nothing is mere

Is “Islamophobia” real?

This is a shorter version of an April 8 Secular Alliance at Indiana University blog post.

My previous post on the Sam Harris / Glenn Greenwald clusterfuffle was mostly procedural. I restricted myself to assessing the authenticity of Murtaza Hussain’s citations, barely touching on the deeper issues of substance he and Greenwald raised. But now that we’re on the topic, this is a great opportunity to pierce through the rhetoric and try to get clearer about what’s actually being disputed.

My biggest concern with the criticisms of Harris is that they freely shift between a number of different accusations, often as though they were equivalent. At the moment, the most salient seem to be:

A. He’s a racist, and has a racially motivated hatred of Muslims.
B. He has an intensely irrational fear and hatred of Muslims.
C. He has an intensely irrational fear and hatred of Islam.
D. His concerns about Islam are exaggerated.
E. He doesn’t appreciate just how harmful and dangerous the United States is.
F. He advocates militarism and condones violence in general.

I’d like to start disentangling these claims, in the hopes of encouraging actual discussions — and not just shouting matches — about them. Although I’ll use Harris and his recent detractors as a revealing test case, the conclusions here will have immediate relevance to any discussion in which people strongly disagree about the nature and geopolitical significance of Islamic extremism.


In “Scientific racism, militarism, and the new atheists“, Hussain focuses on [A], trying to pattern-match Harris’ statements to trends exemplified in 18th- and 19th-century pseudoscience. It seems chiefly motivated by the fact that Harris, like a number of historical racists, opposed the aims of a disadvantaged group and, well, is a scientist.

Commenting on my previous post, Hussain appeared to shift gears and back off from accusing Harris of racism:

[T]he point of the post [I wrote] is not “Sam Harris is racist”. Indeed, as he accurately noted, he has a black Muslim friend. The point is that he conciously [sic] lends his scientific expertise to the legitimation of racist policies. He is also an avowed partisan and not a neutral, disinterested observer to these issues. .He [sic] is not speaking in terms of pure abstraction, and he is not as a scientist immune from the pull of ideology (as the racist pseudoscientists I compared him with illustrate). […]

Politics is my field, science is his field, and I would not make dangerously ignorant comments about neuroscience. He on the other hand feels little compulsion [sic] about doing the same politically and using his authority as a scientist and philosopher to justify the actions of those who would commit (and *have committed*) the most utterly heinous acts in recent memory.

I couldn’t care less about his atheist advocacy, I couldn’t care less if he blasphemed a million Quran’s [sic], what I care about is policies of torture and murder not being once again granted a veneer of scientific protection

I’d make three points in response. First, to my knowledge Harris has never made anything resembling the claim ‘I am a scientist, ergo my views on world politics must be correct’.

Second, although I grant that someone’s scientific background doesn’t automatically make her a reliable political commentator, experience with the sciences also doesn’t invalidate one’s future work in political or ethical theorizing. It’s possible to responsibly specialize in more than one thing in life. Moreover, interdisciplinary dialogue is a good thing, and there really are findings from the mind sciences that have important implications for our political tactics and goals. Blindly rejecting someone’s views because she has a Ph.D. in neuroscience is as bad as blindly accepting someone’s views just because she has a Ph.D. in neuroscience!

My third response is that Hussain’s attempt to backtrack from accusing Harris of racism is transparently inconsistent with his earlier statements. If he’s changed his mind, he should just say so, rather than pretend that his article is devoid of bald assertions like:

[T]he most prominent new atheists slide with ease into the most virulent racism imaginable. […]

Harris engages in a nuanced version of the same racism which his predecessors in scientific racism practiced in their discussion of the blanket characteristics of “Negroes”. […]

[Harris is in a] class with the worst proponents of scientific racism of the 20th century – including those who helped provide scientific justification for the horrors of European fascism.

That certainly doesn’t sound like an effort to maintain neutrality on Harris’ personal view of race, to merely criticize his support for “racist policies“. If such was Hussain’s intended message, then he failed rather spectacularly in communicating it.

In point of fact, I agree with Hussain and Greenwald that racism directed at Muslims is a very real problem, and that it really does lurk in the hearts of a distressingly large number of critics of Islam. (Harris agrees, too.) As Hussain rightly notes, the fact that Islam is not a race is irrelevant. It happens to be the case that most Muslims aren’t of European descent; and for most white supremacists, that’s enough.

The point here isn’t that it’s impossible to oppose Islam for bad reasons, including hideously racist ones. It’s that there may be good reasons, or bad but non-racist ones, to oppose Islam as well. In the case of Harris, we have no reason to think that any race- or skin-color-specific bias is responsible for his stance on Islam. All the undistorted evidence Hussain cites is only relevant to charges [B]-[F] in my above list. This is perhaps why Greenwald, who followed up with a much more measured article, sets the race issue aside before proceeding to make his case against Harris.


Following Greenwald, let’s momentarily bracket race. Is there any cause to be concerned more generally that the tone or content of criticism of Islam may be based in some latent fear of the foreign, the unknown?

Not in all cases, no. Plenty of critics of Islam have all too intimate and first-hand an understanding of the more oppressive and destructive elements of Islamic tradition.

But in some cases? In many cases? Perhaps even, to some extent, in Harris’ case, or in mine?


I’m just trying to be honest and open here, and do a little soul-searching. I’m trying to understand where writers like Greenwald and Hussain are coming from. I’m trying to extract my own lessons from their concerns, even if I disagree strongly with their chosen methods and conclusions.

I can’t 100% dismiss out of hand the idea that part of the explanation for the degree and nature of our aversion to Islam really is its unfamiliarity. That’s just human psychology: When apparent dangers are weird and foreign and agenty, we’re more attentive to them, and we respond to them more quickly, strongly, and decisively. I am woefully ignorant of what day-to-day life is like nearly everywhere in the world, and no matter how much I try to understand what it’s like to be a Muslim in different societal or geographic settings, I’ll never bridge the gap completely. And that ignorance will inevitably color my judgments and priorities to some extent. I hate it, but it’s true.

Although on introspection I detect no traces of ethnic animus or cultural bias in my own head — if I did, I’d have already rooted it out, to the best of my ability — I can’t totally rule out the possibility that some latent aversion to the general Otherness of Islam is having some effect on the salience I psychologically assign to apparent threats from militant Islamism. Being biased doesn’t feel a particular way. Particularly given that we’re hypothesizing small, cumulative errors in judgment (‘micro-xenophobia’), not some overarching, horns-and-trumpets Totalitarian World-View. Everyone on the planet succumbs to small biases of that sort, to unconscious overreliance on uneducated intuitions and overgeneralized schemas.

And to say that these sorts of errors are common, and are very difficult to combat, is in no way to excuse them. I’m not admitting the possibility so that I can then be complacent about it. If I am in fact systematically biased, then I could cause some real damage without even realizing it. It’s my responsibility as a human being to very carefully and rigorously test whether (or to what extent) I am making errors of this sort.

… But the coin has two sides.

It’s just as possible that the biased ones are the people whose criticisms have been quieted by their experience with the positive elements of Islamic tradition. It’s just as possible that generally valuable heuristics like ‘be culturally tolerant’ are resulting in a destructive pro-Islam bias (‘micro-relativism’?). It’s just as possible that small (or large) attentional and inferential errors are coloring the views of Islam’s defenders, making them ignore or underestimate the risks Harris is talking about. Benevolent racism is just as real as malevolent racism.

The take-away message isn’t that one side or the other is certainly wrong, just because bias or bad faith could account for some of the claims made by either side. It’s worthwhile to set aside some time to sit quietly, to try and really probe your reasons for what you believe, see whether they are as strong as you thought, place yourself in the other side’s shoes for a time. But a general skepticism or intellectual despair can’t rationally follow from that. Perhaps we’re all biased, albeit in different directions; but, given how high the stakes are, we still have to talk about these things, and do our best to become more reasonable.

Importantly, one thing we can’t automatically take away from a discovery that some person is being irrational or bigoted, is the conclusion that that person’s arguments or conclusions are mistaken. Someone’s reasoning can be flawless even if the ultimate psychological origins for his belief are ridiculous. And, for that matter, purity of heart is no guarantor of accuracy!

It’s not good enough to feel righteous. It’s not even good enough to be righteous, or have the best of intentions. We have to put in the extra hard work of becoming right. So, with that moment of reflection behind us, we must return with all the more urgency to determining the relationships between charges of ‘racism’, ‘Islamophobia’, ‘militarism’, and so on.


In “Sam Harris, the New Atheists, and anti-Muslim animus”, Greenwald writes:

Perhaps the most repellent claim Harris made to me was that Islamophobia is fictitious and non-existent, “a term of propaganda designed to protect Islam from the forces of secularism by conflating all criticism of it with racism and xenophobia”. How anyone can observe post-9/11 political discourse in the west and believe this is truly mystifying. The meaning of “Islamophobia” is every bit as clear as “anti-semitism” or “racism” or “sexism” and all sorts of familiar, related concepts. It signifies (1) irrational condemnations of all members of a group or the group itself based on the bad acts of specific individuals in that group; (2) a disproportionate fixation on that group for sins committed at least to an equal extent by many other groups, especially one’s own; and/or (3) sweeping claims about the members of that group unjustified by their actual individual acts and beliefs. I believe all of those definitions fit Harris quite well[.]

The definition Greenwald constructs here seems rather ad-hoc, indeed tailor-made to his criticisms of Harris. It is not the ordinary definition of “Islamophobia”; its parallelism with sexism, anti-semiticism, homophobia, and clinical phobias is unusually tenuous; and it certainly isn’t the definition Harris had in mind when he criticized the term. Greenwald’s clause (3) is uselessly vague: if I made sweeping and unjustified positive claims about Muslims, that would surely not make me an Islamophobe! Adding his clauses (1) and (2) helps, but the focus on a subminority’s “sins” or “bad acts” is a complete red herring; if no Muslims had ever done anything truly wrong, Islamophobia would still be possible.

Let’s attempt a more to-the-point and generally applicable definition. If I’d never seen the word before, I’d probably expect “Islamophobia” to mean an unreasonable, pathological fear or hatred of Islam. And it’s often used that way. But it’s also used to mean an unreasonable, pathological fear or hatred of Muslims — as Greenwald’s puts it, “irrational anti-Muslim animus”. (For a historical perspective, see López 2010.)

Already, this duality raises a serious problem: Writers like Harris happily identify as anti-Islam, but strongly deny being anti-Muslim. If “Islamophobia” is used to conceal leaps between criticisms of Islam (as an ideology or cultural institution) and personal attacks on Muslims, then it will make inferences between [B] and [C] in my list above seem deceptively easy.

The best summary I’ve seen of potential problems with the term “Islamophobia” comes from Robin Richardson, a seasoned promoter of multiculturalism and education equality. He writes:

The disadvantages of the term Islamophobia are significant. Some of them are primarily about the echoes implicit in the concept of phobia. Others are about the implications of the term Islam. For convenience, they can be itemised as follows.

1. Medically, phobia implies a severe mental illness of a kind that affects only a tiny minority of people. Whatever else anxiety about Muslims may be, it is not merely a mental illness and does not merely involve a small number of people.

2. To accuse someone of being insane or irrational is to be abusive and, not surprisingly, to make them defensive and defiant. Reflective dialogue with them is then all but impossible.

3. To label someone with whom you disagree as irrational or insane is to absolve yourself of the responsibility of trying to understand, both intellectually and with empathy, why they think and act as they do, and of seeking through engagement and argument to modify their perceptions and understandings. […]

7. The term is inappropriate for describing opinions that are basically anti-religion as distinct from anti-Islam. ‘I am an Islamophobe,’ wrote the journalist Polly Toynbee in reaction to the Runnymede 1997 report, adding ‘… I am also a Christophobe. If Christianity were not such a spent force in this country, if it were powerful and dominant as it once was, it would still be every bit as damaging as Islam is in those theocratic states in its thrall… If I lived in Israel, I’d feel the same way about Judaism’.

8. The key phenomenon to be addressed is arguably anti-Muslim hostility, namely hostility towards an ethno-religious identity within western countries (including Russia), rather than hostility towards the tenets or practices of a worldwide religion. The 1997 Runnymede definition of Islamophobia was ‘a shorthand way of referring to dread or hatred of Islam – and, therefore, to fear or dislike of all or most Muslims’. In retrospect, it would have been as accurate, or arguably indeed more accurate, to say ‘a shorthand way of referring to fear or dislike of all or most Muslims – and, therefore, dread or hatred of Islam’.

Crucially, Harris isn’t claiming that there’s no such thing as anti-Muslim bigotry. He isn’t even claiming that no one criticizes Islam for bigoted reasons. Instead, his reasons for rejecting “Islamophobia” are:

Apologists for Islam have even sought to defend their faith from criticism by inventing a psychological disorder known as “Islamophobia.” My friend Ayaan Hirsi Ali is said to be suffering from it. Though she was circumcised as a girl by religious barbarians (as 98 percent of Somali girls still are)[,] has been in constant flight from theocrats ever since, and must retain a bodyguard everywhere she goes, even her criticism of Islam is viewed as a form of “bigotry” and “racism” by many “moderate” Muslims. And yet, moderate Muslims should be the first to observe how obscene Muslim bullying is—and they should be the first to defend the right of public intellectuals, cartoonists, and novelists to criticize the faith.

There is no such thing as Islamophobia. Bigotry and racism exist, of course—and they are evils that all well-intentioned people must oppose. And prejudice against Muslims or Arabs, purely because of the accident of their birth, is despicable. But like all religions, Islam is a system of ideas and practices. And it is not a form of bigotry or racism to observe that the specific tenets of the faith pose a special threat to civil society.

These are identical to Richardson’s concerns 1 and 8. Harris objects to rhetorical attempts to blur the lines between attacks on Islam and attacks on Muslims, particularly without clear arguments establishing this link.

More, he objects to dismissing all extreme criticism of Islam using the idiom of clinical phobias, because he doesn’t think extreme criticism of Islam is always unreasonable, much less radically unreasonable. If harsh critiques of Islam are not deranged across the board, then demonstrating [D] ‘His concerns about Islam are exaggerated.‘ will not suffice for demonstrating [C] ‘He has an intensely irrational fear and hatred of Islam.‘, independent of the fact that neither establishes [B] ‘He has an intensely irrational fear and hatred of Muslims.

Greenwald says that he deems Harris “Islamophobic”, not because Harris criticizes Islam, but because Harris criticizes Islam more than he criticizes other religions. But he gives no argument for why an anti-religious writer should deem all religions equally bad. It would be amazing if religions, in all their diversity, happened to pose equivalent risks. And neither racism nor xenophobia can explain the fact that Harris opposes Islam so much more strongly than he opposes far less familiar religions, like Shinto or Jainism. As Harris puts it,

At this point in human history, Islam simply is different from other faiths. The challenge we all face, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, is to find the most benign and practical ways of mitigating these differences and of changing this religion for the better.

Ockham’s Razor suggests that we at least entertain the idea that Harris is just telling the truth. He’s unusually critical of Islam because his exegetical, psychological, and geopolitical assessment of the doctrines, practices, and values associated with contemporary Islam is that they’re unusually harmful to human well-being. He could think all that, and be wrong, without ever once succumbing to a secret prejudice against Muslims.

There remains the large dialectical onus of showing that Harris’ most severe criticisms of Islam are all false, and the far larger onus of showing that they are, each and every one, so wildly irrational as to rival sexism, homophobia, or clinical phobias. If these burdens can’t all be met, then resorting to immediate name-calling, to accusations of bigotry or malice, will remain profoundly irresponsible.

The fact that there are cases where criticisms of Islam are manifestly ridiculous, without the slightest basis in scripture, tradition, or contemporary practice, does not change the fact that “Islamophobia” is rarely reserved for open-and-shut cases. The accusation is even employed as a replacement for substantive rebuttals, as though the very existence of the word constituted a reason to dismiss the critic of Islam!

If there’s one thing contemporary political discourse does not need, it’s a greater abundance of slurs and buzzwords for efficiently condemning or pigeonholing one’s ideological opponents. As such, although I’m happy to grant that Islamophobia exists in most of the senses indicated above, I am not persuaded that the word “Islamophobia” is ever the optimal way to point irrational anti-Muslim or anti-Islam sentiment out.


I’ve focused on “Islamophobia”, but I doubt that’s the real issue for Greenwald or Hussain. Instead, I gather that their main objection is to Harris’ apparent defenses of U.S. foreign policy.

Would Greenwald and Hussain consider it a positive development if Harris demonstrated his lack of bias by equally strongly endorsing a variety of other U.S. military campaigns that have no relation to the Muslim world? Surely not. Greenwald’s complaint is not that Harris is inconsistently bellicose or pro-administration; it’s that he’s bellicose or pro-administration at all. Likewise, for Hussain to fixate on whether policies like war or torture are “racist” is to profoundly misunderstand the strength of his own case. Even if they weren’t racist, they could still be grotesque atrocities.

In my comments, Hussain commended biologist and antireligious activist P.Z. Myers for criticizing Islam without endorsing violence. (Greenwald has also cited Myers, with wary approval.) But Myers claims to “despise Islam as much as Harris does” (!). Writes he:

I would still say that Islam as a religion is nastier and more barbaric than, say, Anglicanism. The Anglicans do not have as a point of doctrine that it is commendable to order the execution of writers or webcomic artists, nor that a reasonable punishment for adultery is to stone the woman to death. That is not islamophobia: that is recognizing the primitive and cruel realities of a particularly vile religion, in the same way that we can condemn Catholicism for its evil policies towards women and its sheltering of pedophile priests. We can place various cults on a relatively objective scale of repugnance for their attitudes towards human rights, education, equality, honesty, etc., and on civil liberties, you know, that stuff we liberals are supposed to care about, Islam as a whole is damnably bad.

It is not islamophobia to recognize reality.

If we admit that Myers’ view of Islam is not manifestly absurd or bigoted, then we must conclude that the entire discussion of racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia was a red herring. It is Harris’ pro-U.S., pro-Israel militarism that is the real issue.

It doesn’t take nationalism, imperialism, sadism, or white supremacism for two otherwise reasonable people to disagree as strongly as Greenwald and Harris do. Given how messy and complicated religious psychology and sociology are, different data sets, different heuristics for assessing the data, and different background theories are quite sufficient.

The simplest explanation for Harris’ more “unsettling” (as he puts it) views is that he…

  • (a) … thinks religious doctrines often have a strong influence on human behavior. E.g.:

Many peoples have been conquered by foreign powers or otherwise mistreated and show no propensity for the type of violence that is commonplace among Muslims. Where are the Tibetan Buddhist suicide bombers? The Tibetans have suffered an occupation every bit as oppressive as any ever imposed on a Muslim country. At least one million Tibetans have died as a result, and their culture has been systematically eradicated. Even their language has been taken from them. Recently, they have begun to practice self-immolation in protest. The difference between self-immolation and blowing oneself up in a crowd of children, or at the entrance to a hospital, is impossible to overstate, and reveals a great difference in moral attitude between Vajrayana Buddhism and Islam.[…] My point, of course, is that beliefs matter.

  • (b) … thinks Islam has especially violent doctrines.
  • (c) … thinks that if Islam is a significant source of violence, then the best way to respond is sometimes militaristic.

Greenwald strongly rejects (b), claiming that singling out Islam for special criticism is outright bigoted. He may also doubt (a), inasmuch as he thinks that militant Islamism is fully explicable as a response to material aggression, oppression, and exploitation. Myers, on the other hand, grants (a) and (b) but strongly rejects (c). In all these cases, rational disagreement is possible, and civil discussion may lead to genuine progress in consensus-building.

Accusing Harris of harboring a special anti-Muslim bias would be a useful tactic for discrediting his policy analysis overall. But I think Greenwald and Harris are both arguing in good faith. Why, then, has Greenwald neglected such a simple explanation for Harris’ stance? Unlike Hussain, Greenwald isn’t a sloppy or inattentive reader of Harris.

My hypothesis is that Greenwald is succumbing to the reverse halo effect. It’s hard to model other agents, and particularly hard to imagine reasonable people coming to conclusions radically unlike our own. When we find these conclusions especially odious, it’s often easiest to imagine a simple, overarching perversion that infects every aspect of the other person’s psyche. Certainly it’s easier than admitting that a person can be radically mistaken on a variety of issues without being a fool or a monster — that, here as elsewhere, people are complicated.

As more evidence of human complexity, I’d note that although Greenwald paints a picture of Harris as a kneejerk supporter of Israel and of U.S. militarism, it is Greenwald, and not Harris, who thought that the Iraq War was a good idea at the time. And while Harris has defended Israel on a number of occasions, he has also written:

As a secularist and a nonbeliever—and as a Jew—I find the idea of a Jewish state obnoxious.


Judaism is as intrinsically divisive, as ridiculous in its literalism, and as at odds with the civilizing insights of modernity as any other religion. Jewish settlers, by exercising their ‘freedom of belief’ on contested land, are now one of the principal obstacles to peace in the Middle East. They will be a direct cause of war between Islam and the West should one ever erupt over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Perhaps his views are quite off-base. But they are not cartoonish, and he has argued for them. His opponents would make much more progress if they spent as much time on rebuttals as they currently do on caricatures.

The innumerable sins of the United States may be relevant to the pragmatics of (c), but recognizing these sins should not automatically commit us to dismissing (a) and (b). Likewise, writes Harris:

[N]othing about honestly discussing the doctrine of Islam requires that a person not notice all that might be wrong with U.S. foreign policy, capitalism, the vestiges of empire, or anything else that may be contributing to our ongoing conflicts in the Muslim world.

There are lots of ways to reject Harris’ doctrine (c). Myers makes a pragmatic argument (improving lives, not destroying them, mitigates dogmatism) and, I gather, a principled one (pacifism is the most defensible ethos). Greenwald might add that who we’re relying on to prosecute the war makes a vast difference — that enhancing the power and authority of the U.S. would have more costs and risks than Islam ever did, even if Islamic extremism were a serious threat.

Those aren’t utterly crazy positions, and neither is Harris’. I can say that, and endorse civil open discussion, even knowing that whichever side is the wrong one is very, veryvery wrong — and that the future of human happiness, liberty, and peace depends in large part on our getting this right.

It is precisely because the question is so important that we must not allow public disagreement over the answer to degenerate into banal mud-slinging. It is precisely because our biases — be they micro-xenophobia, micro-relativism, or the halo effect — threaten to vitiate our reasoning that we must put our all into practicing self-criticism, open-mindedness, and level-headed discourse. And it is precisely because our intellectual opponents, if wrong, threaten to do so much harm, that we must work every day to come to better understand them, so that we can actually begin to change minds.

It is not an easy task, but the need is great. If we’re serious about the underlying problems, and not just about scoring points in verbal debates about them, then there is no other way.

[UPDATE, April 11: Hussain and I appeared with human rights advocate Qasim Rashid and Center for Inquiry president Ronald Lindsay on the Huffington Post Live to discuss whether the recent attacks on Harris are overblown. Click here to watch.]

Further reading
Greenwald, Glenn (2013). “Murtaza Hussain replies to Harris and his
defenders”. GGSideDocs.
Greenwald, Glenn (2013). “The racism that fuels the ‘war on terror”. The Guardian.
Harris, Sam (2013). “Response to Controversy”. Sam Harris Blog.
Harris, Sam (2012). “Wrestling the Troll”. Sam Harris Blog.
Myers, P.Z. (2013). “Both wrong, both right”. Pharyngula.
Richardson, Robin (2009). “Islamophobia or anti-Muslim racism — or what?” Insted.



    1. Greenwald and Hussain on Sam Harris and racism | NOƬHȋNG • ȋડ • MEɌE
    2. Harris’ heresies: The Hussain-Bensinger dialogue, part two | nothing is mere
    3. When dialogues become duels | nothing is mere

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