Bill Maher, Zayn Malik and the racist nature of Islamophobia

I must confess – I don’t know the music of Zayn Malik and One Direction. They are literally one generation after my own and I’m not even caught up to my own generation’s hits (circa 1980ies to 2000s)! I’ve vaguely heard Zayn’s name before but did not know till now he is passionate about his Muslim identity. His actions which are titillated in the media are no different from any young person who has found fame and so Conservative Traditional Muslims are judging him very unfairly. This lad has experienced abuse from both Muslims and Westerners for the very same reasons – his Pakistani heritage and Muslim identity.

To add fuel to the fire, since he left 1D, some people have been saying that he did so to become ‘more Paki’ because he produced a track with ‘Naughty Boy’ whom, as it turns out, had a very sedate name like Shahid Khan. People can get very superficial and even more so when it comes to Muslims who are the biggest victims of discrimination in this day and age. No less a website than the BBC itself once said that the Woolwich Murderers were of ‘Muslim appearance’. What does that actually mean? If these two guys – both young Afro-Carribeans males who did not wear the traditional Muslim robes or skullcaps – turned out to be two smartly dressed Turkish men from Istanbul (superficially indistinguishable from the White majority), would they have been described as such? I for one do not think so. This is the racialized nature of Islamophobia. Some races and thus looks are prone to being fingered as ‘looking Muslim’. This is why there are memes floating around of a Sikh couple disclaiming that they are Muslim. The Sikhs have the look and similar dress and have been misidentified as Muslims before thus leading to tragic consequences.

Islamophobia has to do with ideology, sure. I cannot completely dismiss the ideological basis myself, ironically because of my religious belief as a Muslim I oppose its injustice. I know Islamofascists’ rhetoric all too well, having researched it for over a decade. It is a nauseating ideology but one held by a miniscule of Muslims. Its main cause is the Muslim objectification and reification of their sacred texts (traditions about the Prophet and classical exegeses of the Quran). These texts represent an ancient culture and badly needs updating. Muslims themselves have long since left the politics which these texts expound. I must also state clearly here and I do not believe for one second that the Quran is party to Islamofascist beliefs – rather it was co-opted through the mechanism of exegesis.

Of course, there are media pundits who do not want any sort of nuance when it comes to discussing Islam. It would be as expedient for them as if Soviet Russia had suddenly turned and renounced Communism at the height of the nuclear arms race during the Cold War. In other words, it’s simply not good for business, the ‘business’ of course referring to the military industrial complex. Neither is the admission that Muslims overwhelmingly reject Jihadism so this is downplayed to a very large degree.

One of the rising Islamophobic media pundits is Bill Maher. Last year, he gained notoriety when Ben Affleck came on his show and told him off as well as the self-proclaimed expert on Islam, Sam Harris. Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens must have split personalities. I say this because their awesome philosophical skills are rendered impotent when it comes to analyzing Islam. They suddenly become as uneducated as can be.

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Bill Maher’s comment on Zayn Malik was a great exposé of his rhetoric. The video in question shows Zayn Malik and the notorious Boston Bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev side by side with Maher asking the suggestive question on Zayn’s whereabouts during the Boston Bombing. This ‘joke’ is reminiscent of the seventies recurring racial (but not necessarily racist) joke, ‘you all look alike to me’ which is told by White people to Asians and Blacks and also vice versa. However, in that instance, there no political scent to it. I highly doubt the ‘you all look alike comment’ – however offensive it has become today – would have caused any racial hate crimes. Not so with Maher’s joke.

Would Bill have made this comment if Zayn was not of a Muslim background? Unlikely. This is also a case of tribal generalizations. The only thing that Zayn shares with Dzhokhar is their superficial Muslim identities. Probe any deeper (if Maher is capable of that) and you will find two completely different people. What is left then is only their looks. Hence Maher is a racist.

And this is the racialized nature of Islamophobia. On the ground where it manifests as violence, it is not about politics, ideology or even religion. It’s about what race you look like. Don’t believe me? Google ‘Jean Charles de Menezes’ and see for yourself. If Bill Maher is reading this (very unlikely, I know), I would ask him this – do you think it’s ethical to use this material to bolster your popularity. Are you prepared to shoulder the burden if a madman harms Zayn Malik because he can’t tell the difference between him and Dzhokhar? If so, there is no less of a phrase to describe your humour – pure evil.

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