Challenge Sam Harris for His Bigotry and Like Any Cult Leader, He'll Say He's Been Misunderstood
If you have ever gone online to criticize renowned New Atheist Sam Harris for any of his baseless assertions or wrong-headed arguments, you risk finding yourself on the receiving end of hundreds of tweets claiming you have misquoted him, misunderstand him, or read him out of context. Though Harris’s followers are ostensibly anti-religion, it’s remarkable how much they resemble members of a cult whose infallible leader has been questioned.
Harris is more obsessed with Islam and Muslims than most contemporary atheist intellectuals, painting this religion as a unique threat to the world. He gained notoriety after a heated debate with Ben Affleck on Bill Maher’s HBO show, where Harris called Islam the "motherlode of bad ideas” (the YouTube clip of the exchange has nearly 5 million hits). Harris’ online defenders tend to use more intellectual jargon, accusing his critics of “straw-manning,” “quote-mining” or “confirmation bias.” But in effect, they’re identical to the anti-intellectual contingent of support for Donald Trump, who just yell “fake news” at any criticism of their leader.
Harris contributes to this confusion by taking contradictory positions on issues. For example, when it comes to profiling, he states in one instance, “We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it.” In another case, he mentions “ethnic profiling.” But in a subsequent video interview meant to correct alleged misunderstanding of his position, he says he’s simply in favor of excluding those who obviously don’t pose a threat: “It’s not that I want certain people profiled, I just want us to admit that some people require less scrutiny.”
So now if you correctly cite Harris’ call for profiling Muslims, you’ll get a tsunami of tweets accusing you of misrepresenting his view, and linking to the video in which his view on profiling doesn’t mention targeting Muslims.
There is also a more recent case, where clips of an extremely distasteful podcast conversation between Harris and Maajid Nawaz made the rounds on Twitter and received heavy criticism. The following excerpts are of Harris speaking:
“If you take a community of Muslims from Syria or Iraq or any other country on earth and place them in the heart of Europe, you are importing, by definition, some percentage, however small, of radicalized people, or people who will be prone to radicalism at some future date where they just decide to start watching too many Anwar Al-Awlaki videos. And, again, this only happens to Muslims or people who are likely to become Muslim. So you see this massacre in the Christmas market and I think many people will feel, what is the f**king point of having more Muslims in your society? It seems perfectly rational to say, we don’t want any more. We have enough, right? And certainly increasing the percentage is not a help to anyone who loves freedom of speech and any of the other liberal values that you and I just spoke about maximizing. It’s not worth the trouble, and if we can figure out some way to keep the number of Muslims down in any society, whether we’re honest about this or whether we do this covertly, clearly it’s rational to want to do this. And this is where someone like Robert Spencer would say amen, I would presume.”
...I think that’s something that somebody like Robert Spencer obviously, but even someone like Douglas Murray would be concerned about just generically, that you just can’t have too many Muslims in your culture if you want it to remain enlightenened.”
Condemnations of these excerpts were immediately met with hundreds of Harris defenders hanging on a technicality to argue he was merely playing “devil’s advocate.” After all, he was telling Nawaz “many people would feel this way,” laundering an opinion behind presumed popular prejudice, or "that’s something obviously Robert Spencer would argue."
To be fair to Harris, we should acknowledge that this is technically correct, and that there were some who mistakenly attributed flat-out advocacy of these positions to him. But what actually matters, and what comes across clearly in this podcast, is what Harris thinks of these horrendous propositions he attributes to others.
For starters, Harris attributes the desire to decrease the numbers of Muslims in the "West” to raging Islamophobe Robert Spencer. Robert is the sort of loony bigot who only mentions Palestinians in quotes (because they're not real), who peddles conspiracy theories like the one where President Obama and Hillary Clinton “sought...assistance from domestic and foreign jihadists” to deceive the American people about Benghazi, and who claims (contrary to a gargantuan body of evidence) that there are no Muslims speaking out against violence by Muslim extremists.
Spencer is also the staunchest partner and supporter of the anti-Muslim bigot Pamela Geller, who suggests Obama is a secret Muslim, and who blames “Muslim gunmen” for the murder of Muslims at a Quebec mosque, when they were actually killed by a white, right-wing, Trump-supporting xenophobe (she never retracted or apologized). These are examples I found in just a few minutes of looking at their Twitter feeds, so these are the bigots anyone with an IQ of above average room temperature can spot. (Geller and Spencer defamed me as being a “pro-honor killing, islamic supremacist” after I helped expose their bigotry and dishonesty.)
But what does Harris think of Robert Spencer? He says in this very podcast with Maajid that he’s not quite sure, but adds: “I have no reason to believe Robert [Spencer] is a bigot.” Maajid affirms this absurd judgment with a more direct “I don’t think Robert is a bigot.” As for Douglas Murray, the second abhorrent character to whom Harris attributes these positions—Harris had him on his podcast subsequently, and like magic, his supposed disagreement with these “devil’s” positions was glaringly absent from an otherwise chummy exchange.
Here comes the elementary math Harris and his intellectually dishonest defenders don’t want you to add up: If 1) Harris has “no reason to believe Robert [Spencer] is a bigot”; and 2) he attributes to Spencer the belief that societies can’t be enlightened if there are too many Muslims, i logically follows that Harris doesn’t consider that supposed “devil’s” view to be bigoted at all. Even worse, Harris repeatedly tells us he finds the reprehensible desire for fewer Muslims in the West to be “perfectly rational,” immediately following the absurd claim that importing Muslims from “any country on earth” would necessarily include a percentage of radicals or potential radicals.
By contrast, when Harris plays actual “devil’s advocate” in the position of the “compassionate people” who want to welcome refugees without reservation, he can’t help but describe them as people “who are not aware of the cost of bringing in too many people from a foreign culture who can't assimilate." He preemptively paints them as misinformed or irrational, in contrast to the “perfectly rational” position of wanting fewer Muslims. In short, while Harris doesn’t go so far as to advocate for reducing the number of Muslims, he makes it crystal clear that that view is not unreasonable to him. This is why the “devil’s advocate” claim his defenders are desperately hanging onto falls grossly short of excusing or justifying his terrible commentary.
If you’re still feeling confused and fail to see what’s offensive here, consider this analogy: What if a Muslim commentator had told Batman that Judaism was the worst religion in the world, then claimed he wasn't sure how he felt about renowned racist and anti-Semite David Duke, but that he saw “no reason to believe Duke was a bigot,” then proceeded to posit “devil’s advocate” questions about the “perfectly rational” view that the West would be better off with fewer Jews. Is there any doubt that every decent, perceptive human being would see the bigoted framework and be repulsed by that conversation? This is why one of the leading mainstream liberal Jewish commentators, Peter Beinart, had the best response to Harris’ protests about being taken out of context. He correctly tweeted back at Harris: “Listened to it. In context, what you said is just as odious.”
Harris frequently retorts to charges of anti-Muslim bigotry by claiming he’s going after Islam as a set of ideas, not Muslims as people. He undermines the relevance of this distinction by spending considerable time debating how welcoming the West should be of Muslims, but let’s nonetheless acknowledge the legitimacy of the distinction in principle: Yes, one should be able to criticize Islam without being accused of bigotry. However, one way to invalidate this otherwise sensible distinction is by engaging in extreme vilification of Islam to a point that necessarily breeds fear and hatred of Muslims. So when Harris argues that “we’re at war with Islam,” that “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death," and is the "motherlode of bad ideas,” does that not impact attitudes toward Muslims?
The rhetoric is even more overtly bigoted in the case of Ayaan Hirsi-Ali, who claims Islam is an enemy that must be “crushed." Discussing the atrocities of 9/11 elsewhere, Hirsi-Ali issued her most vitriolic and defamatory statement when she claimed that "every devout Muslim who aspired to practice genuine Islam, even if they didn't actively support the attacks, they must have at least approved of them." One can draw a direct logical line from these outrageous claims to the actions of those who kill mosque attendants in Quebec or London. But instead of condemning Hirsi-Ali’s dangerous bigotry, Harris celebrates her as a hero, and without any sense of irony, he decries her critics for allegedly endangering her life by objecting to her bigotry (as Sarah Jones has observed as well). Even more insulting to the intelligence of Harris’ audience is the idea that someone who has attacked Islam and Muslims as vociferously as Hirsi-Ali is somehow in a position to help “reform” Islam.
Perhaps Harris will finally do some introspection and take a moment to examine how his biases function as blind spots to anti-Muslim bigotry, and understand that his critics are objecting to his actual thoughts, not caricature and misquotes. Maybe when Harris complains, as he did on his podcast with Douglas Murray, that so many of his critics “have never attacked me for a view that I actually hold, I mean they have a 100% record of lying about what my views actually are,” he’ll take a moment to consider that he's the problem, not the many critics he accuses of making things up about him for no apparent reason. While that's a nice thought, I find the impending Twitter/comment section avalanche of pseudo-logical accusations of misrepresentation far more likely.