Sam Harris vs. Glenn Greenwald on Islam

As a huge fan of both Sam Harris and Glenn Greenwald, I feel like I ought to comment on this exchange. I’m a little unsure what to say though, because Greenwald’s points are a mixture of plausible and nonsensical.

On the more plausible side, I don’t know how to compare the awfulness of Dick Cheney and Islamic fundamentalists. Greenwald can argue that Cheney in fact did more harm than the overwhelming majority of Muslim fundamentalists, but Harris would respond that the world would be far, far worse off if any Islamic fundamentalists wielded the kind of power that Cheney did as vice president. Who’s right? I don’t know.

But when it comes to the source of the flap, Greenwald looks clearly in the wrong. Greenwald tweeted an article by one Murtaza Hussain on Al Jazeera’s website, which was full of appalling distortions about Harris. I stopped reading when I got to the claim that Harris supports “preemptive nuclear strikes.” Let me just quote the relevant passage of Harris’ book, with the previous response to Chris Hedges on this issue:

It should be of particular concern to us that the beliefs of Muslims pose a special problem for nuclear deterrence. There is little possibility of our having a cold war with an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons. A cold war requires that the parties be mutually deterred by the threat of death. Notions of martyrdom and jihad run roughshod over the logic that allowed the United States and the Soviet Union to pass half a century perched, more or less stably, on the brink of Armageddon. What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or what their state of readiness is, and so we will be unable to rely on targeted, conventional weapons to destroy them. In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime—as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day—but it may be the only course of action available to us, given whatIslamists believe. How would such an unconscionable act of self-defense be perceived by the rest of the Muslim world? It would likely be seen as the first incursion of a genocidal crusade. The horrible irony here is that seeing could make it so: this very perception could plunge us into a state of hot war with any Muslim state that had the capacity to pose a nuclear threat of its own. All of this is perfectly insane, of course: I have just described a plausible scenario in which much of the world’s population could be annihilated on account of religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman, the philosopher’s stone, and unicorns. That it would be ahorrible absurdity for so many of us to die for the sake of myth does not mean, however, that it could not happen. Indeed, given the immunity to all reasonable intrusions that faith enjoys in our discourse, a catastrophe of this sort seems increasingly likely. We must come to terms with the possibility that men who are every bit as zealous to die as the nineteen hijackers may one day get their hands on long-range nuclear weaponry. The Muslim world in particular must anticipate this possibility and find some way to prevent it. Given the steady proliferation of technology, it is safe to say that time is not on our side.

You can read a more detailed picking-apart of Hussain’s article here, but suffice to say that while I understand the principle that a tweet should not be taken as an endorsement of every claim in an article, you really shouldn’t be tweeting such a wildly irresponsible article unless it’s meant to be an example of someone being wildly irresponsible.

Greenwald gets a great deal of other things wrong. For example:

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.

Unfortunately, some people to seem to contest it. As I’m documenting in my current book project, some people claim to be offended at the mere mention of atheism, while others freak out over even the most obviously accurate criticisms of Islam. It’s good to see Greenwald isn’t one of these people, though.

Next Greenwald says:

The key point is that Harris does far, far more than voice criticisms of Islam as part of a general critique of religion. He has repeatedly made clear that he thinks Islam is uniquely threatening: “While the other major world religions have been fertile sources of intolerance, it is clear that the doctrine of Islam poses unique problems for the emergence of a global civilization.” He has insisted that there are unique dangers from Muslims possessing nuclear weapons, as opposed to nice western Christians (the only ones to ever use them) or those kind Israeli Jews: “It should be of particular concern to us that the beliefs of devout Muslims pose a special problem for nuclear deterrence.” In his 2005 “End of Faith”, he claimed that “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death.”

This is not a critique of religion generally; it is a relentless effort to depict Islam as the supreme threat. Based on that view, Harris, while depicting the Iraq war as a humanitarian endeavor, has proclaimed that “we are not at war with terrorism. We are at war with Islam.” He has also decreed that “this is not to say that we are at war with all Muslims, but we are absolutely at war with millions more than have any direct affiliation with Al Qaeda.” “We” – the civilized peoples of the west – are at war with“millions” of Muslims, he says. Indeed, he repeatedly posits a dichotomy between “civilized” people and Muslims: “All civilized nations must unite in condemnation of a theology that now threatens to destabilize much of the earth.”

When criticism of religion morphs into an undue focus on Islam – particularly at the same time the western world has been engaged in a decade-long splurge of violence, aggression and human rights abuses against Muslims, justified by a sustained demonization campaign – then I find these objections to the New Atheists completely warranted.

I agree that Greenwald’s description of Harris’ views of Islam is accurate, but Greenwald offers no argument that Harris’s statements are unwarranted. In fact, at minimum it seems obvious that Islam today is, on the whole, far more regressive than modern Christianity and Judaism.

You could argue that this is the product of historical contingencies, not anything inherent to Islam (after all, the Torah has plenty of horrible material, modern Jews are just mostly fairly good at ignoring it). But Harris argues that part of the problem is that the Quran has little redeeming material for liberal Muslims to do their picking and choosing from. Whether Harris is right or not I’m not sure, but it’s a point of view worth considering.

Greenwald is also wrong when he says:

Beyond all that, I find extremely suspect the behavior of westerners like Harris (and Hitchens and Dawkins) who spend the bulk of their time condemning the sins of other, distant peoples rather than the bulk of their time working against the sins of their own country.

It’s one thing to say this about Harris and Hitchens, but it’s rather obviously untrue of Dawkins. Dawkins is primarily a science writer, who spends the bulk of his time writing about science. Even in The God Delusion, the bulk of his attention goes to anti-evolutionists and religion-friendly intellectuals. One of the quotes which most exercises his critics (which I’ve jokingly called the Big Bad Quote or BBQ) was about the God of the Old Testament.

I think a focus on Islam can be worthwhile. But complaining that Dawkins focuses too much on Islam looks an awful lot like wishing Islam wouldn’t be criticized at all.

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