Rula Jebreal is a fierce voice on the Middle East, and she just proved it yet again. Rula and I have worked together a few times in the past and I look up to her. This time, I am very happy she made a point to push our common logic forward on Bill Maher even if some say she pushed too hard. His criticism of Islam is offensive and it also misses the point. That is the issue, not whether he is allowed to or not, but rather whether people want to support him or negatively reinforce him. While he believes that true liberals have a responsibility to criticize the illiberality of some forms of Islam, voices like Rula, and countless others, argue that this is a irresponsible and misdirected cause. It is simplistic.
The best thing about Jebreal is her tough personality. She correctly would not allow Maher to frame his Berkeley commencement speech controversy as a free speech issue. She also correctly reduced his argument to as small as it should be. First of all, the debate on Islam is not productive at present because everyone keeps forgetting that there are 1.8 billion Muslims. The current narrative of Bill Maher lacks nuance, sophistication or history. How can people discount Sufis or Sunni Shafi’i’s or other Muslims that are sprinkled literally all over the world?
Ultimately, the rise of ISIS is as Muslim as the KKK were Christian. It is not incorrect to acknowledge that they call themselves Muslim, but would Jesus really like the KKK? I have a feeling Prophet Muhammad would find the Islamic State deplorable. We all, collectively, need to look at ISIS as a native son of the Iraq War and the carelessness of how Iraq was administrated. Rula is right to point to Maliki’s policies, prison camps like Camp Bucca or Guantánamo to see the connection. Look to General James Gerrond of Camp Bucca’s words. He even believed that the prison was a pressure cooker for extremists.
Islam is a basic scapegoat for Maliki’s policies, our support for Saudi Arabia’s financing of jihadists and our overlooking the fact that thousands sit in Egypt’s prison cells. Whenever I sit and talk with Rula on her couch, Sayyid Qutb, the founder of political Islam, eventually comes up. The fact of the matter is that the prisons that are littered all over the Middle East incubate anger which is turned into passion which is turned into psychosis. Believe me, I have sat in one in Beirut for my own liberal research. That is where the next Bin Laden is sitting. The more oppressed the average Arab Muslim is, the more vulnerable they are to Islamic jihad.
Moderate Muslim voices like ours are coming together, but we can’t properly fight alone. Whenever there is a house destroyed by a drone in Yemen or Pakistan, Al-Qaeda is there to pick up the pieces and pay families reparations. When we put Maliki in place and marginalized the Sunnis, Al-Qaeda was there to help them find a strategy. When one of the candidates in the Egyptian election was excluded, jihadists were there to transform him into an Iraqi suicide bomber. We need to ask real questions. How do we make Saudi reform? How do we help Palestinians attain self-determination and how do we change the false belief that liberalism should support dictators instead of Islamists? Maher prefers a man who killed over 10,000 people to rule Egypt rather than Islamists altogether. Rula is correct to criticize these “liberal values.” They are not liberal, they are limited.
Rula goes on to steep these problems in racism. And I agree with her. Why is it ok for Muslims to be run by dictators? These dictators have brutalized and oppressed their people into a psychosis which has birthed fundamentalist Islam. You cannot be selectively liberal. Media is becoming propagandistic because it is being run by people who are misinformed on the debate. It is distorting the reality on the ground. We don’t look at Shafi’i Muslims, or Sufi Muslims or the fact that Wahhabism is trying to destroy the plurality of Islam. We don’t look at Tunisia who voted in Islamists, then voted them out. Instead we look at Islam, a religion with 1.8 billion people, as a monolith and as an enemy. As we have been doing that, groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda have welcomed those people that our allies, and ourselves, have locked away in a box.
The focus is weak. We are not looking at jihadists as the issue. We aren’t discussing the Haqqani network in Pakistan or Al-Qaeda in Yemen. It is difficult to point the finger back at our own policies, but what do we expect? We allow dictators to throw thousands of innocent people in prison, our weapons are ultimately what kill people in the region and we stand in the way of human rights regularly. This means that the people who are being marginalized and oppressed will eventually turn to self-help. The problem with public figures like Bill Maher is that they lack sophistication on the subject yet implant misdirected ideas in millions of people because of their platform. We trained ISIS in Jordan, we support Gulf monarchies who have committees dedicated to covering any woman’s eye deemed “seductive” and we allow our money to create a very large class disparity in the region. Maher has never traveled to the Middle East, he has a limited engagement in scholarly, political or social dialogue taking place in the region. However, his voice is loud.
Rula points out that the Middle East is ready for what the West has to offer. They are ready for freedom and dignity, rights and social mobility. We are not addressing this fact. ISIS and Al-Qaeda are exploiting these aspirations and they have been for decades. This is a problem for Americans because it destroys our tax dollars, our soldiers’ lives and international reputation. We need to wake up and stop blaming Islam because it is weak.
Read more on Rula at Salon.