Why Is Sam Harris So Bad at Talking About Islam?

New Atheist Sam Harris is in the news again. Again, he is criticized for being “Islamophobic,” and again prominent atheist bloggers have come to his defense. An article by Ben Norton published this week on AlterNet argues that Harris, in an discussion with Maajid Nawaz back in January, used “language eerily reminiscent of the rhetoric of the fascist far right,” and advocated that it would be rational to “keep the number of Muslims down in any society.”

Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, has countered these claims, arguing that Harris’ words were misrepresented, and that the argument attributed to him was really offered as a devil’s advocate (he was responding to earlier criticisms than the AlterNet article, but the argumetns are the same). Harris, too, has responded, arguing that his views are being purposefully misrepresented.

What’s the truth? In this instance, it’s somewhere in between, honestly. The AlterNet article does indeed misrepresent Harris, in the sense that it unproblematically attributes to him words which were, on their face, meant not as an expression of his own views, but the views of an imagined third party. This is intellectually sloppy or intellectually dishonest reporting, and Harris is within his rights to be angry about that. The following quote from the relevant podcast, transcribed by Mehta, does make it clear that he is not speaking “in his own voice” while saying the things attributed to him by AlterNet:

As a counterpoint to all of the hopeful noises you just made, I would just like to offer this.

This is kind of a gut reaction that I know millions upon millions of people are having to things like what we just saw in Germany — the recent atrocity at the Christmas market… You see something like this, and this is happening in the context of this wave of immigration coming into Europe by virtue of, largely by virtue of the war in Syria, although there are other reasons.

And there’s just the brute fact that 100% of Jihadists are Muslim, right? These are not the Amish. They are not the Scientologists. They are not the Anglicans. 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, you know?… This only happens to Muslims or people who are likely to become Muslim, right?

So you see this massacre in the Christmas market, and I think many people will feel: What is the fucking point of having more Muslims in your society? It seems perfectly rational to say “We don’t want any more! We have enough,” right?

The markers of devil’s advocacy are all there, and quite clear: he is offering as a “counterpoint” a description of “a gut reaction which millions upon millions of people are having,” a description of what “many people will feel.” So Harris, on the face of it, is advocating for the devil here, as Mehta points out.

Does that let him off the hook of accusations of Islamophobia for the content of the podcast, though? Not remotely. A more in-depth analysis of the discussion he and Nawaz has reveals that it is indeed quite troublesome, even if not for quite the reasons AlterNet suggests. This is how Harris continues his “devil’s advocacy”:

“there’s just the brute fact that 100% of Jihadists are Muslim, right? These are not the Amish. They are not the Scientologists. They are not the Anglicans. 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, you know?… This only happens to Muslims or people who are likely to become Muslim, right?

So you see this massacre in the Christmas market, and I think many people will feel: What is the fucking 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. Can you speak to that despair? Again, this is not an expression of xenophobia. This is the implication of statistics, and the fact that it’s only rational not to want to live in a world that looks more and more like Jerusalem at the height of the Intifada, right?”

The first problem here is it is not entirely clear to me where the devil’s advocate stops and Sam Harris begins. Is he saying that these imaginary critics will claim that “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”, but that he does not endorse that this is a fact? Because it sounds and reads to me point as if he is making an argument from a position he does not endorse, but is stating “facts” which he does endorse. “You can see why people would say y, which I do not agree with, because of x, which is a fact.” That’s how this reads to me.

But whether he endorses it or not, what Harris says above is not strictly factual. It is not the case that in any given group of Muslims there must be some radicalized people (this seems rather clearly to be an Islamophobic argument on its face: there must be a bad apple in every bunch of “them”!). Nor is it the case that allowing the immigration of any number of Muslims from anywhere also means “by definition” allowing entry to some number of radicalized people. It is clearly possible that a given group of Muslims could contain no radicalized people by random chance, or because the percentage of radicalized Muslims is low relative to the total population of Muslims.

More importantly, the claim that radicalization “only happens to Muslims or people who are likely to become Muslim” is transparently false, given that there are plenty of radicalized white supremacists, Christian supremacists, homophobes etc. There are other ways to become a terrorist than being or becoming a Muslim (as the families of the dead and injured in Dylan Roof’s mass shooting know all to well). So, at the very least, Harris is offering a devil’s advocate argument based on extremely flimsy premises which, from the way his comment is worded, he seems to accept (the premises, I mean, not the argument).

Things get worse. After articulating his imaginary case for keeping the number of Muslims in a society down, Harris says:

“And this is where someone like Robert Spencer would say “Amen,” I would presume. Can you speak to that despair? Again, this is not an expression of xenophobia. This is the implication of statistics, and the fact that it’s only rational not to want to live in a world that looks more and more like Jerusalem at the height of the Intifada, right?”

By my reading, Harris has concluded with his Devil’s advocacy when he says “Can you speak to that despair?” He is asking Nawaz to respond to the hypothetical argument he has just posed. After he has finished speaking the words of the Devil, he states, in his own voice now, “this is not an expression of xenophobia. This is the implication of statistics”. But we have just seen how it is in no way an implication of statistics that more Muslims necessarily = more radicalized people, or that radicalization is only something that happens to Muslims. What “statistics” is Harris referring to other than these incorrect inferences he has drawn?

When Nawaz responds, he digs the hole deeper. Instead of pointing out the logical flaws in the argument Harris has just presented (whether Harris believes it or not, this would seem the responsible thing to do), Nawaz affirms that “it is not irrational…for people to react that way.” But it is. It is highly irrational, for the reasons stated above. To assume that any group of Muslims includes some number of dangerous radical Islamists is irrational, as is believing that the potential to become a terrorist is unique to Islam. Neither of those fears are rational, and so the response is not rational. It may well be that the response is “human,” as Nawaz goes on to say. But “human” doesn’t mean “right,” and in the case Harris has put in the mouths of others, and presented as a “reasonable” argument, is one which has logical flaws in its very foundation, and reinforces dangerous stereotypes about Muslims (in other words, is “Islamophobic”). Yet he and Nawaz then proceed to discuss this argument were it a “rational” one which has real implications for how we should run society.

This is a huge problem, and opens Harris and Nawaz up to charges of Islamophobia. If all they have done here is spoken very unclearly, and allowed a deeply flawed Islamophobic argument to pass uncriticized, that is still a problem. We have a responsibility, when discussing religions which are minority ones in both the USA (where Harris is based and most influential), and the UK (where Nawaz has most sway), to frame our critique in such a way that it does not risk reinforcing gravely damaging and dangerous stereotypes about Muslims. In not doing so, harm has been done.

In the context of our current society, however, where fears of Muslim terrorism in the USA and UK tend to be enormously overblown, and used by politicians to justify inhumane policies; where the rhetoric of a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and “the west” is ramping up; and in the context of Harris’ many previous problematic statements about Islam and about Muslims, the comments take on a more sinister tone. The fact is, Sam Harris does this a lot. He says things which, if approached with strict analytical rigor and the most generous of minds, can be given a shield of deniability against criticisms of Islamophobia. But he rarely takes sufficient care to ensure that his arguments don’t casually reinforce negative attitudes about Muslims, and makes it extremely easy for right wing extremists to laud his remarks and for his right wing supporters to see the Islamophobia they want to see in them.

Furthermore, as evidenced in this discussion, Harris bends over backwards to “understand” and “play devil’s advocate” on behalf of genuine Islamophobes, crafting arguments for them and declaring them “rational,” but seems genuinely uninterested in understanding his critics from the left, who he frequently discards as acting out of personal malice, intellectual dishonesty, etc. This reveals a “bias of empathy” which trends in a disturbing direction. His instinct, when confronted with flatly bigoted arguments in favor of, say, the Muslim ban, is not to dismantle those arguments by showing why they are flawed, but to try to get into the heads of the people making them, so he can show that the left is missing something. The fact that the arguments he is exploring are manifestly bad, and are used to justify inhumane policies which harm Muslims in the US and UK, seems less interesting to him than the rhetorical role the arguments can play in his favorite game of left-bashing.

That Harris engages in this behavior this repeatedly, offering denials after the fact but rarely seeming to be careful about his arguments before they are misconstrued, speaks to a problem with how he approaches this topic which a responsible commentator would work to fix. The fact that Harris does not (despite, I’m certain, being quite smart enough to recognize the problem and resolve it), will lead those of us who wish to see everyone live in a free and open society, safe from violence or prejudice, to wonder why, given that Islam is a favorite topic, he is so bad at speaking about it without being “misconstrued”.

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