Sam Harris and Bill Maher’s most recent tirade against Muslims and their faith is indicative of the global threat posed by Islamophobia. The widespread bigotry is being harnessed and used as justification to persecute Muslims around the world, writes Tim Robertson.

It’s unsettling to watch the pseudo-scientific way Sam Harris and Bill Maher justify their demonisation of Muslims. Appearing on Bill Maher’s HBO show, Harris and his host don’t claim to be expressing opinions; rather, they are armed with ‘facts’: empirical, studied, rational and unarguable.

Islam, the argument goes, is a threat to us all. This is old territory for the so-called ‘new atheists’. They are so consumed by their own bigotry as an extension of liberalism and the Enlightenment that they fail to recognise that their hatred feeds societies already conditioned – thanks to hysterical politicians and a compliant media – to see all Muslims as potential terrorists.

Since 9/11, Harris and his cohort – people like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens – have amassed a global audience and have played a significant role in promoting Islamophobia throughout the world and are, thus, complicit in the inevitable consequences of it.

Bill Maher’s logic on this is unintelligible. Speaking to Salon after his and Harris’ spat with Ben Affleck, he defended his position by claiming: ‘We’re liberals! We’re not crazy tea-baggers.’ The implication is that if someone on the far Right made or repeated the same argument he would be a bigot. When has political persuasion ever been a defence against the charge of racism?

Paradoxically, Maher and Harris’ ravings are far more destructive than if they were to come from individuals who identify themselves with the Right because they convince liberals that racism is just benign criticism.

Harris repeatedly makes the point that Muslims are not a minority (there are 1.6 billion of them after all), which is a distortion of the statistics that he hangs his argument on. There are quite obviously parts of the world where Muslims are a minority and they’re persecuted for it.

In Australia in recent months the dangerous coming together of racism and conspiracy theory again threatens our society – news laws governing the way women dress, new laws restricting individual freedoms, unprecedented surveillance and a raised terror alert have all been driven by the unsaid assumption that Muslims are dangerous.

This global Islamophobic sentiment breeds indifference to the plight of Muslims who are being persecuted for their faith around the world. It was only after Christians and Yazidis began being murdered in Iraq that the West took steps to intervene and protect them – the slaughter of Muslims in Syria and havoc of post-invasion Iraq seems barely to have registered. The message is clear: There are those worth protecting and those who can be left to die.

Another group that falls into this latter category are the Rohingya Muslim minority in Burma. They are forced to live in gulags, raped, tortured, trafficked and murdered by Buddhist fundamentalists and are afforded scant protection from a government that refuses to recognise them as citizens.

I was there earlier this year and the fear and hatred of Muslims has become endemic – Burmese Buddhist regularly relayed their concerns to me within the first few minutes of our meeting. It often came in the form of a warning to watch out for any Muslims and avoid their enclaves, but it didn’t take much pressing to have seemingly normal, moral people support the government’s genocidal policies against the Rohingya. Underpinning all this is the conspiracy theory widely held and expressed to me dozens of times, that Muslim’s threaten to overrun and kill the majority Buddhist population, despite making up a mere 4 percent of the population.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly condemned the Burmese government’s ‘campaign of ethnic cleansing’, yet the US and EU have rushed to remove sanctions and are pouring money into the country to take advantage of new investment opportunities. It’s unfathomable that this would be happening if the violence was being committed against a Christian, Buddhist or Jewish minority.

But the West has a habit of projecting its own fears – real or manufactured – onto the rest of the world and despotic regimes have a habit of harnessing these to ensure their crimes are overlooked.

In 2009 the Sri Lankan government used the West’s War on Terror in their long-running fight against the Tamil Tigers (LTTE). The need to fight the threat of terrorism was central in their narrative and was the pretext for the slaughter of Tamil civilians. The US, who also labeled the LTTE a terrorist organisation, could do nothing but seem supportive of a regime that was playing a part in the global war on terror.

Despite having an appalling record of human rights violations, the West stood back and watched on with indifference as Tamil civilians were rounded up into no-fly zones and bombed and trapped in corners of the island nation to make their murder more straightforward.

The West is, at times, so consumed by its own problems that reality is obscured. Sam Harris got lost down this rabbit-hole long ago. When a visibly angry Affleck tells him his comments are ‘racist’ and ‘gross’, the famed atheist rolls out his default defence (which, incidentally, affirms the actor’s characterisation): ‘We have to be able to criticise bad ideas and Islam is the mother-load of bad ideas.’

For more than a decade now, Muslims have been dying in Afghanistan and Iraq because of wars started by the West. Islamophobia in Australia, Europe and the United States is more virulent than ever before. And in places as far removed from conflict in the Middle East as Burma, Muslims are persecuted because of what they believe – but on this the West remains indifferent. Sam Harris et al would do well to reevaluate what constitutes a ‘bad idea.’

(An edited version of this piece was published in New Matilda on 13 October, 2014.)