The Course of Reason

Harris’ Critique of Islam Leaves Something to Be Desired

April 12, 2013

Sam Harris, once again, has come under fire for his comments on Islam. I'll assume most readers are already familiar with the situation that started with an Al Jazeera article, followed by a tweet from Glenn Greenwald leading to an email exchange between him and Harris, which was later posted on Harris' website. From there I've seen a number of articles popping up on the issue.

The argument that Harris' criticisms of Islam act as a cover for Islamophobia and US militarism is nothing new. People from my own atheist circles have made this point before, and thanks to the tweet by Glenn Greenwald this conversation seems to have blown up in the atheist community.

I figured looking at Harris' own words would be the best way to jump into the conversation.

"Not all religious doctrines are mistaken to the same degree, intellectually or ethically, and it would be dishonest and ultimately dangerous to pretend otherwise."

Agreed so far. Let's not paint all religions or religious with the same brush. Unfortunately, it doesn't take long for Harris to start losing me when he goes on to say:

"For instance, a dogmatic belief in the spiritual and ethical necessity of complete nonviolence lies at the very core of Jainism, whereas an equally dogmatic commitment to using violence to defend one's faith, both from within and without, is similarly central to the doctrine of Islam."

Ok. I'm not going to dispute the claim that violence is a part of Islamic doctrine. Mostly because I don't know enough about Islamic doctrine, which is why I prefer to keep my criticisms to Christianity as I have more familiarity with it. Speaking of Christianity, you can easily rummage through that religion to find similar attitudes of violence in the name of faith. However, I don't suggest we go around talking about Christianity as if it's a grave threat. I don't think it is. Harris' problem is that he wants to fixate on Islam, to argue that it carries a unique threat.

Later in the article he continues the line about violence within Islamic doctrine. If Harris is trying to dispel the myth that he's heavily fixated on Islam, he has an odd way of going about it. Harris wants to spend time on the violence within Islamic doctrine (which is actually disputable as to how violent it is), and ignore the context for why there is so much violence in the Muslim world. Context matters, Harris rarely offers that. The criticisms towards Islam and violence tend to ignore the violence that has been, and continues to be inflicted upon the Islamic world by the West. On that note:

"I will say, however, that nothing about honestly discussing the doctrine of Islam requires that a person not notice all that might be wrong with U.S. foreign policy, capitalism, the vestiges of empire, or anything else that may be contributing to our ongoing conflicts in the Muslim world. Which is to say that even if Noam Chomsky were right about everything, the Islamic doctrines related to martyrdom, jihad, blasphemy, apostasy, the rights of women and homosexuals, etc. would still present huge problems for the emergence of a global civil society (and these are problems quite unlike those presented by similar tenets in other faiths, for reasons that I have explained at length elsewhere and touch on only briefly here). And any way in which I might be biased or blinded by "the religion of the state," or any other form of cultural indoctrination, has absolutely no relevance to the plight of Shiites who have their mosques, weddings, and funerals bombed by Sunni extremists, or to victims of rape who are beaten, imprisoned, or even killed as "adulteresses" throughout the Muslim world."

The argument here comes off as a bit disjointed. Harris acknowledges, though maybe he doesn't agree, with the critiques of US foreign policy. In the same go he turns around to focus on Islamic doctrines, as if they violence coming from Islam has only to do with Islam itself and not the actions of the US. From there he goes on to point out sectarian violence. Here's another example of where I feel context is missing. I once believed the line that the conflict in Israel was a result of Muslim and Jewish animosity. It didn't take much digging, and effort, to understand that this view is incorrect. It's about colonialism, not religion. I suspect that you would find a similar case if you were to look into violence amongst various factions of the same faith. Not colonialism, that is, but a cause that extends beyond, or has nothing to do with, religion. Finally, on the point about how women are treated in Muslim countries. Yes, it is deplorable. Though I think this is the part of the larger problem of patriarchy. The oppression of women isn't going to end when Islam goes. Further, if you want to work for the liberation of women in Muslim countries you better listen to what those women are actually saying.

"At this moment in history, there is only one religion that systematically stifles free expression with credible threats of violence. The truth is, we have already lost our First Amendment rights with respect to Islam"

You really should be worried more about your own government if you're worried about the stifling of free speech. Bradley Manning, anyone?

Harris' critics have gone after him for talking about how in Western Europe, it's the fascists who are being the most critical of Islam. I won't accuse Harris of supporting fascism, but I do think his statements here are misguided. His view that liberal reluctance to criticize Islam empowers the fascists, is the problem. My view, is that critiquing Islam in the manner he does actually lends credibility to the fascist claims that Islam is threatening to take over Europe. After all, Harris goes on about what a threat Islam is. The point here shouldn't be about criticizing Islam louder than the fascists do, but coming with criticisms that actually have some legitimacy to them.

"So, imagine: A copy of the Koran gets burned tomorrow—or is merely rumored to have been burned. What will happen if this act of desecration is widely publicized? Well, we can be sure that Muslims by the thousands, or even the tens of thousands, will riot-perhaps in a dozen countries. Scores of people may die as a result."

This is, I'll admit, speculation on my part so if I've misrepresented the situation, or you want to offer your own reasoning, please do so. The act of rioting when someone burns a Qu'ran or draws a picture of Mohammed is about more than a reaction to the desecration of a holy symbol. It is a reaction to what is viewed as another attack by the West on the Islamic world.

"Was the fatwa against Salman Rushdie the result of foreign occupation? The Danish cartoon controversy?"

No, it wasn't. Though I think my previous point applies here as well.

Islamophobia is something else entirely. It is, Greenwald tells us in his three points, an "irrational" and "disproportionate" and "unjustified" focus on Muslims. But the only way that Muslims can reasonably be said to exist as a group is in terms of their adherence to the doctrine of Islam. There is no race of Muslims. They are not united by any physical traits or a diaspora. Unlike Judaism, Islam is a vast, missionary faith. The only thing that defines the class of All Muslims—and the only thing that could make this group the possible target of anyone's "irrational" fear, "disproportionate" focus, or "unjustified" criticism—is their adherence to a set of beliefs and the behaviors that these beliefs inspire.

Yet, Harris often speaks of Muslims in sweeping generalizations.

"No you cannot—unless you also imagine the creators of this play being hunted for the rest of their lives by religious maniacs. Yes, there are crazy people in every faith—and I often hear from them."

Slightly off topic, but don't call people of faith "crazy". That word gets thrown around way too often when talking about the religious and adds to the stigma that those who have mental health conditions are violent murderers. Plus, it comes off as a lazy way to critique the actions of people who commit violence without examining the why of what they did.

"And I maintain that anyone who considers my views to be a symptom of irrational fear is ignorant, dishonest, or insane."

I guess that's too much to ask though, isn't it? I'm going into the "tone" argument for a moment, but Harris does have a habit of allowing what may been a valid point to get buried in pointless insults.

"Finally, as I regularly emphasize when discussing Islam, no one is suffering under its doctrine more than Muslims themselves: Muslim jihadists primarily kill other Muslims. And the laws against apostasy, blasphemy, idolatry, and other forms of peaceful expression diminish the freedoms of Muslims far more than those of non-Muslims living in the West."

What needs to be asked is, "is this the result of Islam alone, or is the state of the Islamic world the result of other causes as well?"

"Liberals like Greenwald, who are so eager to swing the flail of Islamophobia, display a sickening insensitivity to the plight of women, homosexuals, and freethinkers throughout the Muslim world. At this moment, millions of women and girls have been abandoned to illiteracy, compulsory marriage, and lives of slavery and abuse under the guise of "multiculturalism" and "religious sensitivity." And the most liberal Muslim minds are forced into hiding. The best way to address this problem is by no means obvious. But lying about its cause, and defaming those who speak honestly in defense of a global civil society, seems a very unlikely path to a solution."

This one is just insulting. First, those issues are of great concern to people like myself (though I'm not a liberal). I disagree on the causes, and the way in which Harris criticizes the Islamic world, but I don't ignore the pain caused by those issues.

When all else fails, simply frame your opponents as unfeeling people who don't care for the suffering of others.

Harris on profiling:

"We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it...What my critics always neglect to say, however, is that in the article in which that sentence appears, I explicitly include white, middle-aged men like me in the profile (twice)."

To me, the defense comes off as a contradiction. Harris wants us to profile people who look like they could be Muslim, but that also includes middle-aged white men. I know it's a stereotype to say that Muslims can't be white, Harris is right on that. However, the image a Western security officer is likely to have in their head when they think, "looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim", isn't someone who looks like Harris.

Harris on a nuclear first strike:

"What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or what their state of readiness is, and so we will be unable to rely on targeted, conventional weapons to destroy them. In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime—as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day—but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe."

First of all, what regimes? Second, the fact that Harris feels this outcome would be terrible but seems to make no effort to propose at least one alternative continues the theme that his writing is, more than anything else, confused and contradictory.

Harris brings up some points about the hypocrisy of those who don't seem to flinch at the bombing of terrorists but raise their arms in protest when the possibility of torturing a terrorist is brought up. Though I think this may be a reaction to the effectiveness of these two acts. Torture is viewed as something that doesn't work. If giving up information will make the torture stop, information will be given accurate or not. Harris disputes this claim, but my point is that this seems to be the general mindset. Bombing/killing the terrorist, at least it gets the job done. To be clear: I support neither.

"Whatever one may think about the rationale for invading Iraq and the prosecution of the war, there is nothing about the conflict that makes Islam look benign—not the reflexive solidarity expressed throughout the Muslim world for Saddam Hussein (merely because an army of "infidels" attacked him), not the endless supply of suicide bombers willing to kill Iraqi noncombatants, not the insurgency's use of women and children as human shields, not the ritual slaughter of journalists and aid workers, not the steady influx of jihadis from neighboring countries, and not the current state of public opinion among European and American Muslims. It seems to me that no reasonable person can conclude that these phenomena are purely the result of U.S. foreign policy, however inept. And yet, that is precisely what my critics on the Left seem to believe."

See my earlier points about tension between the West and the Muslim world.

It is not unusual for people to rally behind a figure that is resisting American imperialism, even if that individual has done some unsavoury things. If you want another example of this, look to support among elements of the left towards North Korea. It's not necessarily because they like North Korea and agree with everything the regime has done, but because the nation is willing to oppose imperial aggression.

Iraq is in the mess it is because of the U.S. invasion and those conditions Harris brings up should be blamed on the U.S. Not Islam.

Harris' views on Islam are wrong, that's the simplest way to say it. Looking into his words you do find some nuance though it has a tendency to come off as confused and contradictory. He criticizes the actions of Muslims without giving proper context to why the violence takes place. Preferring to pick from pieces of scripture to assert the case that Islam is a particularly violent religion. Harris' criticisms of Islam aren't helping anyone, and I would recommend that if you are interested in creating a critique of Islam you look to a source that isn't Harris.

Harris on Iraq:

"Whatever one may think about the rationale for invading Iraq and the prosecution of the war, there is nothing about the conflict that makes Islam look benign—not the reflexive solidarity expressed throughout the Muslim world for Saddam Hussein (merely because an army of "infidels" attacked him), not the endless supply of suicide bombers willing to kill Iraqi noncombatants, not the insurgency's use of women and children as human shields, not the ritual slaughter of journalists and aid workers, not the steady influx of jihadis from neighboring countries, and not the current state of public opinion among European and American Muslims. It seems to me that no reasonable person can conclude that these phenomena are purely the result of U.S. foreign policy, however inept. And yet, that is precisely what my critics on the Left seem to believe."

See my earlier points about tension between the West and the Muslim world.

It is not unusual for people to rally behind a figure that is resisting American imperialism, even if that individual has done some unsavoury things. If you want another example of this, look to support among elements of the left towards North Korea. It's not necessarily because they like North Korea and agree with everything the regime has done, but because the nation is willing to oppose imperial aggression.

Iraq is in the mess it is because of the U.S. invasion and those conditions Harris brings up should be blamed on the U.S. Not Islam.

Harris' views on Islam are wrong, that's the simplest way to say it. Looking into his words you do find some nuance, though it has a tendency to come off as confused and contradictory. He criticizes the actions of Muslims without giving proper context to why the violence takes place.  He picks from pieces of scripture to assert the case that Islam is a particularly violent religion. Harris' criticisms of Islam aren't helping anyone, and I would recommend that if you are interested in creating a critique of Islam you look to a source that isn't Harris.

 

About the Author: Chris Burke

Chris Burke's photo
Chris Burke holds a Bachelors in Environmental Studies: Honours Environment and Business from the University of Waterloo. Next he will be working towards a Masters of Environmental Studies in Sustainability Management. He's an active member of the Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers of Waterloo student group. In his spare time he enjoys reading and playing music.

Comments:

#1 John Foible (Guest) on Thursday May 02, 2013 at 3:58pm

Upon reflection I wish to apologise for and retract my earlier comment. I am still of the opinion that you have somewhat misread Harris (and I would still like to provide detail on that if you would care to read it) but I believe the sentiment behind your article is an important one, that is often ignored or shouted down. I realise my comment judged you hastily and without proper consideration, and attempted to unfairly pigeon-hole you.

Once again, sorry Chris.

John

#2 Chris (Guest) on Friday May 03, 2013 at 1:16pm

Thank you, John. Not to worry. Feel free to provide detail. I'd like to hear it.

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