Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Muslims

While religion as a whole is a negative influence on society, at any given time or location one religion may be worse than the others. There seems to be a general rule that enables one to predict when a religion becomes particularly bad: as soon as that religion becomes the majority in a community and achieves a semblance of state power, it becomes a menace.

For example, while Buddhism is, at least in principle, one of the more benign religions, in Sri Lanka where it is the majority religion, it is responsible for immense evil with some if its monks and religious leaders the instigators of discord and bigotry and violence against other ethnic and religious groups. While in the west Hindus are seen as harmless mantra-chanting, vegetarian, yoga practitioners, they have been responsible for extreme intolerance and violence against non-Hindus in India. We also see this happening in Israel as its Jewish extremists gain increasing influence and state power and the country heads towards becoming a theocracy, imposing Jewish rules on everyone else.

On a global scale, Islam has a excellent shot at claiming the title for the worst religion at the present time. The practice of Islam has degenerated considerably from the times in the middle ages when its tolerant attitudes and scientific achievements made Christianity seem so primitive. Its terrible oppression of women, its intolerance of nonbelievers and believers of other religions, its anti-science attitudes, its ghastly religion-based legal system known as Sharia, and its violent over-reaction to perceived slights against its god and prophet take it beyond the pale of modern sensibilities. The fact that it is the majority religion in so many countries multiplies its negative effects.

Most secularists appreciate the fact that the current strong antipathy towards Islam is conditional, caused by what some of its practitioners are doing right now. But while people like Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens provided valuable service to the atheist cause, their intense dislike of Islam seems to have led them to take positions that go well beyond such a position and end up in places that are terrible, where they support abominable policies against entire countries and groups of people. Like many Americans, they seem to view the deaths of Americans as much more significant than the deaths of other people, and elevate the events of September 11, 2001 to one of the most monstrous in history, given far greater weightage than other global crimes.

This has taken them in directions that are undesirable. For example, Hitchens vigorously supported the war on Iraq and the bombing of Afghanistan. He often sounded like a crazed warmonger, going out of his way to disparage those who opposed it. While Harris was not so gung-ho about the war, he was not an outspoken opponent either. He was more ambivalent. But Harris also seems to support torture in limited circumstances. He uses the ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario to justify his position and argues that those who oppose torture are inconsistent in their arguments.

He recently had a post advocating the profiling of Muslims at airports. This drew considerable criticism and in a response he even resorts to the tired accusation of ‘political correctness’ against those who object to such profiling.

But the outcry was so great that he allowed security expert Bruce Schneier to guest post on why profiling is a bad idea. I think Schneier does an excellent job and I strongly recommend reading his post, particularly the links he gives to his other essays on the topic. After giving his four reasons to oppose profiling, he concludes:

I too am incensed—but not surprised—when the TSA manhandles four-year old girls, children with cerebral palsy, pretty women, the elderly, and wheelchair users for humiliation, abuse, and sometimes theft. Any bureaucracy that processes 630 million people per year will generate stories like this. When people propose profiling, they are really asking for a security system that can apply judgment. Unfortunately, that’s really hard. Rules are easier to explain and train. Zero tolerance is easier to justify and defend. Judgment requires better-educated, more expert, and much-higher-paid screeners. And the personal career risks to a TSA agent of being wrong when exercising judgment far outweigh any benefits from being sensible.

The proper reaction to screening horror stories isn’t to subject only “those people” to it; it’s to subject no one to it. (Can anyone even explain what hypothetical terrorist plot could successfully evade normal security, but would be discovered during secondary screening?) Invasive TSA screening is nothing more than security theater. It doesn’t make us safer, and it’s not worth the cost. Even more strongly, security isn’t our society’s only value. Do we really want the full power of government to act out our stereotypes and prejudices? Have we Americans ever done something like this and not been ashamed later? This is what we have a Constitution for: to help us live up to our values and not down to our fears.

There is nothing inconsistent about thinking that Islam is, at this moment in time, the most pernicious religious belief that requires vigorous efforts to combat it while opposing the singling out and harassment of people who are Muslims or who, according to some stereotype, look like they may be Muslims.


  1. Dianne says

    I think Christianity is giving Islam some strong competition for the title of “worst religion globally at this moment.” Islam has more power in selected countries and doing more intensive damage, but Christianity is doing the majority of the damage in the US and the US is so large and powerful that damage to the US translates to problems in the rest of the world. For example, the war in Iraq was more due to Christianity than to Islam.

    That aside, I’ve always felt a certain dilemma about criticizing Islam or the behavior of individuals or governments that was justified by Islam. On the one hand, there are clearly horrific things being done in the name of Islam. On the other, I live in the US, a country with a strong motive to pick out the abuses that occur in Islamic countries for special treatment and notice above and beyond what they would give to similar abuse in a non-Islamic country. Or an Islamic country that they liked such as Saudi Arabia. So I tend to look for secondary motivation in criticism of Islam. But also to note that Islamic countries seem very set on making it easy to find abuses to criticize.

  2. Corey says

    I stopped reading when you began building your case against Harris and Hitchens with “seems to,” and then started avoiding the argument those men have actually made in favor of some straw-men like holding american lives in higher regard, or wanting to enact harm on entire countries. Really? This is supposed to be a critical thought blog, not a lazy reactionary invective blog…. sorry…

  3. oldebabe says

    Slightly (maybe a lot) off topic, I totally agree that the TSA is indeed a pernicious problem. In this regard, skeptics are treated the same as if they were terrorists.

    I had to make the decision to not travel by air as a result. It of course limits travel to foreign countries, but within the U. S. one can drive, or take the train, and hopefully that won’t be infringed upon.

  4. Dianne says

    skeptics are treated the same as if they were terrorists.

    Because it’s impossible for a skeptic to be a terrorist or what? I think the 19th century anarchists would beg to differ.

  5. mnb0 says

    Good article. Americans should look a little more in their backyard, ie at the Caribbean, where countries like Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname have quite large muslim minorities (percentages higher than 10%). They don’t give any problem. The first muslim who joined Surinames government was Karamat Ali back in the 50’s.
    Muslims in Suriname in general are more rational than say Evangelicals -- thanks, USA, for sending us your missionaries. They propagate faith healing and tend to forbid their followers to consult a doctor. My ex-wife (muslim back then, now a kind of christian) has lost a brother to the practice of those suckers.
    So another point is that I have learned that even in a truely multicultural society like Suriname (we have all world religions here) some religions are worse than others. Besides those Evangelicals I have seen with my own eyes what old fashioned animism and black magic can do to people who believe in that shit.
    Suriname is a country quite full of all kind of evil spirits. Alas even after more than 15 years I haven’t had the pleasure yet to meet one.

  6. smrnda says

    TSA represents the basic American approach to any real problem; a phony solution that looks serious, tough and uncompromising but which, in reality, does nothing really constructive and causes a lot of harm. We could compare American ‘security theater’ with our obsession with standardized testing in education or ‘get tough’ policies on crime. American solutions are meant to make higher-ups feel like they have done something about a problem, and when the approach fails, the exact same tactic is applied with greater intensity.

  7. Kimpatsu says

    Personally, I find both the Harris/Hitchens axis and Mano to be parochial on this issue. Even Bruce Schneier gets in on the act. The reason being that all of you are writing from a US-centric perspective. What you have failed to consider is how you have given cover to worse governments than America’s. In Japan, we fought long and hard to have fingerprinting removed from the list of requirements for foreign residency here, and we succeeded for a mere eight years. Then the racist Japanese government introduced border fingerprinting (because as the Orwellian-sounding Minister of Justice declared, “only non-Japanese commit crimes”) and, when challenged, they pointed to America and said “we’re only copying them”. Racist Japanese police racially profile and stop “non-Japanese”--primarily people like Mano, because as we all know, if you look like you or your ancestry are from the Indian subcontinent, you must be a Muslim terrorist. So-called “random” intrusive baggage inspections and Japanese airports target ONLY non-Japanese passport holders. And the Japanese authorities get away with this racism by saying “but America is the self-declared world beacon of democracy, and they do it, so it must be OK!”
    This is the real legacy of the TSA.

  8. Scott says

    Is there any empirical data on how many potential hijackers and the like (such as someone trying to smuggle a gun on board) have been caught by the TSA? I suppose, though, that the TSA could argue that their techniques have been a deterrent, and there is no way to verify that.

  9. Steve LaBonne says

    You can’t believe anything any “security” agency says, even if they claim to offer data. How many “terrorist plots” have we been loudly told we’ve been “saved” from, that turned out actually to have been dreamed up by a government agent or informer and used to entrap a bunch of knuckleheads who wouldn’t have had the brains to cause any real trouble by themselves?

    Excellent post by Mano. Harris is a malevolent idiot and an example of the fact that malevolent idiocy is by no means confined to religious believers.

  10. dianne says

    I find both the Harris/Hitchens axis and Mano to be parochial on this issue.

    You make some excellent points about the international consequences of American policy. However, every time I read a line like the above, all I can think of is this

  11. dianne says

    Also, Africa. I remember in the 1980s hearing someone say that both Christians and Muslims were sending a lot of missionaries to Africa and that this was going to cause all hell to break loose sometime soon. It has. While Islam bears partial responsibility for that hell, Christianity bears much of the rest. Not sure where the balance lays on the current round, but Christians have been screwing up sub-Saharan Africa for a longer period of time and are contributing enormously to the spread of AIDS, belief in witches that has led to children being killed or abandoned, etc as well as having set up quite a lot of badness from past colonization (i.e. the Belgian colonization of Rwanda set up, to some extent, the conditions that led to genocide there.)

  12. smrnda says

    TSA would probably invent some huge number the same way that people have been arguing that “hundreds of thousands” of people have changed from gay to straight or that you can trust the petroleum industry to give you straight facts on global warming or whether or not you can trust Wal-Mart’s announcements that they treat their employees great. The only thing worse is that since it involves ‘security’ they can supply some number but argue that they can’t supply specifics.

    On the US-centric nature of this post -- I am surprised that anyone in the rest of the First World still thinks of the US as some beacon of liberty. I mean, we’re still executing prisoners and have more people incarcerated both in total and per capita than any other nation in history and fewer worker and consumer protections than say, most EU nations. Is our propaganda that effective?

  13. berior says

    Not that effective, at least not where I am. The attitude toward the US is ranging from patronising indulgence IE treating the US like a retarded 5 years old) to
    the US being seen as a land of self entitled, self agrandising violent thugs with the brain capacity and the morality of a dead rat.

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