Is Sam Harris Islamophobic?

Apr 13, 2019 · 14 min read

Hi! Welcome to this publication, where I discuss ideas about gently changing the world, through politics and self-realisation. To get things started I’m reposting one of my old blogs from about 4 years ago (the stats cited were accurate at the time of original posting. I haven’t made any changes). Sam Harris is putting his foot in his mouth yet again so this entry seems appropriate. Enjoy…

Last week professional atheist, Sam Harris, part-time comedian and full-time asshole, Bill Maher, and the once and future Batman, Ben Affleck, had a heated discussion about Islam and its place in the world. Sam and his supporters would have us believe that islamophobia is a false-meme, a propagandised term created by the progressive left to slander well meaning militant atheists (that modifier is a little on the nose don’t you think?) who only want to further the cause of civilisation. He feels it is an unfair label that inhibits open discussion and protects bad ideas from being scrutinised.

Make no mistake there is a difference between criticism, which is fine, and out right bigotry, which is not. Let’s define our terms then, shall we? Islamophobia is quite simply an irrational fear of Muslim people. So, is Sam Harris an islamophobe or is he right about the unique threat that Islam presents to all that we hold dear in the west? (this is no doubt a false dichotomy, but to be clear from the beginning, this post is concerned primarily with the former and not necessarily defending the ideas of Islam, although I will defend peoples right to practice whatever religion they choose as long as they do not violate the rights of others)


“All civilised nations must unite in condemnation of a theology that now threatens to destabilise much of the earth.” ~ Sam Harris

What is Sam saying here? Let’s unpack this shall we…

(i) We are civilised and they are not. We being the west. They being Muslims, a group that has reserved for themselves a special place in militant atheist hell.

(ii) Because Muslims are not civilised they are a danger to people who are.

(iii) Therefore: We must do something to protect ourselves and/or get rid of them.

This is the deep foundational assumption that fuels Sam Harris’s enlightenment crusade, and lends legitimacy (in his mind if nowhere else) to his self-appointed mandate to share the special insights into religious experience that his particular form of non-belief affords. So, civilisation is a point of demarcation for Harris. What exactly is it that makes the west more civilised than those pesky Muslims? The distilled answer is because when “we” kill people, we have good intentions. I’m being serious.

Sam shares an example about the Israeli Gaza conflict that illustrates this point about The West and its allies:

“Muslims intentionally murder noncombatants, while we and the Israelis (as a rule) seek to avoid doing so. Muslims routinely use human shields, and this accounts for much of the collateral damage we and the Israelis cause; the political discourse throughout much of the Muslim world, especially with respect to Jews, is explicitly and unabashedly genocidal.
Given these distinctions, there is no question that the Israelis now hold the moral high ground in their conflict with Hamas and Hezbollah.”

Laying aside the dubious claim, that Israel, (and the USA in some cases) don’t engage in these types of horrific tactics, especially in light of a “controversial” (according to the nations that it indicts,) UN report that paints a very different picture about the Gaza conflict, we begin to get a glimpse of the view that Sam enjoys from the moral high ground. Intentionality is what makes one civilised. It covers a multitude of sins. If you don’t mean to kill 1000s of innocents, then fuck it, the flying spaghetti monster blesses and sanctifies your efforts, go thy way and kill some more.

In a statement criticising Noam Chomsky, a prominent intellectual, who holds an opposing view on this topic, Sam goes further:

“Nothing in Chomsky’s account acknowledges the difference between intending to kill a child, because of the effect you hope to produce on its parents [we call this “terrorism”], and inadvertently killing a child in an attempt to capture or kill an avowed child murderer [we call this “collateral damage”]. In both cases a child has died, and in both cases it is a tragedy. But the ethical status of the perpetrators, be they individuals or states, could not be more distinct… For Chomsky, intentions do not seem to matter. Body count is all.”

Theodore Sayeed, takes umbrage with this unique ethical stance, and offers this thought experiment as counter: “Do speeding motorists intend to kill pedestrians? No. Does that get them off the hook for the predictable outcome of their disregard for human life?” Intentionality for Sam is a get of jail free card that implicitly justifies other statements he has made that are even more egregious than the ones that we have already encountered.

Are there any other insights into the morality of Sam Harris, that can help us to understand his position, so that we might be worthy of civilisation? Yes, in his book, Free Will, he presents a revised Four Fold Path toward enlightenment for the modern age. There maybe other points that he’d rather emphasise, but this was my experience and I think that generally speaking it captures the main thesis of the book:

1. Freewill is an illusion

2. Sam Harris belongs to a select group of people who are the most compassionate and moral people on the planet.

3. You too can be a part of this group if you subscribe to the same ideas that he believes in (bearing in mind that if you don’t have free will then you can’t fully help what you believe in, not to mention that if there is no such thing as individual moral agency then talk of things like compassion or good and bad in general begin to lose any meaning, but I guess we’ll just ignore this).

4. The way to become one of the good guys is by helping in the fight to change the way that we pursue justice. Instead of retributive justice he is in favour of what you might call rehabilitative justice, because people can’t fairly be held fully responsible for what they do, because there is no free will (but then can we really be held responsible for the way that we pursue justice?).

Now I’m not totally averse to any of these points in particular, but in concert they seem strangely inconsistent views for a person to hold who is so dogmatically committed to ‘reason and rationality.’ I say this partly because the whole thing appears to suffer from what some philosophers might call a ‘failure of performance’. Regardless, hey do your thing man, we’re all human and we’d probably be hard pressed to find even one person on planet earth who doesn’t have at least some contradictory beliefs, so let’s lay these intellectual quibbles aside for the moment and examine something that I find far more troubling; When you combine Mr. Harris’s pleas for a more compassionate stance toward say psychopathic murderers (which he explicitly does in the book) and then examine his critique of not only radical islam but all of islam well we begin to enter the territory of full blown hypocrisy.

Let’s quickly summarise: if you do bad things it’s ok, if your intentions were good, unless you’re a muslim, because you can’t have good intentions when you’re an uncivilised barbarian, because Sam knows the thoughts and intents of everyone’s heart or some shit, don’t forget though, that you can’t really help if your intentions are good or bad in the grand scheme of things because of determinism. Once again, we’ll make a special exception in the case of Muslims who should be held accountable for everything that they do or might possibly do. Got it? Good. To add just a tad more confusion to this peculiar mix of incongruent moral declarations Sam gives us another ethical injunction that Jackson Lears lambasts in this article:

“Harris’s version of scientific ethics does not allow for complexity. In The Moral Landscape he describes his philosophical position as a blend of moral realism (“moral claims can really be true or false”) and consequentialism (“the rightness of an act depends on how it impacts the well-being of conscious creatures”). He does not explain why he has abandoned the intentionalism he espoused in The End of Faith. Nor does he spell out how his newfound consequentialism can allow him to maintain his justification of collateral damage (which surely “impacts the well-being of conscious creatures”)”

As inconsistent as all of these views seem, if we are truly going to defend democratic principles Sam Harris has every right to believe what ever crazy bullshit he wants, just like everyone else, but there’s an old saying: “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” unfortunately some of the policies that he recommends go far beyond breaking the other guys nose, as we shall see.

In the video Sam Harris makes the claim that “it’s not the people it’s the ideas” of Islam that he condemns. Bill “It’s not Islamophobia when we do it” Maher is quick to correct him on this: “and the people who believe in those ideas” (emphasis added). Sam whether intentionally or unintentionally, was being disingenuous and we can discern this by examining the abhorrent policies that he endorses. Sam supports torture, sorry I mean Enhanced interrogation techniques, in certain scenarios. He writes (practically brags): “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.” For insights into why this is probably a bad idea check out this fantastic article (basically there are statistically better ways to get accurate intel).

He is also is in favour of ethnic profiling: “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. They must tolerate, advocate, and even practice ethnic profiling.” And here’s a great counter point to that (basically, once again, there are better ways for security to screen people, like behavioural profiling). The question remains can you torture or ethnically profile Islam? Of course you can’t. You do these things to people. Will stigmatising an entire group, and calling for more violence, help to stop violence?

People with no religious affiliation or nones are one of the fastest growing groups in America. The thing that scares me is that Sam Harris is held up as some kind of secular luminary, an unofficial spokesperson for atheism and that his ideas will somehow become central tenets for a portion of this community, which could lead to a greater chance of his pet policies actually being implemented. Not that some of them aren’t already being used (though illegally) in the “War on Terror”. It is a well worn criticism that Sam and other prominent atheists have “made careers out of posing as heroic outsiders while serving the interests of the powerful.” It is encouraging to see that there is pushback against “rational atheism being used as a cover for Islamophobia and US militarism” from other secularists. He is obviously not representative of the entire group.

It’s estimated that the United States military industrial complex (USMIC) has been responsible for the deaths of 20 to 30 million people worldwide since the end of WWII. But let’s not forget that this is a well intentioned benign behemoth, so we’re just going to have to live with the results or should we profile and torture American citizens in the hopes of preventing their next military intervention? This is obviously a ridiculous, short sighted and ineffective proposal. What level of culpability do we assign to one average American citizen for the actions of their government? Sure they have a vote, but other special interests have far more money at their disposal and thus greater influence in elections (but this is a topic for another day) than one “Joe Sixpack.” Now of course Sam doesn’t think that torture is justifiable at all times, but given the abuses of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo do we really need anyone calling for more torture? Especially when it will set a dangerous precedent where only Muslims will be targeted? Could that possibly lead to even more human rights abuses? Given the US military’s track record, I’d tentatively be inclined to say: yes.

I’ve read many comments online, where some of Harris’s fanboys defend his stance (i.e. Islam is the greatest force for evil in the world today because of the ideas In the Quran) and excuse the “mistakes” of the US Government and Military because that’s a separate issue. If we are speaking in purely academic terms then they are correct, but this is about far more than words on paper or who’s argument is fallacious and who’s isn’t. Any semi-intelligent individual can make a cogent argument for just about anything, as long as the conclusion follows from the premises. However, when we are talking about values we are entering very subjective territory as far as we can tell at the moment (although Sam would have something to say about this too), so logic is often used as a tool to defend one’s own prejudices. I make no claims to objectivity. I am biased in favour of what I feel is the best outcome, one where you don’t use violence to stop violence except in self defence, and one that will not result in the financial collapse of the American economy, which in turn would be very bad for the world economy (once again a post for another time) and even more death.

The reason why I bring up the horrifying body count that American Imperialism has left in its wake is because who does Sam and his internet entourage think will execute these policies and this so called War on Terror, that they champion? Certainly not Sam, from the relative safety of his keyboard. His policy recommendations would be carried out by the USMIC. What is the civilisation that he so zealously defends? Surely not just the liberal principles that he espouses, because they don’t mean anything until they’re actually put into practice and the shining beacon of civilisation right now for better or worse is America.

In a poignant article that directly touches these issues but focuses on a different example, author, Teju Cole, introduces an idea that he calls The White Saviour Industrial Complex. It is a well intentioned machine to be sure. Sam Harris is all for good intentions, as am I. You look out into the world and you believe that there is no problem that can’t be solved with enthusiasm and clear headed thinking. In our eagerness to help we sometimes overlook important factors and brashly rush headlong into disaster.

Cole states: “There is much more to doing good work than ‘making a difference.’ There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.“ and “If we are going to interfere in the lives of others, a little due diligence is a minimum requirement.”(If I’m implying we should be careful about sticking our nose into other peoples business than why I am being a busybody and writing this post? I live in Australia and last week we participated in bombings in the middle east for the first time. Can you think of a better recruitment tool for ISIS than foreign invaders killing their friends and family? I don’t like that we’re contributing to the insanity).

Sam in the video says that “we” need to empower muslim moderates so that they can over come the evils of their religion or some such. What is this “we” shit? I presume he’s vaguely invoking American Exceptionalism, which in its most virulent form results in supreme fuck ups like the Iraq War. If “we” really want to help people I think we should take Teju Coles advice.
1. Do no harm. This is a big ask seen as American Foreign Policy tends to favour the ‘universal language of force’ as its primary form of diplomacy, a position Sam does not seem especially opposed to. In his unrelenting mission to fight the good fight he reminds us “We have a choice. We have two options as human beings. We have a choice between conversation and war. That’s it. Conversation and violence. And faith is a conversation stopper.” Sam’s grade on this point: FAIL
2. Due diligence. Obviously Harris has one particular group in mind that he deems worthy of the violence he recommends, lest the whole world return to the dark ages. How much of a threat does radical Islam really pose to a United States citizen? Well, a 2010 report found that in the USA (in the 5 years previous) you were 4 times more likely to be killed by a lightning strike then to be killed by a terrorist attack (where your odds are 1 in 5,500,000). Any terrorist attack not just Muslim ones. Is it possible that Sam Harris’s fear of muslims is drastically disproportionate in relation to the actual data? Sam’s grade on this point: FAIL

As Affleck reminds us in the clip there are 1.5 billion muslims in the world and not all of them, in fact a tiny tiny percentage of them belong to ISIS, but there’s no telling Sam anything; Armed with Occam’s Razor we find that there is no situation that Harris’s reductionist tendencies cannot oversimplify. There are many factors contributing to the horrible events transpiring in the middle east. Religion is one of them, no doubt about it, but there are many more: Geopolitics, oil , American interventionism, cultural identity, history, nationalism, opportunism, greed etc. To emphasise Religion’s role, with little acknowledgment given to the other variables in play will guarantee that we will never find a real and lasting solution if such a thing is possible at all.

Even if we were to indulge Sam in his unbelievably naive reading of reality his fears still seem unfounded when you consider the behaviour of the majority of muslims. There are verses in the Quran that encourage violence and there are versus that discourage violence. Let’s make one thing clear though, no one is required to believe “such and such” a thing or to do X,Y, Z just because some guy who looks like Zoolander thinks that logical necessity demands it. There are many ways to interpret scripture and to practice religion. There is room for nuance. The fundamentalism that Sam projects on to the perceived enemies of reason is probably more indicative of his own myopic worldview than anything else. People can and do function in society with inconsistent beliefs all the time, as evidenced by Sam himself. Remember, he believes casualty trumps any delusions we may harbour about free will, that we are all shaped by environmental factors and are therefore not fully culpable for the things that we do, while simultaneously thinking that muslims should be held responsible for not only what they do, but in some cases for what they might do because thought-crime (note: the concentric circles explanation in the youtube clip).

In conclusion, when it comes to discussing matters related to Islam I believe that Sam Harris is as blind as the watchmaker that he does not believe in. He is not willing to hold his own group to the same standard that he applies to Muslims. When America or Israel kill people, he excuses it because their intentions were good. When a muslim person kills some one it’s just another example of how Islam is the greatest evil that we face in the world today. He believes that we should take into account consequences by considering what impacts the well-being of conscious creatures and then recommends torture, racial profiling, and tries to justify collateral damage. In Free Will he implores us to consider environmental factors and social forces that contribute to decisions that people make so that we can become more understanding and compassionate and then does the exact opposite when it comes to assessing muslims. His ideas of what we should do about Islam are just as dangerous as the ones he condemns. In the real world the number of actual terrorist attacks since 9/11 do not bear out his rabid preoccupation with the imminent existential threat of Islamic terrorism. Sam Harris is a great thinker in many areas, but he is also an islamophobe and thus we should be extremely wary about many of his ideas in regard to muslim people.

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