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.

  • Jack

    He does support preemptive nuclear strikes. Stop pretending he doesn’t.

  • trucreep

    I think his point was more that underneath all of this is the issue of the fucked up shit we do to these countries, and that Harris is not only missing that, but using his views to justify said fucked up shit. While he has some absolutely valid points about Islam, Harris undermines the legitimacy of his own views, I think, by not only endorsing Western Aggression but embracing it and some of its nastier sides. It seems like he fully buys in to the “They hate us because of our FREEDOM” that was trumpeted for the past 5-10 years in the media, wh-

  • Jamison

    Sam does support preemptive nuclear strikes…but ONLY if it is to save modern civilization.

    Harris critics can’t disconnect themselves from their highschool and college courses about America and it’s imperialism on the world. The Iraq war was a terrible mistake and we fucked shit up – but you have to live in the world today and not make excuses for extremists because of what we did a decade ago.

    Sam Harris’s goal is world peace and to stop atrocities from happening – he sees religion as the biggest threat to that. He’s an asshole and is going about it with no regard for very real human conditions – but his goal is to save lives and make the world better. Glenn is just pandering to his base and politicizing and emotionalizing the issue with no thought to the people that are actually being affected.

    Sam Harris isn’t right, but he’s not dishonest and shady – as Glenn has been through this exchange.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Harris is willing to contemplate using a preemptive nuclear strike to prevent worse from happening, but it’s worth noting that even in that case he calls it an “unthinkable crime.” It’s definitely misleading and arguably inaccurate to call that “support” without further qualification.

    • Jack Harris

      Do you not see the bigotry in what you are saying? If it is not ok to mass murder U.S citizens its definitely not ok to mass murder anyone else, unless you are saying Muslim lives are not worth the same as everyone else’s? Sam Harris is a bigot and a hate monger, if he had more of an audience we would be in a dire predicament today.

  • http://Newsvine King Dave

    To put it bluntly, the only thing the far left knows about violent Islamists is how to approve of them. It should be simple, reject all forms of religious violence without qualifications such as gender, ethnicity or culturalism. To expect different standards for different social groups is racist.

  • MNb

    “the only thing the far left knows about violent Islamists ….”
    This is nonsense. I belong to the far left, certainly according to USA standards, and I agree with every single point you mention after this howler. I am not the only one at the far left.

    • http://Newsvine King Dave

      Liberal atheists patronize Muslims by saying “even though I don’t believe a word of your religion, it’s ok for you to dedicate your life to this BS.” It is an Insult of the highest magnitude, and why fanatical Islamists believe it is ok to kill unbelievers because of it.
      More Muslims have been killed this year alone by Islamic suicide bombers, then the IRA in a lifetime. Either Islam is simply more violent, or just better at killing one another. Which is it?

  • MNb

    “There is little possibility of our having a cold war with an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons.”
    Iran has one of the most extreme Islamist regimes in the world. Still Harris doesn’t mention this:

    possibly because it largely falsifies his analysis. The fatwa has been confirmed since then:

    If we take the fatwa against Rushdie seriously we should take this one seriously as well.
    With this

    “a catastrophe of this sort seems increasingly likely”

    Harris is close to islamophobia, because he is arguing by cherry picking.

    • josh

      Harris has not argued for a nuclear strike against Iran (or against any other Muslim country or in any current situation.) His entire point was that in some conceivable situation, a rational country would act to preemptively prevent a strike against themselves, leading to massive loss of life, and he sees this as a more likely situation with the spread of religious fundamentalism, particularly the Islamic variety, and HE WANTS TO PREVENT THAT SITUATION. You might argue that he overestimates the fervor of the current regime, or the likelihood in general of Islamic radicals acquiring and intending to execute some truly massive attack, but he hasn’t argued that any regime has met his conditions for justifying a first strike.

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  • hank reardon

    To be fair, I believe Sam Harris would also support pre emptive strikes on the Westboro baptist church, as would I. For Greenwald to hint that new atheisms purpose is to be some sort of vehicle for Islamaphobia is ridiculous. It is a vehicle for Religiphobia. Glenn, quit while you can, you are overmatched against Harris.

    • SocraticGadfly

      God, a Gnu Atheist who also deliberately wants to shred the First Amendment. No, Greenwald would have a field day with you, sir.

  • Jack Harris

    The photo of the guys holding the signs is clearly a propaganda against Islam. they all have their faces covered, all the violent signs are in the same handwriting. It looks a little more than suspicious.

  • Malika Brown

    “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.” If Sam Harris had the same authority as Cheney he would have sanctioned the systematic torture of a lot of Muslims and would have nuked the remaining Muslims into oblivion. Sam Harris is the most dangerous man walking the planet. Also there are countless Muslim fundamentalists holding power across the world, like the Saudi Monarchs and The Iranian Mullahs and Cheney seems to have outdone them all, to answer your question Glenn is right.

  • pisher

    Just reading this now–I don’t think you are processing the passive aggression of the Harris quote. If you read it carefully, you see that he’s saying “We have to prepare ourselves for the necessity of nuking an entire country full of Muslim fanatics before they can nuke us.”

    Of course, the notion of a fundamentalist Islamic state with anywhere near our capacity for nuclear destruction is absurd. Most nuclear powers have just a handful of warheads–more than enough to ensure they are not invaded, but not enough to devastate the globe. That doesn’t mean it’s utterly impossible that Islamic extremists couldn’t under any circumstances get control of one or several long range ICBM’s. It’s just very unlikely. And if they’re that crazy, how come they haven’t already set off a dirty bomb in a major city? Anybody who could plan and execute the 9/11 attacks could do that.

    It’s very reminiscent of how Jean Calvin saw one of his rivals, a man who had criticized his theology, in Geneva, and he wanted the man dead, but he didn’t want to get his own hands dirty. So he just made other people there aware of the man’s presence, and they did it for him. And he, of course, was utterly blameless of this sin, and had never suggested that the man be killed. So many atheists today have the same mindset of the people they most despise–the same “Only I have the truth and those who will not bow to my truth are unworthy of life” attitude. Harris lacks any real power, but to the extent he has influence, he uses it to spread hate and fear.

    Harris is one of the most dishonest pundits (it’s the only word, he’s not a philosopher in any meaningful sense) I can think of out there now–no small achievement. He says one thing, while meaning another. He’s using the widespread fear of Muslims to promote himself. He never has anything remotely insightful or useful to say, but the point is always to make himself seem important. His writing is paper-thin, and his ideas are at about the same level of intellectual complexity as Sean Hannity’s.

    Can’t say I care much for Greenwald either. I hope they destroy each other. Neither has anything useful to contribute to the world, and the primary reason for their conflict is clashing egos.

    • Het

      Gg has contributed

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