Sam Harris is peeved, and rightly so. Two recent articles, one in Salon by Nathan Lean and the other in Al-Jazeera online by Murtaza Hussain, have mounted nasty (and misguided) attacks on New Atheism because of its perceived “Islamophobia.” I’ve previously dissected Lean’s piece (see the first link), and Hussain’s is just as bad. Here’s a bit of it:
In the present atmosphere, characterised by conflict with Muslim-majority nations, a new class of individuals have stepped in to give a veneer of scientific respectability to today’s politically-useful bigotry.
At the forefront of this modern scientific racism have been those prominently known as the “new atheist” scientists and philosophers. While they attempt to couch their language in the terms of pure critique of religious thought, in practice they exhibit many of the same tendencies toward generalisation and ethno-racial condescension as did their predecessors – particularly in their descriptions of Muslims.
To be utterly clear, Islam itself does not denote a race, and Muslims themselves come from every racial and ethnic grouping in the world. However, in their ostensibly impartial critiques of “religion” – and through the impartation of ethno-cultural attributes onto members of a religious group – the most prominent new atheists slide with ease into the most virulent racism imaginable.
No they don’t, and, as far as I know, no New Atheist has ever characterized Muslims as belonging to a single “race,” or even brought up race at all. So what is this “virulent racism” decried by Hussain? This is what he says:
While one could cite Richard Dawkins’ descriptions of “Islamic barbarians” and Christopher Hitchens’ outright bloodlust towards Muslims – including lamentations of the ostensibly too-low death toll in the Battle of Fallujah and his satisfied account of cluster bombs tearing through the flesh of Iraqis – these have been widely discussed and are in any case not the most representative of this modern phenomena.
Indeed, the most illustrative demonstration of the new brand of scientific racism must be said to come from the popular author and neuroscientist Sam Harris. Among the most publicly visible of the new atheists, in the case of Muslims Harris has publicly stated his support for torture, pre-emptive nuclear weapons strikes, and the security profiling of not just Muslims themselves, but in his own words “anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim”.
Again, while Islam is not a race, those who are identified with Islam are the predominantly black and brown people who would be caught up in the charge of “looking Muslim” which Harris makes. Harris has also written in the past his belief that the “Muslim world” itself lacks the characteristic of honesty, and Muslims as a people “do not have a clue about what constitutes civil society”.
His sweeping generalisations about a constructed civilisation encompassing over a billion people are coupled with fevered warnings – parallel with the most noxious race propaganda of the past – about the purported demographic threat posed by immigrant Muslim birthrates to Western civilisation. . .
Indeed he makes the case for this violence explicitly, putting him in class with the worst proponents of scientific racism of the 20th century – including those who helped provide scientific justification for the horrors of European fascism.
Far from being a hyperbolic characterisation of his views, Harris has stated that the correct policy with regard to Western Muslim populations is in fact that which is currently being pursued by contemporary fascist movements today. In Harris’ view:
“The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.”
Hussain ends with a call for atheists to part ways with Harris:
By resurrecting the worst excesses of scientific racism and its violent corollaries, Harris is heir to one of the most disreputable intellectual lineages in modern history.. . . Just as it is incumbent upon Muslims to marginalise their own violent extremists, mainstream atheists must work to disavow those such as Harris who would tarnish their movement by associating it with a virulently racist, violent and exploitative worldview.
These quotes, and even the paraphrases, are taken out of context. Harris’s ruminations about torture were a general discussion of whether it could ever be justified, and weren’t limited to Muslims. He didn’t profess “public support” for torture or pre-emptive nuclear weapons strikes, but merely raised the possibility for our consideration. You may not agree with him, but he certainly wasn’t a “public advocate” for torture and nuclear strikes. As for security profiling, there is a case to be made for that, based not on racism but experience, that Muslim fliers might be given extra attention—indeed, that is what El Al seems to do. Indeed, Harris has said, I believe, that someone carrying the Qur’an on a plane might be inspected a bit more carefully, regardless of their “race.”
Hussain then tars Harris, and the rest of the New Atheists who decry the excesses of Islam, with the charge of “scientific racism,” basically equating them with eugenicists But nobody has suggested selective elimination of Muslims, though we’ve certainly targeted the faith itself for special opprobrium.
As for Harris’s quote about fascism, well, let’s look at it in its context:
Increasingly, Americans will come to believe that the only people hard-headed enough to fight the religious lunatics of the Muslim world are the religious lunatics of the West. Indeed, it is telling that the people who speak with the greatest moral clarity about the current wars in the Middle East are members of the Christian right, whose infatuation with biblical prophecy is nearly as troubling as the ideology of our enemies. Religious dogmatism is now playing both sides of the board in a very dangerous game.
While liberals should be the ones pointing the way beyond this Iron Age madness, they are rendering themselves increasingly irrelevant. Being generally reasonable and tolerant of diversity, liberals should be especially sensitive to the dangers of religious literalism. But they aren’t.
The same failure of liberalism is evident in Western Europe, where the dogma of multiculturalism has left a secular Europe very slow to address the looming problem of religious extremism among its immigrants. The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.
To say that this does not bode well for liberalism is an understatement: It does not bode well for the future of civilization.
Harris is certainly not allying himself with “fascists,” here, but with liberals, and trying to call attention to the fact that liberal multiculturalism may be letting the dangers of Islam slip under the radar screen. He isn’t praising fascists, but saying that it is liberals who should be examining the consequences of Islamic belief.
Glenn Greenwald, a columnist with the Guardian, and formerly with Salon, took the truncated quote and ran with it on Twitter:
This led to an exchange of emails between Greenwald and Harris, which Sam has published, with permission, on his website. The participants are angry, especially Sam, and I think Harris gets the better of the discussion. Greenwald levels the accusation of “Islamophobia” again (I swear, that pejorative term is never defined, and so resembles “scientism”), and Harris responds (my bolding):
Yes, I saw the Lean piece—also absurdly unfair. The idea that “new atheism” is a cover for a racist hatred of Muslims is ridiculous (and, again, crudely defamatory). I have written an entire book attacking Christianity. And do you know what happens when I or any of my “new atheist” colleagues criticize Christians for their irrational beliefs? They say, “Of course, you feel free to attack us, but you would never have the courage to criticize Islam.” As you can see, our Christian critics follow our work about as well as you do.
Needless to say, there are people who hate Arabs, Somalis, and other immigrants from predominantly Muslim societies for racist reasons. But if you can’t distinguish that sort of blind bigotry from a hatred and concern for dangerous, divisive, and irrational ideas—like a belief in martyrdom, or a notion of male “honor” that entails the virtual enslavement of women and girls—you are doing real harm to our public conversation. Everything I have ever said about Islam refers to the content and consequences of its doctrine. And, again, I have always emphasized that its primary victims are innocent Muslims—especially women and girls.
There is no such thing as “Islamophobia.” This is a term of propaganda designed to protect Islam from the forces of secularism by conflating all criticism of it with racism and xenophobia. And it is doing its job, because people like you have been taken in by it.
But go have a look at the exchange on Sam’s site.
The thing that distresses me the most, as I suspect it does Harris, is the fast-and-loose use of the term “Islamophobia”, intended as a brand of “racism,” to criticize those who emphasize the dangers of Islam. This puzzles me, as New Atheists have never been accused of “Christian-phobia” or “Hindu-phobia.” There is a double standard at work here—one enacted in a misguided defense of multiculturalism and moral relativism. Those who accuse others of “Islamophobia” are, I suspect, a bit bigoted themselves, for underlying it is the notion that we’re supposed to hold adherents of Islam to behavioral standards lower than those we expect from adherents to other faiths. It’s patronizing.
It is obvious to any objective person that, among all faiths, Islam poses the most danger to our world. Followers of which faith riot and kill over cartoons, subjugate women in the most offensive ways possible, send suicide bombers to weddings, blow up airplanes, buses, and embassies, advocate a form of law that would destroy democracy, issue fatwas and death threats against writers they don’t like, and espouse death to apostates, converts, and unbelievers? If you think that all religions are equally dangerous—that, for instance, Islam is no more dangerous than the Anglican Church, Quakers, or even Catholics (an invidious faith itself)—then you’re living in a fantasy world. If we had a choice to improve our world by dispelling just one brand of religious belief, I know which one I’d choose. That doesn’t mean, of course, that other faiths aren’t dangerous as well, or that we should work toward dispelling religious belief in general.
But what is Islamophobia? It’s certainly not racism, because racism is a form of bigotry against people based on things they cannot change: the genes that make them look different from others. Religious beliefs, on the other hand, are not genetically based, can be changed, and are often inherently dangerous. It’s no more “racism” to criticize Islam than it is to criticize the beliefs of Republicans or Tories.
In truth, those who hurl charges of “Islamophobia” never define it. That’s because it is, at bottom, only “criticism of the tenets of Islam,” and that doesn’t sound so bad. And it’s all in the name of multiculturalism. Indeed, ethnic diversity has good things going for it, as it exposes people to different points of view, enriches a society by exposing it to other cultures, and actually dispels racism by showing people that members of other “races” are human beings like themselves. It’s this exposure, in fact, that Peter Singer and Steve Pinker hold largely responsible for the increasing morality of our species. And I am proud to be a liberal who, like many of my kind, defends the benefits of multiculturalism.
But multiculturalism becomes dangerous when it leads one to turn a blind eye to the destructive aspects of other cultures, aspects that we shouldn’t celebrate but reject. This extolling of multiculturalism has in fact led directly to the unthinking defense of Islam. Those guilty of this are often liberal academics, which irks me no end as I see myself in that group. But I can’t ignore the excesses of Islam, particularly its subjugation and humiliation of women. That’s half of the world they’re swathing in burqas, preventing from going to school or even driving, killing for violations of “honor,” and so on. If you want to see how ludicrously far Western academics have gone in defending the misogyny and other destructive tenets of Islam, see this article by Nick Cohen.
If there is “Islamophobia,” it would be bigotry against Muslims as humans: the unwillingness to afford them the respect and dignity due all members of H. sapiens, and the call to discriminate against them unjustly, immorally, or illegally. And yes, some extreme right-wingers practice that, and it underpins many anti-immigrant movements. But, as I will keep saying until I’m worm food, that view is not the same as criticizing the tenets of religious belief or those who hold destructive, religiously-based views. And if such criticisms are made by unsavory people, that doesn’t discredit them. What matters are the ideas, not those who espouse them. Every good idea is also held by some cranks.
If there is Islamophobia in any meaningful sense, it’s not something practiced by New Atheists. It is not racism or bigotry to criticize bad ideas and behaviors.