Harris’ heresies: A dialogue between Hussain and Bensinger
In April, Murtaza Hussain sparked a divisive controversy with an Al Jazeera editorial attacking antireligious activist Sam Harris. Columnist Glenn Greenwald promoted the article, and when Harris objected that Hussain had seriously misrepresented him, Greenwald followed up with his own attack on Harris.
After reading Hussain’s article, I largely sided with Harris, accusing Hussain of intellectual misconduct and disputing Greenwald’s ‘Islamophobia’ accusation. With Greenwald’s strong endorsement, Hussain responded, which led to an online back-and-forth between us. I think people on both sides of this quarrel would benefit from seeing our conversation, so I present it below, organized by topic.
1. Torture and Nuclear War
This was a piece which could only be written by someone utterly ignorant of the political and social contexts in which Harris makes his arguments. Harris – for all his apparent moral and character failures – happens to be stridently political and is not ignorant of the context within which he is speaking. His endorsement of this piece seems to reflect a disingenuous claim on his part that it constitutes a solid defense of him – nothing could be further from the truth.
When I first read the claim here that Harris’ defense of torture extends only to hypothetical non-real world individuals, I almost fell off my chair laughing. Harris wrote “In Defense of Torture” in 2005, directly in the middle of the Iraq War and the public debates over torture spawned by the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib, Bagram Air Force Base, Guantanamo Bay, and innumerable CIA “black sites” all over the world. The claim that he is offering a neutral commentary on the subject in general – and not giving his green-light as a scientific and philosophic authority to the policies being fiercely debated at that very moment – is utterly risible. It has not been nameless, shapeless, colourless, individuals who have been the subjects of institutionalized torture over the past decade and as a political animal Harris knows this full well.
Much the same can be said of his delightful commentary on the utility of nuclear holocaust. He’s not making this argument in a vacuum, there is a fierce public debate about a particular Islamic country (Iran, if you’re somehow unaware) potentially attaining nuclear weapons. There is literally no other country being debated at present to whom his “hypothetical” scenario may pertain than the Islamic Republic of Iran. Despite his apparently deep ignorance of this issue, given what actual experts (including the leading figures in the *Israeli* defense establishment) have to say about the utility of deterrence, he still feels compelled to chime in with his casually genocidal opinion.
Furthermore, saying we are at “War with Islam” in the context of the past decade of bombings, invasions, occupations and wanton mass-murder (which he incredibly believes are actually massive favors to the subject peoples), is, contrary to Robby’s endearingly quaint contention, indeed a call for open-ended war. The United States is conducting a battle without defined limits under the guise of an amorphous “War on Terror” – a war which has no defined victory conditions and in variously brutal forms continues to be carried on with no end sight. In his great wisdom, [Harris] simply wants us to change the name of the open-ended war which already exists and, by expanding it from “Terror” to “Islam”, make every one of the 1.5 billion people who identify with the latter a potential enemy. Much as Harris would like, Muslims – even secular-minded ones – are never going to stop identifying with the 1400 year old constructed civilization which, despite its present hardships, has for centuries been the world standard in art, science, governance, as well as racial and religious tolerance. While in Muslims’ present downtrodden state some have tried to wipe their contributions out of history and paint them as timelessly-backwards savages (a frequently-employed colonialist depiction of their subjects), Muslims have a collective memory of their past and will not be parted from it, nor from their identification with Islamic civilization.
Neither I nor Sam have ever claimed that his philosophical arguments can have no implications for public policy. (If you think we have made such a claim, I invite you to cite it.) The very dichotomy ‘philosophical vs. practical’ is misleading; Sam would be the very first to acknowledge that ideology, both thoughtless and reflective, has real-world consequences. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy articles have real-world consequences too. I think there are some important arguments against Sam’s position on torture that he hasn’t adequately addressed yet, and I’m happy to discuss that ethical question both in the abstract and in real-world cases.
My point was only that your original claim was highly misleading. Your quotation suggested that Sam endorses torturing actual real-world people for being Muslims, and you used this ‘for being Muslims’ implication to argue that he’s an anti-Muslim racist. This is seriously disingenuous, given that none of his arguments are specific to Muslims, and given that he has publicly insisted that torture should be illegal.
You misrepresented the data, and in a way directly relevant to your thesis that Sam is a (genocidal, fascistic) racist. That is unconscionable. I will continue to point this out until you acknowledge the error, apologize for it, and take steps to prevent the further spread of misunderstanding and confusion in this already-murky debate.
You persist in repeating the claim that Sam has endorsed pre-emptive nuclear attacks as some sort of moral imperative. I’ve read the passages in question, and I’m not seeing it. He describes a situation in which he would expect nuclear war to occur. Where, in any of his writings, has he gone beyond that and endorsed this nightmare end-game? In point of fact, he has publicly denied ever having done so. This places an especially strong burden on you to back up your accusation with incandescent clarity.
Obviously Sam’s nightmare scenario is relevant to real-world nuclear stand-offs. That’s why he’s talking about them! His fear of such eventualities is a large part of why he went to the trouble of writing The End of Faith. The point isn’t that he’s pretending his thought experiments have no bearing on reality. That would defeat the purpose of bothering with thought experiments even academically. The point, rather, is that he isn’t in any fashion endorsing nuclear genocide. Much less nuclear genocide as a supremacist mechanism for mass racial cleansing, as you suggest! That thing you keep saying happened — it never happened. No aspect of this charge of yours falls short of journalistic fraud.
I’ll agree with you that “War on Islam” may be a poor word choice on Sam’s part. It’s obvious in context that Sam intended this phrase to mean that the doctrines and traditions of Islam are in opposition to liberal humanistic values, that they are a major locus of calamity — compare “War on Drugs” or “War on Poverty”. It’s equally obvious that he didn’t mean this “War” to occur primarily through actual warfare and violence; in the main he is interested in a war of ideas, and the central thesis of The End of Faith is not that Muslims should be rounded up into death camps (as a reader of your over-the-top diatribe might come to believe), but that Muslims should be intensely criticized on all sides until the religion moderates itself.
A future in which Islam and the West do not stand on the brink of mutual annihilation is a future in which most Muslims have learned to ignore most of their canon, just as most Christians have learned to do.
No serious reader can miss this point. But “War on Islam” may lend itself too easily to confusion with a “War on Muslims”, much as “Islamophobia” is too easily confused with “Muslimophobia”. There are certainly rhetorical choices Sam’s made that I disagree with.
Regarding his position on torture and nuclear weapons use Sam would like us to suspend our normal, universal condemnation of these things and start considering their practical utility in certain circumstances. Given that he’d like to do this in the context of The War Against Islam he believes we should be fighting, there is only one group of people upon whom these things would then be visited. If we were killing smokers and drug users en masse and as a matter of policy, I could understand the analogy you draw. Given that we actually are killing Muslims in large numbers I find [this] to sound distastefully like a call for broadening the present scale of conflict.
That may be near to the truth regarding torture, but it is clearly just not the case regarding nuclear weapons. To my knowledge, there is not a single line in Sam’s writings that advocates the use of nuclear weapons. I’m honestly very surprised that you’re continuing to repeat this simply false claim, particularly since you could publicly retract the mistake without retracting your other claims.
The source of the lie that Sam endorses nuclear first strikes is a passage in The End of Faith where he describes a scenario in which he thinks that the United States would, for prudential reasons, conduct a nuclear first strike. Nowhere does he say that the U.S. should, for moral reasons, do such a thing. Rather, he calls it “an unthinkable crime” and “an unconscionable act” in that very passage. (Nor does he think a nuclear Iran or Pakistan qualifies as an example of the scenario he describes.)
The whole point of the nuclear scenario is that it’s an almost unimaginably nightmarish occurrence — he calls it “perfectly insane” and a “horrible absurdity“, again in the original passage — that we should do everything in our power to prevent. Yet, merely because Sam is the one making the argument (and because Chris Hedges has set a startlingly dishonest precedent for misreporting about it), you seem to feel some bizarre license to skew the evidence so that it fits the pattern of your other claims.
This, more than most of your other claims, clearly deserves a public retraction and correction. Please make it clear to your readers that the facts still matter. Make it clear that we can disagree profoundly, and criticize one another harshly, without indulging in distortions or misrepresentations at all. This is not a grey area.
I don’t think that Hedges is incorrect in his criticism of him. What Sam does in all these scenarios, whether it is with regards to the endorsement of torture, profiling or whatsoever, is to do a lot of faux-liberal hang-wringing before essentially saying it is terrible but may be necessary. There is no other way you could endorse the use of nuclear weapons in a contemporary scenario without making a big show of expressing grief and sadness over the prospect of it – and frankly it makes the end result (which has a practical basis in actual debates he is aware of) any different.
But Sam didn’t endorse the use of nuclear weapons. That claim is entirely false. You can repeat it any number of times and never see the iteration syphon from it its falsehood. No matter how convinced you still are that somewhere in his secret heart of hearts Sam Harris thinks we should nuke the Middle East, you at least owe it to your readers not to misrepresent Sam as ever having actually stated such a thing. Your interpretations and speculation need to be marked as such. Ditto for Hedges’.
You declared, as though it were fact: “[I]n the case of Muslims Harris has publicly stated his support for [...] pre-emptive nuclear weapons strikes“. That statement is demonstrably false. It’s your duty to withdraw it, and it can only serve to make your criticisms of substance more credible if you replace this fabrication with an honest critique that nowhere misrepresents the evidence. (Such a critique can be made, so I see no reason to resort to anything less.)
When it was pointed out that Sam never “publicly stated his support” for anything of the sort, rather than revising your statement, you decided that he must have silently had that support in the back of his head while writing the passage.
When it is pointed out that he’s written about how horrific a nuclear holocaust would be and how important it is that we prevent it, you again retract nothing, but now add another ad hoc stipulation to your theory: He must be pretending to be horrified by the prospects of a nuclear apocalypse because he wants to trick his liberal friends into endorsing his secretly-held-but-never-actually-stated view.
… But Sam’s passage expressing moral disgust and horror at the possibility of nuclear genocide is the very passage — the only passage! — that made you think that Sam endorsed nuclear first strikes in the first place. Your hypothesis seems to have acquired an inertia of its own, enough to persist even when none of the original evidence remains. The problem isn’t only that the “publicly stated his support” part of your claim is false as a matter of public record. It’s that even if you replaced “publicly stated his support” with ‘once left implicit undertones of support’, you wouldn’t have any evidence for your interpretation that didn’t presuppose the truth of the interpretation.
In a very real sense this is what extremists of all persuasions do: 1) Posit an extremely dire scenario, 2) Argue that, though it may be painful and awful and transgress all limits it may be necessary to do terrible things in such a scenario, 3) Suggest that such a scenario is imminent. If point 3) did not exist in the form of raging debate around him (a debate of which he is both cognizant and a particularly odious partisan within) I’d say he doesn’t know what he is doing and is merely a hapless, honest academic who is being woefully understood. He isn’t that, and he is cynically manipulating his audience – including people like you – who are militantly committed to the idea that he speaks in good faith.
Because something is said in a more-sorrow-than-anger tone and is admitted to be evil (a concept which he doesn’t believe in so I’m not sure how he can claim to view it as mitigating) before being portrayed as potentially practicable doesn’t make it better, it makes it far, far worse by convincing people that it may in fact be palatable.
You don’t seem to be processing what I’m saying. Or what Sam is. The argument you’re sketching is ‘In certain dire circumstances, we should use nukes. Those circumstances are likely to occur. So we should be open to using nukes soon.’ This is very nearly the opposite of the point Sam made, which was: ‘In certain dire circumstances, it is likely that we would use nukes. Those circumstances are likely to occur, and if a nuclear first strike resulted it would be “an unthinkable crime“, an “unconscionable act“, a “horrible absurdity“. So we should do our best to prevent the use of nukes, by preventing the dire circumstances that could trigger them.’
‘Militant good faith’? … That’s a new one. I’m perfectly open to being shown that Sam is secretly a sadistic racist nationalist. I just want to see evidence. I don’t want to have to just take your word for it as an expert on Sam’s psyche. Your arguments so far are long on speculative exegesis and short on textual evidence.
Surely not every single Muslim would then be tortured or nuclearly-annihilated, but when viewed in context of his many other public statements on the matter it seems reflective of his conception as Muslims as fundamentally lesser humans to whom – when the need arises (like, right now, during this war, happening today) the normal standards of decency and human rights need not apply. Thus, we don’t need to feel very bad about Abu Ghraib and GTMO because perhaps there is a moral calculus (which Sam proposes) where such actions are not so bad after all. While we may have had to afford due process and to respect the “collateral damage” in past conflicts, in this one the same concern may perhaps be waived, as we’re doing what we need to do against a fanatically inhuman enemy.
What you have here is an empirical hypothesis about Sam’s motivations. You think that he endorses violence because he thinks of Muslims as subhuman, and violence toward dehumanized minorities is much easier to countenance.
The problem for this thesis is that a lot of the evidence you mustered in its support is demonstrably false or markedly misrepresented. To make sure that you aren’t continuing to endorse it out of habit even after the original grounds for it have been stripped away, we need to re-evaluate it and consider alternative hypotheses much more seriously. For example, you need good reasons to reject the following two hypotheses:
1. Generic callousness: Sam doesn’t consider Muslims subhuman. He’s just generally an aggressive and non-empathic person, one who has an easier time imagining and justifying violence than most people do. Islamist militants catch his attention because they’re an unusually obvious threat, but he’d be just as callous toward any other group that seemed dangerous to him.
2. A false model of religious psychology: Sam doesn’t consider Muslims subhuman. He just has one or two false beliefs: That Islam is unusually violent, and/or that people who follow religions tend to be strongly influenced by their faith’s doctrinal contents. If the former belief is extreme enough, then his endorsement of extreme responses is easy to understand even if he finds it nauseating to even have to consider such violence means. (Note that Sam has said he finds his own views on torture “deeply unsettling“!) That he would harbor the latter belief isn’t surprising, since he wrote a whole book arguing that metaphysical dogmatism drives the behavior of religious people.
Since the Qur’an is proportionally more violent than e.g. Christian and Hindu holy texts, it’s not surprising that someone reading it could arrive at an overly simplistic conclusion about its adherents’ views. But if sloppy ethnographic scholarship or a false model of the power of religious doctrine fully explains Sam’s overriding concern with Islam, why should we feel compelled to posit bigotry on his part as well?
Both of those hypotheses would allow you to continue criticizing Sam, and they seem generally consistent with your political views. They also helpfully explain why people who are neither sociopaths nor bigots, like Stanford Encyclopedia writers, can endorse Sam’s ethical views, and why people who are neither sociopaths nor bigots, like P.Z. Myers, can endorse Sam’s anti-Islam views. So why haven’t you seriously considered these or other hypotheses? Given that your confidence in your conclusion seems not to have been shaken by the loss of most of your cited evidence, I think you should seriously consider the possibility that you’re succumbing to confirmation bias here.
It sounds like you’re saying that your bigotry hypothesis predicts that Sam will try to justify or dismiss Abu Ghraib or GTMO. If so, this is another important disconfirmation of your view. Writes Sam, as early as 2007:
It is important to point out that my argument for the restricted use of torture does not make a travesty like Abu Ghraib look any less sadistic or stupid. I consider our mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib to be patently unethical. I also think it was one of the most damaging blunders in the last century of U.S. foreign policy. Nor have I ever seen the wisdom or necessity of denying proper legal counsel (and access to evidence) to prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay.
You also pluck out of thin air the allegation that Sam downplays the harm of collateral damage. This broadcasts to me unavoidably that you truly haven’t done your research. Sam has written against the routine justification of collateral damage as viscerally as any other commentator today. Indeed, one of his main reasons for even raising the issue of torture was to highlight how comparably grotesque collateral damage is.
Two minutes of Googling would have revealed to you Sam’s views of collateral damage, GTMO, Abu-Ghraib-style abuse, and nuclear war. It honestly sounds in a lot of your arguments like you just haven’t taken the time to read this stuff. You have an image in your mind of the Archetypal Racist Neo-Con, and you’re increasingly succumbing to the habit of freely blurring the lines between this image’s hypothetical misdeeds and Sam’s actual words.
[Click here to see the rest of the discussion.]
- Posted in: communication ♦ politics
- Tagged: abu ghraib, antitheism, atheism, bigotry, defamation, dialogue, ethics, fraud, genocide, glenn greenwald, gtmo, guantanamo bay, ideology, islam, islamophobia, journalism, liberalism, murtaza hussain, muslim, new atheism, nuclear deterrence, p.z. myers, politics, racism, rhetoric, robby bensinger, sam harris, terrorism, torture, war on terror