… 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 decreed that “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 proscriptions 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 Chomsky explained 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.