last week’s viral story out of Texas, in which a teenager named Ahmed Mohamed, was arrested for building a clock and bringing it to school — and subsequently got invitations to visit the White House and nearly every tech company in Silicon Valley. “The people at the school thought it might be a bomb, perhaps because it looks exactly like a fucking bomb,” Maher said of Ahmed’s clock, over the protests of guests like Jorge Ramos. “Look, this kid deserves an apology — no doubt about it. They were wrong. But can we have a little perspective about this? Did the teacher really do a wrong thing? For the last 30 years, it’s been one culture that has been blowing shit up over and over again.”
He was joined in his Ahmed trutherism by such luminaries as Sarah and Bristol Palin, along with his fellow crusading white-man atheist Richard Dawkins (who happens to have a book to promote!), who tweeted what looked to be an Ahmed conspiracy theory with the question: “what was his motive?”
This was disappointing, if not shocking. You see, the Ahmed story captured people’s attention because of the irrational way it was handled from start to finish. How could Dawkins and Maher, supposed proponents of reason, miss this? At no point did a teacher, an administrator, or a cop stop and wisely evaluate the situation as a whole. But when the Internet checked it out, the answer as to what had happened was crystal clear. What was his motive? A nerd trying to show off his gadget. A kid at a new school trying to distinguish himself from the pack. A late preteen being enthusiastic about his hobbies, looking for that pat on the shoulder smart kids pant for from their teachers. It was a kind of super-common human behavior that most thinking, feeling people immediately understood as having very little to do with race or religion — while the outsize response to it was the opposite, marred by prejudice.
Logically, knowing what we know about school violence, poor Ahmed didn’t even fit the profile. There have been no instances that I can think of, of Islamic terrorism in schools, but hundreds of people dead because of young white men with guns. Why don’t they terrify Maher and Dawkins? Why are white boys’ science projects never in the headlines for leading to an arrest? And if authorities really thought the clock was a bomb, wouldn’t they have evacuated the school?
These grown men — self-styled skeptics, rationalists, and intellectuals — were sympathetic to teachers and a police force in a town with notoriously Islamophobic mayor who, motivated by unthinking fear, denied a teenager his civil rights. This shows the curdling effect of their previously casual Islamophobia, wrapped in a veneer of equal-opportunity religion-bashing. Instead of sounding like contrarian breaths of fresh air, their points of view sound alarmingly stale, exactly like the paranoid evangelical types, the Glenn Beck book-buyers and the Trump voters, who cannot use their cognitive and analytical abilities to discern real extremist threats from everyday adherents of a faith.
The saddest thing about Maher and Dawkins’ warped vision of the world is that we actually need smart skeptics who are brave enough to push back against religious pieties, in all the major religions as well as the weird, pseudo-religious cults that have sprung up and foster the same kinds of abuses. We need thinkers who are intelligent and careful enough to parse out religious dogma dispensed by religious leaders from the everyday actions of religious believers, and acknowledge different strands of thought within each creed, without dissolving into bigotry and condescension.
What we don’t need are prominent people who are allegedly on the liberal, free-thinking side contributing to the same currents of hatred and fear that stoke the fires of people like Ben Carson and Donald Trump. American Islamophobia is at a terrifying apex with this election, and the love people are showing to this teen with a clock is a form of resistance to that, a moment of light in what often seems like an ever-darkening landscape.