Listen and judge: An interview with Marwa Berro

I recently participated in a meeting of ex-Muslims in Washington, D.C., attended by Richard Dawkins, Ron Lindsay, and a number of other leaders of the secular movement. One of the most eloquent and passionate speakers there — rivaling Dawkins — was Marwa Berro, a writer, activist, and philosopher who blogs at Between A Veil And A Dark Place. At the prompting of event organizer Alishba Zarmeen, I asked Marwa about her views on Islam, cultural pluralism, and the future of secularism.

Bensinger: Marwa, you’ve written some really eye-opening critiques of Islamic culture. But you’ve also been quite critical of other critics of Islam. Do you see yourself as a Muslim? In dialogues about Islam, do you find yourself identifying more with Muslim voices, or with non-Muslim ones?

Berro: This question is to me not one of what I write about, the content and subject-matter of my work, but of what spurs that sort of work, a question of personal identity. I identify strongly as both ex-Muslim and Muslimish (the specific brand of Muslimish being atheist Muslim). One is a negative identity (ie, a descriptor of what I am not) and the other is a positive identity (a descriptor of something I am).  I think there are some potentially confusing things going on with that, so let me explain.

First, the identity of ex-Muslim: I refer to Islam, something I’ve rejected, to personally describe myself. While it might be confusing, I find this incredibly meaningful.

Because in shedding Islamic doctrine I have not freed myself of its influence on me. I can remove the hijab as clothing but I can’t so easily remove its decade-and-a-half influence on my body and mind. Its residual effects live within me in the form of memories, concepts, questions and challenges related to body image, bodily autonomy, self-worth, gender identity, sexuality and objectification. They live with me as active, probing, burning matters. They are internal struggles I bear myself through and external battles I commit my voice and pen and heart to.

They are the smallest and most everyday of things: My neck exploding in freckles this summer for the first time in my life: how strange it is to see your 24-year-old body do a thing it has never done, how alarming that so simple a capacity in your very skin could be released with a catalyst as common as the sun, how appalling that it has never had the chance to do so, and how the questions and emotions bubble up  from this. Every experience of mine that is new, joyous, painful, meaningful in some way or another resonates in a deep and compelling way with the life I’ve lived, the doctrine and culture that socialized me.

I am not just non-religious. I have shed the skin of a certain religion, and it was a clutching, shaping, smothering, burning, heavy skin, and my being non-religious is defined by pushing myself out of it, and it always will be.

I also identify as an atheist Muslim because I strongly claim my cultural belonging, and much of my culture is intertwined with, inextricable from, Islamic practices and beliefs. I am an atheist, a humanist, a secularist, yes, but much of what informs my thought and my work, and especially much of what moves me and gives me joy, comes from the heart of the Arab Mediterranean. It is a lens, if you will, for the way in which I experience the world.

Bensinger: So you see yourself as culturally Muslim or Muslimish, but not as religiously Muslim. I have vastly less experience with Islam’s culture than with its doctrines; how has that background shaped your perspective?

Berro: I’m an artist. In my day-to-day life, I write and teach fiction, and I am working on a book of interconnected short stories about my hometown Beirut, and the characters that live in my head and whose lives I spend time and words on have rich, complex, dynamic religious identities.  I watch news reports in Arabic on YouTube and yearn for the tongue. My head snaps around almost unbidden and my heart skips a beat if ever I hear somebody speak Arabic on the street here in the American Midwest. I’ve retained some traditionally Islamic practices, particularly hygienic ones, that I find to be valuable. I still celebrate Eid when Eid comes around too, in much the same way atheists from Christian families still celebrate Christmas—it has marked for me, twice every year, a time of food and family and love and friendship and commitment. I cook Levantine food, halal food, alongside my primary partner’s mother’s amazing pork chops. My sensory comforts are all from home: the sound and smell of the sea, warm weather. I still wear the same multicolored scarves with intricate designs that I used as hijabs for many years. I have a way of speech, a warmness and candor about me that is specifically Arab, because we are spontaneous, welcoming, open people. Strangely, even though I am a particularly amusical person, the poetry of the Husseini dirges during Ashouraa, their hypnotic chest-tapping grief, moves me to this day. I consider the story of Hussein to be an epic tale that, rendered in poetry in the Iraqi dialect, gives me a stronger feeling than reading epic tales like Beowulf or the Iliad ever did and ever could. I consider the stories of the prophets, and the tales of death and redemption and aid from angels tied to Hezbollah resistance culture in the South of Lebanon too, to be the equivalent of folktales that can inspire and inform new art, new fiction.

I love all of these things about my culture. I know my culture. I claim my culture, and speak of it from a position of belonging, not from the position of being a defector. It is true that I am not a Muslim—I am, however, Muslimish. Leaving Islam does not entail a separation from the cultural, societal, and political issues that have always shaped my very existence, whose intricacies I have delved in intellectually in order to find out who and what I am.

And when I go to sleep at night, it is always with the hope that I will dream of Beirut.

Bensinger: Given your background, Marwa, I can understand why your writing focuses on issues in Muslim communities. Still, looking at the hostility Western media often directs at Islam, don’t you think it’s unfair to single out this one religion for special criticism? Why not treat Islam the same as any other religion?

Berro: I do not believe Islam is singled out for criticism. If anything, there is less of a willingness to approach Islam with the same force and confidence that other religions are criticized with. The existence of a specific term demonizing the critique of Islam but no other term demonizing the critique of any other ideology or religion is very telling.

Bensinger: I assume you mean “Islamophobia“.

Berro: Yes. If the question is why I criticize Islam to the exclusion of other religions in my blogging, then the answer is simple.

I know more about it and can speak to it, and it is personally important to me. I can only speak about that which I am informed of. Likewise, I can speak best and most compellingly about that which touches me most.

The second part of the answer is that there is something unique about Islam. Islam does differ from other religions in crucial ways that do influence how it is to be dealt with. I have a blog post about that here.

Bensinger: In your view, what can moderate Muslims do to better combat extremism?

Berro: Value diversity. You interpret Islam in one way, and others interpret it in another, and others will interpret it in yet another, seventy times seven times. Thus concentrate less on defending the ‘true’ Islam because very, very few people are going to be talking about the same thing you are when you say ‘Islam’, and more on defending the right to believe and practice freely without imposing your view on others or infringing on their similar rights.

Emphasize that freedom of religion is a right, no matter how it is practiced or interpreted. That freedom is one that you yourself, as a Muslim, should value above all else.

I understand that you believe your faith to be a common good, a truth, a meaningful and enlightening thing, and that you hate seeing it denigrated either through misuse or misunderstanding. Perhaps consider that the best way to prevent this is to help create a world where nobody will have reason to denigrate your faith, because nobody will, in the name of your faith, commit the human rights violations that you consider to be misuse or misunderstanding of your faith. Recognize that those who kill or maim or hurt to defend the name of your faith do so because they don’t believe it is a human right for others to choose not to follow it or to flout its rules or beliefs.

Emphasize that human right.

Value diversity. Value choice.

Bensinger: What can we do to empower ex-Muslim and liberal Muslim critics of traditional Islam?

Berro: Listen to us. Enable our voices by hosting them on mainstream media platforms. Help make the ex-Muslim voice and the liberal Muslim voice normalized, because it is unfortunately the case that these voices are considered inauthentic and thus discounted because we are not viewed as Muslims or ‘true’ Muslims. This happens in the West sometimes because of a fear, I think, of cultural appropriation, of being racist.

But here’s the thing. There is so much talk of what we are not. We are not meant for your consumption, we are not your orientalist dream. Clamorous are the voices that say this. But tenuous is the discourse that is willing to discuss what is ours, what we can have, what can be fought for on our behalf if we do not have the means to fight for it ourselves, if it is not already granted to us by our cultural norms.

The discourse surrounding cultural appropriation powerfully rests upon the simple concept, acknowledged by many and addressed to the white West, that when you view what is ours through the lens of your own privileged understanding, you bar us from agency and choice and self-determination.

But when does the fear of cultural appropriation blend into the dangers of cultural relativism?

When it starts to enable our belonging to a cultural tradition above our individual identities. Except that we are human subjects, and our cultures belong to us more than we belong to them.

It becomes dangerous when talk of what we are not enables the delegitimization of our voices when we try to speak of what we are, what we can have. When suddenly we become defectors, apostates, and our discourse is discounted as imperialist Western brainwashing.

The irony is that we are not given that power, of the agential voice. We are not considered to be appropriating Western values when we endorse and adopt them, because to suggest that a brown woman can take Western ideas and turn them into her own brand of feminism and agency is unthinkable. Instead our discourse is thought of being a flimsy vapid imitation of the West. It comes as a surprise to some Westerners if and when we end up educated enough to teach white children their own languages, if our English is impeccable, our diction refined, our knowledge of Western identity and gender politics well-formulated.

And once accepted, this somehow discredits us as brown women, as people from Muslim cultures. We are discounted as inauthentic commentators on what was always-and-every issue governing our socialization, our actualization, our politicization because we break out of the bounds of our cultural dictates in doing so.

And when we are discounted by our cultural leaders and spaces, a fear of cultural appropriation bars us from having a platform from which to speak elsewhere.

This stems from a fear of judging. Is it then possible that in order to not judge, people tend not to listen?

So listen to us. Listen to us, understand us, ask us questions, let us teach you about our religious backgrounds so that you too can become informed commentators and help us dispel the erroneous and focus on effective solutions.

Help make it a normal thing, a universally acknowledged and accepted thing for an ex-Muslim to speak about Islam and be considered a valuable and informed commentator.

We need your help in being heard.

Bensinger: Why is help needed? Why do I hear so few people talking like this?

Berro: We are black sheep. We are rejected by many of the people and organizations that socialized us. Those of us who are public are accused of being imperialist tools of the West, of getting paychecks from Zionist organizations, of being part of a larger agenda of globalization and other such ludicrous nonsense.

Also, and this is sickening, horrifying, the women among us are often subjected to the crudest forms of misogynistic threats of rape and violence for daring to advocate for human rights. Our causes are routinely reduced to a desire to legalize sin and fornication and lewdness (all imagined evils) and any humanistic values we endorse are brushed aside as a mere front.

Many of us are also in hiding, and bear significant social and material costs for being what we are. Apostasy bears a great social burden in Muslim societies. At the very least, we are shunned, outcast, disowned if we were to go public. Others of us simply cannot. We live in places with such inescapable codes of living that we are not free to choose a nonreligious life and must continue to practice rituals of faith as though we believed, and are thus forced to suppress ourselves, and live a lie.

Others who are less lucky suffer violence in brutal ways as the recompense for sin. In many areas of the Muslim world, death is called for as the just punishment for apostasy. In other places, death or brutalization as punishment for apostasy is not technically legal but is overlooked when it does happen. The acceptance of it is surprisingly (or not) mainstream, as this Pew Poll shows.

I will quickly here note that both I and some close friends have suffered unjustifiable violence at the hands of our own families in response to perceived ‘sin’ we committed.

And for those of us who are capable of speaking—our voices aren’t loud enough on their own to cast light onto the invisible, in-the-closet apostate from Islam that has no recourse and is trapped in a way of life they cannot adhere to with good conscience and find too dangerous or costly to leave.

Bensinger: What about voices from outside the Muslim world? What can people from more secularized cultures do to effectively criticize religion?

Berro: I view the issue of secularism to be one of practical political philosophy, and when it comes to practical political philosophy, I am a moral consequentialist who emphasizes procedure. Based on that, these are my suggestions:

  • Ask yourself why you are criticizing religion. What is your purpose, goal? What valuable thing are you trying to achieve in criticizing a religion? And then line up the manner in which you critique religion with those goals. Look at what you’re doing already and ask yourself if it serves those goals and how. For instance, questions to be posed could be: How would using racializing, generalizing, stereotyping, alienating, or aggressive language achieve any of those goals? Conversely, how would being too afraid of being accused of xenophobia or bigotry to make an honest, compelling, no-nonsense critique serve those goals?
  • Stop making the mistake of separating the practices and beliefs of followers of a religion from the religion itself. That’s a cop-out that detracts from honest criticism of the ways in which religious doctrine informs, influences, and contributes to violence and human rights violations committed by religious people.
  • Be less concerned with the image of a religion, and what the ‘real’ or ‘true’ version of a religion is, and more about dealing with the real-world consequences of the actions of its followers. People are more valuable than ideas. People’s lives and wellbeing and freedom and safety are more valuable than defending or condemning an abstract concept. Here’s a hint: Nobody agrees on what the ‘true’ version of a religion is. It does not exist.
  • Don’t treat religions as monoliths. They are not monoliths. They are the incredibly varying beliefs and practices of their followers, and in order to effectively discuss them, you must discuss them according to their semantic content and their material effects. You must not equate them with each other or reduce them to either their most positive aspects or their most negative aspects. You must not lump them all together and treat them the same. Islam is different from other religions in many ways, and those differences need to be addressed when we think about how to discuss Islam. You will not fix a problem by ignoring its particular identifying characteristics.

Here are some concrete suggestions I’ve given for discussing Islam in particular.

Bensinger: Why does the issue of secularism matter? What does it mean for a society to be secular, or for an individual to be a secularist?

Berro: As commonly understood, a secular society is one in which religious institutions and the state are separate, neither interfering with the functioning of the other. It relates directly to freedom, the freedom to conduct yourself and believe what you will, insofar as that does not infringe upon the freedom of others.

It matters because societies are pluralistic. Because there is a large variety of personally fulfilling ways of living decent human lives, and no single one of these can be mandated at the level of the state. It matters because the followers of certain belief systems do want to be allowed to bring their own codes of living into public spaces where other people live.

Many religions tend to want to dictate an objective, universal code of living and belief system for humanity in general, and if they are allowed to pass legislature at the state level that enforce their particular system of belief upon others, then they will be infringing upon the the fundamental human right of self-determination.

It can range from less dangerous to more dangerous things: A comparatively benign example is holding prayer in public or state schools even if the children do not belong to that religion or do not desire to be brought into it and do not wish to pray to a god they don’t believe in or in a manner that they don’t subscribe to. More extreme is sentencing a woman who has had sex to 100 lashes because in a particular religion it is considered immoral to have sex outside of marriage.

A particular problem I’ve noticed when considering personal autonomy and freedom of religion is the tendency to discount religious influence on legislature because it is not explicitly presented as such. For instance, my home country Lebanon, which endorses no state religion and considers itself secular, has a slew of laws that are not justified in explicitly religious terms but that only exist because of religious influences on the culture. For instance, a law condemning ‘unnatural’ sex acts and thus used to arrest LGBTQ individuals. Or the repeated vetoing of a law criminalizing domestic violence based on the justification that it threatens the closeness of familial bonds.

Thus the various influences and justifications for legislature must be examined, along with whether they are based in a particular worldview that infringes upon the rights of others and is inconsistent with the existence of others. That should be the standard for whether or not legislature is secular: is it consistent with the existence of various worldviews given that no human rights are being violated?

Bensinger: The Washington, D.C. event was the first large-scale Muslimish meet-up of its kind. What did you think of it?

Berro: It was a life-changing experience for me.

Firstly, because of community:

One thing that apostates can often be heard voicing is ‘I thought I was alone.’

The concept of apostasy is so demonized and unthinkable that it sometimes is difficult for those bearing its social costs to consider that there might be others like them, a community, that they can reach out to, talk to, support and feel supported by.

I’ve been collaborating and sharing experience and insight and dreams and hopes with an online network of apostates in North America for the past few months, but the meetup in DC at the end of this past September was a thing of joy and splendor for me. I felt a sense of community, belonging, solidarity, of encompassing and welcoming that I have not felt in a long time. These were people with similar struggles, similar experiences of adversity, similar intellectual journeys and interests. I could speak my language again. I could refer to specific cultural things, have inside jokes, that other people understood and we could discuss them in open, versatile ways, without fear of being quieted or punished or being accused of an imagined crime called ‘blasphemy’.

Because our pains were similar, we could understand and comfort each other in unique ways. Because our joys, too, were things we had in common, as well as the experiences of leaving Islamic rituals behind and experiencing new things like intimate relationships, the sun on our hair, swimming in public, eating bacon for the first time as adults. That it was forbidden to us for so long made it sacred to us in a way that we probably would be at loss to explain to others.

I was also struck, and really am almost ashamed of how surprising this was for me, by how respectful and nonjudgmental everyone around me was. I have never been utterly surrounded by people from strong Muslim cultures without feeling controlled or judged or manipulated in some way, especially by men. But I was there with my primary partner and we were at a raging afterparty with booze and cuddles and romance all around and I did not feel a shred of shaming or misogyny directed at my immodest dress and conduct. It was heartwarming and nearly brought me to tears.

Secondly, because of the amazing amount of goodwill and human kindness we were given.

We met with prominent leaders of secular organizations nationally and worldwide. Present were Richard Dawkins, Edwina Rogers (Secular Coalition for America and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Ronald A Lindsay (Center for Inquiry), Richard Haynes (Atheist Nexus), and Jennifer Beahan (also CFI, in collaboration with Muslimish, which is now an official chapter of CFI).

Leaders from these organizations came to meet us in DC specifically to discuss the ways in which they could help us. How they could support us, what they could offer us. How the larger secular community as a whole could support the Muslim apostate cause.

It was made very clear that we belonged, that they considered our plight crucial, and that we were to be welcomed as an integral part of the secular community.

Also, and I say this because of the stigma attached to apostasy and its inherent voicelessness, it is incredible how we were listened to.

We were not spoken at. We were not given terms or conditions. We were offered several avenues of help, and given suggestions for ways in which we could be supported, and then we were asked.

We were asked what we thought could be done for us. We were asked what aspects of the apostate condition we thought were most crucial, and what ideas we had for addressing us.

Although we were well over 100 strong in the room, we were all given opportunity to ask questions of the secular leaders before us, and give them comments and feedback.

Bensinger: What were the most important issues and ideas you encountered there?

Berro: Some specific issues we talked about were:

  • The unique situation of women from Muslim cultures, because they are the largest sufferers under Islamism, and enabling the voices of ex-Muslim women, and broadcasting their experiences. Since then, a project called the Ex-Muslim Women’s Network has gone through several planning stages.
  • The situation of apostates in Muslim-majority countries, and strategies for creating places of freethought and skeptical inquiry where they feel welcome that are safe, undetectable, and sustainable.
  • The situation of seekers of asylum and refugees who happen to be atheists or apostates, who often lack sponsors or legal support from secular organizations, and thus have to be sponsored by religious organizations such as the YMCA.
  • The situation of reconciling positive cultural elements with a lack of faith, methods for creating families and communities that retain culture while shedding the religious doctrine and terminology.
  • The situation of apostates in the West, who often are utterly socially constrained, bringing them awareness that they are not alone, and helping them leave suppressive home situations.

Bensinger: I found the meeting moving and inspiring as well. For that matter, this discussion has given me a lot of new hope, new understanding, and a renewed sense of urgency. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself, Marwa. Is there a last word you’d like to share with people reading this? Any new projects, or ways for us to follow your work?

Berro: I’d like to conclude with a shout-out to EXMNA. Since our DC meetup, the Ex-Muslims of North America has launched the Ex-Muslim Blogs, the world’s first single website that acts as a unified platform for ex-Muslim thought in all its rich variety and insight. I think this an incredibly revolutionary and important endeavor, and am proud to have Between A Veil and A Dark Place hosted there; it is the beginning of the normalization of the ex-Muslim voice. And finally, I’d like to mention that I’m collecting stories and experiences from ex-Muslim women or women who have been influenced in one way or another by Muslim societies for a new guest-blog series at my website, the Stories from Ex-Muslim Women. Feel free to query me at aveilandadarkplace@gmail.com.

Harris’ heresies: The Hussain-Bensinger dialogue, part two

This is the continuation of Robby Bensinger and Murtaza Hussain’s discussion of Sam Harris and Islam. Click here for part one.

3. Science and Politics

Murtaza Hussain
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In response to another of Robby’s points, the United States is not propping up a “benign dictatorship” in North Korea but is certainly doing so in Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia (none of these in my opinion really pass the “benign” test, but I digress) and many other Muslim countries. The bigoted and ignorant trope that Muslims are inherently incapable of responsible self-governance has been trotted out again and again and now finds Harris as another defender. Again, he knows what he is doing as he is stridently political (as Glenn so incisively pointed out, he pushes “atheism sprinkled on a neoconservative worldview“) and to see him claim ignorance of the geopolitical reality he speaks to is an absurd game on his part.

I don’t begrudge Robby for making what he felt was a good faith argument and defending someone he obviously admires. In fact he admires him so much that it has led him to effectively exonerate Harris in every circumstance from the real-world consequences of his own words. If Harris were not stridently political I would give him the benefit of the doubt – maybe his words are simply being misappropriated and he is speaking in terms of pure theory. However this is not the case, and as I’ve shown in my piece just because you are a “scientist” doesn’t mean you are immune from the pull of ideology. Harris is not only political, he subscribes to a particularly virulent neoconservative worldview which – as I pointed out – dovetails extraordinarily well with his supposedly impartial philosophical arguments.

Robby BensingrAgain, my point wasn’t that Sam’s view on the values of democracy v. dictatorship (borrowed from Fareed Zakaria) was correct. It’s that your presentation of his views was demonstrably inaccurate. The passage you cited to make your point discusses North Korea as one example, yet you presented that passage as your central case study in anti-Muslim racism. (Racism which, presumably, you will also want to ascribe to Zakaria?) There’s no contesting that.

This is a particularly extreme instance of misconduct on your part. You simply don’t present Sam’s views in an honest and clear way. It’s fine if you disagree with the guy, but that’s no reason to caricature him. When you use sociological context to try to motivate a broad theoretical interpretation of a text that is not apparent in the text itself, ethics demands that you do so explicitly and make clear where the text’s overt claims end and your extrapolation or interpretation begins. You’ve instead wholly concealed and distorted the original content, for anyone who doesn’t painstakingly explore every one of your links. (And, in a few cases, even for those who do follow your links.) That’s a singularly corrosive habit to fall into.

Murtaza Hussain
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If you like Harris for his neuroscience work or his work arguing against the existence of God; good for you. Even though I disagree on the latter point I think it is a subject worthy of continuous debate and – to burn this strawman for the millionth time – it is never bigoted to criticize ideas, including Islam. Although Harris is unfortunately a deeply dishonest intellectual who has made a career of “quote-mining” the Quran (something he, without apparent irony, accused me of doing to him), this is not what is perfidious about him. The fact is that he is a demagogue and hatemonger, who takes his most courageous moral stands against the weakest and most oppressed people he can find. He uses his intellectual authority as a scientist to act as an advocate for exceptions for the most despicable policies ever devised by humanity – seemingly arguing that whatever humans have previously decided is an absolute wrong in fact does not need to be. And again, he argues in the present tense, in the context of *these* ongoing wars fought against Muslims.

Simply put, it is not me who has decontextualized Harris’ words but rather those who have ignobly chosen to defend him.

Robby BensingrIs Sam Harris political? Of course he’s political. No one has ever claimed otherwise. No one has said that he’s ‘just a neuroscientist’, or used this to argue that his political views are a matter of empirical fact and not open to dispute. (He didn’t didn’t even have his neuroscience Ph.D. back when he wrote The End of Faith.) The position you’re attacking is simply not to be found in the words or thoughts of your interlocuters.

I haven’t even defended most of Sam’s positions of substance, much less defended them because ‘he’s a scientist and scientists are always right’. My focus has instead been (in my first post) on your explicit misrepresentations of his positions, and (in my second post) on your and Glenn’s conflation of militant and anti-Islamic positions with anti-Muslim bigotry. I don’t consider either of your positions so weak that you should need to resort to straw-men of this sort, and I think I (and many of your and Sam’s readers) would gain a great deal from this discussion if it were not polluted with hyperbole and distortion. And I wouldn’t be taking so much time to try to improve the tone and content of the discussion if I didn’t think all of the participants reasonable and well-intentioned enough to step up their game.

Murtaza Hussain[A]s I said, if there wasn’t a war going on where actual innocent people are being tortured, killed and may indeed be wiped out in a nuclear explosion as some on the fringe right has suggested in Iran this might just be benign academic philosophizing, – but unfortunately those things are going on and being fiercely debated right now. Viewed in this light his views are little more than a political treatise.

Robby BensingrSam is a political writer, and his arguments do have important societal ramifications. Once more, no one has ever denied that. The whole point of Sam’s nuclear apocalypse scenario, for instance, is that the scenario is realistic, and hence that we should do everything in our power to prevent it. If the question were merely academic, why would anyone have written about it? You repeatedly confuse the ‘it’s realistic’ part of the claim with an imagined Archetypal Racist Neo-Con’s ‘it’s desirable’. As long as you keep falling into that habit, you won’t understand the argument you’re trying to attack.

Philosophy and science are relevant to our politics. But sometimes that relevance is positive. Science has been used to rationalize and promote racism. But it has also been used to powerfully undermine it. ‘Philosophy’ is not a bad word. ‘Science’ is not a bad word. Nor, I should note, is ‘political treatise’ a bad word! What’s wrong with your claims is that they’re false, not that they’re true-but-merely-academic.

Murtaza HussainUltimately, unless he offers a disclaimer on all his views that he is not an objective academic philosopher but a neoconservative political analyst that, it’s not benign. As far as I’m aware he’s never published a political tract or put his cards on the table with regards to the ideological milieu from which he springs (something which is obvious only to a politically-adept reader), those who are liable to take his views in good faith on a variety of other issues are liable to do so here as well.

4. Profiling

Murtaza Hussain
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Harris magnanimously offers that under racial profiling he would fit the description of the type of person being profiled. How anyone could possibly find this absurdly disingenuous claim to be credible is beyond me. I will pause here for one moment because I think some degree of common sense should apply in profiling and would like to separate the concept from the man. In response to this article Harris printed an email he received from a Muslim lawyer, the content of which I believe made good sense. Muslims should do their part to be patient with certain fears and concerns (even if exaggerated) and not take offense if they are respectfully scrutinized for a greater period than average. However what I found disturbing about Harris’ own flagrantly irresponsible commentary on the issue was that he feels we should profile anyone who “looks Muslim”. Given that Muslims come from every ethnic background on Earth – though, as I noted, they are overwhelmingly black and brown – how exactly would we discern who “looks Muslim”? Long flowing robes? Large beards? Grandiose turbans? There is simply no natural way to do so. It is a flippant yet highly dangerous statement made by Harris; the only effective solution to which would be having Muslims carry special ID cards or wearing crescent-moon armbands for easy identification.

Robby BensingrI don’t see what your argument is here. Are you saying that racially profiling Muslims logically couldn’t involve profiling light-skinned people? But a large portion of the Muslim world is light-skinned, and otherwise ‘looks European’ in a variety of ways. Your argument is inconsistent with your own acknowledgment that Muslims are more diverse than racist caricatures would suggest.

Murtaza Hussain[T]here is a standard view of who “looks Muslim” and it seems disingenuous to deny that. Light-skinned European Muslims (ostensibly naturalized Arabs and Eastern Europeans) may not fit that look but they are generally still identifiable by Muslim names etc. Given that Sikhs and Hindus (and notably, not white people who might look like European Muslims) are in many cases targeted just as harshly as actual Muslims, it would take a real suspension of disbelief to think that when he says we should go after those who “look Muslim” the image which comes into ones mind would be a blue-eyed white man such as him. If that were the case we’d just have to profile every human being on earth, which I suspect is not what he’s saying here.

Robby BensingrHave you actually read the “In Defense of Profiling” article you’re criticizing, or are you just going by the quotation in isolation? Sam explicitly includes himself in the group of people he thinks should be profiled three times in the space of the article. And it’s a really short article! If anyone actually reading the article started off with the naïve assumption that Sam wanted to profile all and only the people who fit an Archetypal Racist Neo-Con’s uneducated stereotype of a ‘Typical Muslim’, they would have to quickly revise that view by the time they finished reading.

What Sam endorsed was negative profiling — e.g., not cavity-searching 80-year-old Iowan women of Taiwanese descent with the same frequency as people who look like Sam Harris. Your argument is that in doing so, Sam was secretly being racist, on the grounds that if he were a racist, then he’d have had a racist stereotype in mind when he said “anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim“. But one of your main reasons for thinking that he’s racist is the fact that he endorses negative profiling in the first place. This is clearly circular. If something only counts as strong evidence for your view once you’re convinced that your view is already right, it’s probably not very good evidence.

5. Understanding Islam

Murtaza HussainSam doesn’t seem to know what Islam is and has created a terrifying visage in his own mind that thus necessitates great violence and the suspension of normal moral considerations. As he’s said himself on the subject “some ideas are dangerous enough that you may need to kill people for believing them” – hence a War on Islam. Again, if you viewed this entirely divorced from context I’d say its not such an objectionable viewpoint and perhaps could be entertained in good faith. However when viewed in the entire context of his public statements about the subjects and his sweeping generalizations about “Muslims” – this is reprehensible. Imagine someone else so flippantly using “the Jews” or “the Blacks” as a basis point for criticism; they’d rightly be excoriated. Crudge bigot that he is, he is unable to restrain himself from the same behaviour regarding Muslims.

There is a large exegesis on Islam just as is there is on Christianity and so forth. You can’t just pick up the Quran (especially an English translation), skim through it on the weekend and then start talking down to people who’ve spent lifetimes of study on it. Perhaps one may argue religion and exegesis is pointless and merely clouds the picture; and if that’s what you feel then fair game. However aside from absolute extremist illiterates and isolated individuals including those aligned with the Taliban (Harris’ favourite Muslims) there is absolutely no mainstream group of practicing Muslims anyway who practices Islam as he understands it. One doesn’t flip through a neuroscience textbook on the weekend and start expounding to neuroscientists that they’re a bunch of ape-ish morons, because who would be so arrogant? I think this is good evidence of Harris’ truly bold stupidity, fostered by his privileged upbringing and the years he’s spent insulated from the harder edges of the meritocracy. He’s basically a spoiled little kid with an opinion and tons of fears and prejudices.

Robby BensingrYou’re still falling too readily into the habit of quote-mining. I mind it less when Glenn provides strings of quotations, because they’re mostly (though far from always) fairly representative of Sam’s views, and he often takes the time to note nuances and complications in his presentation. In your case, on the other hand, the quotations you cite are mostly misleading, i.e., they provide a mostly false picture of Sam to anyone who isn’t familiar with the quotations’ context or with Sam’s general publicly stated positions. That’s… genuinely alarming. I’m spectacularly unimpressed by ‘gotcha!’ politics of this kind. Your brand of rhetoric really does have a chilling effect on honest, open political discourse.

In this case, you’re neglecting the fact that Sam only thinks some beliefs are that dangerous inasmuch as they directly cause violent behaviors. If an armed burglar believes I’m reaching for a gun instead of for a wallet, then his belief is very dangerous, and may cause my death. If a cultist believes that she must kill herself in order to please God, then her belief puts her own life in danger, as well as the lives of anyone she can convince. It is only those sorts of beliefs Sam has in mind here, and his point is a general one about the importance of dogma in human behavior. If you think beliefs on their own can’t motivate violence, then spend your time defending that position, not attacking a straw man.

Murtaza HussainThere are people who spend their lives devoted to studying all the various source materials for Islamic exegesis; he has literally picked up the Quran, flipped through it, decided these people are violent idiots and now feels his advocacy for suspending their inalienable rights if and when they get out of line is warranted. I believe in Islam, he wants a war against it, so is that then an idea dangerous enough to kill me for? Based on his arrogant belief that he knows what it is it certainly seems to be. Coupled all of this with his noxiously partisan and hateful views on issues such as Israel and Palestine (where he wholeheartedly denies both the actual facts as well as the basic humanity of the latter) and a bad picture begins to emerge. He seems to think its obvious that he speaks and acts in good faith, I don’t think such a thing is obvious at all.

Robby BensingrGood grief. No, Sam does not think your beliefs are that dangerous. What matters is whether anyone’s could ever be.

He thinks the beliefs of the 9/11 hijackers were that dangerous. He also thinks those people’s views are easier to justify using the Qur’an and hadith than are yours. So he associates ‘Islam’ or ‘real Islam’ with extreme militant Islamism. (This, I think, is a reasonable point on which you and he can disagree. I invite you to shoot Sam an e-mail and try sussing out just how much he knows about the Qur’an. Don’t just assume he’s ignorant because he disagrees with your Qur’anic exegesis; test your hypothesis!)

Murtaza HussainI wanted to bring this particular quote up during the interview and the host basically brushed it off but I think it is representative of undeniable bigotry and demagoguery on his part:

In our dealings with the Muslim world, we must acknowledge that Muslims have not found anything of substance to say against the actions of the September 11 hijackers, apart from the ubiquitous canard that they were really Jews.” ( The End of Faith, p. 134)

Given this, this, this and this, these sound like the words of a man more interested in demonizing a vulnerable minority group than addressing actual issues in good faith. Making up such slanderous canards himself to demonize Muslims, while also hint-hinting that we may be able to discard our normal aversion to certain unconscionable tactics in our conflict with them, combines to be something quite reprehensible.

I understand you admire Harris for a variety of reasons, and I also understand that for many people who are devoutly irreligious his views seem to offer some alternative means of salvation sans “God”. In this light I can see why he continues to have such staunch defenders despite everything and why in many cases such an emotional response has been provoked. However if you really find these kinds of statements about Muslim people to be palatable, responsible and in good faith, we do not have as much in common in our socio-political views as you may have come to believe.

Robby BensingrWhen Sam speaks of a ‘war on Islam’, he in practice means a war on radical Islamism. That’s why he writes, “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.” and, as he wrote in 2006 regarding “moderate Muslims“, the fundamental question we face is “[H]ow can we best empower them?” Ironically, Sam sees legitimately moderate Muslims as our most important allies in the ‘war on Islam’.

It’s important to note that fact, because it’s possible to disagree with him on the one count without disagreeing on the other. For instance, you might agree with him that we should aggressively combat certain (pseudo-?)Islamic teachings by Muslims, like the murder of apostates and the virtue of suicide bombing, while still disagreeing with him about whether those people’s views are in accord with Islam Proper. The question ‘Is violent jihadism a perversion of Islam, its one true fulfillment, or something in between?’ is surely something you and Sam strongly disagree about, but I suspect that this disagreement is masking the more important practical issues you independently disagree about.

Sam’s view is that we need more bad Muslims, more people who nominally follow Islam but regularly reject many of its core doctrines. You might disagree strongly with his view that moderate and liberal Muslims aren’t being as true to the traditional doctrines of Islam, while nevertheless agreeing with him that moderate Islam is something we desperately need to promote.

I join you in criticizing Sam for the last quotation you cited. Indeed, I find it refreshing to finally see you not quoting him in a misleading, wholly context-insensitive way! The quotation looks like a clear case of hyperbole to me.

But my response was to talk to Sam about it, citing a list of Muslim responses to 9/11. If you refuse to have such conversations, you’ll stand a chance neither of convincing others nor of understanding what you’re criticizing. Sam replied:

As you must know, there was (and probably still is) a very popular conspiracy theory circulating in the Muslim world that 4000 Jews didn’t show up to work on the morning of September 11th, 2001. I certainly didn’t make this up. And I wouldn’t be surprised if a few hundred million Muslims believe it at this moment.

If there were prominent Muslims who were speaking honestly and substantively about the problem of jihadist violence in the aftermath of 9/11, I missed it. The truth is, I’m still missing it. Declarations of the sort you linked to in your email mean very little — there are even some terrorist organizations co-signing on that page. Should we really care that Jamaat-e-Islami and Hamas declare themselves against terrorism?

An example of what I meant by “substance” can be found here, in the hypothetical words I put into the mouth of Imam Abdul Rauf after the Ground Zero Mosque episode.

http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/silence-is-not-moderation

I think I can count on two fingers the number of Muslims I’ve heard speak this way in public.

Actually, I found something of substance last night: http://bit.ly/189EdeT

The question is, why isn’t every non-jihadist Muslim saying this?

So it seems that his intent was to criticize Muslims for failing to fully repudiate and come to grips with the causes of the hijackers’ conduct. He didn’t mean to suggest that Muslims have had nothing bad to say about the 9/11 bombing at all! Sam is largely responsible for the confusion here, but, importantly, the damage and waste caused by that confusion is greatly diminished when our first instinct is to try to sort out the facts, rather than to just score rhetorical points. It is possible to harshly criticize or dissent from others without stretching the truth. There’s a lesson to be learned here, if you’re ready to learn it.

I hope that you and Glenn will retract the other, inaccurate characterizations you’ve made of Sam’s views. It would demonstrate a whole lot of good faith, and clear up misunderstandings you’ve caused for a lot of your readers. Even better, it would make it much easier to move the discussion on to more substantive areas of disagreement. Or, if you remain more interested in ad hominem questions of Sam Harris’ character and religio-political expertise, we could at least begin to have such a discussion in a way that remains in contact with reality.

Murtaza Hussain[T]his argument only works if you accept a very shoddy premise which isn’t borne out much by facts. I’m not going to restate the arguments made by Big White Ogre but they are absolutely legitimate. One thing I will point out when you suggest that perhaps he has done more study on Islam than it seems is that his views on what is “Islamic” correspond almost exactly to what the Taliban believes. They have the excuse of being illiterate, Harris is a rich privilege individual with access to the world on a level completely unparalleled. That he has apparently come to the same conclusions as them reeks of either cynicism or remarkable ignorance.

Harris’ response above is beyond parody, and I truly enjoyed his back and forth gushing on Twitter (actually parodied here) with Tarek Fatah. Jamaat-e-Islami is a hardcore “Islamist” organization but they run in elections and are not designated by anyone on earth as a terrorist group. What’s notable is that even people on the far right in the Muslim world condemned the 9/11 attacks, to say nothing of ordinary people.

In Iran tens of thousands of people held a spontaneous candlelight vigil for the 9/11 victims, while Tahir-ul-Qadri w/Minhaj-ul-Quran (signed by and representing thousands of Islamic scholars around the world) issued an unequivocal and wide-reaching fatwa denouncing the act and suicide terrorism in general. Harris doesn’t know or care about the details of any of these things because he’s more interested in putting forth a narrative which helps buttress his own neoconservative politics and allows him to publicly explore his own neuroses about the scary brown people who live abroad.

Best part about this is that the only person Harris thinks speaks sensibly about the subject is someone widely considered in Canada to be a buffoonish opportunist (old Uncle Tarek), who is himself aligned with the extremist Jewish Defence League. This is indeed Harris’ natural group and these are his ideological fellow-travellers; I hope to see him publicly embrace them more closely as time goes on and drop the shallow pretence of his liberalism

Robby BensingrHere’s a quote from BigWhiteOgre’s blog post:

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.

Sam would actually agree that a few hundred years ago, Christianity and Islam were comparably bad. In fact, one of the basic conceits of The End of Faith is that 21st-century Islam has a great deal in common with the Christianity of the past, and that we need to work to moderate and secularize Islam much as we did Christianity. I think that’s a point of consensus between all of us.

From what I’ve seen, Sam is also perfectly open to discussing the extent to which secular violence and oppression directed at Muslims (both internally and externally) have played a major role in its radicalization. As he put it, “[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.” We can discuss data points like Tibetan Buddhism and try to come to more of an agreement about how much of a causal role metaphysical doctrines play in human psychology and in world affairs. Reasonable disagreement can be had here.

Where he and I get off the boat is at the fallacious inference from ‘the suffering and oppression of Muslims plays a larger role in Islamic radicalism than does Islam itself’ to ‘Islam isn’t a problem’. Islam and secular oppression are both contributing to the problem. And where this fallacy becomes outright dangerous is in the second leap to ‘since it’s plausible that Islam isn’t a problem, it’s equally plausible that Harris is a bigot’. No. As I noted in my piece on Islamophobia:

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.‘ […]

There remains the large dialectical onus of showing that Harris’ most severe criticisms of Islam are all false; the even larger burden of showing as well that they are outright irrational; and the even larger burden of showing that they are, each and every one, so wildly irrational as to rival sexism, homophobia, or clinical phobias.

That’s quite a project. Importantly, if any of these burdens can’t unambiguously be met, then resorting to immediate name-calling, to accusations of bigotry or malice, will remain an irresponsible tactic, one deeply destructive of reasoned debate.

You don’t get to call everyone who disagrees with you a bigot merely because you’ve demonstrated that not every reasonable person thinks that the purported bigot’s beliefs are obviously true.

I should also note that BigWhiteOgre clearly isn’t getting the problem with the ‘fascism’ quotation. Anyone new to the topic who reads that quotation out of context will reliably come to genuinely mistaken views about Sam, such as that he’s an explicit, out-of-the-closet fascist and white supremacist. Insofar as it’s your job as a journalist and commentator to try to inform and educate your readers, you should be very concerned about a quotation that promotes false beliefs more than true ones. Particularly when you’ve recontextualized it in a way that maximally encourages readers to arrive at that false conclusion, with sensationalist claims like “[T]he most prominent new atheists slide with ease into the most virulent racism imaginable.” or “[Harris is in a] class with the worst proponents of scientific racism of the 20th century“.

If you, Glenn, or BigWhiteOgre expect me or your readers to miss the very clear implications of your quote-mining — after all the time you’ve spent insisting that Sam is efficiently communicating such a symphony of content entirely between the lines! — then you must not think very highly of my or your readers’ intelligence.

6. Conclusion

Murtaza HussainYou afford Sam’s views a superhuman amount of nuance which paradoxically enough he makes a specific point of not extending to the subjects which he covers. We have learned through bitter historical experience not to throw around generalizations about “the Jews” or “the Blacks”, but he takes full license with “the Muslims”. This type of rhetoric is dangerous and actually causes harm to many innocent people. Because I know he is not historically ignorant I have to assume that he knows what he is doing when he does such things, and frankly it is repulsive. We are trying as a community to keep our head above water while cynics such as Sam consciously try and push us back under.

Although I used Sam as the prime example the article was intended to be a not about “him”.  It was written with the intention of stigmatizing casually violent and derogatory language towards Muslim people. We are rightfully very careful in the media of talking about Jewish people, Black people or any other ethnic minority; and this is due to the great efforts of the people in those communities to make it socially unacceptable for such language to be publicly aired. I do not think if you threw around statements like “The Jewish World’s Most Scarce Resource is Honesty” you would be able to show your face in polite society afterwards, no matter how you try and finesse the rest of what you say. I don’t see why a double-standard should exist towards us. If I had written “Scientific Racists, Militarism and Sam Harris” it would have been a different article; my goal is to stigmatize hate-mongering and discrimination (of which Sam is absolutely today a purveyor) and I’d say to some degree its been accomplished.

The scientific racists of past really do have a lot in common in the sense that they were propagandists of a certain type (for slavery) while their modern iterations are propagandists of another type (for war). Sam is definitely a bigot who is intentionally trying to fan the flames of hatred against Muslims, but he is also an intelligent man who knows that this has to be done in a sophisticated way to convince people who would otherwise reject it. In practice there is little difference between his end prescriptions or his race-baiting about demographic trends and those of skinheads, but unlike them he knows how to present himself and present his arguments in a way which will be accepted in polite society.

One usually offers their opponent a golden bridge to redemption at the end of a piece though I did not do overtly that here. My hope was that he’d offer a statement of contrition or at least a forceful repudiation of bigotry towards Muslims and he did not do so. Tellingly when Glenn confronted him in that email exchange on the “fascist” quote, he stated that he doesn’t support fascists because upon further looking into such groups he found that they often target others too. This was a nice window into his psychology, he didn’t cite any objections to the facts of what fascists may say or do to Muslims, just that there might be some other collateral damage. I really don’t think he’d mind.

Robby BensingrSam is generally careful to focus his attacks on Islam, not on “the Muslims” as a monolith. That said, where there are obvious cases of critics crossing that line, I’ll gladly join you in criticizing them. That’s part of why I consider us allies in core values and goals. It’s only in methods that we sharply disagree.

We agree that the marginalization of racism and bigotry has been a colossal boon to humanitarianism and social justice. I think we should also be able to agree that the recent stigmatization as racist of critiques of ideologies has been a huge obstacle to moral and intellectual clarity in progressive (and not-so-progressive) circles. I was raised Jewish, but it horrifies me to see all criticisms of Judaism, Zionism, or Israel dismissed as ‘anti-semitism’. Those are social institutions and dogmas, not ethnic groups, and it is of profound importance that we not immunize everything associated with Jews from informed critique in the course of routing out the bona fide bigots.

My position on Islam is the same: Just as I harshly criticize Jewish scripture, doctrine, and political apocalypticism for making the world a more dangerous place, I harshly criticize Islamic scripture, doctrine, and political apocalypticism for making the world a more dangerous place.

That doesn’t mean that my criticism must ignore history, social context, demographic variation, or the distinction between a religion and an ethnic group. Judaism and Christianity are, on the whole, forces for evil, just as Islam is, though not all individual Jews, Christians, or Muslims are. If it is important for us to continue to spread tolerance and multiculturalism, it is correspondingly important for us to reverse the overreach of this moral heuristic into domains where we are ethically required to engage in harsh verbal attacks and debate, not in reverent silence.

We must not allow the truth to become taboo. We must not even allow non-obviously-false falsehoods to become taboo. (Fortunately, white supremacism qualifies as obviously false. Taboo away.)

Heck, let’s come out and say it: Honesty is one of the Jewish world’s scarcest resources! Have you seen rabbinic theodicies or militant pro-Israel apologetics? Good god. When it comes to intellectual authenticity, they’re a hall of mirrors, a lunatic’s scrawl. Speaking truth to power requires that we critique religious authorities, and not just secular ones.

If you think Sam Harris’ positions are radically different from the above, then consider quotations of his like “As a secularist and a nonbeliever—and as a Jew—I find the idea of a Jewish state obnoxious.” or “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.“.

A final straw: You say that Sam “stated that he doesn’t support fascists because upon further looking into such groups he found that they often target others too”.

That decidedly is not what he said.

His stated concern with fascists and like-minded “lunatics” isn’t that they “target others too“; it’s that even when they target Muslims, they do so for inane and grotesque reasons, like racism, Christian extremism, or reflexive anti-immigrant paranoia. After all the errors third parties have pointed out in your writings, you’re still falling like clockwork into this habit of misstating others’ words. This is really discouraging. Do you not see the disparity between the words and your paraphrase? It’s fine if you want to advocate an unusual interpretation, but you can’t even begin that project without first taking the time to recognize the prose’s clear sense.

If you want Sam to be willing to make serious revisions to his views when called out for them, then on grounds of consistency alone you should be willing to make the same concessions when an error is spotted in your work — particularly when those concessions are procedural matters, and don’t require that you actually change your basic outlook on the world. It should always be possible to make your point in a public debate without distorting others’ stated positions, no matter how depraved you’re convinced your conversation partners are. Anything less will be perfectly destructive of the very conversation you’re trying to begin.

__________________________________________________

Further reading
Terror?” Rounders and Rogues.
Harris, Sam (2004). “Holy Terror“. Los Angeles Times.
Harris, Sam (2005). “Verses from the Koran“. TruthDig.
Harris, Sam (2011). “Dear Angry Lunatic: A Response to Chris Hedges“. Sam Harris Blog.
Zachary, Justin (2013). “Thoughts on the Greenwald/Harris debate over Islam“. Daily
Kos.

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

Murtaza Hussain
GGSideDocs

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.

Robby BensingrNeither 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.

Murtaza HussainRegarding 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.

Robby BensingrThat 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.

Murtaza HussainI 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.

Robby BensingrBut 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.

Murtaza HussainIn 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.

Robby Bensingr Huh? Sam believes in evil.

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.

2. Dehumanization

Murtaza HussainSurely 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.

Robby BensingrWhat 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.]

How to be a god

What are gods?

In some ways, the question is more important for atheists than for theists. If I’m a theist, after all, I don’t need to understand what it takes to be a ‘god’ in general; I just need to know that my pick of the litter is a bona fide god. It’s the atheists who must speak in broad strokes of all gods, in order for their chosen self-label to even be contentful. These six criteria do the job of pinpointing gods quite well:

1. They are people, capable of thought and action.

2. As a rule, they are (or normally appear) roughly human-shaped and human-sized.

3. They can sometimes be weakened or killed, but by nature they are significantly more powerful and long-lived than a human.

4. As a rule, they are associated with some domain they have dominion or strong influence over, be it a place, a natural phenomenon, or an abstract category.

5. They are natural objects of worship.

6. They are in some way ‘magical‘ or ‘supernatural’.

Within a religion, the gods often form a natural grouping. So, as an added complication, otherwise similar beings may be construed as non-divine if they lack a certain ability or lineage that unifies a tradition’s paradigmatic deities.

Borrowing from E.B. Taylor’s 1871 Primitive Culture, many anthropologists have distinguished ‘god’ worship (theolatry) from ‘spirit’ worship (animism). However, this division, predicated on the theory that cultures naturally ‘evolve’ from animism to polytheism to monotheism, has increasingly fallen out of favor. Cultures have often been labeled ‘animistic’ more because they were seen as ‘primitive’ than because they unambiguously saw everything as intelligent or alive. And even world-views with myriad all-pervading minds can easily blend into world-views with a single all-pervading super-mind. (Compare brahman in India.)

If we do wish to distinguish lesser spirits and monsters from gods, it will need to be because the former are weaker, or less authoritative, or lack human form, or just have a different lineage and name. However, none of these is sufficient on its own. The classification we use will always be arbitrary to some extent, and will depend on the structure of the overall belief system.

Not amused.

Gods interact with humans, and with each other, leading to myths and communicative or transactional rituals. Gods can become human, and humans can become gods, so the human/god distinction can become just as fraught as spirit/god one.

The requirement that gods be ‘natural objects of worship’ distinguishes them from magical beings that lack the power, authority, or virtue true reverence demands. For instance, powerful daemonic spirits may fail to be gods if they cannot or ought not be worshiped, but exist instead to be opposed, manipulated, or befriended. However, some traditions recognize evil gods, and most traditions fail to clearly distinguish religious worship from magical manipulation, so the line between the divine and the demonic is again fuzzy.

Linguistic and conceptual divides mean that lots of interpretive work is required to find a common classification for legendary beings across religious traditions. To see how this works in practice, I’ll present four examples, which I encourage you to treat with some skepticism.

Abrahamism: Early Judaism was henotheistic, believing in many gods but worshiping only one, Yahweh. It shifted from polytheism to monotheism as it came to see rival magical beings as increasingly unworthy even of foreign worship, identifying gods with evil spirits. At the same time, Yahweh’s heavenly court of gods became identified with Yahweh or with his angelic messengers. And the angels themselves, initially treated as manifestations or incarnations of Yahweh, lost their divine status and became lesser spirits. In Christianity, this process worked both ways, as Jesus acquired a status similar to the original angels’.

Buddhism: Buddhas — particularly in their ‘truth body’ (dharmakāya) — are often ascribed attributes similar to the modern Abrahamist God, whereas devas resemble the gods of Greek mythology. (Following the Hindu Paranas, a distinct group of gods, the asuras, were seen as lesser wicked spirits.) However, the word ‘god’ is restricted to the devas so as to highlight buddhas’ unusual features. Upper case ‘God’ is generally reserved for a creator deity like Brahmā or Īshvar. Since Buddhists believe the world has no beginning, it can be said that they deny ‘God’ (issara) but accept ‘gods’ (devas).

Zoroastrianism: Here, the Indian progression is reversed. The supreme god is an asura (Ahura Mazda), while the daēvas are wicked lesser gods, eventually downgraded to demons and ogres. Such developments are often unpredictable or historically contingent; in Germanic religions, asuras again became the ruling gods, the æsir.

Raëlism: This UFO religion, founded in 1974, has no creator gods, spirits, magic, or souls. It is physicalistic, atheistic, and emphasizes science over the supernatural.  The existence of such religions suggests that skeptical and antireligious movements shouldn’t narrowly focus on ‘atheism’. However, Raëlians do believe that we were intelligently designed by a powerful, benevolent alien race, the ‘Elohim’.

Simulation hypotheses posit even more extraordinary creators than Raëlism does. They suggest that we are in a Matrix-like virtual reality, meaning that our entire universe is the product of a transcendent designer. Yet we do not ordinarily think of powerful aliens or computer programmers as ‘gods’. What sets them apart will ultimately rest on the most important criterion I haven’t talked about here, the ‘magical’ or ‘supernatural’ element. Defining the ‘natural’ is a very difficult and messy task, far more problematic than any of the issues I’ve raised above. That story will have to wait for another post.

Should secularists have man-free events?

This is a shorter version of a Center for Inquiry blog post.

women-onlyInspired by UNIFI and other campus groups’ activities, the Secular Alliance at Indiana University has been debating the advantages and the risks of hosting women-only events. I think some of the arguments raised by both sides will be useful and relevant to other groups seeking to reach out to different demographics and combat internal inequalities.

In the hopes of encouraging more widespread discussion of ways to concretely improve our communities, I raise four objections to the idea of an exclusive women’s group, and four responses.

A women’s group serves no purpose.

Having smaller meetings for secularists with specific shared interests or backgrounds can be very rewarding for those members. It’s a fact that women in our society tend to have a number of common experiences that men don’t, including encounters with religious strictures and expectations that don’t apply to men. If a women’s group helps members talk more freely about these experiences – and/or is just a crazy amount of fun – then it has a purpose. Statistically, men and women also tend to have different talents, interests, and beliefs, which means that diversifying in one way can help you diversify in many others.

Whether this is the best solution may vary from group to group, but most groups would probably benefit from at least talking the option over. Even groups with a well-balanced membership and leadership could benefit from having a women’s subgroup – because it erodes low-grade gender bias, for example. As Virginia Valian notes, men tend to interact with women as they do with inferiors, avoiding eye contact when the woman is speaking and taking for granted that they aren’t in leadership positions. In a 1975 study by Don Zimmerman and Candice West, men were found to interrupt women in conversation over twenty times as often as women interrupted men. Having a space for women to talk can counteract that effect. It can also draw attention to the disparity, making women more likely to speak out when they’re talked over or dismissed.

Banning men from certain events is discriminatory and alienates members.

One way of expressing this objection is to demand that if women get their own events from which men are barred, then men should also get events that exclude women.

But some forms of exclusion can be OK, even if others are not. A group that excludes women is not equivalent to one that excludes men, for the simple reason that we live in a culture that heavily privileges men over women. Creating events that increase the autonomy of men at the expense of women reinforces that disparity, whereas creating events that increase the autonomy of women at the expense of men does not, and may even erode certain inequalities.

Consider a group that was only for black Americans, to give them a safe space to share their experiences with racism without having to explain or justify things to people of other ethnic and cultural backgrounds. This might not be a completely unproblematic idea, but it at least is a lot easier to see the justification and use for such a group than it is to see the justification for a whites-only group. Similarly, a group that was only for gay men (excluding, e.g., straight allies) could be justified without appeal to essentialism or intrinsic superiority (and without endorsing groups that ban gay men!), simply by noting that our culture imposes different expectations and experiences on gay men and that there may be a need for people of this demographic to express themselves in a place where they feel relatively safe, supported, and understood. If these two sorts of groups make sense, then a group that’s only for women also makes sense.

A women’s group presupposes a clear gender dichotomy.

Not every freethinker or humanist identifies exclusively or exhaustively as a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’. How will they know whether they’re welcome at a women-only event? Genderqueer, intersex, etc. college students are likely to already be suffering as a result of our society’s mania with fitting everyone into ready-made boxes. The last thing we want is to make them feel that they have to ‘pick a side’ or explicitly justify their gender identity (which may differ from their gender expression, their genital sex, their chromosome line-up, etc.) to a bunch of near-strangers, just to participate in some light recreation and enlightening discussion.

This is probably the biggest problem with a women’s group. Even if it seems unlikely that someone who shows up to one of the women’s events and doesn’t identify as a man but ‘looks too male’ might be mistreated, the bare possibility may cause some of our members to feel anxious, confused, excluded, or erased. Adding more groups (like an LGBT one) might help in this respect, but it wouldn’t totally solve the problem, because it would still depend on forcing people to figure out the vagaries of their personal identity before they can come play Jenga or go horseback riding. Creating a group for ‘non-men’ rather than for ‘women’ would be more inclusive, but it doesn’t totally eliminate the problem, because there will always be people whose status as a ‘man’ is undefined or who fall outside the group only as a technicality.

I think the only adequate response to this objection is to talk about it and hear what individual members think. We can’t eliminate every possible way we could offend anybody in advance, before we’ve actually talked things over face-to-face. But we can raise the issue in a sensitive and open-minded way, letting everyone express why they think it’s a great idea, or why it troubles them, or how they’d like the events to be framed. There’s no way we’ll please everyone, but at least people will feel they’ve been heard.

If we end up affirming the need for events like this in spite of their dependence on defined genders, I expect it will be because we live in a culture where it’s simply a fact that ‘women’, as conceived by the masses and by cultural authorities, are a reified class. You don’t need to erase bisexuals or essentialize ‘gayness’ or ‘maleness’ in order to build a group responding to the fact that gay men are a special group defined and disadvantaged by our culture. And you don’t need to erase mixed-race people or essentialize ‘blackness’ in order to build a group responding to the fact that black people are a special group defined and oppressed by our existing culture.

Similarly, a group for women can be defined in terms of the sorts of experiences being treated as ‘a woman’ inevitably involved in our society. Even if you don’t strongly identify as a ‘woman’, if you feel you’ve had those experiences, you’re welcome to join the group. Pretending socially constructed groups don’t exist won’t make them go away, and it certainly won’t alleviate any of the inequalities that attend their construction.

Greenwald and Hussain on Sam Harris and racism

This April 3 post first appeared on the Secular Alliance at Indiana University blog.

I know of no living public intellectual whose views get caricatured and misrepresented quite as routinely as do Sam Harris.

What’s disheartening isn’t that people disagree with Harris. It’s that they haven’t taken the time to understand what’s there to disagree with! I don’t know whether Harris is right or wrong regarding a lot of the positions he defends. But I do know that whether he’s right or wrong is of profound importance — that these are topics that strike at the heart of our political and ethical principles. So it is endlessly disappointing when other public figures simply fail to engage with any views or assertions even in the vicinity of Harris’.

A case in point: Yesterday [April 2], Glenn Greenwald retweeted an Al Jazeera article by Murtaza Hussain, “Scientific racism, militarism, and the new atheists“. The article argues for a strong continuity between the pseudoscientific racism of many historical thinkers, and the contemporary criticisms of Islam by “new atheists” like Harris.

Although I’m unfamiliar with Hussain’s other work, my past experience with both Greenwald and Al Jazeera has generally been very positive. So I was stunned to find the article in question packed with misinformation and outright libel. A relatively careful and sensitive attempt to defend a thesis like Hussain’s might appeal to psychological studies and sociological models indicating that our fear of the Other can sometimes unconsciously skew our priorities, potentially causing anyone — even an avowed anti-racist like Harris — to misunderstand the causes for his own concerns. But this sort of armchair psychoanalysis is not Hussain’s approach. Instead, he simply misstates Harris’ actual, on-the-record views, making him out to be an overt supporter of racism, fascism, and genocide.

Harris confronted Greenwald, pointing out that the article was simply not accurate. And Greenwald… stuck by the article.

I profess bafflement. I cannot imagine that if Greenwald took the time to do a little more research, he would continue to endorse Hussain’s transparent journalistic misconduct. Even if you remain inwardly convinced that someone is a racist, you should not hesitate to retract demonstrable falsehoods presented as evidence for that accusation. It is one thing to castigate and condemn a person; it is quite another to publicly endorse intellectual dishonesty as a means of defaming that person.

What did Hussain write? I’ll assess eight representative assertions.

[1] [I]n the case of Muslims Harris has publicly stated his support for torture,

No. This suggests that Harris has called for the torture of actual, real-world individuals or groups. Moreover, it suggests that he somehow thinks Muslims, and Muslims alone, are uniquely deserving of torture. Both of these claims are false.

Harris has certainly said that it is not impossible for torture to be justified in hypothetical extreme scenarios; but this is a view primarily about general ethical theory, and not about political practice. As it happens, it is the same position endorsed in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article on torture; so as philosophy it is perhaps not as deranged as it initially sounds. But what’s relevant here isn’t whether Harris’ brand of consequentialism is right or wrong, noble or despicable. It’s that his view simply isn’t what Hussain claims it is.

[EDIT: Harris’ view on torture is actually somewhat complicated. If you want more details on his current position, I suggest reading this 2011 article. Even though Harris thinks there can be extraordinary circumstances in which torture is ethically justifiable “in principle“, he thinks it should remain illegal, and he thinks that known instances of torture (e.g., at Abu Ghraib) were “sadistic“, “stupid“, and “patently unethical“. Most relevantly, Harris’ reasoning, be it right or wrong, holds equally for Muslims and for non-Muslims, contrary to Hussain’s “in the case of Muslims” qualifier.]

[2] [In the case of Muslims Harris has supported] pre-emptive nuclear weapons strikes,

No. The source of this falsehood is the fact that Sam Harris once described (with explicit horror and revulsion) a scenario in which pre-emptive nuclear weapons strikes might occur. Relatively scruple-free journalists like Chris Hedges then took this passage and, well, lied about it. It’s… actually no more complicated than that. See Harris’ response.

 [3] [Harris has supported] the security profiling of not just Muslims themselves, but in his own words ‘anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim’. Again, while Islam is not a race, those who are identified with Islam are the predominantly black and brown people who would be caught up in the charge of ‘looking Muslim’ which Harris makes.

This is at least not literally false. Instead, it leaves out the fact that Harris thinks the profiling should be primarily non-racial, and insofar as it is racial it should focus to a significant extent on white people like himself. Quoting Harris in the very article on profiling Hussain cited:

When I speak of profiling ‘Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim,’ I am not narrowly focused on people with dark skin. In fact, I included myself in the description of the type of person I think should be profiled (twice). To say that ethnicity, gender, age, nationality, dress, traveling companions, behavior in the terminal, and other outward appearances offer no indication of a person’s beliefs or terrorist potential is either quite crazy or totally dishonest.

If Harris’ views on profiling are to be taken simply as proof of his racism, are we to gather that he also harbors a racial bias against white people? To be clear, I’m not endorsing Harris’ view on profiling here. I’m only endorsing discussing these issues without reliance on caricature.

[4] Harris has also written in the past his belief [sic] that the ‘Muslim world’ itself lacks the characteristic of honesty,

No, he’s written that Muslims routinely refuse to honestly evaluate the doctrines of Islam. Quoth he: “Who will reform Islam if moderate Muslims refuse to speak honestly about the very doctrines in need of reform?

Summing Harris’ view up as “the Muslim world itself lacks the characteristic of honesty” is deliberately modifying Harris’ statements to sound maximally simplistic and culturally essentializing. This, of course, helps make it tie better into Hussain’s chosen narrative. But if Harris’ assertions reflect a skewed world-view, should it not be possible to critique them without going to the trouble of distorting them first?

[5] [Harris has written that] Muslims as a people ‘do not have a clue about what constitutes civil society.

No. The source of the misquotation is this statement by Harris:

A third of young British Muslims say they want to live under sharia law and think that anyone who leaves the faith should be put to death. This is a third of British Muslims. 68% of British Muslims think that their neighbors who insult Islam should be arrested and prosecuted. 78% think that the Danish cartoonists should be brought to justice. These people do not have a clue about what constitutes a civil society.

To my knowledge, he does not say this of “Muslims as a people“. If he does, then Hussain should cite that, and not cite a random mistitled Youtube video.

[6] As he has said: ‘It is time we admitted that we are not at war with terrorism. We are at war with Islam.’ This belief in the need to fight open-ended war against Muslims […]

No. Stop right there. ‘War with Islam‘ does not have the same semantic content as ‘Open-ended war against Muslims‘.

The former quotation makes it sound like Harris thinks the doctrines of Islam are causally responsible for terrorism, and that these doctrines must be undermined if the violence is to end. Plenty of people would contest this claim. But in so doing they need not pretend that Harris is making the latter assertion, as though Harris thinks we should violently attack any and all Muslims indefinitely. This is simply not an honest paraphrase.

[7] Indeed he argues in his book that the only suitable form of government for Muslim people is ‘benign dictatorship‘, an echo of the 19th century social theorist George Fitzhugh who argued in favour of slavery by saying: ‘The Negro is but a grown up child, and must be governed as a child.’

This is a transparent lie. In at least five different respects.

  • (a) Harris is not talking exclusively about countries with large Muslim populations in the relevant passage. At least, North Korea was not a predominantly Muslim country the last time I checked….
  • (b) Harris is talking about relatively oppressive states, not states with populations of any particular cultural background.
  • (c) Harris is differentiating these states based on political and economic freedoms, not based on race or skin color.
  • (d) Harris does not endorse ‘benevolent dictators’ in general, but merely, citing Fareed Zakaria, raises the hypothesis that such dictators may not be a terrible idea in all cases. His worry seems to be that rushing to democratize the entire world will have a destabilizing, schism-producing effect.
  • (e) Harris does not endorse such dictators as a permanent solution in any circumstance, at most merely as a transitional one.

Note: Strongly attacking any or all of these views does not require deceiving anyone about what is actually being asserted! Really. It doesn’t.

[8] Harris has stated that the correct policy with regard to Western Muslim populations is in fact that which is currently being pursued by contemporary fascist movements today. In Harris’ view: ‘The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.’

No. Harris was not citing fascists approvingly. (Good grief!) He was criticizing liberals for getting a moral issue wrong that is so obvious (in his view) that even some extremists — or, as Harris calls them in the same passage, “lunatics” — have figured it out. If I half-jokingly noted ‘Even Hitler saw that vegetarianism was a good idea,’ I would not be citing Hitler approvingly; I would be suggesting that the sanity waterline is very low indeed.

In quoting Harris out of context here, and failing to in any way indicate Harris’ actual meaning, I do not think it an overstatement to say that Hussain forfeits any claim to journalistic credibility.

Hussain, Greenwald, and Al Jazeera have betrayed an important trust to their readers today. They now owe them, and Harris, an apology and a retraction for writing, promoting, and publishing without disclaimer, respectively, such an irresponsible hit piece.

Here’s hoping they do better tomorrow.

 

 

[UPDATE, April 8: The above doesn’t really address the deeper significance of Murtaza’s thesis, or the truth of his and Greenwald’s more general claims. It merely reports on an instance of journalistic misconduct. Since there’s so much interest in the more substantive issues here, I’ve written a follow-up post to continue the discussion: Is “Islamophobia” Real?]

Why are we so bad at talking to each other?

This is a revised version of a Friendly Atheist post.

Whether the secular movement flourishes will depend on how well it can carry on a dialogue with its religious friends and foes. It’s through conversation that we will change our public image, negotiate political gains, and form alliances on specific issues. It’s conversation that will determine whether our numbers expand.

But the stakes are drastically higher than that. In an increasingly interdependent world, our ability as human beings to resolve disputes verbally is the only abiding safeguard against violence, against polarization, against seeing informed democracy degenerate into shouting matches.

Why, then, are we so averse to talking to those with whom we disagree? Why do dialogues fail? Why are we so rarely persuaded? If we can understand why we’re so bad at resolving our differences, maybe we can do a little to change that fact.

Greta Christina noted at the Secular Student Alliance Annual Conference that “arguing about religion is not a waste of time.” Although debaters themselves may be bewilderingly obstinate in the heat of battle, onlookers remain surprisingly receptive to new ideas. This suggests that the best way to promote atheism is to argue before a large audience.

However, there will always be cases where we need to get a point across to someone directly. Most interactions between theists and nontheists will be in small groups, or one-on-one. And it is these direct chats that are ideal for reaching out to those individuals who are least informed about atheists, least inclined to waste time on the Internet perusing atheist blogs or YouTube debates. Aside from the occasional prime-time atheological sound bite, person-to-person discussion will be what tends to define our image and plant the earliest seeds of doubt. So the question retains its urgency. What makes discussion break down? Judging by the debates I’ve seen and participated in, there are two main culprits.

I. Our discussions aren’t collaborations.

We see debate as an opportunity to defend ourselves, attack another position, fight for dominance and power and respect. We see it as something either I win or you win, not as something both sides succeed or fail in together. Our discussions are antagonistic because we enjoy being right, we take pride in the strength of our reasoning — and we feel shame and dismay when we are proven wrong.

Why don’t we feel the happy excitement of a new discovery when someone corrects a mistake of ours? Because the discussion has been framed as a competition, not as a mutual pursuit of deeper understanding. It’s not enough to make overtures of camaraderie; even exchanges between the best of friends can become bitter squabbles if either side becomes too invested in who is right, overshadowing what is right. A healthy discussion should feel like trading recipes or researching a common interest; each side should keenly (or casually) desire to understand the other, to learn and not just to teach. We have plenty to learn from the religious; if nothing else, we have plenty to learn from them about other religious people, and how to better reach out to them and find common cause. This sort of cheerful shared curiosity must drive discussions. A religious exchange motivated only by the evangelical desire to banish ignorance, however well-meant, is doomed to failure.

Remember: It’s not fun to be wrong. Always put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Sam Harris suggests that our brains process falsehoods with an experience akin to disgust. It’s a delight to encounter beliefs you agree with. It’s a pleasure to hold beliefs which seem to make sense of your experiences. At the same time, it’s not easy living with contradictions and lacunae; cognitive dissonance is unpleasant. A discussion of deeply held beliefs is more like an affective rodeo than like trading indifferent data points.

What’s the take-away? Be nuanced. Be moderate. ‘Nuanced’ doesn’t mean ‘complicated’. Express your views clearly and concisely, but follow up a negative comment with a positive comment, to mitigate the inevitable emotional sting while leaving the intellectual content intact. And ‘moderate’ doesn’t mean ‘wishy-washy’ on points of substance. You will come across as moderate if you are willing to make concessions, ask sincere questions, compliment the other side, and admit your own shortcomings, even if these sugar-coated asides are irrelevant to your central argument, and even if the argument itself is a radical one. A very little friendliness and good humor goes a very long way. Indeed, just coming across as a nice person tends to do a lot more to attract skeptics and allies than even the most devastating logic. And, of course, it leads to way better conversations.

II. Our discussions aren’t specific.

When we speak of persuading people about atheism, we aren’t really speaking about some isolated bit of theology. Atheism here is code for a very broad and complex world-view, rich in methodological and theoretical commitments. This is our long-term strength, because it provides something with which to fill the epistemic void left by deconversion. But it’s our short-term weakness, because it makes our discussions too all-or-nothing. It forces us to demolish a towering world-view in one fell swoop, when we’d be better off chipping away slowly at the foundations.

We are at our strongest when we can debate particular, relatively weakly held claims. This allows us to show off the power, the richness, the appeal of scientific and philosophical reasoning — without drowning out that appeal in the backlash of immediate outrage. Why leap to debate God when you can sharpen Ockham’s razor first on ghosts, or homeopathy, or climate change denialism? In this way you can teach the intellectual methods motivating atheism, which are in any case far more important and life-saving than atheism itself. If the methods manage to take root, they will do more to eat away at dogma from within than any argument made by another ever could.

Sticking to specifics makes it easier to convince the other side of some particular claim; and even if the issue is a trivial one, there is much value simply in the act of learning to inquire skeptically and revise one’s views. Moreover, it is on these innumerable factoids, far more than on deep and unshakable moral convictions, that theists and atheists disagree.

The same, surprisingly, is true of American liberals and conservatives. If a discussion were had on interpreting some specific data or theory, the dialogue could advance and both groups could come away better educated. Because the debate is instead halted at incredibly broad topics — we don’t debate some claim about abortion, we debate abortion itself — no progress is made. Instead, both sides fall into the well-rehearsed rituals of their cherished established beliefs, camouflaging a mass of negotiable factual disagreements as a monolithic dispute of irreconcilable values. This is how sides in a dispute fossilize into factions. There are indeed real conflicts over values — but these are as dust compared to the mountains of cost-benefit analyses, empirical generalizations, and causal interpretations on which the two sides would first diverge. When the discussion stays in vague, well-trodden territory, we do nothing but go in circles.

How does this work in practice? Paul Veyne, in “Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths?”, quotes the missionary Évariste Huc’s account of Tibet:

We had adopted a completely historical mode of instruction, taking care to exclude anything that suggested argument and the split of contention; proper names and very precise dates made much more of an impression on them than the most logical reasoning. When they knew the names Jesus, Jerusalem, and Pontius Pilate and the date 4000 years after Creation, they no longer doubted the mystery of the Redemption and the preaching of the Gospel. Furthermore, we never noticed that mysteries or miracles gave them the slightest difficulty. We are convinced that it is through teaching and not the method of argument that one can work efficaciously toward the conversion of the infidel.

Set aside the manipulative evangelism and notice the lesson in psychology. Even the best arguments tend to fail when they’re pitted against the deepest convictions of a competing religion, cemented by habit and guarded by stereotyped, mantra-like counterarguments. Non-argumentative, factual accounts, on the other hand, slip through the cracks quite easily. This is not simply because they are framed as indisputable facts, nor because they are too idiosyncratic and exotic to brook easy retort. It is because they are friendlier, less confrontational. They invite listening and learning, rather than intellectual combat.

Such a technique, of course, can easily be abused. It merely replaces one authority with another. We want to encourage productive and dynamic dialogues, not just a one-sided soliloquy. Yet if we want the communication without the rancor, we must make argument its own reward. It must be a happy act aimed at real discovery and mutual enrichment.

If our only goal were to make everyone believe the same thing we believe, we’d be better off relying on the rhetorical power of facts and figures and jargon. But orthodoxy, even scientific orthodoxy, isn’t our goal. Our goal is a world of open-minded critical thinkers, of people who have made a habit of questioning, and of seeking, and of imaginatively advancing the human discussion in science and in politics. However you envision secularism’s end-game, no path is possible in the absence of civil and productive dialogues between people with radically different world-views.

This is not to say that such dialogue is easy. It is to say that we have no choice. We have to talk.