While Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins are seen as leading lights of the New Atheist movement of which I consider myself a member, I have come to detest their views on a large number of political and social positions, seeing them as lackeys of the neo-imperialism that is driving the western assault on the rest of the world and responsible for immense amounts of suffering. There is an overweening smugness about their sense of their own, and their tribe’s, superiority over those dastardly Muslims that I find unseemly.
Glenn Greenwald completely tears into Sam Harris’s political views, especially involving Islam and the war on terror. Harris and Christopher Hitchens have absolutely repellant political views and (along with Richard Dawkins) seem to let their deep anti-Islam animus drive their political thinking.
It is a long article that I agree with almost entirely. I strongly urge people to read it. (You should also read the email exchanges between the two that gives the background.) Here are two brief sections from the Greenwald article.
Let’s first quickly dispense with some obvious strawmen. Of course one can legitimately criticize Islam without being bigoted or racist. That’s self-evident, and nobody is contesting it. And of course there are some Muslim individuals who do heinous things in the name of their religion – just like there are extremists in all religions who do awful and violent things in the name of that religion, yet receive far less attention than the bad acts of Muslims (here are some very recent examples). Yes, “honor killings” and the suppression of women by some Muslims are heinous, just as the collaboration of US and Ugandan Christians to enact laws to execute homosexuals is heinous, and just as the religious-driven, violent occupation of Palestine, attacks on gays, and suppression of women by some Israeli Jews in the name of Judaism is heinous. That some Muslims commit atrocities in the name of their religion (like some people of every religion do) is also too self-evident to merit debate, but it has nothing to do with the criticisms of Harris.
Nonetheless, Harris defenders such as the neoconservative David Frum want to pretend that criticisms of Harris consist of nothing more than the claim that, as Frum put it this week, “it’s OK to be an atheist, so long as you omit Islam from your list of the religions to which you object.” That’s a wildly dishonest summary of the criticisms of Harris as well as people like Dawkins and Hitchens; absolutely nobody is arguing anything like that. Any atheist is going to be critical of the world’s major religions, including Islam, and there is nothing whatsoever wrong with that.
As I noted before, a long-time British journalist friend of mine wrote to me shortly before I began writing at the Guardian to warn me of a particular strain plaguing the British liberal intellectual class; he wrote: “nothing delights British former lefties more than an opportunity to defend power while pretending it is a brave stance in defence of a left liberal principle.” That – “defending power while pretending it is a brave stance in defence of a left liberal principle” – is precisely what describes the political work of Harris and friends. It fuels the sustained anti-Muslim demonization campaign of the west and justifies (often explicitly) the policies of violence, militarism, and suppression aimed at them. It’s not as vulgar as the rantings of Pam Geller or as crude as the bloodthirsty theories of Alan Dershowitz, but it’s coming from a similar place and advancing the same cause.
I welcome, and value, aggressive critiques of faith and religion, including from Sam Harris and some of these others New Atheists whose views I’m criticizing here. But many terms can be used to accurately describe the practice of depicting Islam and Muslims as the supreme threat to all that is good in the world. “Rational”, “intellectual” and “well-intentioned” are most definitely not among them.
Greenwald’s critique is a thing of beauty. “Defending power while pretending it is a brave stance in defence of a left liberal principle” is also a characteristic of those so-called liberal interventionists that I wrote about earlier.