Yes to profiling of Muslims?

The atheist author Sam Harris says:

We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it. And, again, I wouldn’t put someone who looks like me entirely outside the bull’s-eye… But there are people who do not stand a chance of being jihadists, and [airport] screeners can know this at a glance.

In his addendum addressing the uproar, he says that those who ‘don’t see the link between Islam and suicidal terrorism’ might object to this but that it is a fact that ‘suicidal terrorism is overwhelmingly a Muslim phenomenon.’ He adds:

To say that ethnicity, gender, age, nationality, dress, traveling companions, behavior in the terminal, and other outward appearances offer no indication of a person’s beliefs or terrorist potential is either quite crazy or totally dishonest. It is the charm of political correctness that it blends these sins against reasonableness so seamlessly…

I suppose Sam Harris has a point – that is if you believe that one’s ethnicity, dress, gender and nationality (very different things from behaviour) can give some indication of one’s potential.

If so, we might take him up on his suggestion and profile Christians in order to avert the real risks of far-Right extremism in Europe and the USA. Of course this is absurd because – in most instances – you can’t tell who is Christian, atheist, Sikh, Muslim, Hindu, animist, or humanist just by looking at them. And even if you do manage to herd all the Christians into one special screening area (maybe after an interview as this information is not on one’s passport) how can you assume that they (or Norwegians for that matter) are potential Breiviks or far-Right terrorists?

You can’t.

It’s the same with Muslims.

Harris will find my example of profiling Christians incomparable because he will say that Islamic terrorism is a greater risk. Of course it is today but the first victims of Islamic terrorism – and for many decades and long before September 11 – are Muslims themselves or those deemed to be such. In any case, which threat is greater is irrelevant if we agree that profiling is an absurd and racist way to address far-Right political movements like Islamism.

This is exactly what I keep banging on about when I speak of what can happen if you allow the far-Right to have hegemony on the debate on Islam, terrorism, and Sharia law because the post-modernist left and many liberals are too pathetic to stand for social justice, citizenship rights and equality.

Sam Harris’ argument shows clearly how far-Right discourse has crept into the language and politics of some atheists and secularists.

Like Harris, the far-Right conflates Islam, Muslims, terrorism and Islamism so as to make it seem as if they are all one and the same. And like them, he blames all Muslims for Islamic terrorism. Profiling can only be an acceptable response if one allocates collective blame.

If you want to know more about the distinctions between Muslims and Islamists you can read my speech on the Islamic inquisition though I talk about this in many speeches, articles and blog entries but it’s basically the difference between Christians and far-Right extremists.

As an aside, it’s interesting how the concept of profiling always and only comes up with regards to minorities. Harris says he doesn’t mean that non-whites alone must be profiled but now he is the one who is being totally dishonest.


  1. Gregory in Seattle says

    Three words that completely refute Harris’ racist assumption:

    John Walker Lindh.

    And he still cannot account for the many non-Muslim terrorists, like Timothy McVeigh, Eric Rudolph, James Von Brunn and Andrew Stack. And how does he propose not profiling Middle Easterners who are Druze, Christian, Hindu, Zoroasteran, Jain or Samaritan?

    • Annette says

      No, it doesn’t refute his argument. He’s not saying that only muslims are terrorists, only pointing out the obvious, that the majority of terrorists at the moment are.

      Nor is he saying that all muslims are terrorists. The vast majority are not, as he well knows.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    … you can’t tell who is … Sikh, … just by looking at them.

    The Sikhs have a pretty distinctive style of clothing, as do (some of) the Muslim (women).

    • says

      Ahh yes but you are assuming that all Sikhs wear distinctive clothing… They don’t. I have plenty of Sikh friends who don’t have long hair and wear jeans and t-shirts. There is no one homogeneous group…

  3. Robert B. says

    “Like Harris, the far-Right conflates Islam, Muslims, terrorism and Islamism so as to make it seem as if they are all one and the same.”

    Oh, it wasn’t just those. There’s a racial component, too. What else would he mean by “looking Muslim”? So Arabs are the same as Muslims which are the same as terrorists, and they all deserve to get harassed and suspected of crimes when they try to travel.

    Good job protecting freedom, there.

  4. LeftSidePositive says

    I think for a white, privileged guy like Sam Harris, the idea of profiling white people just Does. Not. Compute. because to him, white is “default,” so he can’t imagine profiling it just like he can’t imagine screening the baggage of someone who doesn’t have a carry-on.

    • says

      Yes you’re right. He says something to the effect that it could be frustrating to be profiled but worth it. Well he has no understanding of what it actually means to be stopped day in and day out because you fit some racist profile.

  5. Graham Martin-Royle says

    There are so many things wrong with this idea of profiling muslims that I don’t know where to start.

    Who and what is a muslim? Well, anyone could be a muslim. You can’t tell by their ethnicity because there is no bar on a person of any race becoming a muslim. Not only is it racist to think that all muslims must be black or brown, it is also racist to think that all black or brown people must be muslims. Some are hindus, some are sikhs, some are christians, some are atheists etc. In other words, your ethnicity does not determine your religion, you could be anything and it is impossible to tell just by the colour of your skin.

    You can’t tell by their clothing, yes some muslim women might wear clothing that makes them stand out but that clothing is very similar to the clothing worn at times by ultra orthodox jews. The men wear all sorts of clothing, depending on where they are from, where they are, what they are doing etc. Clothing is no guide.

    As for what is a muslim, well there are many different views on that as well, both inside and outside the muslim community. It is wrong to label all muslim as being in support of terrorism just because some are. How can you tell just by looking at them? You can’t is the simple answer. The one who is going to blow up a plane could just as easily by the kindly looking old granny who has been muslim since birth and has become radicalised due to her favourite grandchild being killed by a drone while visiting Pakistan.

    The idea that muslims are the only people to use suicide bombs is also incorrect, ever heard of the Tamil Tigers? They were famous for using suicide bombers, they were hindus.

    No, I’m sorry Sam, but I think you’re wrong on this one.

  6. wrathfuljade says

    Given that perpetrators of violence are overwhelmingly male, I hope Mr. Harris would agree that what airports really need is standard security procedures split on gender grounds and that what cities need in order to lower violent crime is a curfew on men after 8pm (this would reduce substance related offences against strangers, traffic offences and also gang related crime)

    • ismenia says

      It would probably increase instances of domestic violence, though. Unless thouse profiled as likely abusers were kept sedated.

  7. Annette says

    I agree with Sam Harris.

    If the majority of world terrorism was currently being perpetrated by white British females, I would expect the police who were trying to comabat terrorism to be targeting their efforts most at people like me – white, British and female.

    It might be a bloody nuisance if I ended up getting stopped frequently, but as someone who might be blown up by one of those terrorists, I would want the police to be as effective as possible in trying to catch them, even if it inconvenienced me.

    To adopt this policy would NOT be to claim that ALL white British females were terrorists. And it would NOT be to claim that ONLY white British females could be terrorists.

    But since you can’t stop and search everyone, you have to make educated guesses as to who might be more likely to be a terrorist, whether by the ethnicity, nationality or behaviour. Faced with 1000 people at an airport, if you can’t do a thorough search of them all, who would you tend to want to search to get the best chance of catching a terrorist, given my scenario – elderly black males from Africa, or white British females? Surely the latter?

    • Sas says

      It is very easy to be so egalitarian about such treatment when you know you will never ever be subjected to it.

      It might be a bloody nuisance if I ended up getting stopped frequently, but as someone who might be blown up by one of those terrorists, I would want the police to be as effective as possible in trying to catch them, even if it inconvenienced me.

      If an innocent person is being stopped frequently and repeatedly, then that means the police are NOT being effective. It means that rather than looking out for actual useful indicators of danger such as suspicious behavior, security personnel are wasting time looking for suspicious skin color. It means that actual terrorists can easily strategize around the profiling because the criteria are so superficial.

      • Annette says

        No. Since the number of terrorists is tiny, any kind of profiling is going to search mostly innocent people. Profiling is simply an attempt to increase the chances of searching someone who turns out to be a terrorist. Many innocent people will be searched – that fact does not indicate the failure of the policy.

        I think your first sentence is a cheap shot. If you cast doubt on my right to make this point because up until now my race and gender haven’t been part of any profiling, then look at an email that Sam Harris received in response to his post.

        “I’m an attorney in a very large firm here in the U.S. I’ve spent a good deal of my time over the past three years traveling for various cases and the airport has become a second home to me. I’m also constantly profiled. But not just at the airports, in multiple other locations and in various different ways.

        When I travel, however, especially by plane, I want to feel safe. I do not want to be treated poorly, but if I absolutely had to choose, I’d opt for poor treatment over death-by-suicide-bomber. Thankfully, I haven’t had to choose and I’ve actually received neither (though there is one incident at the Philly airport I could have done without). The TSA does not harass me, but they do their job properly. To properly do their job, they need to keep an eye out and screen those who represent the most urgent, or at least the most obvious, threats. Because of my name, and my family background if I’m honest, I stand out as a likely candidate. Upon seeing me and placing a face with my name (Aamir Abbasi), my appearance does not scream “terrorist,” but it does not put your concerns to rest—I’m physically capable of being a threat and do not have the demeanor to assure one that I am not a threat.

        However, I’m not a threat and I know this perfectly well, as do all my friends and co-workers. But if the authorities don’t take a closer look at me than the elderly woman you have pictured on your blog, they are surely not doing their job well. Based on the few minutes the TSA has to scrutinize me, there really is no way to determine that I am not a terrorist, and as you correctly point out, most terrorists we need to concern ourselves with in the U.S. at this particular time in history are Muslim terrorists.

        Profiling is just common sense put into practice. To say otherwise demonstrates nothing more than a deluded view of political correctness. I’m sure your article has not helped with your popularity, but these difficult-to-swallow truths need [to be] advocated by someone. So, thanks.

        Aamir Abbasi”

        If ever white British females start bombing people, my first priority would be MY OWN safety. And if profiling me improved my own safety, I’d accept it.

        • Sas says

          Since the number of terrorists is tiny, any kind of profiling is going to search mostly innocent people. Profiling is simply an attempt to increase the chances of searching someone who turns out to be a terrorist. Many innocent people will be searched – that fact does not indicate the failure of the policy.

          I notice that you left out several important points … it’s not just that many innocent people will be searched, it’s that they will be searched repeatedly, because they are being profiled based on superficial characteristics and not solid leads. It is a waste of time and resources. Further, it’s a waste of resources that supports racism.

          Those superficial characteristics also allow actual terrorists to work around the profiling by choosing operatives that are less likely to be profiled. Thus it’s not only racist, and redundant, it hands obvious weaknesses to the terrorists.

          If you cast doubt on my right to make this point because up until now my race and gender haven’t been part of any profiling,

          Yes, I do deny your standing to make this point because you do not face racism and do not know what it feels like. Your smug pronouncements about how you as a white person would feel in that fantasy situation mean exactly nothing. The man you quoted carries a hell of a lot more weight than you do, which is why you should have just quoted him in the first place instead of proclaiming how egalitarian you are from your completely safe place.

          I still disagree with him based on the arguments, and even security experts disagree on both straight-forward and statistical grounds.

          • Annette says

            “Yes, I do deny your standing to make this point because you do not face racism and do not know what it feels like. Your smug pronouncements about how you as a white person would feel in that fantasy situation mean exactly nothing.”

            What an incredibly arrogant and rude thing to say. I have nothing more to say to someone who only allows a person to discuss issues they have direct experience of.

        • Sas says

          Ha, yes, I’m arrogant and rude for requiring you have some personal experience before preaching to people as to how they should feel when they’re targeted by racism. ‘Cause telling people how you would feel in a hypothetical situation as the example to live by isn’t arrogant at all. XD

          • Dan says

            hear, hear, Annette! and thank you for, quite evidently, having read all of both of Sam’s original and follow up articles. while i agree with the basic idea of “profiling” as one part of a multi-strand anti-terrorism approach, i appreciate that some people take issue with it. the various reasons, both well-founded and, given some of the responses i’ve read here and elsewhere, somewhat spurious, i will not go into now.

            i will, however, say this: males of all ages, especially those of middle age, who are traveling alone and particularly those of “european” heritage/appearance, entering Australia from South East Asia, most specifically Thailand, come under extra scrutiny from Australian Immigration officials as to the reason/s for traveling to that area.


            because such people are statistically much more likely to have been involved, as a client, in the illegal under-age sex trade than, say, a six year old Namibian girl traveling with her 70 year old grandmother to visit relatives in Bangkok and then Melbourne.

            how do we know this?

            it’s called profiling.

            and it’s just one part of a multi-strand approach to addressing the really serious issue of child sex trade tourism between Australia and South East Asia.

            it strengthens the overall campaign, just as religio-cultural profiling may very well help the fight against terrorism, if it is handled appropriately and effectively.

            but that’s the sticking point, isn’t it? having traveled extensively throughout the US, i’m not sure those words apply to the TSA.

            just saying…

  8. Joachim says


    First order of business for you is to know who your friends are – and avoid accusing them of right-wing racism when they are not doing anything like that. It is absurd to say that Sam Harris blames all muslims for islamic terrorism, but he do, of course, blame islam. We can have an intelligent debate about whether it is possible to profile muslims or not (I’m undecided for now) – but certainly muslims do pose an increased risk (even though it is still very small) and certainly it is the bad influence of islam, rather than inferior human traits, that is to blame.

    I like your mission, Maryam, but you hurt it by making false accusations against an intelligent secular ally like Sam.

    • Matt Talarico says

      Yeah. I’m not entirely sure where I stand on this debate. I understand where Harris is coming from, but profiling is a complex thing and frankly I don’t know enough about it to weigh in. Looking forward to the rest of the exchange between Sam Harris and Bruce Schneier. But I know that I do not stand with the people on their moral high horses labeling Harris a racist. He’s far from it, and the self-righteousness I’m seeing in many people’s responses to this discussion (Pharyngula readers, for example) can be kind of pathetic. It’s a legitimate discussion.

      • says

        It’s very difficult to see Harris’ comments in any other light other than racism. The connection between being Muslim and having a particular skin tone is non-existent. According to the Pew Report,

        A comprehensive demographic study of more than 200 countries finds that there are 1.57 billion Muslims of all ages living in the world today, representing 23% of an estimated 2009 world population of 6.8 billion.

        While Muslims are found on all five inhabited continents, more than 60% of the global Muslim population is in Asia and about 20% is in the Middle East and North Africa.

        What Harris is saying is profile people who look Arabic.

        • Annette says

          Where does Sam Harris say we should be profiling people who look Arabic? He simply says, “We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim.” Nowhere does he mentions Arabs.

          • Sas says

            What makes a person look Muslim, then? And what do you think the airport security will go by when deciding if a person looks Muslim?

    • ismenia says

      I really don’t think that the fact that Harris is a fellow secularist should exempt him from criticism. Maryam has only disagreed with his view and suggested that it is comparable to those of far-right racists, not that Harris is one himself.

      I found much in The End of Faith troubling. There are points where Harris appears to consider all Muslims as a dangerous threats.

      These things can also be self-fulfilling. The anger felt by ordinary Muslims at regular harrassment, racism and discrimination is a powerful tool of recruitment for extreme Islamic groups.

      Meanwhile airport security goes far beyond what you see when you fly and security can make sure that they target individuals they have reason to consider especially suspicious.

  9. criticaldragon1177 says

    Maryam Namazie

    Also I don’t think that a majority of terrorist attacks, at least in most Western Countries, Including the US and the UK have been committed by Muslims. But even ignoring that, why wouldn’t those terrorists who happened to be Muslims, simply change their appearance so they wouldn’t fit the profile? That way they could simply slip under the radar.

    • criticaldragon1177 says

      Also, not mention the fact that they could simply find people who don’t look “Muslim” by what ever that means.

      • EmbraceYourInnerCrone says

        Being that Muslim is a religious, not an ethnic designation, what the heck does a Muslim look like exactly???

        Fun facts:
        There are approximately 2 million Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina. And about 2 million Muslims in Albania.

        There are about 64 million Muslims in Nigeria and about 23 million in Uzbekistan.

        So I will repeat the question: What exactly does a Muslim look like?

  10. alanuk says

    I agree with Sam to the extent that the present procedures are absurd. But America was scared shitless after 9/11 and full advantage was taken of this to start the current wars. Fear has now become a habit; every stable door had to be seen to be defended after the real, or imaginary, terrorist has bolted. It does not help that the American people have been conditioned to accept that any problem can be solved by the greater application of force: The MADness of the Cold War; the 2nd Amendment to protect against every potential murderer, rapist, or the ‘Fed’s’. Harassing a disabled old woman at an airport is just held to be collateral damage, like bombing a wedding party in Afghanistan.

    Where I disagree is where he wants to single out stereotypical Muslims; the disabled old woman is probably being treated with as much compassion as these goons can muster, think how they would treat ‘terrorist suspects’.

    Most of the Muslims I have known dress in Western clothes as do most of the Sikhs – they come from the same region and generally look the same. Some Muslim women wear obviously Muslim dress while others wear the regional costume of North India as do some Sikh women. These Muslims are mainly from Pakistan (Note: our ally in the War on Terror) and have medium-brown skin, others from the same country have darker skin, others lighter, and some are white. Some Muslims are Arabs, some have black skin, and some are Chinese.

    In short, Muslims may be from various countries and various ethnic backgrounds. There is no such thing as a typical Muslim. Sam is not only wrong but deluded.

  11. piero says

    Sam Harris has published in his own blog a guest post by Bruce Schneier, a security expert who is totally opposed to profiling on several reasonable grounds.

    That sort of intellectual honesty is hard to find. I’ve always admired Sam for his crystal-clear expositions, even when I think he’s wrong. That he has published this guest post only increases my respect for him.

    • ... says

      Comrade perio, long time no see! I entirely agree. As I said, you can agree or disagree with Harris, but the claim that he is not honest or has malevolent intentions is ludicrous.

  12. ... says

    As an aside, it’s interesting how the concept of profiling always and only comes up with regards to minorities. Harris says he doesn’t mean that non-whites alone must be profiled but now he is the one who is being totally dishonest.

    You know, someone aligned with the bloodiest regimes in human history should really, really keep it down when the subject of dishonesty comes up. You really should. Similarly, someone who is openly aligned with the most wicked tyrannies in history should can it when grousing about the “far right” threat. I’ve had to fight against the real thing, so I don’t particularly care for this ludicrous guilt by association nonsense.

    Sam’s point is simple. Israel does smart profiling and it does not require the TSA circus. You can agree or disagree, but there is no basis whatsoever to say that he is not being honest.

    FYI, Sam Harris was one of the few people to predict that something like Breivik’s atrocities was in the pipeline and was sounding the alarm about it right from the start. For your further information, profiling is already used against neo-Nazi types to keep an eye on them. But please, do not let facts get in the way of your rant.

  13. says

    One thing I notice is that there seems to be a universal, unchallanged acceptance in the comments section here as well as throughout FTB of the premise that a recognition or acknowledgement of differences among races automatically translates to racism.

    Without even detabing the merits of Harris’s point, I think it’s at least worth mentioning that nothing Harris has said qualifies him as a racist. A racist is one who believes that certain races are inherantly more valuable or ethical than others.

    It seems to me that Harris is suggesting that we ought to use all of the data at our disposal, gained through the evidence of the senses, in order to filter out potential terrorists as best we can. To my knowledge, he never suggested it was a perfect science or that it works every time or that we can’t be fooled. What he’s suggesting is that we should not ignore data in the name of some politically correct ideal.

    But whether you agree with him or not is irrelevant to MY point, which is that such a suggestion does not qualify him as a racist. Not by any reasonable definition.

  14. smrnda says

    Given Anders Brevik in Norway and Timothy McVeigh in the states, aren’t white guys a terrorist threat?

    As for him not being ‘racist’ because of no explicit belief in certain races being inherently inferior, that’s a pretty nit-picking legalistic, simplistic definition of racism. Racism is often a bit more nuanced than that, and most racists have dispensed with overt hate and inferiority based racism in favor of finding ways to rationalize giving minorities second-class citizen treatment. I’d argue giving young Black males advice like “don’t wear hoodies” is racist in an of itself though not based in any belief in inferiority – just the idea that white people are suspicious of them and it’s their job to keep up appearances.

    I’m not stating that Harris is necessarily racist; I’d have to do a much more thorough read of a lot of his writing – but just that racism doesn’t have to fit such a simplistic definition, and it’s a complicated business. It’s quite possible for a person to desire not to be racist, but to end up being racist anyway.

    • says

      Saying that racism is nuanced raises a red flag in my mind. You do realize, don’t you, that the accusation of “racist” is near-impossible to refute ostensibly? It’s one of those infuriating shots that – because people have such loose definitions of the word – you cannot possibly refute convincingly to someone who doesn’t already know you.

      That’s why its important to ensure clarity when using terms like that. The very first comment on this thread stated “Three words that completely refute Harris’ racist assumption…” and no one challenged the idea that his assumption was racist.

      Maryam said “Profiling can only be an acceptable response if one allocates collective blame.” But this frames profiling in a moral context, whereas I think Harris is pointing out that profiling has utility. The reality is that anyone who understands the concept of hedging the odds in their favor (gamblers, stockbrokers, lawyers) understands that there is no 100% certain, fool-proof way to know what someone is going to do next but one can certainly make predictions based on experience and raw data.

      I don’t see how Harris was arguing for giving anyone second-class citizen treatment.

      As far as hoodies… look – there are criminals in the United States. Those criminals aren’t stupid, and they’ve figured out the best way to conceal their intentions in order to commit their crimes. A lot of time it involves the simple act of wearing attire that conceals or obscures either their weapon, their loot, or their identity (or all three). Things like fluffy jackets, loose jeans, long-sleeve shirts, and hoodies all have very real utility to criminals.

      They also happen to be perfectly harmless in their own right. So a criminal wearing these items is quite indistinguishable from an upright citizen wearing the same attire.

      So I think when someone like Geraldo offers advice to young black men along the lines of “don’t wear a hoodie”, what he’s actually saying is “don’t put yourself in a situation where you become indistinguishable from people who are genuinely bad. ESPECIALLY don’t do it in locations where people have been harmed by people with whom you might make yourself indistinguishable.”

      That sort of advice might trigger a gag reflex in those of us who shudder to think that there might exist a condition here in our beloved United States where an upright citizen cannot exercise a basic right without suffering unjust repercussions. But *it is still sage advice* – whether any of us like it or not!

      Look at this picture. I took it myself a couple days after the Martin shooting. It’s on the door of Navy Federal Credit Union in Kailua, HI. It was up there for at least a year prior to the time I took this picture, and it is part of their stated policy. Basically, what they’re saying is “Look, these are things that *most bank robbers wear*, so don’t wear them, and we won’t suspect you of being a bank robber.”

      Is this any different *in principle* than what Geraldo was saying? You may point out that Geraldo was addressing black men specifically whereas the NFCU sign doesn’t, but I’m not sure that’s relevant to the point.

      The point is that smart money says that if you don’t dress like criminals dress, you have a lower chance of getting treated like a criminal.

  15. ... says

    As for him not being ‘racist’ because of no explicit belief in certain races being inherently inferior, that’s a pretty nit-picking legalistic, simplistic definition of racism

    No, it’s the fact that that’s the exact, accurate definition of racism. In fact, that you want to privilege the colour of someone’s skin over the contents of their mind makes you the racist.

    Now go away. Racist.

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  17. belzer says

    Sam Harris mght have a point that it would work, if all terrorists were muslims . . But, he must be correct, why else would he have started Project Reason is a charitable foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society


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