HBO funny man Bill Maher briefly interrupted his regularly scheduled conservative bashing last week to attack his fellow liberals. Why? Because, apparently, they haven't offered sweeping denunciations of Islam—a religion that, in Maher's book, betrays everything liberals stand for: tolerance, free speech and equality for women.
Far be it for a libertarian like me to defend liberals from a liberal, but such restraint on their part reflects not cowardice or hypocrisy. Rather, it is emblematic of this country's fundamental decency that has allowed it to protect its religious minorities.
Maher is an arch atheist who regards all religions as awful. However, he thinks that Islam's inherently violent nature makes it particularly so. And he agrees with American Enterprise Institute's Aayan Hirsi Ali that liberals ought to stop pretending that a moderate form of Islam is even possible right now.
Maher's bold generalization might sound hip and cool—but it is actually false and dangerous (and I say this as an atheist born in the Hindu faith that has historically been at loggerheads with Islam.)
For starters, it ignores the 300 million Muslims—the size of America's population—in the world who are Sufis, a mystical form of Islam that is essentially pacifist and believes that the path to God is through music and dance.
Worse, Maher doesn't understand one can't characterize a whole faith as extremist without also legitimizing the idea that extreme measures are necessary to control it.
That's something even the un-cool George Bush instinctively understood. That's why he took pains to stress that America's beef wasn't with Islam—only the extremists perverting their faith. The upshot was that even though the attack killed 3,000 Americans, America avoided a backlash against Muslims. To be sure, a handful of innocent Asians, some of who weren't even Muslims, suffered random attacks, but there would have been far more bloodshed if Bush had followed Maher-style Muslim bashing.
Contrast this with India, my native country, where Maher-style denunciations of Muslims are part and parcel of the political culture. Barely six months after 9/11, about 2,000 Muslims were butchered in a pogrom in the state of Gujarat. (The governor on whose watch this happened just became the prime minister of India this week.)
India's majority Hindu population has historically had tense relations with the country's Muslim minority so anti-Muslim violence is nothing new. And in this case, the proximate cause of the massacre was retribution for some 50 Hindu pilgrims who died in a train fire that Muslims were rumored to have caused.
But the larger cause was that post-9/11, Maher-type talk of rising Islamofascism raised anti-Muslim sentiment in the country to a fevered pitch. It legitimized the ongoing demonization of India's Muslims, leaving the country with few inner resources to contain the violence against them.
But America's record of protecting Muslim minorities is not only better than India's troubled democracy, but also less troubled Western ones. Indeed, despite 9/11, anecdotal evidence compiled by human rights groups suggests that Muslims experience no more hate crimes in America than in other European countries —and perhaps fewer.
This is a great accomplishment, but it isn't automatic. It stems from bitter experience, and shouldn't be taken for granted.
There are two ways to follow one's convictions: By embodying them or by going after those who don't.
America took the second route when, in its zeal to defeat Communism, it developed an ugly preoccupation with the enemy. That led to over-zealous interventionism abroad and McCarthyism at home — which undermined, rather than helped, the cause of freedom.
Partly because of such excesses, America has taken the first route post 9/11. There is a clear recognition this time that America cannot throw its core constitutional protections under the bus to pursue terrorists. This has led to vigilance about the due process violations of the Patriot Act, the rise of the surveillance state and, yes, racial profiling of Muslims (which Maher supports).
One can disagree over whether the country has struck the right balance between security and civil liberties. But one can't disagree that this is a far better conversation to have than the one in India: Whether it can prevent more Muslim bloodshed?
This is the accomplishment that Maher's efforts to taunt his fellow liberals into joining his anti-Muslim broadsides will undermine. They should firmly decline.
A version of this column originally appeared in the Washington Examiner