Criticism of Islam Is Not ‘Islamophobia’

Sam HarrisThe End of Faith opens with a fictional account of a suicide bomber killing innocent people on a bus with the press of a button. We don’t know much about the bomber… but Harris suggests we do have a good idea of one thing: His faith.

Why is it so easy, then, so trivially easy — you-could-almost-bet-your-life-on-it easy — to guess the young man’s religion?

It’s writing like this, which has only grown stronger over the years, that has led many of Harris’ critics to call him “Islamophobic.” Harris, of course, contends that he’s criticizing faith and dogma, not people — and I agree with him. When I’m reading his books and blog posts, I see a writer who is raising controversial questions and answering them in ways that may not be politically correct, but none of those things are coming from a place of hate. Even when he suggested looking specifically for Muslims (or at least people who look like them) at airport security checkpoints, I didn’t get a sense he was being racist or anti-Islamic. Even if he ended up being way off the mark, his overall suggestion was more tactical and practical than anything racially motivated.

In the past couple of days, a number of people have singled Harris out for his comments on Islam. Like Murtaza Hussain at Al Jazeera:

Indeed, the most illustrative demonstration of the new brand of scientific racism must be said to come from the popular author and neuroscientist Sam Harris. Among the most publicly visible of the new atheists, in the case of Muslims Harris has publicly stated his support for torture, pre-emptive nuclear weapons strikes, and the security profiling of not just Muslims themselves, but in his own words “anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim”.

Again, while Islam is not a race, those who are identified with Islam are the predominantly black and brown people who would be caught up in the charge of “looking Muslim” which Harris makes. Harris has also written in the past his belief that the “Muslim world” itself lacks the characteristic of honesty, and Muslims as a people “do not have a clue about what constitutes civil society“.

His sweeping generalisations about a constructed civilisation encompassing over a billion people are coupled with fevered warnings — parallel with the most noxious race propaganda of the past — about the purported demographic threat posed by immigrant Muslim birthrates to Western civilisation.

Nathan Lean at Salon also digs in:

For Harris, the ankle-biter version of the Rottweiler Dawkins, suicide bombers and terrorists are not aberrations. They are the norm. They have not distorted their faith by interpreting it wrongly. They have lived out their faith by understanding it rightly. “The idea that Islam is a ‘peaceful religion hijacked by extremists’ is a fantasy, and is now a particularly dangerous fantasy for Muslims to indulge,” he writes in “Letter to a Christian Nation.”

That may sound like the psychobabble of Pamela Geller. But Harris’s crude departure from scholarly decorum is at least peppered with references to the Quran, a book he cites time and again, before suggesting it be “flushed down the toilet without fear of violent reprisal.”

Both pieces take Harris wildly out of context — more on that in a moment. But even Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald got taken in by one of the pieces:

Harris believed the pieces to be “unworthy of a response” until he saw Greenwald’s tweet. Because he respected Greenwald, he wanted to set the record straight, so they had an email exchange. But it didn’t help. Greenwald stuck by his beliefs about Harris even after Harris explained why his criticism focused not on Muslim people but on the pernicious dogma itself:

There is absolutely nothing racist about my criticism of Islam. I criticize white, western converts in precisely the same terms — in fact, I am even more critical of them, because they weren’t brainwashed into the faith from birth. And one of my main concerns — always ignored by “trustworthy and diligent” people like Murtaza — is for all the suffering of women, homosexuals, freethinkers, and intellectuals in indigenous Muslim societies. One of my friends (and heroes) is Ayaan Hirsi Ali — whom I’m constantly having to defend from similarly tendentious attacks from my fellow liberals. How you get “racism” out of these convictions, I’ll never know. (But you know how Murtaza would summarize this point: “Harris says, ‘Some of my best friends are black’!”) The truth is that the liberal (multicultural) position on Islam is racist. If a predominantly white community behaved this way — the Left would effortlessly perceive the depth of the problem. Imagine Mormons regularly practicing honor killing or burning embassies over cartoons…

Incidentally, Greenwald has his own response to their conversation here.

Robby Bensinger of the Secular Alliance at Indiana University does a really nice job of pointing out exactly why Hussain is so off the mark by going through several of his statements and rebutting them one-by-one, so I suggest reading his piece to get an idea of how badly and unfairly Hussain distorts Harris’ words:

[4] Harris has also written in the past his belief [sic] that the ‘Muslim world’ itself lacks the characteristic of honesty,

No, he’s written that Muslims routinely refuse to honestly evaluate the doctrines of Islam. Quoth he: “Who will reform Islam if moderate Muslims refuse to speak honestly about the very doctrines in need of reform?

Summing Harris’ view up as “the Muslim world itself lacks the characteristic of honesty” is deliberately modifying Harris’ statements to sound maximally simplistic and culturally essentializing. This, of course, helps make it tie better into Hussain’s chosen narrative. But if Harris’ assertions reflect a skewed world-view, should it not be possible to critique them without going to the trouble of distorting them first?

As Harris suggests on his site, this is a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation for him. He writes about Christianity and his critics say he’s not brave enough to go after Islam. He writes about Islam and they call him a racist.

This is one of the main things many theists don’t understand about New Atheism (or, as the rest of us refer to it, “atheism”): We’re not against your god. We’re not against your religion. We’re critical of belief in all gods and all religions. We’re equal opportunity unbelievers.

These aren’t personal attacks, either. They’re, at best, persuasive arguments against rigid thinking. The atheists that Christians love to condemn are really after two separate things: They want to make sure religious beliefs have no role in public policy and, secondary to that, they want to persuade you that you’re better off not believing in faith without evidence. Criticizing the Koran doesn’t mean you hate Muslims just as arguing the legitimacy of the Bible doesn’t mean you hate Christians. Those critiques must continue even if religious people take them the wrong way.

You want to know what real Islamophobia looks like? It’s saying that Muslims ought to be deported. It’s arguing that a mosque shouldn’t be allowed to exist in your town because of 9/11. It’s using the word “Muslim” as a slur or suggesting that a practicing Muslim should never become President.

That’s Islamophobia and the New Atheists have never espoused any of those things. As conservative commentator David Frum said the other day, this anti-Harris animus implies that “it’s OK to be an atheist, so long as you omit Islam from your list of the religions to which you object.”

Jerry Coyne adds another important point to the discussion:

In truth, those who hurl charges of “Islamophobia” never define it. That’s because it is, at bottom, only “criticism of the tenets of Islam,” and that doesn’t sound so bad.

No doubt some atheists (myself included) will hit the wrong notes along the path. But Harris’ goals are honorable even if his statements are misinterpreted by his critics.

As Jackson Doughart and Faisal Saeed al-Mutar wrote last year, suggesting that criticism of Islam is a bad idea is a slippery slope that even Muslims should be wary of:

the creeping influence of terms like blasphemy and Islamophobia is undignifying to both Muslims and non-Muslims for two reasons. First, it colludes with Islam’s attempt to infantalize its adherents — convincing them that critical thought, especially about the matters of faith, is immoral. Second, it presumes that Muslims, particularly in the West, are not mature enough to handle criticism of their chosen beliefs, and that their subcultures are reducible to archaic texts and practices. This is the real injustice, involving the basest abandoning of scruple and succumbing to cowardice, and can only be rectified by ditching this thoroughly nonsensical expression.

Bingo — even the religious ought to be critical of faith. They should be thanking those who raise important questions about faith instead of throwing them under a bus because they might poke holes in religious logic.

The dust hasn’t settled on this argument yet, but the facts are on the atheist side even if eloquence doesn’t always accompany it. The people who want to portray Harris (and Richard Dawkins and others) as Islamophobic are adept at taking their words out of context and, when they can’t, taking the least generous interpretations of them. They have to work overtime to make it look like the New Atheists hate Muslims because the truth is there’s no real issue with Muslims at all. The atheists’ focus is strictly on the nonsense in which they (and all theists) believe and the enormously harmful consequences many of those beliefs bring about.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.