An open letter to Ben Affleck after his appearance on Bill Maher's 'Real Time' in 2014 earned its ex-Muslim writer an invitation to the show. But years later, she came to regret the way her words were used to advance Maher's conservative agenda
As the number of religiously unaffiliated continues to grow around the world, it brings with it the promise of a more progressive future. This group, known also as the ‘nones’, shows time and time again that it trends toward a more left-leaning politics.
But that isn’t the whole picture. This broader general trend is often used as a smokescreen to hide a more toxic intersection, one that sometimes finds itself in bed with an anti-secular agenda: the intersection of vocal atheism and right-leaning views.
Non-religiosity and right-wingery are not mutually exclusive. I had to learn that the hard way. Despite seeing this illustrated so clearly by the New Atheist movement in the past 20 years, there is still a residual assumption that non-religiosity alone implies that someone is politically left-wing. The dynamics and perceptions around this intersection are a subject of great interest to me, as anyone who is familiar with my work may have noticed.
As a proud atheist myself, I focus on this intersection not because I wish to tarnish the reputation of Movement Atheism but because I want the movement to improve, to flourish and make space for more diverse voices. I want it to shed the negative connotations and images the word ‘atheist’ instantly evokes, images like a fedora-tipping, anti-feminist pedant. Someone so certain of their own intellectual superiority and rationality that they display the same rigidity, preachiness, and intolerance they criticize in religion.
We cannot even begin to address such things unless we identify and accept the issues in our own community first. But this goal seems to slip a little farther from our grasp each time an iconic atheist figure sets foot into The Culture Wars via right-wing talking points, figures and platforms, decrying “wokeness” at every turn.
Which brings us to Bill Maher.
Maher recently appeared on far-right commentator and former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro’s show for a rather friendly conversation. They bonded over various anti-left and “anti-woke” talking points that have become such a powerful force in uniting the religious right and the atheist right. And once again, in a viral clip, the intersection of right-wing politics and atheism was crystallized in The Museum of Hot-Takes that the internet has become.
Maher’s brand of smug, obnoxious antitheism has helped obscure the fact that he is and always has been a pretty run-of-the-mill conservative, perpetually harking back to a mythical golden age ‘when things were better’, when the kids stayed off your lawn and Social Justice Warriors and feminists weren’t so outspoken. When political correctness, or as it is known today, “wokeness,” wasn’t so “out of control.” That golden age was when Bill last felt unburdened as a liberal—or so his story goes. Now, things have become so upsetting for Maher, he says, that the left is pushing him away—so much so that he is happy to complain about it on far-right platforms like Shapiro’s and is fine with his words being used approvingly by Fox News.
As it appeared in his conversation with Ben Shapiro, Maher is deeply bothered by slogans like “defund the police” and has bought wholly into the right’s fearmongering and attacks on an extremely vulnerable minority like trans kids, even as the number of anti-LGBTQ bills has skyrocketed in the US from 41 in 2018 to 238 in the first three months of 2022.
He also seems to have fully embraced the idea that the left is doing most of the silencing in the current climate. This comes from the commonly-held belief on the red-shifted side of the political spectrum that the increasing critique of racism and bigotry amounts to silencing and censorship—a viewpoint that completely and conveniently overlooks all the legislation and serious threats to free speech coming from the right.
The recent ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill and the chilling effects around it are prime examples. According to a recent report by PEN America, more than a thousand books, most about racism and LGBTQ issues, have been banned from US classrooms and school libraries in the last nine months, many under pressure from conservative parents and officials. At this writing, Alabama has passed a bill that would make some transgender healthcare a felony, and a Texas teacher may be losing her job after fighting for gay pride symbols in school. There are endless examples of extreme free speech violations coming from the right, yet “anti-woke” crusaders like Maher tend to focus more on college kids being offended by racism.
His politics haven’t changed, he complained to Shapiro—a moment that perfectly illustrated his right-wing tendencies and utter lack of self-awareness. The fact that progress and change are desirable outcomes of left-wing politics seems to escape him entirely. If you are complaining about the left leaving you behind, about the parameters of the conversation shifting and evolving with time—perhaps you are not the forward-thinking, left-leaning liberal you thought you were.
Especially not if Ben Shapiro is your shoulder to cry on.
Long ago, I also bought into the idea that Bill Maher was a liberal pushing back on right-wing sensitivities and pushing boundaries. I completely believed that he was a force for good. Being raised in a theocracy like Saudi Arabia, it felt liberating and cathartic to see harsh criticism of religion, pulling no punches, on mainstream TV.
I came across his show Politically Incorrect right after the tragic Columbine school shootings and found his to be a rare voice of reason pushing back on the idea that (goth) music or clothing was to blame for the actions of the shooters. But as I paid closer attention over the years, I occasionally got the sense that something was off with Maher. Sometimes I caught a whiff of his anti-feminism or genuine anti-Muslimness which he, like many in the atheist scene claimed was well within the bounds of rational, secular critique of religion as a whole.
I recall waiting with great anticipation for his movie Religulous—then thinking how unimpressive it turned out to be. Among many other things, it singled out Islam as an inherently violent and uniquely backward religion while glossing over similar evidence in other religious scripture. Even in my fresher, angrier atheist days, it did not appeal to me. The glaring bias was to hard to ignore. Maher portrayed other religions as merely silly or goofy but Islam as a great evil. It did not sit well with me even then, but I brushed it aside and continued enjoying some of his other scathing content.
The widely-viewed, Islam-related moment with Ben Affleck on Real Time happened when I was at the height of my New Atheist phase.
I chimed in with a tongue-in-cheek open letter to Affleck in a Pakistani publication.
I am writing to you today as a woman who was born and raised in Islam. I saw your discussion with Bill Maher and Sam Harris, and I must say you did me a great disservice that day. Your heart was in the right place, of course, and it was lovely of you to step up and defend ‘my people’.
What you really did though, perhaps inadvertently, was silence a conversation that never gets started. Two people attempted to begin a dialogue and you wouldn’t even listen. Why should any set of ideas be above criticism, Ben?
Why are Muslims being ‘preserved’ in some time capsule of centuries gone by? Why is it okay that we continue to live in a world where our women are compared to candy waiting to be consumed? Why is it okay for women of the rest of the world to fight for freedom and equality while we are told to cover our shameful bodies? Can’t you see that we are being held back from joining this elite club known as the 21st century?
And so on.
I still stand behind the general message of that letter. But the way my words were used and flaunted by those I now consider to be genuinely anti-Muslim is something I regret.
In 2014, the letter was praised and promoted by people like Bill Maher and Sam Harris. It was useful to them because it provided legitimacy to their point of view, especially coming from a woman raised in a theocracy who had left Islam. At the time, I truly believed that Harris and Maher were allies of women like me, allies with large platforms who simply wanted to help destigmatize leaving Islam. I have since come to the conclusion that they often use women in my position to legitimize their anti-Muslim views.
Soon after my open letter to Affleck, I received an invite to Maher’s show, but my condition of anonymity ultimately prevented that from happening. After seeing Maher embrace increasingly right-wing figures in the next few years, I was incredibly thankful that my being a guest on his show never materialized. I remember watching in horror as he cozied up with far-right Milo Yiannopoulos, calling him, “a young, gay, alive Christopher Hitchens”. My respect for him continued to plummet as he welcomed famously transphobic, misogynistic professor Jordan Peterson on to his show, claiming that everything Peterson said was common sense.
Seeing these harmful, regressive figures propped up by Maher was eye-opening for me, especially as Yiannopoulos’ and Peterson’s strongly awful religiosity seemed not to bother Maher at all. What mattered most was the bond over how the left had gone too far. I couldn’t picture a religious, ultra-conservative Muslim being so highly praised on Real Time, especially not if they hinted at favoring gender segregation in the workplace or recommended ‘enforced monogamy’ after an angry incel went on a murderous rampage. Maher would certainly not praise a Muslim who had publicly defended pedophilia.
At some point, it’s time to wonder if Bill is really the great liberal advocate of science and reason he has claimed to be. With Islam it was all “They bring that Desert stuff”, while for Western figures with prehistoric ideas around gender it was high praise and friendly banter. I recalled the time Maher was openly alarmed by there being too many babies in Europe named Mohammed—not even Maher’s continent—and how worried he was that Islam would take over the Western world because of this. Far from a reasonable secular critique of religion, this broadly echoed the white nationalist conspiracy theory known as The Great Replacement.
Even in the dangerously-politicized pandemic, Maher is so vocally anti-mask that he “jokes” about wanting to punch kids who wear them outside. He portrays COVID safety precautions as Democrat virtue-signaling, fearmongering about COVID-19 vaccines and claiming he would have preferred to “let his immune system handle it” while selectively invoking science to say that body positivity “is positively Orwellian”—all on Joe Rogan’s notorious disinformation-peddling platform.
As far back as 2003, Maher’s “Victory Begins at Home” set featured complaints about “the feminization of America,” lamenting the fact that it had become politically incorrect to be a man and that things were somehow better “before.”
That was 19 years ago.
Maher has been complaining for at least two decades that things on the left are moving too fast for him.
Maybe the problem isn’t the left. Maybe the problem is that Maher hasn’t grown politically in almost a quarter of a century. And his antitheism isn’t hiding it as well as it used to.