Mehdi Hasan Is Sick of ‘Racist’ Bill Maher’s Nonsense
The host of Peacock’s ‘The Mehdi Hasan Show’ talks to Marlow Stern about the anti-Muslim hate he’s faced, Glenn Greenwald’s Intercept debacle, and a certain Islamophobic HBO host.
Since its Oct. 5 debut, Peacock’s The Mehdi Hasan Show has fast become one of the most satisfying nightly news programs in America. Where else can you find Mark Ruffalo condemning Israel’s “asymmetrical warfare” against the Palestinians, Jon Stewart railing against Mitch McConnell’s “paper patriotism,” or John Bolton squirming in his seat as he’s repeatedly asked if all the dead Iraqi civilians keep him up at night?
At the center of it all is Mehdi Hasan, a quick-witted 41-year-old from England who’s sort of like a hard news John Oliver, right down to the breakneck monologues. Hasan wrote for The Guardian, New Statesman, and The Huffington Post before hosting a number of shows for Al Jazeera English. For the past two years, he’s hosted the podcast Deconstructed, which was produced by The Intercept. Hasan occupies a unique space within the primetime news landscape. For one thing, he’s a lefty, meaning you’ll get to see guests like Noam Chomsky who’ve effectively been blackballed from most traditional network shows; and he’s also Muslim, a faith that has been marginalized in cable news, in particular.
“It’s relentless. Absolutely exhausting,” Hasan tells me. “Having been a guest on these shows, you don’t really see on the other end how hard it is. The first thing I did was I messaged Chris Hayes and Jake Tapper and asked, ‘How do you guys do this?’”
Due to the ongoing pandemic, NBC constructed a studio in the bowels of Hasan’s Washington, D.C., home. “The commute is just walking down a staircase,” he chuckles, adding, “My kids have to stay quiet for an hour every night while I do a live broadcast from the basement. It’s very odd to get in a suit and tie, and then go to a room completely on your own.”
In a lively chat, Hasan dished on his journey to primetime.
We’ve seen you interview everyone from John Bolton to Jon Stewart on The Mehdi Hasan Show. What do you want to achieve with the show, and how will you make it stand out among the pack?
I think, in some ways, it is standing out already. We’re trying to get the big interviews, and we’ve been very lucky—being a new show on a new platform—to get some big names on the show, both politicians and celebrities, and just interesting people. We had [Georgia Secretary of State] Brad Raffensperger on the show, and he spoke out against Trump, which was a great exclusive interview to have. Really, what I’m trying to do is make sure that my voice comes across and isn’t diluted, because I have very strong views on certain things and want to make sure I get those across. The big stories right now are COVID and the election, and both have a lot of BS involved, and as someone who’s spent my entire career calling out BS and trying to be as plainspoken as possible—not hiding behind euphemisms, not playing the both-sides game—that’s what I try and do in my show, and what I expect from the people I cover as well.
As far as the future of right-wing media goes, I subscribe to the theory—and I’m certainly not alone in this—that Trump is going to start a media network, or perhaps take over OANN. So then you’ll potentially have this gulf on the right between Fox News and Trump News.
Yeah—but then the counterargument is: Donald Trump can’t run a bath, how’s he going to run a news channel? Everything he touches ends up bankrupt, from Trump Steaks to everything else. Running a TV news station is a big endeavor that eats up a lot of money and requires good management, so how’s he going to pull that off? Does he just end up as a regular Fox News contributor with a fat contract and beat, and all is forgiven between him and Fox? Who knows. What is fascinating is the internecine far-right cable news war, with Newsmax, OANN and Fox. Watching the alt-right folks in the streets yelling, “Fox News are traitors!” “Fox News sucks!” and lots of liberals laughing on Twitter and going, “Well, they’re right—but for the wrong reasons.” Tucker Carlson has been getting hate because he simply said Sidney Powell didn’t want to go on the show and offer evidence for her wacky election conspiracy theories. Even Tucker! Hero of the white nationalists and Stormfront brigade! Even he’s getting bile and hate because he dared to question the fraud election-narrative from King Trump.
When you lose the bow tie-wearing heir to the Swanson frozen food fortune…
No he’s not! He’s a champion of workers and a blue-collar populist! [Laughs]
Exactly. All these people are just cruelly exploiting the blue-collar workers in this country. There’s a clear lack of diversity in media—and in cable news in particular. So it is a historic thing to have a nightly news show hosted by a Muslim journalist.
It’s not lost on me, and it is a privilege to have that opportunity. It’s a lot of real estate. It’s no joke to have five hours of live TV every week with an NBC platform. So I’m under no illusions about the opportunity that this provides to someone like me—as an immigrant, as a Muslim, and as a lefty, because my politics are to the left of most cable news hosts. So it is an opportunity to bring on different guests, different voices. This is a show where tonight we have John Podesta on the show, former campaign manager to Hillary Clinton, and will also have Noam Chomsky on the show. I take pride in the fact that we have a diversity of guests, from Noam Chomsky to John Bolton to John Podesta.
It’s not lost on me that we live in an era of rampant racism, of growing white nationalism, and of an Islamophobia that predates Donald Trump. Donald Trump is in many ways a symptom of Islamophobia, not the cause of it. You go back to 9/11, and some of the coverage of Muslims has been atrocious across the news media in America, and in the U.K. where I’m from initially. So yes, for someone like me it’s a great opportunity to be seen, and I know there’s a lot of pressure on me.
You’ve been very outspoken about anti-Muslim attitudes in the media. Have you personally had to contend with that during your career?
You asked me earlier what it’s like to have a primetime show as a Muslim journalist, and I’m now comfortable enough in my own skin to say, “Yeah, I’m a Muslim journalist.” I understand why there are a lot of people who are trying to break into the media who don’t want to be called a “Muslim journalist,” because nobody wants to be pigeonholed. And once you get pigeonholed as a “Muslim journalist,” people say, “OK, you can write about terrorism, race relations, and the Middle East.” Some of us, like me, are interested in those subjects and like to write about it, but nobody wants to be pigeonholed in that way.
Right. Nobody wants to be pigeonholed.
And then separately there’s the public eye. As someone who’s been in the public eye, I do tell a lot of younger Muslims, “Be careful. You want to be a journalist? Great. We need more Muslims in the media. But don’t do it unless you have the thickest of thick skin. Because the amount of abuse, and the amount of scrutiny, and the amount of attacks you will face are astonishing. What I’ve had to put up in the public eye, what I still have to put up with, is absurd—the names that I’ve been called, the suspicions that have been thrown my way. And this is not just from conservatives or right-wingers, unfortunately. I’ve had liberals ask me some of the most loaded questions and make some of the most sweeping statements about my background, and assume that I must think this way or that way based on my ethnic or religious background. Are you willing to put up with all the public crap that comes your way? Just ask Ilhan Omar or Keith Ellison about what they’ve had to put up with. Look at Ali Velshi. He’s a good friend of mine at MSNBC. Do you think it’s a coincidence that Donald Trump went after him repeatedly during rallies in the [election] run-up? Both glorifying the violence against him and misstating his name over and over again? There’s no coincidence that he went after Ali in that way. There’s a lot of stuff that comes with the terrain.
I’m reminded of Bill Maher, because he’s someone I’ve watched for a bit. But there is an insidious strain of anti-Muslim hate that’s seeping into even so-called “liberal” circles like Bill Maher’s. On his HBO show he’s regularly spewing anti-Muslim hate.
There is subtle Islamophobia, and I wouldn’t put Bill Maher in the “subtle” category. He’s pretty brazen. This is a guy who says Islam acts like the mafia, and the guy who says stuff like, “Muslims bring that desert stuff to the West.” I mean, that’s not just Islamophobia, that’s old-fashioned racism. Making references to the desert, when most Muslims don’t come from the desert, don’t live in the desert, and most Muslim Americans have no ties to a desert? He’s said so many things, and we can go through a long litany of outrageous and racist statements he’s said about Muslims and Islam—and not just that, statements that have offended African American communities and other communities. And yet, he’s still called “liberal,” and prominent Democrats still go on his show. Some people have pushed back at him, but you’ll notice that he never has any kind of “mainstream Muslims” to come on and talk. There was a time when he would have a Reza Aslan or Rula Jebreal on, but no longer. He only has the Muslims who will come on and bash Islam. And he gets away with it. You talk about “cancel culture,” well where is it? Bill Maher still has a very prominent show.
That was Ben Affleck’s finest moment, in my opinion—calling Maher’s Islamophobia out.
Ben Affleck’s finest moment! Who knew The Dark Knight was an honorary Muslim who’d come to our defense when we needed it most?
[Laughs] OK, so you did work at The Intercept until recently, and I’m curious about the whole Glenn Greenwald debacle. What’s your take on it? From an outsider’s perspective, I’ve been watching Glenn’s weird descent into the “culture wars” and being a very online Twitter reactionary for several years now, and it’s been a strange turn for a journalist whose coverage of Snowden and WikiLeaks many on the left admired. Now, it just seems like it’s all culture wars stuff. And also, it seemed like the guy just didn’t want to be edited? The whole thing is very strange.
As someone who is a fan of both The Intercept and of Glenn, I was very sad to see what went down. It’s one of those things where I watched and didn’t get involved, and you’re actually the first person to ask me on the record about this. I stayed out of it simply because, you know, I wouldn’t have left The Intercept in that way—in fact, I didn’t leave The Intercept in that way. When I left, Glenn said very nice things about my departure, so it was very sad to see him leave on those terms, with The Intercept pushing back very hard on his critiques of The Intercept. I’m not sure I share his critiques of The Intercept.
I’ve been a great admirer of his for many years, and him and I have been friends for several years, even before we were colleagues. I think he’s done great journalism over the years. Yeah, is his focus my focus? No. And he knows that. We have some intense arguments in private, and we prefer to keep them in private because Twitter is not a forum for it. And I’ll be honest with you: Glenn is not the same person in private that he is on Twitter. I’m not the same person in private that I am on Twitter. I think Twitter often brings out the worst in some of us more opinionated people.
Right. It is a very toxic place.
And I think you’ve put your finger on it: for many people, the “culture wars” dominates and is the story of our time. “Free speech,” and “woke culture,” and “cancel culture”—it’s not for me. For me, the story of our time is that one of the two major parties in our country has gone full-on authoritarian, has gone full-on white nationalist, and is no longer interested in democracy and is no longer hiding it. That, for me, is the story of our time. Some row over the Harper’s letter is not for me.
You mentioned your “strong views” earlier in our discussion, and one controversial opinion you hold is being anti-abortion. Can I ask why? It’s something you’ve written about a bit in the past.
So Marlow, here’s the thing: I wrote about it like eight years ago, and one thing I learned about writing that piece was you have to talk about this issue very sensitively. This is not a place from strong views, or sweeping rhetoric, or one-liners, or polemic. And that was the mistake I made, which I owned at the time. I think this is an issue where people have strong views on all sides. My views even today are not fully formed on this issue. I have my own personal views, moral views, religious views, political views. I’ve made it very clear: I support the law, and support a woman’s right to choose what she wants to do with her body. Do I have my own moral, religious views on the whole debate? I do. And you know what? I just think even you asking me this question is a nightmare because I don’t think two guys should be discussing abortion, to be honest.
Right... because it should be the woman’s right to choose. So Trump is now trying to subvert the will of the people, and democracy, in attempting to overturn the election results. It’s pretty insane, and I don’t think being treated with the right degree of seriousness because it’s such a clown-car situation, with Rudy Giuliani leaking from his head.
It’s very scary. We’ve been covering it on the show every night. There’s this weird balancing act of, yeah, you need to point out how clown car-ish, reckless, and silly these people are; on the other hand, this is a genuine attempt by a sitting president to overturn the results of the election. As many have pointed out, if you had a few more Republican officials who were willing to go along with the plan, we’d be in a much more dangerous place. This was a close call. Even if all goes according to plan and Joe Biden takes office on the 20th of January, which I think he will, I don’t think anyone should be complacent about how brittle, how weak, how dysfunctional U.S. democracy is on the one hand, and how anti-democratic and authoritarian the Republican Party has become—from the White House down to the ones in Wayne County. For me, it’s the biggest issue right now. And going forward, I refuse to be one of those journalists who will reset the clock on the 20th of January, and who will treat people like Marco Rubio as serious figures.
I wanted to ask you about Barack Obama’s current press tour, because I’ve been very disappointed in the media for their treatment of Obama, who’s been given softball interview after softball interview in The Atlantic, on 60 Minutes, etc. You can understand a little about why people are critical of the “liberal media” when journalists keep giving Obama a total pass. This guy hasn’t had to answer one question about drone strikes or deportations during his entire press tour.
Killing Anwar al-Awlaki’s kids during a drone strike.
Exactly. How do you feel about the way this has transpired? Because it does seem to be evidence that the media can take it easy on liberal figures.
Two separate things: I think liberal figures in the age of Trump are going to get a pass, right? Even I’m guilty of not going as hard at liberal people as I normally would, simply because of the moment we’re in. We’re in a moment where one party is trying to overturn democracy. No matter how many criticisms I may have of the Democratic Party, nothing comes close to that. It’s the equivalent of the Iraq War and George W. Bush. Whatever one party was doing at the time, the other party was doing the Iraq War and torture at Abu Ghraib. There are certain issues that then dwarf everything, and I think Obama will be remembered much better than he would have been simply because he was sandwiched between George W. Bush and Donald Trump, the two worst presidents of the last hundred years—if not ever. Even people like me who were ultra critical of the Obama presidency while it was happening, since he left, people like me are like, “Well, gotta miss a sane and intelligent president.” When you get a president like Trump afterwards, even the most cynical, critical, and left-wing people will say, “Come on, Barack Obama’s reputation looks a lot better given what came after.”
Separately, I’ve said this before: once you rise to a certain position in American politics, you get a certain deference from members of the media and a certain level of respect that doesn’t go away. And you keep it. And it means people are much more respectful than they otherwise should be, in my view. You remember when Bill Clinton was doing a book tour not too long ago and Craig Melvin of NBC asked him if he’d ever apologized privately to Monica Lewinsky, and Clinton went off on him—attacked him during the interview, and attacked him afterward, and it became a story. And it’s like… what? It’s a totally justifiable question. The fact that Clinton got irritated speaks volumes, because it suggests that people like this aren’t used to be getting asked these questions.
George W. Bush somehow got to rebrand as a quirky painter. It’s just crazy.
Again, I think George W. Bush benefited hugely from Trump. People were like, “Oh, look! Him and Michelle Obama are swapping cough drops at funerals! You can never imagine Trump doing that!” Obama even praises Bush in his memoir, and says he thought it was unfair that people protested his departure from the White House. In this country, you guys—wait, I’m an American citizen! I’ve been an American for a full two months. We in this country do not have a royal family and do not have a monarchy. And the institutions, like the presidency, have taken that place, and the people who occupy that office are allowed to have some of that rub off on them, and take it into later in life. I’d love to have Obama on my show to ask him some more probing questions about deporting more people than all previous 21st century presidents put together, and to use the Espionage Act against journalists and leakers more times than all previous presidents put together.
So did you just cast your first vote in a U.S. presidential election—against Trump?
I did! I did cast my first vote. I’m not going to tell you how I voted Marlow, you’ll just have to guess.