Through his stand-up act and his long-running HBO talk show Real Time with Bill Maher, the avowed liberal and sacred-cow-killer has zero problem making his lefty pals feel uncomfortable as he challenges their preconceived notions of right and wrong.
In particular, Maher's criticism of Islam has garnered a great deal of blow-back from fellow liberals and mainstream Muslim organizations such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which has labeled Maher, absurdly, an "Islamophobe."
So, in advance of his appearance at Phoenix's Comerica Theatre on Sunday at 8 p.m., New Times got Maher on the phone to discuss Muslims, Donald Trump, encryption, and why size really does matter when it comes to Islamic terrorism. New Times: Is the United States one terrorist attack away from President Donald Trump?
Maher: Well, that is what I've been saying. I'm not in agreement with Donald Trump or his policies, which is a kind word for what he wants to do. I think it's just a primal scream coming out of him. But I think it's a terrible idea to ban all Muslims; we need Muslims, as the president says, to fight terrorism. And we don't want to alienate them, and we don't want to do something that is so terribly un-American. And [U.S. Senator from Texas] Ted Cruz's idea, which is even stupider, about somehow surveilling all Muslim neighborhoods. First of all, we don't have Muslim neighborhoods, like they have in Molenbeck, Brussels, these no-go zones. That's not what America is. And by the way, if you want to create more terrorism, you could not think of a better way than to start surveilling Muslim areas. It's just horrible.
And you know that Ted Cruz, by the way, had that prepared for months, he said, boy, how Donald Trump got to the right of me on the Muslim issue, so next time there's an attack, guys, we need something to come up with. And [his presidential campaign] had that ready for months. As soon as there was an attack, they brought that out. OK, we're gonna one up you Trump, we're gonna call for surveilling Muslim neighborhoods. He's just despicable. Anyway. No, I don't agree with Trump, but, what I keep saying is, if there is another attack, especially, and maybe even without it, and the American people have to choose between that and a party that won't even say the term "Islamic terrorism," yeah, I could see them voting for Trump. Which is a horrible thought for everybody, worst of all, for Muslims.
"If there is another attack, especially, and maybe even without it, and the American people have to choose between that and a party that won't even say the term `Islamic terrorism,' yeah, I could see them voting for Trump."
Why do you think Democrats are so afraid of using the term "Islamic terrorism"?
I think the problem that Democrats have had in general, in the lifespan I've been following politics, is that they don't lead, they follow. They sense what their constituents want to hear, and then they say it. Now Republicans, I don't agree with their policies, but I'll give 'em this, they don't follow the polls all the time. They say, well this is what the polls show, we'll change it. For example, the public option for healthcare was polling very high before Obama became president. Something like 70 percent thought that was a good idea. And by the way, [it was supported by] many Republicans. It is called the public option. It's just an option. It's about freedom. I thought they liked freedom.
So what they said is, the polls show that this is high; well, we'll change the polls. We'll meet in our secret lair, and we'll get all our people together to say the same dumb talking points, and we'll knock that approval rating down from 70 to 40 percent. The Democrats don't do that. ... Democrats have this idea, which I have been fighting against, that Islamic terrorism is somehow, if you say that term, an act of bigotry. And they're afraid to challenge it. So I would like to goad them into challenging it. As I keep saying, I think I'm the liberal in this debate.
Is this something you get into in your stand-up routine as well?
Oh, yes. I mean, I don't do anything in my stand-up that isn't chock full of laughs, because that's what stand-up should be, so we don't get into every aspect of it. But absolutely this is something that I relish talking about in stand-up, and I think in the last few years, I've really turned a lot of people around. I think a lot of times liberals have just not thought about this issue all that much. I think they have this idea in their heads that Muslims are a minority and anytime you criticize a minority, somehow you are violating some rule of liberalism. Whereas, what I'm saying is ... if you're a liberal, then you have to stand for liberal principles.
I'm the son of two liberals. I remember what those liberal principles are. And it's always being on side of the people who are the oppressed or the downtrodden or the put upon. And how you can be for blacks women, gays, poor people, immigrants, lettuce-pickers, victims of police brutality, you name it, whatever the cause, the bullied, the molested, the disabled, and then look upon a woman who has to wear a burka, a complete tarp over her whole body all the time, and not see that as oppression, is amazing to me, because this idea that, well, it's her culture, she likes it. She likes it! That's what pimps say. What do you think about the controversy in France, where a government minister over there has gotten into trouble by comparing Islamic veils to slavery?
I don't think you can tell people how to dress, no matter what they want to wear. Obviously, if you're taking a driver's license photo, you can't cover your face, though that has been tried. But the battle has to take place in a different arena than government ... and convince folks that they want to have the option not to wear [an Islamic veil], just the way that we have to convince people that theocracy is not the way to go, that honor killings are a bad idea and that killing cartoonists, killing people that leave the religion, and wanting to murder gay people for being gay [are all bad ideas].
Am I saying all Muslims believe this? Of course not. But this idea that liberals have, which is encouraged by Democratic politicians ... that somehow it's just a very small percentage, the terrorists, that believe illiberal things, and the rest of the Muslims, the whole religion has been hijacked. Well, that's plainly not true. There's an extraordinary amount of polling that they have done in the last five-10 years that tell us, we don't have to guess about this.
On encryption: "Yes, we'd all like our dick pics to be private, but you know what, if they become public, it's not as bad as a dirty bomb going off 20 miles from where you live."
Trump talks about it like every Muslim is a terrorist, which is crazy. And the Democrats talk about it like it's just this very small percentage, which is silly, too. And again, we can look at the polling. A country like Indonesia, 18 percent of the people according to the polls believe in honor killings. So what you're telling me with that is that in Indonesia, a country which many people hold up as a moderate Muslim nation, almost 1 out of 5 people think when a woman is raped, we blame her and kill her for it. Yeah, you see, I don't understand why the liberals get upset about that.
Some Muslim writers (locally, Phoenix's Dr. Zuhdi Jasser) have expressed the opinion that the real "problem" is that the separation of church and state is not an idea with deep roots in the Muslim world. What do you think about that?
Right. Again. Here's something I said on the first show of our season, which upset a lot of people, which was, it was our first show after the San Bernardino killings, and following those murders, I heard many people in the media talking about how Americans, if they only knew more about Islam, they wouldn't be so afraid. And I said, actually, it's the exact opposite, they don't know anything about Islam. And if they knew more, you think they probably would be more afraid. And this is a good example of what you just brought up. I don't think people realize that in so many Muslim countries, the separation of church and state just doesn't exist. I mean, sharia law — you know what's in sharia law, some of those things I was just mentioning — we cut off your hands if you're a thief, we kill you if you are an adulterer or you have premarital sex, or if you marry someone outside the religion. We kill you if you leave the religion. It varies from country to country; it's not always as bad as it is in Saudi Arabia. But again, these are very, very illiberal ideas. Liberals have got to stand up for liberalism, else you're not a liberal.
"So this notion that liberals always go to of, you say something bad about Muslims, and then I will say something bad about the Ku Klux Klan. Except the Ku Klux Klan is not trying to acquire nuclear weapons."
Something else you often hear among liberals in the aftermath of terrorist attacks perpetrated by militant Islamists is that there's no difference between extremists, whether it's an anti-abortion extremist or a neo-Nazi, it's all the same.
Once again, this is pure ignorance. This is just again liberals talking out of their ass. It's them wanting to believe something and going by that as opposed to facts. Which ironically is exactly what they hate Republicans for doing. But, look, size matters. Of course, you can always find an example of bad behavior in any culture. No one, certainly not me, is arguing that that the only bad behavior in the world is taking place in Muslim countries. What I'm saying is size matters. And again, we can quantify this. ...The New York Times says there are 5,000 Muslim militant groups in the world. ... Okay, there are 5,000 Christian militant groups in the world on this order? Of course not.
So this notion that liberals always go to of, you say something bad about Muslims, and then I will say something bad about the Ku Klux Klan. Except the Ku Klux Klan is not trying to acquire nuclear weapons. When is the last time the Ku Klux Klan pulled off anything like any of the 100 Islamic terrorist attacks I can name, practically off the top of my head? I can name four just in Europe in the last year. It's what they call a false equivalency. That's a really annoying argument that they should know better [than to make].
If we accept that Islamic terrorism is an existential threat to the U.S., then how do we address the issue of encryption and encrypted messages and balance that with freedom of speech, the right to privacy, and so forth?
Every single law-enforcement person I've seen talk about it in the last month or so has said we're blind now. We don't know what they're thinking. We don't know what they're talking about. So obviously, this is a problem that is going to have to be dealt with.
We all want our privacy; that's important. But I would maintain that the old rubric, I think it was said originally by Benjamin Franklin or somebody like that, somebody from that era, who said those who would give up their privacy for their security deserve neither and did not live in the era of nuclear weapons. I'm sorry, but the stakes are just a lot higher.
Yes, we'd all like our dick pics to be private, but you know what, if they become public, it's not as bad as a dirty bomb going off 20 miles from where you live. And these guys are not playin'. They are actively seeking it. We found out that those guys in Brussels were actively surveilling a nuclear scientist. They were either going to blackmail him or kidnap him, someway to get nuclear material. And unfortunately, there is a lot of nuclear material in the world. Which President Trump only wants to increase.
Please, Jesus, don't let that ever happen.
Well, that kind of ends on a downer.
(Laughing) I would like to say that when I come to Phoenix, my show is all funny and not all about this.
Bill Maher appears at Downtown Phoenix's Comerica Theatre, 400 West Washington Street, Phoenix, AZ 85003, this Sunday, April 10, at 8 p.m.