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.