On Friday's broadcast of HBO's Real Time, host Bill Maher addressed the criticism of his views on radical Islam and the kerfuffle surrounding a commencement speech he is set to give at UC Berkeley's December graduation. A petition on the internet open to non-students is seeking to get Maher disinvited from Berkeley. Maher confirmed the university is taking his side and the invitation stands.
"The university has come down on my side, saying what I hoped they would say all along, which is that we're liberals, we're supposed told like free speech," Maher said.
After Maher addressed the ongoing saga, panelist Rula Jebreal, a Muslim, challenged Maher's premise that he's not a bigot and likened his speech to an anti-Semitic addressing a Jewish audience.
"Listen, would you accept an openly anti-Semitic person to give a commencement speech to Jewish students?," Jebreal asked. "I actually would not accept that."
"As I just said, even Reza Aslan says I'm not a bigot," Maher responded. "So I rather resent the idea that I'm comparable to an anti-Semite. All I've ever done was basically read facts."
This led to a debate among the panel which included Retired Gen. Wesley Clark and Senator Angus King (I-Maine).
BILL MAHER: Next issue, Berkeley. Normally, I would throw out an issue and let the panel then just interrupt me, which they always do before I finish the question. But all week long I've had all these request for interviews about this. Let me just get out my statement about it because people have been asking. I said I would save it for HBO because they pay me.
So here's what happened. A couple of months ago I was asked to deliver a commencement speech for Berkeley's December graduation. I was like great. I love Berkeley, I'm off in December and it will be a sentimental journey. Who doesn't remember their graduation in December? But whatever, I'm happy to do it because although I never attended Berkeley, I was very aware of their place in the American debate. On the far left in a country where the Democratic party has sold out to the center and even the right, this is what is needed. This is why I wanted to accept this invitation and they invited me because it was the 50th anniversary of something that is legendary on that campus, The Berkeley Free Speech Movement. I guess they don't teach irony in college anymore.
And then a few weeks ago, Ben Affleck was on our show and we had a discussion about Islam that I've had a thousand and one nights with a lot of other people, but he's an A-list movie star so our very deep media started to care about it. It's always easy to do a story about somebody being mad as somebody so when a few thousand people online who didn't have to do anything more than click a button, who didn't even go to Berkeley necessarily wanted me to be disinvited as the commencement speaker, because, you know, I'm a racist. Right, because Islam is a race.
You know, this is the level of logic we are dealing with. By the way, even Reza Aslan, my most strident critics has gone to pains to say he doesn't think I'm a bigot. Here's what he said on HuffPost Live: "Bill Maher is not a bigot. I know him. We are friends. We hang out with each other backstage. He loves having me on the show despite the fact that he disagrees with me on a lot of things and that shows the kind of person that he is." If even my most respectable critic who is a Muslim says this, what leg does the "protest" have to stand on? He and I disagree on some stuff but he's always welcome on this show. That's how it's done, kids. Whoever told you you only had to hear what didn't upset you?
So anyway, the university has come down on my side, saying what I hoped they would say all along, which is that we're liberals, we're supposed told like free speech. So I want to come. I'm planning to come. I'm planning a trip to the Redwoods the next day. My only reservation in not coming is the argument that it will be a media circus and turn which should be a day about the graduates, which it should be, you, into something else. I don't want to do that. It's the only reason I would ever pull out.
But let me say this to those students worried about that: I promise this will be your day. This is a commencement speech. The issue is you. My speech was, is, I hope, going to be about you and whatever tips I thought that could actually help you in life because I already lived through it. That and my funk about how Jewish women hate to have sex. So here's my final plea to you liberal -- in the truest sense of the word -- college students. Not just as Berkeley but all over the country. Please, weigh in on this. My reputation isn't on the line. Yours is.
Okay, so what do you think about this? There's my piece.
RULA JEBREAL, GUEST: I don't think it's about free speech. I'm sorry to tell you this, Bill. And I'll tell you why, it's very simple. These same students who signed that petition actually invited you to a debate. And they said they are welcome so they can have a conversation, they can ask you a question. If they don't like your views on television, they can switch channels. But the commencement speech, it's a platform, actually, that doesn't give the opportunity for questions, it doesn't give an opportunity for push back, even for a debate. It's a monologue, it's not a dialogue. These same students feel offended that your views of Islam -- the generalization, and they said it clearly in their declaration, they said the generalization perpetrates bigotry. This is what they said.
Look, I am all for freedom of speech. I love debates; I hate monologues. When you invite somebody to a commencement speech, you said it, it's about the students. And The New York Times, in this piece this morning said you can't counter a bad speech with a good speech except they don't have that venue. They don't have that opportunity on that day of graduation. They can't out of that.
MAHER: I'm not coming to speak about that subject as I just said.
SEN. ANGUS KING (I-MAINE): Does that mean we never have speeches? Every speech has to be two people?
JEBREAL: But this is a commencement speech. This is a commencement address.
KING: Every commencement speech has one speaker.
JEBREAL: Listen, would you accept an openly anti-Semitic person to give a commencement speech to Jewish students? I actually would not accept that.
MAHER: As I just said, even Reza Aslan says I'm not a bigot. So I rather resent the idea that I'm comparable to an anti-Semite. All I've ever done was basically read facts.
JEBREAL: What facts did you read? I'm sorry, you are comparing jihadists, Salafists, Sunni, you don't know the difference. You are comparing all Muslims in one part --
MAHER: You are Palestinian?
JEBREAL: I am actually a secular Muslim. And when you talking about Islam in a certain way, I have to tell you, it's offensive sometimes.
KING: But it's okay to be offensive. That's what free speech is all about. If free speech is only speech you like, it's not free speech.
JEBREAL: No, but they invited him for a debate. He can go to that debate. I can accompany you on that debate if you want. I am happy to have that debate wherever you want.
KING: He was invited to be a commencement speaker and then he made a statement that people didn't like.
JEBREAL: I don't know what to say.
MAHER: Can you be gay in Gaza?
JEBREAL: Yes, you can.
JEBREAL: Yes you can.
MAHER: And live?
JEBREAL: Absolutely, you can. You know what? It's even more offensive because you are saying --
MAHER: I'm just asking because --
JEBREAL: You can be gay in Gaza.
JEBREAL: I've traveled the Middle East.
MAHER: Is there a gay bar in Gaza?
JEBREAL: This is what I do for a living. You are comparing the majority of Muslim states with Saudi Arabia or with
KING: Should I call [Ben] Affleck and get him back here?
JEBREAL: You know -- do you want to listen or do you want to --
RET. GEN. WESLEY CLARK: I think the issue is beyond Muslims. I think it's about whether someone can be invited to give a speech and people will listen. Maybe they'll agree, maybe they won't. But we don't have a situation in Berkeley where people can't give a speech. I mean, that's the whole essence of the American system, people can give a speech, not everyone has to agree.
JEBREAL: That's ridiculous, I'm sorry General. The Muslim community in this country, you are treating them like Fifth Columnists, and they are not.
MAHER: No I am not.
JEBREAL: And guess what? If these people -- the Muslim community feels threatened and feel offended and they were underrepresented in the media and underrepresented in political avenues. You never invite them here on these issues.
MAHER: Never invite them here? You're here.
JEBREAL: On these issues.
MAHER: Reza is here. They're here all the time.
JEBREAL: On these issues.
MAHER: What do you mean on these issues? I'm the one who says I want to stop talking about this. I can't because things happen in the news.
JEBREAL: Reza Aslan was inviting to talk about something else. It was August 1st.
MAHER: Well, Reza's been here a lot.
JEBREAL: And I'm happy that he's been here and I'm here and I'm so happy to be invited here. However, if you want to have a serious conversation about Islam, and I'm sorry to say this Bill --
MAHER: Every time I tell you something you don't like it's not a serious conversation or I'm a bigot. I'm sorry, in your world either I say exactly what you want me to say or else I'm a bigot. It doesn't work that way.
JEBREAL: Look, if you're -- you don't have to say what I want because what I want is not a war on Islam. I want to win the war on terror. When you are repeating the same things that actual al Qaeda says, the same thing, you are doing the work for them. al-Zawahiri used to say, bin Laden used to say this is not a war on terror, this is a war on Islam. My father was Muslim, he was Sufi. Guess what, let me tell you something. You don't even know the difference between Sufi, Sunni, Sunni Shafi'i, Sunni Hanbali.
MAHER: Yeah, I do.
JEBREAL: You don't. For you, we are all jihadists.
MAHER: I know that in many places in the world, if you left your religion, what would happen?
JEBREAL: Guess what, let me tell you something. Many people in Indonesia.
MAHER: You could walk inside a door in Gaza and say you know what, Ii'm a Presbyterian today?
JEBREAL: Maybe not in Gaza, to be honest. But you can do it in Jordan, you can do it in Lebanon. The majority of -- you are blaming the majority for the criminal acts of a minority. Unfortunately, the majority are disorganized and there's a small minority that are well-organized and controlling the majority.
MAHER: I have to move on.
JEBREAL: I am happy that you're moving on but I'm telling you, there are some people who -- if you would have said some of the things you would have said about African-Americans and about Jews, you would be fired.
MAHER: But African-Americans and Jews don't belong to a religion that wanted to kill Salman Rushdie for writing a book, if we want to get back to the free speech issue. So, I'm sorry, that's called false equivalency. Not all religions are alike. I have to move on. I'm so sorry. (HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher, October 31, 2014)