A friend and Loyal Reader™ forwarded me a recent screed by Sam Harris. He asked if I would be willing to indulge him in letting him know what in it, if anything, I think is “objectionable, disagree with or find otherwise ill-advised.” Harris’s post, entitled “What Hillary Clinton Should Say about Islam and the ‘War on Terror,’” is written in the form of a proposed speech that he would like for the Democratic nominee for president to give before the November election. “Its purpose,” Harris says, “is to prevent a swing toward Trump by voters who find Clinton’s political correctness on the topic of Islam and jihadism a cause for concern.”
I did a debunking of Harris almost two years ago on this very topic. It was a tedious exercise, mainly because like all right-wing conservatives and reactionaries, he bases his irrational, evidence-free, simplistic, black-&-white views and arguments, such as they are, on falsehoods and factual inaccuracies that are a cakewalk to disprove. The task was all the more unbearable because I’ve always found Harris an unoriginal and uninteresting thinker and a witless and dull writer, so much so that I’m genuinely amazed he is not a regular op-ed columnist for the New York Times.
That said, he is certainly an incendiary polemicist. Or he tries to be anyway, but for me he comes off as smug and comically uninformed as any ordinary Fox News host. Except for a few items that popped up in my feeds, Harris had largely dropped off my radar. Those sure were a couple of doozies, though. Last year he made his jaw-dropping claim that far-right fabulist and then-presidential candidate Ben Carson is “one of the best people” on the subject of Islam and terrorism, even as Carson’s “own advisers admit [he] struggles with grasping basic facts surrounding international conflicts.” Before that, Noam Chomsky—who is the farthest thing from an unoriginal and uninteresting thinker or a witless and dull writer—ate him for lunch. Oh, and then there was that one time I made a bobblehead of Sam Harris for absolutely no reason whatsoever.
Researching for today’s post, however, I came across many more Harris grotesqueries that I was fortunate enough to miss, ignore or block from memory: support for racial profiling, torture, preemptive nuclear war, demanding that the US government admit that it is and ought to be “at war with Islam” and that “The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.”
Sensible fascists. Jeezus.
A decade ago, Harris wrote that Muslim immigrants to Europe exploit the Western values of their host countries by “demanding tolerance for their backwardness, their misogyny, their anti-Semitism, and the genocidal hatred that is regularly preached in their mosques.” He is inexplicably unaware that, in accordance with his much-touted “Western values,” his fellow US citizens not only demand “tolerance for their backwardness, their misogyny, their anti-Semitism, and the genocidal hatred that is regularly preached in their
mosques churches“—and also happens to be the foundational principle upon which US “civilization” is and has always been based—they fucking receive it. He’s also unaware that immigrant populations assimilate to their host culture within a few generations—well, at least if they’re treated decently, for instance by having their host country not declare war on their religion or its presidential candidates threatening and demonizing them.
I honestly don’t know why I am undertaking this task again. Maybe because I find it troubling that anyone but a Fox News viewer would take the guy seriously on this issue, when conducting a cursory investigation into the facts and evidence for yourself will reveal how completely and utterly wrong he is about a unique nexus between Islamic religious ideas and terrorism (and misogyny), as well as how unethical, irrational, irresponsible and dangerous it is to promote such falsehoods. Maybe I’m doing this because I have some unhealthy masochistic tendencies I really should bring up in therapy. Maybe it’s because I like honoring the 1940s-era pianist and comedian Oscar Levant who said, “The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”
Well, regardless, now I’ve gone and done it. My comments and edits to Harris’s latest…whatever it is are in blue.
SPOILER ALERT: Sam Harris is still wanking all over the same, tired hobbyhorse. He has learned nothing. And he likely never will.
The following is part of a speech that I think Hillary Clinton should deliver between now and November. Its purpose is to prevent a swing toward Trump by voters who find Clinton’s political correctness on the topic of Islam and jihadism a cause for concern, especially in the aftermath of any future terrorist attacks in the U.S. or Europe.—SH
Ah yes, the old favorite right-wing dog whistle, “political correctness.”
The possibility that other people understand terrorism far, far better than Sam Harris does would never occur to him, any more than it would ever occur to Donald Trump or Ben Carson (or to any number of sensible European fascists).
* * *
TAKE IT AWAY, HILLARY!
Today, I want to talk about
one of the most important and divisive issues of our time— Sam Harris’s bizarre obsession with claiming a unique link between the religion of Islam and terrorism. I want you to know how I view it and how I will think about it as President: in short, it is false, dangerous, counterproductive and easily demolished bullshit. After all, other people actually know a great deal more than Sam Harris does about radicalization and terrorism, including the fact that here in the US, right-wing terrorists have killed more people and pose a far greater threat than jihadis, and not a single one of those assholes is a Muslim. And the ratio would be even waaaay further skewed if we counted anti-abortion violence as terrorism, which of course it is, but our rancid media refuses to call it that for some reason (*cough* Christian privilege *cough*). I also want you to understand the difference between how I approach this topic and how my opponent in this presidential race does: he approaches it like the ignorant and dangerous fascist he is, while my approach is more…hmm…well, reality-based.
The underlying issue—and really the most important issue of this or any time according to Sam Harris—is human cooperation. What prevents it, and what makes it possible? In November, you will be electing a president, not an emperor of the world. [Hahaha OMFG. Citation needed.] The job of the president of the United States, even with all the power at her or his disposal, is to get people, both at home and abroad, to cooperate to solve a wide range of complex problems. [How is it even possible for someone to be this naive?] Your job is to pick the person who
seems most capable of doing that America’s Owners deem well suited to serving their interests, whether or not that includes ensuring that instability (and thus terrorism) proliferates in the Muslim world.
Maybe I wasn’t supposed to say that. Whoops! Anyway.
In the past, I’ve said that groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda have nothing to do with Islam. And President Obama has said the same. Because it’s demonstrably true. This way of speaking, according to Sam Harris’s evidenceless assertion, has been guided by the belief that if we said anything that could be spun as confirming the narrative of groups like ISIS—suggesting that the West is hostile to the religion of Islam, if only to its most radical strands—we would drive more Muslims into the arms of the jihadists and the theocrats, preventing the very cooperation we need to win a war of ideas against radical Islam. I
now see this situation differently. I now believe that we have been selling most Muslims short. And I think we are all paying an unacceptable price for not speaking clearly about the overblown link between specific religious ideas and the sectarian hatred that is dividing the Muslim world. We need to push back against ignorant berserkers like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Donald Trump and Sam Harris who counterfactually insist that “religious ideas” specific to Islam are the ultimate cause of terrorism, when that quite plainly is not the case.
All of us, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, must oppose the specific ideas
within the Islamic tradition that Sam Harris insists inspire groups like ISIS and the so-called “lone-wolf” attacks we’ve now seen in dozens of countries, as well as the social attitudes that are at odds with our fundamental values—values like human rights [citation desperately needed], and women’s rights [citation desperately needed], and gay rights [a very recent phenomenon in the West, and one which still receives a fuckton of pushback], and freedom of speech [but only for white manbabies; anyone else who speaks freely to say “no” to them or point out white manbabies’ wrongness or sense of entitlement is subject to relentless threats of rape, death and other forms of violence, SWATting, doxxing and harassment campaigns in order to silence them, and often succeeding. FREE SPEECH™, everyone. These values are claimed to be non-negotiable. BWAHAHAHAHA!
But I want to be very clear about something: Bigotry against Muslims, or any other group of people, is unacceptable, including when Sam Harris does it. It is contrary to the values that have made our society a beacon of freedom and tolerance for the rest of the world. It is also totally counterproductive from a security point of view. However, talking about the consequences of ideas is not bigotry. Muslims are people—and most of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims simply want to live in peace like the rest of us. Islam, however, is a set of ideas. And all ideas are fit to be discussed and criticized in the 21st century, however relevant they may actually be to terrorism.
Every religious community must interpret its scripture and adjust its traditions to conform to the modern world, or so says Sam Harris anyway, who is definitely not the Emperor of the World, and who claims with a straight face to support Western values like, oh, say, religious freedom. Western Christians used to murder
people women they believed were witches. They did this for centuries. And Westerners still kill women in numbers that dwarf US war and terrorism casualties combined—they simply find different excuses and rationalizations now to justify it. Terrorist attacks are horrifying and tragic. All violent deaths are. But we do ourselves no favors by obsessively focusing on only terrorism committed by Muslims to the exclusion of similar atrocities (and worse) committed by others, and then claiming Islam is somehow a unique threat. People who actually know what they’re talking about don’t do that. Reality-averse right-wing hysterics do.
It’s hard to exaggerate the depths of moral and intellectual confusion this history represents, especially in the light of all of the unwarranted blame and focus on Islam by people who simultaneously ignore similar and much greater evils endemic to Western culture because it doesn’t support their narrative.
But it is also true that we have largely outgrown such confusion in the West [O.M.F.G.]. The texts themselves haven’t changed. The Bible still suggests that witchcraft is real. It isn’t. Why, it’s almost as if the specific religious ideas themselves don’t directly cause the violence! If they did of course, by Sam Harris’s “logic” Western Christians would still be murdering “witches.” And we now know yet Sam Harris thinks that a belief in witches was the product of ancient ignorance and fear, while the existence in the West of plenty of modern day believers in witches, the vast majority of whom are well-educated whites, is definitive proof that this is not the case. Criticizing a belief in witchcraft, and noticing its connection to specific atrocities—atrocities that are still committed by certain groups of Christians in Africa—isn’t a form of bigotry against Christians. Criticizing any belief as harmful or false isn’t bigotry. But blaming a belief in witchcraft for atrocities committed by some African Christians is actually a form of bigotry against pagans. And in a society founded on religious freedom, that is reprehensible. Yet for Sam Harris it’s the only basis for moral and political progress.
Oh, and as usual, facts once again reveal Sam Harris’s inexplicable ignorance. In Africa, atrocities committed against accused witches looooong predate the arrival of Christian missionaries. See, people who actually study and understand this phenomenon know that witchcraft accusations are a form of control and dominance for men over women. (Gosh, does that sound familiar? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?)
In recent years [in Africa], accusations of witchcraft have risen to unprecedented heights.
[T]he number of women accused in relation to the number of men accused in the past fifteen years has been twenty to one. [!!!]
[T]hese accusations are significant as an attempt to control the behavior of women.
Specifically, it is a manner of controlling female sexuality in an age when urban settings don’t facilitate Victorian ideas of femininity.
Accusing someone of being a witch will essentially cut him or her [but let’s face it, mostly her] off from the family and any future inheritance.
[W]itchcraft accusations have risen due to several [other] factors: (1) seasonal rainy season famines, (2) tensions in the house, (3) women’s leisure, (4) men’s frustrations, (5) general insecurity, (6) economic deprivation and food insecurity and (7) availability of an easy solution. It is key to note reason number three “women’s leisure.” This means that women having free time puts people in a suspicious mindset against them, and are thus more likely to be accused of witchcraft.
In Ghana, by the way, the arrival of Pentecostal (Christian) missionaries actually had a positive effect on the fates of those accused of witchcraft.
What all of this tells us is that religious ideas—whether Christian or Islamic or pagan or otherwise—can often serve as a convenient fig leaf for the self-righteous cry of violent misogynists who already want to punish and harm women for reasons having nothing to do with religious ideas. Ask yourself: if violent misogynists didn’t have a Bible or Koran they could point to to justify their actions, would they latch on to some other justification? OF COURSE THEY FUCKING WOULD.
Suffice it to say, Sam Harris is as knowledgeable about witch persecution in Africa as he is about the causes of terrorism.
End Part 1.
I don’t know about you, but so far this might be my favorite Hillary speech ever! And now I intend to do something a whole lot less boring than pointing out with ease the many, many ways that Sam Harris is wrong. Like, I dunno… clipping my toenails?
Marcus Ranum says
I am surprised to find that Sam Harris is still so popular. But maybe that’s because preaching to the choir is a safe strategy.
You can point out that 1% of the world’s refugees are mostly muslims and blockheads like Harris and his fans will ignore that fact and say they’re angry because islam makes people mean.
Excellent post. I would say Sam Harris should hire you as his editor, but I know he never will and it would be a dreadful job anyway.
Dyz Lecticus says
“It is contrary to the values that have made our society a beacon of freedom and tolerance for the rest of the world.”
Freedom and tolerance of straight white christian rich men … the rest, not so much (as in most western countries)
Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says
I don’t know. If SH understands the edits as well as he understands the basic facts and dynamics at issue, doing the editing could be rather fun.
The number of terrorist attacks in Western Europe since 1970 has generally declined.
The number of attacks inspired by Islam in the time frame 1970-2014: 0,8%. No more!
In the time frame 2000-2014: 1,4%. No more.
The main perpetrators were among the political and nationalistic inspired, with “outstanding performance” by IRA (North-Irish conflict), ETA (Basque separation movement in Spain), RAF (left wing Rote Armee Fraktion in Germany) and Neo-Nazis.
I think it is somewhat unfair to male victims of witchcraft allegations to erase them like this. While it is true that the majority of witchcraft accusations during the height of the persecutions in the early modern period (c.1500-1650) were made against women (usually figures of 4/5 are estimated, though it is difficult to pin down precisely), there was a substantial minority of male victims who suffered just as much. In some regions, such as Iceland, the majority of victims were male. What we tend to find is that the male victims were either poor and marginalised, often members of troublemaking rural families, or victims of vendetta and politically-motivated accusations in wealthy cities. Witchcraft accusations were a versatile tool for furthering pretty much any kind of persecution or power play, be it a gendered one or not. The worst of the big organised hunts tended to be at the hands of catholic prince-bishops in the Holy Roman Empire trying to shore up their authority amid tense power struggles with neighbouring protestant leaders.
Having studied the “witch craze” (a somewhat tendentious title – in many if not most regions of Early Modern Europe there was very little witch belief and no persecution), the most striking parallel to my mind with modern islamophobia is the notion that witches were otherwise ordinary people organised into little terrorist cells called covens working at the behest of the devil to overthrow European society. This demonological aspect to witch belief was the crucial factor – in places where witches were just thought to be weird, antisocial people who used magic, rather than an organised conspiracy against Christendom, they were usually left alone. This is another strike against the simplistic Sam Harris model of the Witch Craze – it wasn’t a universal thing by any stretch of the imagination. It flared up in some places, mainly central Europe, at some times – primarily the 16th and 17th centuries but less severely during the 8th and 9th and even in the 2nd century BC, among some groups and in some social circumstances (often places where legal authority was fragmented and in the hands of local lords rather than disinterested national governments). For the vast majority of Christian history the witch was a comedy figure. Even the famous “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” in Leviticus was rendered “witch” rather than “poisoner” at the behest of notoriously witch-keen James I.
Fantastic job, Iris.
Harris’s numbers are rocketing at the moment – that’s what you should be focusing on tackling. You do no-one any favours with an amateurish ad-hom.
re: permanganater 8: OMG I loooove it when rando d00ds (I am 99.9% sure permanganater’s a d00d) ‘splain to me what I “should be focusing on tackling” on my own blog. And that I should be writing to do people favors (besides answering my friend who asked me to opine on Harris’s post—and who, by the way, was very appreciative of my response.) Bonus points for sneering at my post as an “amateurish ad-hom” without knowing what an ad-hom is. Hahaha! Seriously, this made my day.
Iris, Harris is fertile for criticism, I don’t need to tell you that. I’m a bit impolitely suggesting there’s probably a better way of taking down his ideas than a post which essentially says, right when he’s every been more visible and popular, that ‘Harris is so forgotten and irrelevant that I’d forgotten about him and he’s illogical and stupid and a terrible writer, but here goes:’
I am a guy and and a rando if that means I don’t post much. I am atheist living in a predominantly Shia Muslim community. There’s a lot of problems in this community with the position, status and treatment of women. The community has levels of racism that. would make your toes curl. In truth, a lot of what Harris says is wrong with Islam is unfortunately true of this community.
But I strongly disagree that Harris or any other ‘westerner’ should be the ones talking about it. Change will come from within, and probably very slowly, over a number of generations.
What I do know will stall or regress change is westerners demanding the change, in particular demanding it becuase there is no God. On this point I have sympathies to the arguments of people like Marjiid Narwaz – although the community have been pretty effective maligning him.
Raucous Indignation says
Oh Cousin! That was delicious! More please!
Brony, Social Justice Cenobite says
permanganater is displaying posting behaviors they should take seriously because of the deeper problems that they represent, problems that are quite common in people that I see defending Harris. “Birds of a feather” in specific ways cognitively speaking. I’m going to charitably assume that these are unconscious.
Comment #8 can be simply summarized as “you should criticize the fact that a person is popular, and you should not focus on irrelevant personal characteristics as a means of ignoring the substance of a person’s arguments”. You see the problem right?
A person’s popularity is irrelevant to the substance of their arguments. (To say nothing about the fact that they did not even show what the ad hom was). That they care more about numbers and support as an indicator of social victory than substance is evidence of group think.
Comment #10 really shows the group think. They get specific enough with a paraphrase that I can figure out what they are referring to.
The second bold part seems to be referencing this part of Iris’s post.
It should be obvious that Iris is saying that they did not personally see news of Harris very much (the …”dropped off my radar.” part). Yet that got transformed by whatever mental filters that permanganater has into “Harris is so forgotten and irrelevant…”. An expression of personal experience is transformed into a group judgment (as opposed to the personal judgement of Harris that they are expressing in the same paragraph). “Harris is so…” describes them in comparison with a group instead of an individual.
I think that the illogic and stupidity is in another person.
The first part I bolded because Iris did not take down Harris’s post with that brief aside about how often they encounter references to Harris. That was entirely in the blue parts that permanganater seemed not to notice despite the fact that Iris took the time to change the colors for ease of reading.
I have nothing to say about the remainder of comment #10 beyond agreeing that outside pressure can indeed cause a defensive resistance to change, one that would probably be reasonable on many points. I don’t have much perspective on the issues and I prefer to dissect out the specific things causing a person to ignore what someone is really saying right in front of me.
Brony 12: I thank you for that analysis, because I was mystified as to what the fuck he was trying to say in that comment. It was a real head-scratcher, because I never wrote (nor do I agree) that Harris is “stupid” or “forgotten and irrelevant” to anyone, including myself. It’s precisely his prominence as a public intellectual that makes his toxic ideas so troubling. I wouldn’t take the time to dissect obscure bloggers spewing this kind of shit—much less make bobbleheads of them. :D
What I thought I expressed clearly is that I—emphasis on the I—find Harris “tedious… like all right-wing conservatives and reactionaries… irrational… simplistic… unbearable… an unoriginal and uninteresting thinker and a witless and dull writer… as smug and comically uninformed as any ordinary Fox News host… boring… and… wrong.”
When I read the part you quoted from permanganater’s #10, I translated it in my head to this:
This just cracked me up though:
permanganater’s a rando to me because I was sure I had never heard of him (I had to approve his first comment here), nor could I link through his ‘nym to read all of his superior takedowns of the Horsemen of the Atheist Douchepocalypse. But I was 99.9% sure permanganater’s a d00d after his #8 because it is vanishingly rare for a woman to pompously proclaim on another woman’s blog what, why and how she should write, and after completely misreading the post to boot. When you see this brand of arrogance, sense of entitlement and comic buffoonery on display, you can be virtually certain it’s a d00d.
As Sarah Hagi urges us to pray, “God give me the confidence of a mediocre white dude.”
Brony, Social Justice Cenobite says
You are welcome. This sort of language analysis is my thing on a basic human level. I’m fascinated by what people choose (consciously or otherwise) to take from social encounters and how that plays out in social conflicts.
It can be tiresome because it’s a mixture of motivated reasoning, social conflict related impulses and lack of ability in thinking in other perspectives, when it’s from someone who is honest anyway. I’m not sure how much of this sort of thing is deliberate when it happens, but you would think that people would be more careful with reputation. Permanganater utterly misrepresented you and at some point that need to be treated as the same a lying. Functionally it’s rumor-mongering because the objective reality of what you typed becomes the other persons impression that is then transmitted socially.
Yep. The system works both ways. It’s annoyingly universal. I tend to take the language at face value and think about the implications and consequences of the way it gets twisted for both honest and dishonest conditions because I don’t process social information the way most people do. The result of dealing with it is very useful though. It’s impossible to ignore the dishonest condition here though. I mean what more do you have to do? Surround the blue text with a blinking outline and put a note that the blue blinking text is the substance of your post?
I’m unsure of the meaning of “rando”.
But it’s a safe bet that they are cis-male with the accompanying socialization. Hiding a demand that you address someone’s popularity under an un-cited ad hom claim to twist the emotional impact is pretty standard behavior for someone used to being in a socially dominant position and unwilling to do any actual work to justify why another person should change their writing focus. Dependency on purely social appeals attached to assertions that would only work with one’s in-group is something of a tell.
We can be rather tiresome. That upbringing as a white male expecting certain things is a genuine psychological advantage when it comes to motivation. Pushing against it is worth it though.
Jessie Foster says
“including the fact that here in the US, right-wing terrorists have killed more people”
This is no longer true. The article you linked was written prior to San Bernardino and Orlando. So the figure (26 killed by Islamic Jihadists versus 48 killed by right-wing radicals) is now quite a bit different.
And of course the problem gets quite a bit worse when you look at it globally. Muslims in America are only 1% of the population after all.
“And the ratio would be even waaaay further skewed if we counted anti-abortion violence as terrorism”
It wouldn’t be. Anti-abortion terrorists have killed 7 people in the last 20 years.
IIris and Brony,
@ my 10, I was indeed riffing off where Iris said “…Harris had largely dropped off my radar.”, and concede that doesn’t really equate to my uncharitable paraphrase of ‘Harris is so forgotten and irrelevant that I’d forgotten about him…’.
And, yes, I didn’t tackle the meat of the piece which, as Brony’s astute psychoanalysis and linguistic deconstruction reveal, left me frustrated.
There’s lots in there, including much we agree upon. Where we part company is probably two-fold: First, the extent to which the world’s ills are caused and perpetuated by White Manbabies. But that’s only a question of degree. Second, whether Islam has anything to do with ISIS and al-Qaeda. You think not. I think it does. In support of your position you’ve linked to the article about what foreign jihadis order from Amazon before jetting off – but I don’t think that article says what you think that article says.. It is an article who’s thesis seems that religion isn’t the only motivation. There are other motivations, including disaffection, revenge, adventure, boredom and ‘berks'(!).
I used to believe, as you do, that Islam has nothing to do with what is going on with terrorism generally, and ISIS and al-Qaeda in particular; that religious zealots were nothing but the useful idiots in an otherwise political equation. I’ve changed my mind for a range of reasons, not the least of which has been my own proximity to Islam.
I can now see I engaged in a lot of motivated reasoning to exclude mounting evidence the terrorists were in fact the true believers.
There are racists who believe a lot of negative things about Islam, including the scriptural bases for the conduct and beliefs of ISIS and al Quaeda. There are people who aren’t racist who hold negative attitudes about Islam, including the scriptural bases for the conduct and beliefs of ISIS and al Quaeda. I used to not see this distinction.
Steven Weinberg pointed out you usually need religion to make decent people do terrible things. I think he was right, and I think ISIS and al Quaeda would agree.
We are being civil with each other about what we disagree upon – which obviously is great. I might be wrong about the relationship between Islam and extremism and human rights and the status of women. I’ve been very wrong on this topic before. And I’ll keep listening.