(updated below – Update II – Update III [Thurs.])
Two columns have been published in the past week harshly criticizing the so-called “New Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens: this one by Nathan Lean in Salon, and this one by Murtaza Hussain in Al Jazeera. The crux of those columns is that these advocates have increasingly embraced a toxic form of anti-Muslim bigotry masquerading as rational atheism. Yesterday, I posted a tweet to Hussain’s article without comment except to highlight what I called a “very revealing quote” flagged by Hussain, one in which Harris opined that “the people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.”
Shortly after posting the tweet, I received an angry email from Harris, who claimed that Hussain’s column was “garbage”, and he eventually said the same thing about Lean’s column in Salon. That then led to a somewhat lengthy email exchange with Harris in which I did not attempt to defend every claim in those columns from his attacks because I didn’t make those claims: the authors of those columns can defend themselves perfectly well. If Harris had problems with what those columns claim, he should go take it up with them.
I do, however, absolutely agree with the general argument made in both columns that the New Atheists have flirted with and at times vigorously embraced irrational anti-Muslim animus. I repeatedly offered to post Harris’ email to me and then tweet it so that anyone inclined to do so could read his response to those columns and make up their own minds. Once he requested that I do so, I posted our exchange here.
Harris himself then wrote about and posted our exchange on his blog, causing a couple dozen of his followers to send me emails. I alsoengaged in a discussion with a few Harris defenders on Facebook. What seemed to bother them most was the accusation in Hussain’s column that there is “racism” in Harris’ anti-Muslim advocacy. A few of Harris’ defenders were rage-filled and incoherent, but the bulk of them were cogent and reasoned, so I concluded that a more developed substantive response to Harris was warranted.
Given that I had never written about Sam Harris, I found it odd that I had become the symbol of Harris-bashing for some of his faithful followers. Tweeting a link to an Al Jazeera column about Harris and saying I find one of his quotes revealing does not make me responsible for every claim in that column. I tweet literally thousands of columns and articles for people to read. I’m responsible for what I say, not for every sentence in every article to which I link on Twitter. The space constraints of Twitter have made this precept a basic convention of the medium: tweeting a link to a column or article or re-tweeting it does not mean you endorse all of it (or even any of it).
That said, what I did say in my emails with Harris – and what I unequivocally affirm again now – is not that Harris is a “racist”, but rather that he and others like him spout and promote Islamophobia under the guise of rational atheism. I’ve long believed this to be true and am glad it is finally being dragged out into open debate. These specific atheism advocates have come to acquire significant influence, often for the good. But it is past time that the darker aspects of their worldview receive attention.
Whether Islamophobia is a form of “racism” is a semantic issue in which I’m not interested for purposes of this discussion. The vast majority of Muslims are non-white; as a result, when a white westerner becomes fixated on attacking their religion and advocating violence and aggression against them, as Harris has done, I understand why some people (such as Hussain) see racism at play: that, for reasons I recently articulated, is a rational view to me. But “racism” is not my claim here about Harris. Irrational anti-Muslim animus is.
Contrary to the assumptions under which some Harris defenders are laboring, the fact that someone is a scientist, an intellectual, and a convincing and valuable exponent of atheism by no means precludes irrational bigotry as a driving force in their worldview. In this case, Harris’ own words, as demonstrated below, are his indictment.
Let’s first quickly dispense with some obvious strawmen. Of course one can legitimately criticize Islam without being bigoted or racist. That’s self-evident, and nobody is contesting it. And of course there are some Muslim individuals who do heinous things in the name of their religion – just like there are extremists in all religions who do awful and violent things in the name of that religion, yet receive far less attention than the bad acts of Muslims (here are some very recent examples). Yes, “honor killings” and the suppression of women by some Muslims are heinous, just as the collaboration of US and Ugandan Christians to enact laws to execute homosexuals is heinous, and just as the religious-driven, violent occupation of Palestine, attacks on gays, and suppression of women by some Israeli Jews in the name of Judaism is heinous. That some Muslims commit atrocities in the name of their religion (like some people of every religion do) is also too self-evident to merit debate, but it has nothing to do with the criticisms of Harris.
Nonetheless, Harris defenders such as the neoconservative David Frum want to pretend that criticisms of Harris consist of nothing more than the claim that, as Frum put it this week, “it’s OK to be an atheist, so long as you omit Islam from your list of the religions to which you object.” That’s a wildly dishonest summary of the criticisms of Harris as well as people like Dawkins and Hitchens; absolutely nobody is arguing anything like that. Any atheist is going to be critical of the world’s major religions, including Islam, and there is nothing whatsoever wrong with that.
The key point is that Harris does far, far more than voice criticisms of Islam as part of a general critique of religion. He has repeatedly made clear that he thinks Islam is uniquely threatening: “While the other major world religions have been fertile sources of intolerance, it is clear that the doctrine of Islam poses unique problems for the emergence of a global civilization.” He has insisted that there are unique dangers from Muslims possessing nuclear weapons, as opposed to nice western Christians (the only ones to ever use them) or those kind Israeli Jews: “It should be of particular concern to us that the beliefs of devout Muslims pose a special problem for nuclear deterrence.” In his 2005 “End of Faith”, he claimed that “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death.”
This is not a critique of religion generally; it is a relentless effort to depict Islam as the supreme threat. Based on that view, Harris, while depicting the Iraq war as a humanitarian endeavor, has proclaimed that “we are not at war with terrorism. We are at war with Islam.” He has also decreedthat “this is not to say that we are at war with all Muslims, but we are absolutely at war with millions more than have any direct affiliation with Al Qaeda.” “We” – the civilized peoples of the west – are at war with“millions” of Muslims, he says. Indeed, he repeatedly posits a dichotomy between “civilized” people and Muslims: “All civilized nations must unite in condemnation of a theology that now threatens to destabilize much of the earth.”
This isn’t “quote-mining”, the term evidently favored by Harris and his defenders to dismiss the use of his own words to make this case. To the contrary, I’ve long ago read the full context of what he has written and did so again yesterday. All the links are provided here – as they were in Hussain and Lean’s columns – so everyone can see it for themselves. Yes, he criticizes Christianity, but he reserves the most intense attacks and superlative condemnations for Islam, as well as unique policy prescriptions of aggression, violence and rights abridgments aimed only at Muslims. As the atheist scholar John L Perkins wrote about Harris’ 2005 anti-religion book: “Harris is particularly scathing about Islam.”
When criticism of religion morphs into an undue focus on Islam – particularly at the same time the western world has been engaged in a decade-long splurge of violence, aggression and human rights abuses against Muslims, justified by a sustained demonization campaign – then I find these objections to the New Atheists completely warranted. That’s true of Dawkins’ proclamation that “[I] often say Islam [is the] greatest force for evil today.” It’s true of Hitchens’ various grotesque invocations of Islam to justify violence, including advocating cluster bombs because “if they’re bearing a Koran over their heart, it’ll go straight through that, too”. And it’s true of Harris’ years-long argument that Islam poses unique threats beyond what Christianity, Judaism, and the other religions of the world pose.
Most important of all – to me – is the fact that Harris has used his views about Islam to justify a wide range of vile policies aimed primarily if not exclusively at Muslims, from torture (“there are extreme circumstances in which I believe that practices like ‘water-boarding’ may not only be ethically justifiable, but ethically necessary”); to steadfast support for Israel, which he considers morally superior to its Muslim adversaries (“In their analyses of US and Israeli foreign policy, liberals can be relied on to overlook the most basic moral distinctions. For instance, they ignore the fact that Muslims intentionally murder noncombatants, while we and the Israelis (as a rule) seek to avoid doing so. . . . there is no question that the Israelis now hold the moral high ground in their conflict with Hamas and Hezbollah”); to anti-Muslim profiling (“We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it”); to state violence (“On questions of national security, I am now as wary of my fellow liberals as I am of the religious demagogues on the Christian right. This may seem like frank acquiescence to the charge that ‘liberals are soft on terrorism.’ It is, and they are”).
Revealingly, Harris sided with the worst Muslim-hating elements in American society by opposing the building of a Muslim community center near Ground Zero, milking the Us v. Them militaristic framework to justify his position:
“The erection of a mosque upon the ashes of this atrocity will also be viewed by many millions of Muslims as a victory — and as a sign that the liberal values of the West are synonymous with decadence and cowardice.”
Harris made the case against that innocuous community center by claiming – yet again – that Islam is a unique threat: “At this point in human history, Islam simply is different from other faiths.”
In sum, he sprinkles intellectual atheism on top of the standard neocon, right-wing worldview of Muslims. As this superb review of Harris’ writings on Israel, the Middle East and US militarism put it, “any review of Sam Harris and his work is a review essentially of politics”: because his atheism invariably serves – explicitly so – as the justifying ground for a wide array of policies that attack, kill and otherwise suppress Muslims. That’s why his praise for European fascists as being the only ones saying “sensible” things about Islam is significant: not because it means he’s a European fascist, but because it’s unsurprising that the bile spewed at Muslims from that faction would be appealing to Harris because he shares those sentiments both in his rhetoric and his advocated policies, albeit with a more intellectualized expression.
Beyond all that, I find extremely suspect the behavior of westerners like Harris (and Hitchens and Dawkins) who spend the bulk of their time condemning the sins of other, distant peoples rather than the bulk of their time working against the sins of their own country. That’s particularly true of Americans, whose government has brought more violence, aggression, suffering, misery, and degradation to the world over the last decade than any other. Even if that weren’t true – and it is – spending one’s time as an American fixated on the sins of others is a morally dubious act, to put that generously, for reasons Noam Chomskyexplained so perfectly:
“My own concern is primarily the terror and violence carried out by my own state, for two reasons. For one thing, because it happens to be the larger component of international violence. But also for a much more important reason than that; namely, I can do something about it.
“So even if the U.S. was responsible for 2 percent of the violence in the world instead of the majority of it, it would be that 2 percent I would be primarily responsible for. And that is a simple ethical judgment. That is, the ethical value of one’s actions depends on their anticipated and predictable consequences. It is very easy to denounce the atrocities of someone else. That has about as much ethical value as denouncing atrocities that took place in the 18th century.“
I, too, have written before about the hordes of American commentators whose favorite past-time is to lounge around pointing fingers at other nations, other governments, other populations, other religions, while spending relatively little time on their own. The reason this is particularly suspect and shoddy behavior from American commentators is that there are enormous amounts of violence and extremism and suffering which their government has unleashed and continues to unleash on the world. Indeed, much of that US violence is grounded in if not expressly justified by religion, including the aggressive attack on Iraq and steadfast support for Israeli aggression (to say nothing of the role Judaism plays in the decades-long oppression by the Israelis of Palestinians and all sorts of attacks on neighboring Arab and Muslim countries). Given the legion human rights violations from their own government, I find that Americans and westerners who spend the bulk of their energy on the crimes of others are usually cynically exploiting human rights concerns in service of a much different agenda.
Tellingly, Harris wrote in 2004 that “we are now mired in a religious war in Iraq and elsewhere.” But by this, he did not mean that the US and the west have waged an aggressive attack based at least in part on religious convictions. He meant that only Them – those Muslims over there, whose country we invaded and destroyed – were engaged in a vicious and primitive religious war. As usual, so obsessed is he with the supposed sins of Muslims that he is blinded to the far worse sins from his own government and himself: the attack on Iraq and its accompanying expressions of torture, slaughter, and the most horrific abuses imaginable.
Worse, even in its early stages, Harris casually dismissed the US attack on Iraq as a “red herring”; that war, he said, was simply one in which “civilized human beings [westerners] are now attempting, at considerable cost to themselves, to improve life for the Iraqi people.” Western violence and aggression is noble, civilized, and elevated; Muslim violence (even when undertaken to defend against an invasion by the west) is primitive, vicious, brutal and savage. That is the blatant double standard of one who seeks not to uphold human rights but to exploit those concepts to demonize a targeted group.
Indeed, continually depicting Muslims as the supreme evil – even when compared to the west’s worst monsters – is par for Harris’ course, as when he inveighed:
Unless liberals realize that there are tens of millions of people in the Muslim world who are far scarier than Dick Cheney, they will be unable to protect civilization from its genuine enemies.”
Just ponder that. To Harris, there are “tens of millions” of Muslims “far scarier” then the US political leader who aggressively invaded and destroyed a nation of 26 million people, constructed a worldwide regime of torture, oversaw a network of secret prisons beyond the reach of human rights groups, and generally imposed on the world his “Dark Side”. That is the Harris worldview: obsessed with bad acts of foreign Muslims, almost entirely blind to – if not supportive of – the far worse acts of westerners like himself.
Or consider this disgusting passage:
“The outrage that Muslims feel over US and British foreign policy is primarily the product of theological concerns. Devout Muslims consider it a sacrilege for infidels to depose a Muslim tyrant and occupy Muslim lands — no matter how well intentioned the infidels or malevolent the tyrant. Because of what they believe about God and the afterlife and the divine provenance of the Koran, devout Muslims tend to reflexively side with other Muslims, no matter how sociopathic their behavior.”
Right: can you believe those primitive, irrational Muslims get angry when their countries are invaded, bombed and occupied and have dictators imposed on them rather than exuding gratitude toward the superior civilized people who do all that – all because of their weird, inscrutable religion that makes them dislike things such as foreign invasions, bombing campaigns and externally-imposed tyrants? And did you know that only Muslims – but not rational westerners like Harris – “reflexively side” with their own kind? This, from the same person who hails the Iraq war as something that should produce gratitude from the invaded population toward the “civilized human beings” – people like him – who invaded and destroyed their country. Theodore Sayeed noted the glaring irony pervading the bulk of Harris’s political writing:
“For a man who likes to badger Muslims about their ‘reflexive solidarity’ with Arab suffering, Harris seems keen to display his own tribal affections for the Jewish state. The virtue of Israel and the wickedness of her enemies are recurring themes in his work.”
Indeed. And the same is true of the US and the West generally. Harris’ self-loving mentality amounts to this: those primitive Muslims are so tribal for reflexively siding with their own kind, while I constantly tout the superiority of my own side and justify what We do against Them. How anyone can read any of these passages and object to claims that Harris’ worldview is grounded in deep anti-Muslim animus is staggering. He is at least as tribal, jingoistic, and provincial as those he condemns for those human failings, as he constantly hails the nobility of his side while demeaning those Others.
Perhaps the most repellent claim Harris made to me was that Islamophobia is fictitious and non-existent, “a term of propaganda designed to protect Islam from the forces of secularism by conflating all criticism of it with racism and xenophobia”. How anyone can observe post-9/11 political discourse in the west and believe this is truly mystifying. The meaning of “Islamophobia” is every bit as clear as “anti-semitism” or “racism” or “sexism” and all sorts of familiar, related concepts. It signifies (1) irrational condemnations of all members of a group or the group itself based on the bad acts of specific individuals in that group; (2) a disproportionate fixation on that group for sins committed at least to an equal extent by many other groups, especially one’s own; and/or (3) sweeping claims about the members of that group unjustified by their actual individual acts and beliefs. I believe all of those definitions fit Harris quite well, as evinced by this absurd and noxious overgeneralization from Harris:
The only future devout Muslims can envisage — as Muslims — is one in which all infidels have been converted to Islam, politically subjugated, or killed.”
That is utter garbage: and dangerous garbage at that. It is no more justifiable than saying that the only future which religious Jews – as Jews – can envision is one in which non-Jews live in complete slavery and subjugation: a claim often made by anti-semites based on highly selective passages from the Talmud. It is the same tactic that says Christians – as Christians – can only envisage the extreme subjugation of women and violence against non-believers based not only on the conduct of some Christians but on selective passages from the Bible. Few would have difficultly understanding why such claims about Jews and Christians are intellectually bankrupt and menacing.
Worse still, these claims from Harris about how Muslims think are simply factually false. An AFP report on a massive 2008 Gallup survey of the Muslim world simply destroyed most of Harris’ ugly generalizations about the beliefs of Muslims:
“A huge survey of the world’s Muslims released Tuesday challenges Western notions that equate Islam with radicalism and violence. . . . It shows that the overwhelming majority of Muslims condemned the attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001 and other subsequent terrorist attacks, the authors of the study said in Washington. . . .
“About 93 percent of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims are moderates and only seven percent are politically radical, according to the poll, based on more than 50,000 interviews. . . .
“Meanwhile, radical Muslims gave political, not religious, reasons for condoning the attacks, the poll showed. . . .
“But the poll, which gives ordinary Muslims a voice in the global debate that they have been drawn into by 9/11, showed that most Muslims — including radicals — admire the West for its democracy, freedoms and technological prowess.
“What they do not want is to have Western ways forced on them, it said.”
Indeed, even a Pentagon-commissioned study back in 2004 – hardly a bastion of PC liberalism – obliterated Harris’ self-justifying stereotype that anti-American sentiment among Muslims is religious and tribal rather than political and rational. That study concluded that “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies”: specifically “American direct intervention in the Muslim world” — through the US’s “one sided support in favor of Israel”; support for Islamic tyrannies in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia; and, most of all, “the American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan”.
As I noted before, a long-time British journalist friend of mine wrote to me shortly before I began writing at the Guardian to warn me of a particular strain plaguing the British liberal intellectual class; he wrote: “nothing delights British former lefties more than an opportunity to defend power while pretending it is a brave stance in defence of a left liberal principle.”That – “defending power while pretending it is a brave stance in defence of a left liberal principle” – is precisely what describes the political work of Harris and friends. It fuels the sustained anti-Muslim demonization campaign of the west and justifies (often explicitly) the policies of violence, militarism, and suppression aimed at them. It’s not as vulgar as the rantings of Pam Geller or as crude as the bloodthirsty theories of Alan Dershowitz, but it’s coming from a similar place and advancing the same cause.
I welcome, and value, aggressive critiques of faith and religion, including from Sam Harris and some of these others New Atheists whose views I’m criticizing here. But many terms can be used to accurately describe the practice of depicting Islam and Muslims as the supreme threat to all that is good in the world. “Rational”, “intellectual” and “well-intentioned” are most definitely not among them.
Sam Harris in 2005: “I am one of the few people I know of who has argued in print that torture may be an ethical necessity in our war on terror.”
Sam Harris in 2012: “We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it.”
Sam Harris in 2005: “In our dealings with the Muslim world, we must acknowledge that Muslims have not found anything of substance to say against the actions of the September 11 hijackers, apart from the ubiquitous canard that they were really Jews.” (Harris’ own ugly canard would come as news to CAIR, the leading Muslim advocacy group, as well as most of the world’s Muslims).
By themselves, those statements – fully in context – negate 90% of the comments from Harris defenders. If you’re going to defend him, do remember to defend these.
One last point: I absolutely do not believe that Harris – or, for that matter, Hitchens – is representative of all or even most atheists in this regard. The vast majority of atheists I know find such sentiments repellent. They are representative only of themselves and those who share these views, not atheists generally.
Several commenters and emailers object to the inclusion of Dawkins with Hitchens and (especially) Harris on this issue. Both the above-cited Salon and Al Jazeera columns (particularly the former) contain several quotes with links from Dawkins, including his recent decree that he “often” says that Islam is the “greatest force for evil today”. Those statements seem clear and incriminating. Nonetheless, my focus here is on Harris, and I haven’t conducted the type of comprehensive examination of Dawkins’ writing as I have of Harris’, so whether Dawkins belongs in this group to the same extent that Harris does is something that is worthy of further debate. One sentence was edited to reflect the debatability of Dawkins’ inclusion.
UPDATE III [Thurs.]
As a follow-up to all of this, here are a few related items. First, here is Noam Chomsky in late 2011 – in the first two minutes of the video – explaining how Harris and Hitchens exploit atheism to justify US militarism and convert it into little more than another religion:
And here is Chomsky in 2008 elaborating further on Harris and company [quote and link fixed]:
“[I]f it is to be even minimally serious, the ‘new atheism’ should focus its concerns on the virulent secular religions of state worship, so well exemplified by those who laud huge atrocities like the invasion of Iraq, or cannot comprehend why they might have some concern when their own state, with their support, carries out some of its minor peccadilloes, like killing probably tens of thousands of poor Africans by destroying their main source of pharmaceutical supplies on a whim — arguably more morally depraved than intentional killing, for reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere.
“In brief, to be minimally serious the ‘new atheism’ should begin by looking in the mirror.”
That is the hallmark of this New Atheist movement: exploiting rational atheism to support and glorify US state power and aggression; they have become a prime source for pseudo-intellectual justification of US government conduct.
Here’s a 2008 interview with the great war journalist Chris Hedges on what he concluded after reviewing the work of “New Atheists” such as Harris and Hitchens: “I was appalled at how they essentially co-opted secular language to present the same kind of chauvinism, intolerance, and bigotry that we see in the Christian right.” He adds:
“They’re secular fundamentalists. . . . I find that it’s, like the Christian right, a fear based movement. It’s a movement that is very much a reaction to 9/11. The kinds of things that they write about Muslims could be lifted from the most rabid sermon by a radical fundamentalist.”
Having dealt somewhat extensively with Harris and many of his supporters this week, I can say that I haven’t encountered such religious-type fervor and jingoistic and tribalistic self-love (My Side is superior to Theirs!!) in quite a long time.
Meanwhile, even Christopher Hitchens – Harris’ comrade in US militarism – denounced Harris’ statement that “the people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.” Wrote Hitchens in 2006 shortly after Harris wrote that: “When I read Sam Harris’s irresponsible remark that only fascists seemed to have the right line, I murmured to myself: ‘Not while I’m alive, they won’t.'” I think Harris’ “fascists” comment is far from his worst statement – it has the limited significance I outlined – but if Christopher Hitchens, of all people, is telling you that you’re being “irresponsible” in your anti-Islam advocacy, that’s a pretty strong sign that you’ve gone way too far.