So Glenn Greenwald tweeted an article published at Al Jazeera by Murtaza Hussain titled “Scientific racism, militarism, and the new atheists”. The article basically draws a straight line between the critiques of Islam from the New Atheists and the pseudoscientific racism used against blacks for a good part of American history. Sam Harris is specifically called out in the article:
Indeed, the most illustrative demonstration of the new brand of scientific racism must be said to come from the popular author and neuroscientist Sam Harris.
But it’s not just scientific racism, it’s:
the most prominent new atheists slide with ease into the most virulent racism imaginable.
It’s the most virulent racism that can be imagined. For some reason this irked Sam Harris into emailing Greenwald and publishing the exchange. Sam Harris called the Hussain article “defamatory garbage”, which is being kind, but Glenn Greenwald stood by it. Well, mostly. In a blog post about the kerfuffle Greenwald wrote:
That then led to a somewhat lengthy email exchange with Harris in which I did not attempt to defend every claim in those columns from his attacks because I didn’t make those claims: the authors of those columns can defend themselves perfectly well
Tweeting a link to an Al Jazeera column about Harris and saying I find one of his quotes revealing does not make me responsible for every claim in that column.
I’ve read Greenwald enough to be reasonably sure that if someone had tweeted an article a fraction as defamatory about Greenwald he would have gone ape shit, and not accepted an excuse that lame from the perpetrator.
But Sam Harris can defend himself, and I’m not as interested in rebutting the accusations made against Sam Harris as using Greenwald’s article as a window into how discussions about certain topics get policed and deformed. Because I’ve read most of Sam Harris’ writings, and while he doesn’t shy away from touchy subjects, he’s always calm, well reasoned, and equitable. If he is getting accused of the most virulent racism imaginable when he wanders onto certain rhetorical ground, something is deeply broken with the dialogue.
Certainly, given our benighted history of racism and colonialism and the vulnerable position of some minority population, some topics should be seen as dangerous waters that shouldn’t be avoided, but navigated carefully, as I think Sam Harris does well. But it just as certainly doesn’t help the dialogue to churn the waters up to a froth with bellicose, overheated, and sanctimonious condemnations of racism, Islamophobia, and fascist sympathies when someone is trying to safely navigate them.
Greenwald seems to be particularly perturbed on Harris’ focus on Islam as uniquely dangerous in the 21st century. It’s partly a granularity, or “broad brush” argument, which certainly can be legitimate, but when used too broadly itself, when it demands too much granularity, can be used to shut down debate. Can any macro distinctions between religions/cultures be legitimately made? Or is it just white Westerners making generalized criticisms of primarily brown religions/cultures that’s forbidden? Writes Greenwald:
The vast majority of Muslims are non-white; as a result, when a white westerner becomes fixated on attacking their religion and advocating violence and aggression against them, as Harris has done, I understand why some people (such as Hussain) see racism at play: that, for reasons I recently articulated, is a rational view to me.
Or are macro differences just meaningless, because every group has bad actors:
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. And of course there are some Muslim individuals who do heinous things in the name of their religion – just like there are extremists in all religions who do awful and violent things in the name of that religion, yet receive far less attention than the bad acts of Muslims (here are some very recent examples). Yes, “honor killings” and the suppression of women by some Muslims are heinous, just as the collaboration of US and Ugandan Christians to enact laws to execute homosexuals is heinous, and just as the religious-driven, violent occupation of Palestine, attacks on gays, and suppression of women by some Israeli Jews in the name of Judaism is heinous. That some Muslims commit atrocities in the name of their religion (like some people of every religion do) is also too self-evident to merit debate, but it has nothing to do with the criticisms of Harris.
This is sort of a Big Shrug: there are bad apples in every bunch, so no distinctions can be made between the bushels at all. But is that true…or even helpful? Can any meaningful qualitative distinctions be made between the life experience of someone born into the Muslim world, and a person born into, say, the West? How about a woman? Or a homosexual? Is there no difference? Would it be racist to make a distinction? Can any legitimate way be found to speak in these terms? Women is Saudi Arabia recently gained the right to ride a bike in some public places…accompanied by a male relative and dressed in a full abaya…does that mean anything? Can it be spoken about?
Maybe it’s just a problem of focus. Criticism, or at least the bulk of it, should be directed at home:
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.
Greenwald then goes on to quote Chomsky stating that his primary concern is with terror and violence carried out by his own state, because that is the violence he is most responsible for and likely able to do something about. Which is a reasonable, general, sentiment. But in this context this objection doesn’t address the content of Harris’ arguments, even indirectly. It only serves to police what it is Harris is allowed to criticize. Is there a quota in place above which criticism of the foreign becomes legitimate, or at least less “extremely suspect”? 3 to 1? 10 to 1? How many pieces does Harris need to write criticizing US foreign policy before he can write about Islam?
Is it the present context of violence being perpetrated upon some parts of the Muslim world by the West that makes the criticism of Islam particularly objectionable?
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
Without the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, would criticism of Islam be less objectionable? Was it less objectionable after 9/11 but before the war in Afghanistan? And how much focus on Islam is “undue”?
While Greenwald claims that “Of course one can legitimately criticize Islam without being bigoted or racist”, it’s not at all clear from his piece what that criticism would look like, or from whom it would be allowed to originate. It seems like it would be highly specific, always paired with criticisms of other major religions, and given the current hostilities in the Middle East, probably nonexistent.
An important point that Sam Harris often makes, and one that should subsume these conversations but seems to get lost in them instead, is one he makes yet again in his response to Greenwald:
Everything I have ever said about Islam refers to the content and consequences of its doctrine. And, again, I have always emphasized that its primary victims are innocent Muslims—especially women and girls.
It’s not Westerners who primarily suffer under medieval Islamic doctrines, it’s Muslims. And if we find ourselves forced into a mode of conversation in which we can’t talk about that, it would be a real shame.