Greenwald Dismantles Harris

Excerpted from Glenn Greenwald's April 3, 2013 post, "Sam Harris, the New Atheists, and anti-Muslim animus":

"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. That's particularly true of Americans, whose government has brought more violence, aggression, suffering, misery, and degradation to the world over the last decade than any other. Even if that weren't true - and it is - spending one's time as an American fixated on the sins of others is a morally dubious act, to put that generously, for reasons Noam Chomsky explained so perfectly:

"My own concern is primarily the terror and violence carried out by my own state, for two reasons. For one thing, because it happens to be the larger component of international violence. But also for a much more important reason than that; namely, I can do something about it. 

"So even if the U.S. was responsible for 2 percent of the violence in the world instead of the majority of it, it would be that 2 percent I would be primarily responsible for. And that is a simple ethical judgment. That is, the ethical value of one's actions depends on their anticipated and predictable consequences. It is very easy to denounce the atrocities of someone else. That has about as much ethical value as denouncing atrocities that took place in the 18th century."

I, too, have written before about the hordes of American commentators whose favorite past-time is to lounge around pointing fingers at other nations, other governments, other populations, other religions, while spending relatively little time on their own. The reason this is particularly suspect and shoddy behavior from American commentators is that there are enormous amounts of violence and extremism and suffering which their government has unleashed and continues to unleash on the world. Indeed, much of that US violence is grounded in if not expressly justified by religion, including the aggressive attack on Iraq and steadfast support for Israeli aggression (to say nothing of the role Judaism plays in the decades-long oppression by the Israelis of Palestinians and all sorts of attacks on neighboring Arab and Muslim countries). Given the legion human rights violations from their own government, I find that Americans and westerners who spend the bulk of their energy on the crimes of others are usually cynically exploiting human rights concerns in service of a much different agenda.

Tellingly, Harris wrote in 2004 that "we are now mired in a religious war in Iraq and elsewhere." But by this, he did not mean that the US and the west have waged an aggressive attack based at least in part on religious convictions. He meant that only Them - those Muslims over there, whose country we invaded and destroyed - were engaged in a vicious and primitive religious war. As usual, so obsessed is he with the supposed sins of Muslims that he is blinded to the far worse sins from his own government and himself: the attack on Iraq and its accompanying expressions of torture, slaughter, and the most horrific abuses imaginable. 

Worse, even in its early stages, Harris casually dismissed the US attack on Iraq as a "red herring"; that war, he said, was simply one in which "civilized human beings [westerners] are now attempting, at considerable cost to themselves, to improve life for the Iraqi people." Western violence and aggression is noble, civilized, and elevated; Muslim violence (even when undertaken to defend against an invasion by the west) is primitive, vicious, brutal and savage. That is the blatant double standard of one who seeks not to uphold human rights but to exploit those concepts to demonize a targeted group.

Indeed, continually depicting Muslims as the supreme evil - even when compared to the west's worst monsters - is par for Harris' course, as when he inveighed

Unless liberals realize that there are tens of millions of people in the Muslim world who are far scarier than Dick Cheney, they will be unable to protect civilization from its genuine enemies." 

Just ponder that. To Harris, there are "tens of millions" of Muslims "far scarier" then the US political leader who aggressively invaded and destroyed a nation of 26 million people, constructed a worldwide regime of torture, oversaw a network of secret prisons beyond the reach of human rights groups, and generally imposed on the world his "Dark Side". That is the Harris worldview: obsessed with bad acts of foreign Muslims, almost entirely blind to - if not supportive of - the far worse acts of westerners like himself.

Or consider this disgusting passage:

"The outrage that Muslims feel over US and British foreign policy is primarily the product of theological concerns. Devout Muslims consider it a sacrilege for infidels to depose a Muslim tyrant and occupy Muslim lands — no matter how well intentioned the infidels or malevolent the tyrant. Because of what they believe about God and the afterlife and the divine provenance of the Koran, devout Muslims tend to reflexively side with other Muslims, no matter how sociopathic their behavior."

Right: can you believe those primitive, irrational Muslims get angry when their countries are invaded, bombed and occupied and have dictators imposed on them rather than exuding gratitude toward the superior civilized people who do all that - all because of their weird, inscrutable religion that makes them dislike things such as foreign invasions, bombing campaigns and externally-imposed tyrants? And did you know that only Muslims - but not rational westerners like Harris - "reflexively side" with their own kind? This, from the same person who hails the Iraq war as something that should produce gratitude from the invaded population toward the "civilized human beings" - people like him - who invaded and destroyed their country. Theodore Sayeed noted the glaring irony pervading the bulk of Harris's political writing

"For a man who likes to badger Muslims about their 'reflexive solidarity' with Arab suffering, Harris seems keen to display his own tribal affections for the Jewish state. The virtue of Israel and the wickedness of her enemies are recurring themes in his work." 

Indeed. And the same is true of the US and the West generally. Harris' self-loving mentality amounts to this: those primitive Muslims are so tribal for reflexively siding with their own kind, while I constantly tout the superiority of my own side and justify what We do against Them. How anyone can read any of these passages and object to claims that Harris' worldview is grounded in deep anti-Muslim animus is staggering. He is at least as tribal, jingoistic, and provincial as those he condemns for those human failings, as he constantly hails the nobility of his side while demeaning those Others.

Perhaps the most repellent claim Harris made to me was that Islamophobia is fictitious and non-existent, "a term of propaganda designed to protect Islam from the forces of secularism by conflating all criticism of it with racism and xenophobia". How anyone can observe post-9/11 political discourse in the west and believe this is truly mystifying. The meaning of "Islamophobia" is every bit as clear as "anti-semitism" or "racism" or "sexism" and all sorts of familiar, related concepts. It signifies (1) irrational condemnations of all members of a group or the group itself based on the bad acts of specific individuals in that group; (2) a disproportionate fixation on that group for sins committed at least to an equal extent by many other groups, especially one's own; and/or (3) sweeping claims about the members of that group unjustified by their actual individual acts and beliefs. I believe all of those definitions fit Harris quite well, as evinced by this absurd and noxious overgeneralization from Harris:

The only future devout Muslims can envisage — as Muslims— is one in which all infidels have been converted to Islam, politically subjugated, or killed."

That is utter garbage: and dangerous garbage at that. It is no more justifiable than saying that the only future which religious Jews - as Jews - can envision is one in which non-Jews live in complete slavery and subjugation: a claim often made by anti-semites based on highly selective passages from the Talmud. It is the same tactic that says Christians - as Christians - can only envisage the extreme subjugation of women and violence against non-believers based not only on the conduct of some Christians but on selective passages from the Bible. Few would have difficultly understanding why such claims about Jews and Christians are intellectually bankrupt and menacing. 

Worse still, these claims from Harris about how Muslims think are simply factually false. An AFP report on a massive 2008 Gallup survey of the Muslim world simply destroyed most of Harris' ugly generalizations about the beliefs of Muslims:

"A huge survey of the world's Muslims released Tuesday challenges Western notions that equate Islam with radicalism and violence. . . . It shows that the overwhelming majority of Muslims condemned the attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001 and other subsequent terrorist attacks, the authors of the study said in Washington. . . . 

"About 93 percent of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims are moderates and only seven percent are politically radical, according to the poll, based on more than 50,000 interviews. . . .

"Meanwhile, radical Muslims gave political, not religious, reasons for condoning the attacks, the poll showed. . . .

"But the poll, which gives ordinary Muslims a voice in the global debate that they have been drawn into by 9/11, showed that most Muslims -- including radicals -- admire the West for its democracy, freedoms and technological prowess. 

"What they do not want is to have Western ways forced on them, it said."

Indeed, even a Pentagon-commissioned study back in 2004 - hardly a bastion of PC liberalism - obliterated Harris' self-justifying stereotype that anti-American sentiment among Muslims is religious and tribal rather than political and rational. That study concluded that "Muslims do not 'hate our freedom,' but rather, they hate our policies": specifically "American direct intervention in the Muslim world" — through the US's "one sided support in favor of Israel"; support for Islamic tyrannies in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia; and, most of all, "the American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan".

As I noted before, a long-time British journalist friend of mine wrote to me shortly before I began writing at the Guardian to warn me of a particular strain plaguing the British liberal intellectual class; he wrote: "nothing delights British former lefties more than an opportunity to defend power while pretending it is a brave stance in defence of a left liberal principle." That - "defending power while pretending it is a brave stance in defence of a left liberal principle" - is precisely what describes the political work of Harris and friends. It fuels the sustained anti-Muslim demonization campaign of the west and justifies (often explicitly) the policies of violence, militarism, and suppression aimed at them. It's not as vulgar as the rantings of Pam Geller or as crude as the bloodthirsty theories of Alan Dershowitz, but it's coming from a similar place and advancing the same cause. 

I welcome, and value, aggressive critiques of faith and religion, including from Sam Harris and some of these others New Atheists whose views I'm criticizing here. But many terms can be used to accurately describe the practice of depicting Islam and Muslims as the supreme threat to all that is good in the world. "Rational", "intellectual" and "well-intentioned" are most definitely not among them.


And here is Chomsky in 2008 elaborating further on Harris and company [quote and link fixed]:

"[I]f it is to be even minimally serious, the 'new atheism' should focus its concerns on the virulent secular religions of state worship, so well exemplified by those who laud huge atrocities like the invasion of Iraq, or cannot comprehend why they might have some concern when their own state, with their support, carries out some of its minor peccadilloes, like killing probably tens of thousands of poor Africans by destroying their main source of pharmaceutical supplies on a whim -- arguably more morally depraved than intentional killing, for reasons I've discussed elsewhere. 

"In brief, to be minimally serious the 'new atheism' should begin by looking in the mirror."

That is the hallmark of this New Atheist movement: exploiting rational atheism to support and glorify US state power and aggression; they have become a prime source for pseudo-intellectual justification of US government conduct."