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Affleck, Maher, Harris and Islamophia

sam_harris_200In 2011, I wrote a column defending Sam Harris against critics of his perceived “Islamophobia” (no scare-quotes from here on, but please assume that I consider the term problematic, for reasons including those I outline below).

I no longer agree with all that I had to say then. At the time, I thought that Islam was the subject of more critique from Harris than other religions were because he regarded Islam as the most dangerous in a range of religious beliefs. In other words, I was convinced that he had a pragmatic, rather than prejudiced, reason for focusing on it. As I said at the time:

Harris, and atheists in general, do have a problem with Islam, just as they have a problem with Christianity. If Zoroastrianism was still popular, we’d have a problem with that too. But this generalised antipathy stems from the fact that religion encourages people to believe things on the basis of poor or nonexistent evidence. If we think it a good thing that people tend to believe what is true and disbelieve what is false, believing things in this way would be a harmful trait that merits discouragement.

This discussion never really goes away, but it’s foregrounded at present thanks to the barbarism of ISIL, and – on a more prosaic level – a recent CNN interview with Reza Aslan, and then the Bill Maher segment featuring Ben Affleck and Sam Harris.

I’m not going to focus on those interviews in their specifics, but I encourage you to watch them if you care about the context. There are also numerous commentaries and critiques you could read – this one by Avicenna Last (on the Maher/Affleck/Harris segment) probably comes closest to capturing my response to Harris, and also includes a useful transcript of the show.

The purpose of this post is rather to make two points that are of general concern in this debate. First, on Islamophobia: Islam is of course not a “race”. However, there are other ways of being bigoted than simply being racist. And, when one responds to a charge that you’re prejudiced by (simply) asserting “I have nothing against Muslims, it’s their religion I hate”, you might forget that this can serve as an evasive gambit.

The religion is held by people – and held with great commitment and sincerity – so criticism of it might be difficult to separate from criticisms of them. Scott Atran is worth reading on the sociology and psychology of belief, and how wilfully obtuse the language of “I respect people, but not their ideas” can sound to people who hold the ideas you happen to disrespect.

Second, I do think that Harris (and others) don’t consistently make the point that it’s primarily the extremists that they think problematic. Their language (and sometimes tone, which I think important) can create the impression that their criticisms apply generically to Islam, especially (I’d suspect) to people of that faith.

The point that Affleck was trying to convey is that there is a tendency for critics of Islam to read or sound like fundamentalists themselves, in part because they assume that an audience is as capable of separating the context from the logic of argument as they are. Our discussions take place in a political context, and persuasion depends in part on recognising that.

It is relevant, as Affleck points out, that more than a billion Muslims are only similar to ISIL in the sense that they all pray five times a day. They’re not similar in the sense that they will kill for this right, and I’m also not persuaded by Harris’s claim in the End of Faith that moderates provide some sort of “cover” or “legitimacy” for extremists.

They all believe in the same god, sure, but from within a radically different value system – one which allows for beheading infidels and opponents, and the other not. The fact that these two sorts of Muslim are nominally on the same spectrum of belief doesn’t mean they should be conflated with each other.

Harris and other critics of Islam forget – or speak as if they have forgotten – that believers can have an interpretation of a holy text, rather than a set of dogmas related to it. Instead, critics take the most reactionary views and treat them as representative of the whole, or more broadly as the most authentic form of Islamic faith (with thanks to Kenan Malik for this insight).

What this move allows for is the invalidation of the beliefs and ways of living that are more typical or representative. If a Muslim were to say “well, I’m not offended by Danish cartoons”, you can retort with “but you’re not a typical (or even a ‘real’) Muslim, because you’re not being a literalist when it comes to interpreting your holy texts”.

But if the typical Muslim isn’t a literalist, why use that as the standard by which to criticise others? Isn’t it rather unusual to judge people by the standards of the most pure, or best, exponents of any skill, virtue of way of living? (“Son, I grant that you’re able to kick a ball, but you can’t be a real footballer until you’re as good as Cristiano Ronaldo.”)

How about if the anti-fundamentalists – like Harris – might be giving some cover or legitimacy for the extremists themselves, by making them seem more representative or relevant than they are?

Or, how about we make make an effort to keep those moderates on our side, by not speaking in ways that make it appear we see all Muslims as different only in degree, but not in kind – because when you say they are of the same kind, you’re telling your neighbour that she’s really just like the beheaders, when one dispenses with the tact.

Anti-fundamentalism can play into stereotypes, too – and maybe, in doing so, it can give some power to the extremists. Because if you cast them as martyrs, moderates will be surrounded with examples of their religious identities being questioned and attacked.

Would you think that makes them more, or less, less likely to join the secular battle against fundamentalism?

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

14 replies on “Affleck, Maher, Harris and Islamophia”

Excellent post – thanks Jacques. It’s easier to forgive Maher on one level as a comedian, and lampooning generalisations is stock-in-trade. But on another level he’s claiming a role as serious commentator. I’ve been quite disappointed with Harris though – because it’s not only his stance on Muslims – but his view that Israeli terrorism is ok because they are just defending themselves. This seems to me to be hugely dissonant from someone posing as a serious commentator on moral issues.

I completely agree with you, this is not likely to enlist moderate Muslims in any secular battle.

Good post, Jaques – always enjoy your point of view. However, I still agree with Harris & Maher that it is extremely important to criticise a religion in order to challenge its fundamental positions and principles. The point is also that many “liberals” like Afleck defend Islam but do not realise that they are in effect defending a form of fascism. Furthermore for Alfeck to label Maher and Harris as racists for their stance shows that he doesn’t understand racism. At most they could be labeled as bigots, but I wouldn’t support that view.

I often wonder how many Palestinian hosipitals and schools need to be levelled, and Palestinian non-combatants killed, before Bill Maher flinches in his smooth-talking support for Israel. Entrenched political positions like this dehumanise people, and leave me stone cold.

Lets be clear, the West’s foreign policies leave a lot to be desired, but it is also important that Islam be shown up for what it is and what it is capable of. At least this condemnation is being done by Harris and Maher in a non-violet manner (in an open forum) without them killing anyone, or inciting anyone else to do so. It is exactly the opposite of what Islam does. Islam expects tolerance of its intolerance, whereas we should be intolerant of its intolerance. I take issue with Affleck for defending this position as a so-called liberal. The irony is unbelievable. Yes, not all muslims are evil, but the ideology behind them, quite clearly, is.

I’m guessing there would be far fewer atrocities committed in the name of Islam, if we took both oil and Israel out of the equation. If we stopped breaking up national, secular regimes as a matter of course. It’s no good looking at Muslims who have been deliberately humiliated and brutalised for generations, then pointing at their sporadic and retaliatory acts of inhumanity as typical of the creed.

This tactic may have worked in various imperial ventures, to justify putting down the savages, but it isn’t going to work here.

There’s something about religion that just rubs me up the wrong way. There’s something about Islam, in particular, that rubs me up the wrong way more so than the others. It could be plain old prejudice, but I’m not sure that it is.

I think the reason religion makes me uncomfortable is the way it blinkers its adherents and, as I perceive it, hamstrings individuality. This appears to be particularly true of Islam. There have been articles devoted to the topic of the lacklustre march towards civilisation in the Arab world where the blame has been laid, in part, on Islam. Some have said that the Arab Islamic world is where the Christian world was before the enlightenment. This is actually good news because it opens up the possibility that Arab Islam could evolve into something similar to modern Christianity where most adherents cherry pick the good bits and ignore the violent, misogynistic, bigoted crap in the Good Book.

So, you’re right that we should support moderates. Change comes from within, after all.

That said, I don’t think we should lose sight of the fact that there is a certain amount of political correctness surrounding the criticism of Islam. In some cases it’s almost as if criticism is automatically equated with bigotry/Islamophobia regardless of the accuracy of the criticism and the tact with which the criticism is made. In some cases that’s just plain bigotry by diminished expectations.

Anyway, I’m going to re-read your article and try determine how bigoted I am.

An alarmingly large percentage of Muslims, in Arab countries as well as the West, support stoning for adultery, capital punishment for apostasy and so forth. Until we really know how many Muslims support this interpretation of their faith it is hard, for me at least, to figure out what a “typical” Muslim is.

A lot of people in the West support illegal wars and mass murder, in countries like Libya, Syria and Iraq when stoning hasn’t been carried out for decades or more. When it comes to violence, the West has a monopoly.

A lot of people in the West are also vociferously opposed to the wars and so called mass murders, which is more than can be said about many Muslims. Also, with the exception of a few fanatics no Western religion that I am aware of advocates stoning, death sentences for apostasy and the suppression of women. I agree that the West is not blameless (which was never my point anyway) but fanaticism such as exhibited by many Muslims is seldom seen in the west

A good piece indeed – thanks for sharing it. As with many of these debates, I’m quite struck by the difference in perspective that could be generated by long-term vs. short-term thinking. What Rahim argues about the rise of intolerance & xenophobia in Europe is certainly relevant here – even if Harris et. al. don’t want to be endorsing or encouraging it, there’s a chance they might unwittingly do so.

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