Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Sam Harris vs. Glenn Greenwald

New Atheist, neuroscientist, and public intellectual Sam Harris responds to liberal pundit Glenn Greenwald's accusations of "Islamophobia." Harris writes:

Is it really true that the sins for which I hold Islam accountable are “committed at least to an equal extent by many other groups, especially [my] own”? First, I have to say that so much moral confusion lies buried in this statement that it would take a very long essay to respond to all the charges implicit in it. What Greenwald surely means to convey is that the U.S. government is (in some sense that is not merely absurd) the worst terrorist organization on earth. I have argued against this general idea in many places, especially in my first book, The End of Faith, and I won’t repeat that argument here. I will say, however, that nothing about honestly discussing the doctrine of Islam requires that a person not notice all that might be wrong with U.S. foreign policy, capitalism, the vestiges of empire, or anything else that may be contributing to our ongoing conflicts in the Muslim world. Which is to say that even if Noam Chomsky were right about everything, the Islamic doctrines related to martyrdom, jihad, blasphemy, apostasy, the rights of women and homosexuals, etc. would still present huge problems for the emergence of a global civil society (and these are problems quite unlike those presented by similar tenets in other faiths, for reasons that I have explained at length elsewhere and touch on only briefly here). And any way in which I might be biased or blinded by “the religion of the state,” or any other form of cultural indoctrination, has absolutely no relevance to the plight of Shiites who have their mosques, weddings, and funerals bombed by Sunni extremists, or to victims of rape who are beaten, imprisoned, or even killed as “adulteresses” throughout the Muslim world. I hope it goes without saying that the Afghan girls who even now are risking their lives by merely learning to read would not be best compensated for their struggles by being handed copies of Chomsky’s books enumerating the sins of the West.

And later on:

Let’s take a trip to the real world. Consider: Anyone who wants to draw a cartoon, write a novel, or stage a Broadway play that denigrates Mormonism is free to do it. In the United States, this freedom is ostensibly guaranteed by the First Amendment—but that is not, in fact, what guarantees it. The freedom to poke fun at Mormonism is guaranteed by the fact that Mormons do not dispatch assassins to silence their critics or summon murderous hordes in response to satire. As I have pointed out before, when The Book of Mormon became the most celebrated musical of the year, the LDS Church protested by placing ads for the faith in Playbill. A wasted effort, perhaps: but this was a genuinely charming sign of good humor, given the alternatives. What are the alternatives? Can any reader of this page imagine the staging of a similar play about Islam in the United States, or anywhere else, in the year 2013? No you cannot—unless you also imagine the creators of this play being hunted for the rest of their lives by religious maniacs. Yes, there are crazy people in every faith—and I often hear from them. But what is true of Mormonism is true of every other faith, with a single exception. At this moment in history, there is only one religion that systematically stifles free expression with credible threats of violence. The truth is, we have already lost our First Amendment rights with respect to Islam—and because they brand any observation of this fact a symptom of Islamophobia, Muslim apologists like Greenwald are largely to blame.

While I'm at least superficially in agreement with Harris, I part ways with him when it comes to the fundamentals. Harris and others seem to think there is something inherently wrong with Islam, but this essentialistic view assumes that Muslim doctrine and scripture cannot be reinterpreted. Consider the Bhagavad Gita, which on a literal reading advocates violence against one's own relatives (the warring Pandavas and Kauravas in the story are in fact cousins) if that is what one's divine cosmic role (dharma) is. But how many modern Hindus seriously advocate this sort of wholesale internecine slaughter? I think it's safe to say that a mature Hinduism looks at those blood-soaked scriptures and finds, amid the gore and death, an enlightened existential meaning. The same goes for a mature Christianity, a mature Judaism, and so on. Islam already has a mature wing: Sufism. Would that more Muslims were Sufi: people who see the world in terms of nondualistic harmony.

In the meantime, I vehemently disagree with anyone who argues that there is something inherently wrong with Islam. Islam is as it is practiced, and the formulation and interpretation of its doctrines is also a form of praxis. This praxis is constantly changing; it's my hope that eventually, in an interconnected world, beliefs will change even faster, modern secularism will become the dominant attitude in the Muslim world, and violence will thereby be reduced in consonance with Steven Pinker's contention that violence everywhere is on the wane.



  1. I haven't read the entirety of the linked article, but it sounds like Greenwald's argument is a very basic fallacy: that because something is universal, it cannot be criticized in a specific instance. Or, as mothers through the ages have put it: If all of your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump off, too? Not sure what type of fallacy this is... maybe tu quoque?

    I have a question about your argument that there is nothing inherently wrong with Islam. If religions are as they are practiced, and praxis is always changing, then can it be said that there is anything inherent at all, either good or bad, in a given religion? That is, would it be true to say not merely that there is nothing inherently evil about Islam, but there is nothing inherent in Islam at all? This does not necessarily invalidate your argument (which I happen to agree with); I'm just trying to wrap my head around some concepts.

    Also, for some reason, the term "public intellectual" made me laugh.

  2. Charles,

    Yeah, my often-repeated maxim is rooted in Buddhist empiricism, and Buddhism is anti-essentialistic. So I'd have no problem saying that no religion is inherently anything; it merely is what it is at any given moment. Take the problem of labeling Islam as a "religion of peace" or a "religion of violence." To reduce Islam to either is an essentialistic move that denies the complete reality of Islam: to call it peaceful begs the question of its violent adherents; to call it violent begs the question of its peaceful adherents. Obviously, the reality is much more complex, hence my empirical (pragmatic) stance.

    On a more positive note: to say that nothing is inherent to any religion isn't to deny that a given tradition has its good points, so long as we realize that there's nothing logically necessary about the existence of those good points: religious traditions can, at least in theory, start off benevolent and then curdle into something more sinister centuries later.

  3. The phrase "public intellectual" calls to mind Mel Brooks's Comicus, the stand-up philosopher, from "History of the World, Part I."



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