Sam Harris has written an extremely long commentary in response to recent criticism he's endured from the left from Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain of Al Jazeera. I offer some commentary below.
Harris is pretty upset by some of the charges levied against him. It's understandable. He's right that when a charge of racism is levied against you, even if there's no truth to it at all, it's still successfully smears you. Some people, even if they side with Harris, they'll think in the back of their minds that maybe there's some truth to the charge. And so Harris has already lost on this, no matter the facts. I'm sympathetic to his plight on this.
But then, this doesn't mean he's not a bigot either. His defense seems to be that he's really not a bigot because when he says Islam is unusually wicked his claim is actually true. But then that's a point of debate. The old racists might say "I'm not really a racist because my claim that blacks are inferior is actually true." Does that really change our judgment? It's not obvious to me that Islam is especially more violent than Christianity or Judaism. Harris likes to point out that in the Hadith it's death for apostates. OK. In the Bible it's death for anyone that would even attempt to persuade you of another faith (Dt 13). But Christians don't practice that and Muslims do, says Harris. Yeah, but they did practice it in the past. Today they exegete it away just as many Muslim scholars exegete that Hadith away. Maybe the difference in behavior has more to do with the fact that suffering (they have been attacked and subject to dictators for many years) leads people into a more radical form of religion. Maybe the problem isn't Islam itself. So if the inferiority of Islam isn't obvious, people are going to question Harris' motives. Perhaps he is a bigot.
Harris misrepresents the Hussain article right at the start. He replies to an argument he puts in the mouth of Murtaza Hussain from Al Jazeera. "How can he claim that I ADMIRE fascists." The article didn't say you ADMIRE fascists. It said (correctly) that Harris says it is the fascists speaking most sensibly about Islam. The context he offers doesn't change it. As Greenwald pointed out, even Hitchens thought Harris was being ridiculous on that one. He should either stand by it or apologize for it. Nothing he's saying overturns the accurate quote in Al Jazeera. He says "I was not praising fascists." Who claimed you praised fascists? Nobody. He's boxing with shadows here.
Harris focuses on the semantics of the word "Islamophobia" but I don't think the distinctions he makes are important. "But Islam is not a race, so it's different from anti-Semitism." Yeah, that's true. I don't think anybody is saying Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are exactly alike. What matters is, is Harris guilty of Islamophobia as Greenwald defines it? I think so.
Harris clearly doesn't understand the point of Chomsky's quote about how we should first look in the mirror before criticizing others. In fact somehow he gets it backwards. He says "Afghan girls won't be benefited by reading Chomsky's books." Yeah, that's Chomsky's point. You should focus on what happens in your own backyard. So if you were an Afghan you would be right to focus on the errors within Islam instead of US crimes. He's not asking them to read his books and focus on the sins of Americans. He's telling us all to look in the mirror. This is not complicated and Harris is not stupid, but I don't think he can grasp it. I find that a bit strange.
And then he launches into a tirade about how Muslims attack people that draw cartoons, revealing very clearly that he still doesn't get the point from Chomsky. Maybe 100's of people are dead as a result of the cartoon related violence (a lot of it I think was just protests where opposing groups came in contact with each other and just started fighting, so most of the death was not the result of targeting, though some was). Nobody in this debate supports that, but we also don't support the crimes of Genghis Khan, and us bitching about it probably does an equal amount of good. Dick Cheney is responsible for the death of more than a million if you go through the Middle East and Latin America. That's not the focus for Harris. Instead maybe in Somalia a bunch of illiterate peasants clashed in response to the cartoons. That's where we should focus our energy for Harris. Chomsky and Greenwald say no. And this is where the suspicion of bigotry comes in. When you focus on the much smaller crimes of the "others" and focus very little on the crimes you are responsible for and can control (that is the stuff that occurs right under your nose) what motivates that mentality? It may be bigotry.
His challenge to Greenwald to draw anti-Islam cartoons once again betrays his inability to recognize the point from Chomsky. I mean, if you go to China and criticize the government, maybe you'll go to jail. I don't approve, but I don't talk about it much because there's not much I can do about it. I should talk about things that I can effect. Harris' response to that point would be "Oh I see, so in that case why not go to China and criticize the government." What the hell are you talking about, I'm not saying they aren't terrible in much of what they do. I'm saying it's not where I should focus my energy because I can't change it.
For Harris we are not occupiers of Saudi Arabia because the violent dictatorship we prop up and support in their repression of their own people has granted us "permission." That's pretty incredible and I think needs no refutation.
Regarding profiling, Harris should consider that the threat posed by Islamic terrorism is a threat that is much smaller than the threat posed by your own bathtub. You may drown in it. You may get hit by a falling coconut. A few Americans die every year from it. Over the last few years these threats are greater than Islamic terrorism. I think it's fair to say that really there is no Islamic terrorist threat for Americans. This is why the FBI actually concocts their own terrorist schemes and finds a dupe to go along, who they then arrest and pretend they saved us. It's such a remote threat that they must concoct their own terrorists. This fearful response where we are prepared to make life difficult for Muslims and those that look like a Muslim isn't gaining us much. So again, what is motivating people to do this? Bigotry?
His description of the crazed nuclear armed Muslim who cares not for death is nothing new. "The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner...We value life and human dignity. They don't care about life and human dignity." That's General William Westmoreland during the Vietnam War. Similar sentiments applied to Native Americans, Communists, whichever group happens to be the target of US violence. The "civilized world" needs to come to terms with this. You know, the West. The ones responsible for far more invasions, death, and environmental destruction than any other group. The good people. This is an old strategy and will be seen for what it is in the future, just like we can see the racism of Westmoreland for what it is.
Iraq war supporter and renowned Israel firster Charles Schumer, who's never seen an act of aggression from Israel that was over the line is supposedly a "liberal" Senator, so apparently Harris' pro-torture views are mitigated by the fact that this so called liberal agrees. I wonder what the word "liberal" means any more. Maybe if you are a Democrat? Pro-choice, pro-gay marriage but well to the right of the population on everything else?
Abu Graib was bad, for Harris. But Abu Graib was the least of it. What about beating people to death routinely? What about cramming trucks full of farmers (or Taliban if you prefer) into cargo trucks and letting them bake in the sun to death as they bite each other to get fluids? Pretty bad, right? Probably Harris' has never heard of it. But he did hear about those bad Muslims that were upset by a cartoon. Why does he notice that and fail to notice the stuff perpetuated by the "civilized world"?
Orwell said "The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them." This is where the underlying bigotry suspicion finds a root. Who's atrocities is he able to see? What does he discuss? We all agree that violence in response to cartoons was wrong. But in truth it's kind of small potatoes compared to what the "civilized world" has done. Even if it weren't we still should be talking about ourselves first. We should talk about what we are responsible for. What we can control. Harris prefers to focus on the crimes of others that we can't control. And for the neocons and those that seek hegemony this is a useful function.