Friday, April 12, 2013

Sam Harris Rational or Irrational Fear of Islam?

Recently the hotly debated topic of whether "new atheists" such as Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens have irrationally overhyped the dangers of Islam has broken out on the internet.  It all got started when Glenn Greenwald posted a tweet with a link to an article by Murtaza Hussain, and Nathan Lean at, which led to Sam Harris emailing Greenwald in response to the tweeting of the aforementioned article.  This led to Greenwald posting his exchange with Sam Harris with Harris' permission.  Then Greenwald posted an article on Sam Harris, the New Atheists, and anti-Muslim animus.  After some back and forth on twitter Harris replied to the claims in Greenwald's article.  There was also more twitter arguing and Richard Dawkings chiming in to support Sam Harris.  I have been a fairly faithful reader of Greewald's writings first at and now at The Guardian as well as reading his book With Liberty and Justice for Some.  Since I'm also a (less avid) reader (although I have watched numerous debates, speeches, and interviews) of Sam Harris it took me some careful review to form an opinion on the subject due to my respect for both Harris and Greenwald.  However, after reading some of the articles and the twitter fights between the two I must say I'm a little shocked at the whole incident.

First I'm an atheist in that I don't worship any gods or attribute natural phenomena to some sort of spiritual deity.  I believe Islam is deserving of harsh and precise critiques due to the obvious abuses and  the behaviors it can create in its adherents.  People can and should be able to criticize the religion without fear of being labeled bigots or racist simply for critiquing a religion.  However, Harris' critique of Islam and Muslims is often overblown in terms of having a rational fear vs having an irrational fear of Islam.

While Harris has taken the time to clarify some quotes that were perhaps misconstrued (albeit confusing in the first place), Greenwald and Hussain were not the only people to complain about his "fascist quote".  Christopher Hitchens did as well stating, ""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.” Nor do I wish to concede that Serbo-fascist ethnic cleansing can appear more rational in retrospect than it did at the time. The Islamist threat itself may be crude, but this is an intricate cultural and political challenge that will absorb all of our energies for the rest of our lives: we are all responsible for doing our utmost as citizens as well as for demanding more imagination from our leaders."  Harris has explained the remark in his response to the controversy, but aside from this and a few other remarks I find his response unconvincing and failing to rebut many claims made against him.  While much controversy has erupted over this singular comment, there hasn't been as much discussion of other damming evidence showing that Harris overstates the threat of Islam and even radical Islam.

Let's consider the article the quote came from.  It is a scathing attack on the failure of liberals to realize "a cult of death is forming in the Muslim world," and "the truth is that we are not fighting a “war on terror.” We are fighting a pestilential theology."  What is most striking to me in this entire article is the constant dichotomy between western civilization and Islam and his use of this dichotomy to explain the moral failings of Islam while attributing the US and Israel with having a "moral high ground."  Since Harris himself uses this dichotomy, I think it is fair to make concrete comparisons between what is being done by the US and Israel (as well as other western states) towards the middle east or "Islamic world" in order to put in perspective just how dire these threats are.  Even though Harris makes the claim 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."  He uses comparisons between the US and Islam writing "they (liberals) ignore the fact that Muslims intentionally murder noncombatants, while we and the Israelis (as a rule) seek to avoid doing so," and therefore Harris makes it fair game to critique the rationality of the extremity of his fear of Islam vs fear of the crimes of our own state.

So just how dire is the threat of Islam?  Harris states that "The truth is that there is every reason to believe that a terrifying number of the world’s Muslims now view all political and moral questions in terms of their affiliation with Islam. This leads them to rally to the cause of other Muslims no matter how sociopathic their behavior. This benighted religious solidarity may be the greatest problem facing civilization."  Harris is making the claim that religious affiliation and solidarity with other Muslims who commit "sociopathic behavior" just may be the greatest threat to civilization.  Putting aside the facts that civilization actually began in the areas that he calls the "muslim world," often making a sharp distinction between this world and civilization, this is an easily provable falsehood.  We can establish this by putting the threat in perspective, much as Harris has done in his article earlier this year on guns and gun control in the US.  In the article Harris seeks to put into perspective the true reality of gun violence in the US by stating that there are an estimated 100,000 deaths due to the failure of doctors and nurses to wash their hands properly, which is obviously greater than the number of deaths caused by gun violence.  Although he concedes that "A narrow focus on mortality rates does not always do justice to the reality of human suffering" -It should be noted that a mere mortality rate doesn't even come close to doing justice to the suffering caused in Iraq by the US and that it's subsequent foreign policy continues to cause suffering in the region.  Between refugees, secret prisons, destruction of civilian infrastructure, and injuries the toll becomes incalculable-.  Therefore to put the threat of Islam into perspective we can look at the data on the subject.  The odds that you'll die in a terrorist attack are around 1 in 9.3 million worldwide and 1 in 20 million in the US.  This puts your odds of dying in an extremist muslim attack behind the the risk of being mauled to death by a dog.  It's actually lower since not all terrorist attack attributable deaths were committed by Muslims.

However, if you lived in Iraq your chance of dying from the US led invasion was over 1 in 50, because the US wiped out 2.5% of Iraq's population.  So while Harris attributes the US and Israel with a moral high ground for avoiding the killing of noncombatants he fails to note we kill more both in percentage and in number than do Islamic extremists.  However, we do have to pay attention to the very high death toll and real threat posed by Islamic extremists, but anyone with any detailed study of the effects of Islamic extremism would have to concede that those who suffer the most from Islamic extremism -in both attacks and other heinous forms of oppression- are those who live in the "muslim world."  As Hussain points out in his reply to an article shared by sam harris on twitter, "The simple fact is that Islamic extremism is almost exclusively a threat to people like me- not rich, white, westerners like Sam Harris."  This distinction is important because it comes to the heart of Harris' argument for secularism and against Islam.  As Chris Hedges put it, "they externalize evil. Evil is not something that you struggle with within yourself. Evil is embodied in religion."  This is why Harris asserts that Islamic "benighted religious solidarity may be the greatest threat facing civilization."

Harris' arguments for why Islam is such a threat come off somewhat convincingly unless we apply the same standards to ourselves.  Let's be clear that a failure to apply the same standards to our own state result in an externalization of evil and a sanitization of crimes being committed in our own name -Harris himself has argued for US and Israeli rightness while arguing against Islam using this same tactic-.  Harris states that "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," and that Muslims have "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."

So how would those claims be applied to the US?  The war in Iraq was launched based off of the belief of protecting the US and its interests from the threat or potential threat of Iraq, specifically from the unproven and zero evidence claims that they had WMD.  This war was one of many wars where a majority of the US public supported the war at the beginning of the war.  Further evidence shows that the US public supported the war even over a year after the conflict began with 54% supporting it in September of 2004.  What kind of dangerous dogmatic beliefs would the US public need to have to support a war based on false claims?  The answers could be said to be blind patriotism, and viewing all their moral and political questions in terms of their national identity.  What's important to note is that the US public adhered to an illegal doctrine of preemptive war, with a dogmatic commitment to using violence to defend our faith that Iraq had WMD, and protect our country from within and without.  The legitimization of the use of violence against our "enemies" is no less radical and follows a very similar process to religious indoctrination, whereby the public was indoctrinated to believe in a profound threat to their country with no supporting evidence.  It's also worth noting for perspective, that 93% of Muslim's when polled, condemned the 9/11 attacks.

Now we have to pause to concede that Islam and more correctly Islamic extremism poses a threat in more than just one arena to the inhabitants of the globe.  This is why it deserves strong critiques from Harris and others.  Honor violence and extreme patriarchy are just two cases.  It is also in part responsible for over 3,000 deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2011.  However, Iraq and Afghanistan are the two countries with the most terrorist attacks in the world.  This begs the question of what exactly motivates the violence throughout the "muslim world," and whether or not the relationship to Islam is the fundamental factor.  Does rationality or religion tend to dominate more of the so called "muslim world"?  Dalia Mogahed,  former Executive Director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, says "Politics, not piety, differentiate moderates from radicals' in the Islamic world."  

Still more experts like Tariq Ali (an atheist British Pakastani) have argued, "the "war against terror" is immoral and counterproductive. It sanctions the use of state terror - bombing raids, torture, countless civilian deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq - against Islamo-anarchists whose numbers are small, but whose reach is deadly. The solution then, as now, is political, not military. The British ruling elite understood this perfectly well in the case of Ireland. Security measures, anti-terror laws rushed through parliament, identity cards, a curtailment of civil liberties, will not solve the problem. If anything, they will push young Muslims in the direction of mindless violence."

This analysis was generally confirmed correct by the CIA, as Greenwald pointed out, back in 2004.   "American direct intervention in the muslim world has paradoxically elevated the stature and support for radical extremists while at the same time diminishing support for the United States to single-digits in some Arab societies."  Another report about the 2008 gallup poll, that Greenwald also pointed out, has Mogahed saying, "Some actually cited religious justifications for why they were against 9/11, going as far as to quote from the Koran -- for example, the verse that says taking one innocent life is like killing all humanity."

This last quote is so poignant to the debate, when you compare what actual Muslims are reported to have said vs the characterization of Muslims by Sam Harris "While there are undoubtedly some moderate Muslims who have decided to overlook the irrescindable militancy of their religion, Islam is undeniably a religion of conquest. The only future devout Muslims can envisage—as Muslims—is one in which all infidels have been converted to Islam, politically subjugated, or killed. The tenets of Islam simply do not admit of anything but a temporary sharing of power with the “enemies of God.”  Please read the full article so I'm not accused of taking him out of context.

The article goes on to state, "We are now mired in a religious war in Iraq and elsewhere. Our enemies--as witnessed by their astonishing willingness to slaughter themselves--are not principally motivated by political or economic grievances."  These are assumptions that I have yet to see evidence for, and as a skeptic I think we should ask Harris to provide his evidence.  Then Harris continues, "It is not enough for moderate Muslims to say “not in our name.” They must now police their own communities. They must offer unreserved assistance to western governments in locating the extremists in their midst."  He's actually advocating that they must without reservation allow foreign governments access to their nation to locate the extremists, although it is a well known fact that the US doesn't just locate extremists.  The US kills them, captures them, and even tortures them.  Imagine just for a second if we applied the same standards to our own country.  We would have to give up Bush and Cheney to the International Criminal Court for war crimes.  We would have to submit our country to foreign governments to give up people that other countries decided were criminals outside the normative processes of international law.  But this is only hypothetical as they would have to have the most advanced and expensive military in the world, and currently that's our game.

Harris continues in that same article and goes on to say, "However mixed or misguided American intentions were in launching this war, civilized human beings are now attempting, at considerable cost to themselves, to improve life for the Iraqi people. The terrible truth about our predicament in Iraq is that even if we had invaded with no other purpose than to remove Saddam Hussein from power and make Iraq a paradise on earth, we could still expect tomorrow’s paper to reveal that another jihadi has blown himself up for the sake of killing scores of innocent men, women, and children. The outrage that Muslims feel over U.S. and British foreign policy is primarily the product of theological concerns."  This in not only in stark contrast to the poll cited above about the middle east, but absolutely ignorant of the history of the middle east.  Perhaps Harris is unaware of the use of cluster munitions in Iraq which means "Iraqi civilians will be paying the price with their lives and limbs for many years," according to Steve Goose -This is also evidence contrary to Harris' claim that we avoid killing non combatants-.  The part that shows true ignorance however is that the outrage in the middle east is not primarily driven by policies of; aggressive preemptive war, bombing of civilian infrastructure, torture, black op prisons, and  just maybe the death of 2.5% of their countrymen after a decade of sanctions that caused the death of children to increase dramatically with reports ranging from 170,000 to 500,000+, but is "primarily the product of theological concerns."

Again, I'm not arguing against criticizing Islam, I'm arguing against using religion as a basis for overtly political arguments in favor of "civilized human beings" (inferring that those in the middle east are less than civilized human beings) that are attempting to improve the lives of Iraqi people when Iraqis are obviously being harmed by policies of continued war waged by these same "civilized human beings."  Harris then writes that, "there is, after all, little possibility of our having a cold war with an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons. A cold war requires that the parties be mutually deterred by the threat of death."  This brings to mind the question of whether Harris realizes that Pakistan is both an Islamic republic as well as a nuclear state -with the highest levels of support for Islamic fundamentalism-, but again he asserts that because these countries are muslim they are not deterred by the threat of death.  Therefore they pose an extreme threat to the country with the most powerful military and intelligence organizations on earth, and with the most advanced nuclear deterrence system on earth that is currently considering investing even more money in nuclear weapons.

While Harris isn't wrong in asserting that religion plays a major role in the politics of the middle east I believe his arguments are a vast oversimplification of the problems with an overemphasis on religion while virtually ignoring the political and social motivations for extremism.  After all Harris may be  unaware there is a long history of the US supporting religious groups (such as the Mujahideen) to stop Arab socialism and communism, and continues to fund the Taliban.   Not to mention US support for Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, and Indonesia.  How this support has in many ways led to the de-liberalization of the middle east is debatable, but dismissing them to focus on motives of faith is irresponsible, and a mischaracterization of the issues.

Harris continually asserts that the problems are overwhelmingly religious rather than rational or political, yet still more experts like the Middle East Research and Information Project claim that, "Because it is associated with Western modes of thinking and behavior, liberal democracy is always in danger of being associated with Western misdeeds, real and alleged. To many Arabs and Muslims, Western economic, political and cultural influence appears more pernicious than ever. The so-called intellectual onslaught (al-ghazw al-fikri) on Arab-Islamic culture and identity is a main theme of the day, and many see liberal democracy as part of that assault...  Western debate frequently mirrors the themes, concerns and obsessions of the Islamist one, albeit with different connotations. The more sophisticated skeptics usually refer to Islam as an effective barrier against development, modernity and democracy; the less sophisticated to “the Arab mind,” which is allegedly inclined toward authoritarianism and incapable of accepting pluralism and self-critique."  Instead of asserting that religion plays the dominate role in middle eastern politics as well as every area of their life, it is much more correct that religion, poverty, education, as well a foreign political policies all play a central role in the problems facing the middle east.  Why Harris places so much emphasis on the religious aspects of these issues is both predictable, as he is mostly preoccupied with religion, but also a mischaracterization of the problems with too much emphasis on religion, while at the same time arguing for many imperialist policies.

The policies Harris has argued for are; torture, saying that, "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", -the argument that says this is merely a hypothetical and that he has philosophers penchant for controversial subjects or ethics is absurd when he is purposely coming up with outlandish situations to justify the use of torture at a time when torture is being authorized by the US publicly-, profiling of Muslims, "We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it... there are people who do not stand a chance of being jihadists, and TSA screeners can know this at a glance.", and to me the most repellant claim that, "there are tens of millions of people in the Muslim world who are far scarier than Dick Cheney."  The reason why I find this last claim so repellant is that it is a crime against reason to suggest that tens of millions of people in the muslim world even have a sliver of the destructive force that Cheney had under his influence.  This is especially true  because Cheney is a radical proponent of preemptive wars which are held by international law to be illegal, and one of the crimes brought up against the Nazis at Nuremberg.  The reality is that yes the threat of Islamic extremists are scary, but not nearly as scary as those who have the power to subjugate an entire country to the foreign policy of their making by military force in a preemptive and unilateral invasion.  How can anyone not see that a man with a gun is probably more powerful than a man without one, and a man that can influence the most advanced military force the world has ever known to invade a country on false premises (and did precisely that), constitutes more of a threat to the world than Islamic extremists?

While I'm willing to concede that Harris is neither racist or bigoted, it is obvious why he has had to defend himself from such claims.  Perhaps with some perspective on the claims Harris makes over and over again about obviously over exaggerated threats of Islam, we can take a step back and see it's a much more complex problem than merely boiling it down to religious extremism.  Harris is right to criticize Islam on many fronts including the religious dogmas which have hurt mostly their own people, but he is wholly wrong to use religion as the primary factor in all that is wrong in the middle east while ignoring the crimes of the west, and suggesting the US has a moral high ground in the war on terror.  Political motivations as well as international policies -specifically US policies- are just as important if not more important in shaping what seems to be the growing violence of the middle east.

Further, I would also like to say that Harris, and even Dawkins, on this controversy, have not responded with composure or respect at times.  Harris and Dawkins have both tweeted "quote mined" attacks against Greenwald which do a great deal more to distort the views of Greenwald.

This claim that Greenwald supported the Iraq war by writing in the preface of his first book explaining his apathy towards politics and "coming of age" in political terms - that uses a quote that merely states he gave Bush the benefit of the doubt in his handling on the war on terror- is a mischaracterization of enormous proportions.  If you'd read the book you'd know it is anything but a source of support for the Iraq war nor does it give support for Bush's policies.  Harris has also made claims against Greenwald's character which have nothing to do with the debate at hand.  Simple vilification of ones critics, while straw-manning, crying libel and slander at your critics, and failing to provide either context or a reasonable rationale for the obviously over inflated fears Harris propagates about Islam -especially in the context of an endless war waged by those who Harris asserts have a moral high ground- are reason enough for rational and reasonable atheists and theists alike to condemn not Harris, but some of his ideas as both irrational and unfounded in reality.

When a person attacks another on character because they have been attacked on their work, is not only disingenuous (as Harris supposes of Greenwald), but more importantly counterproductive to a much needed debate on just what role Islam plays in the middle east and the world in general.  Rather than see two (or more) influential writers debate the topic of what does and does not constitute a rational fear of Islam the debate quickly spiraled into attacks on character, accusations of bullying, and claims of being attacked unethically while complaining about having to defend controversial statements -and in my opinion (and others) irrational and contradicting reality-, we as a society benefit from open discourse.

Update: I've written a second post on Sam Harris here.

UpdateII: I came across a gallup poll asking...
Apparently people in the US must be a "cult of death" as well.  For more on this see this.
Update III: For more on Sam Harris and his faith in government while criticizing religion read this.

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