Sam Harris is a perfect example of what is commonly called “Islamophobia”, and this is not, as he claims, because it is impossible for any liberals to condone any criticism of any ideas. (That he keeps repeating that canard indicates that Sam Harris is not able to condone any criticism of his ideas. But I digress.) Sam Harris, in his interaction with Ben Affleck on Real Time with Bill Maher, which has spilled out into social media and even this morning on NPR‘s Radio Times, gives a perfect example of why, among other things, Sam Harris should not talk about ideology.
I’ll focus on the same thing that Sam Harris focused on in his interview this morning, which was his comment on Real Time that “Islam right now is the mother-lode of bad ideas.” The comparison he gave, as a way to defend himself in the interview, was to Communism in the 1970s. He asked, ‘If I said, in the 1970s, that Communism was the mother-lode of bad ideas, would anyone have said that this was because of some kind of bias against Russians or Ukrainians or Chinese people? Of course not.’
Now, he may very well be correct, since we are talking about an American populace entirely caught up in Red Scare politics, willing to do things like drop a 500lb bomb on Cambodia for every human being living in Cambodia, without even admitting it was being done, much less declaring war. We were knee-deep in a proxy-war in Vietnam, and had just finished destroying Korea for the same reason. We were about to start funding this little group called the Taliban so that they could serve as a proxy to fight the Communists in Afghanistan, and were also gearing up to start supporting and selling arms to this guy named Saddam Hussein so that he could fight as our proxy against Iran. We had been busy toppling democratically elected governments all over the world, with special attention to Latin America, where hundreds of thousands of innocent people had been slaughtered by right-wing dictatorships due to our direct support of violent coups against democratically elected governments which we felt were too Communist.
All so that we could find against that age’s “mother-lode of bad ideas”, Communism.
This comparison that Sam Harris opted to make is emblematic of why he is wrong about so many things. His bias is that he is being radically selective against a particular group, which he defines in broad strokes and without any sense of diversity in doctrine or practice (despite his claims otherwise, he’s got a broad brush in his hand when he says “Islam” or “the Muslim world”). He seems entirely unable to distinguish between, for example, Communism and repressive totalitarian regimes under Stalin or Mao, or between Islam and repressive totalitarian regimes under the House of Saud. To the fact that Islamic countries have already elected female leaders, he has no answer. To the fact that terrorists and “Islamists” represent a small minority among Muslims, he has no answer. To the fact that democratic capitalism has, especially in the last century, done far more damage to innocent human beings than Islam, he has no answer. To the fact that there are many atheist suicide bombers and terrorists, he has no answer. That’s why we call him Islamophobic – because he is afraid of a particular group without a rational justification. That is what “phobia” means.
In addition, during the interview this morning, Sam Harris made some comments about Turkey. He made this distinction that Turkey is a relatively more “civilized” nation because it is a secular state. Now, for Sam Harris, I think that “secular” may mean the same as “atheist”, and this is quite incorrect, and yet another of his misunderstandings. A secular state is one in which the government is not in the hands of a singular ideology – at least that’s the definition I would use, to distinguish that some overtly atheist states, like the People’s Republic of China for example, or the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, are not properly understood as secular, as their entire government is ruled by a single ideology. That ideology is not religious in the usual sense of that word, but it is violently enforced and quite well-defined, with doctrine and dogma and rituals and so on.
What Harris keeps missing is that religious states can also be secular, and Turkey is an example of a secular religious state – a secular constitution with 99% of the population identifying as Muslim. Brazil is also a secular religious state. Many European states, where everyone born in the country is technically Lutheran, or Catholic, are secular religious states. They have state churches, but no one cares very much whether you are an active participant in those state churches (and most are not). The secular/religious distinction that Sam Harris retreats behind to justify his Islamophobia is unfounded.
Secularism is crucial to the kind of flourishing that both Sam Harris and I would like to see, that we would all like to see. Atheism is not crucial to that flourishing. In Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, Kim’s North Korea, Khmer Rouge Burma, we had overtly atheistic states which are examples of some of the most horrific treatment of human beings we have ever seen. We can also easily think of overtly religious states who were also horrific, including Germany under the Nazis, much of Europe during the Crusades, Spain during the Inquisition period, and much of Europe during the Colonial era. The common element here is that none of these states were secular.
To be utterly frank, Sam Harris is not quite secular, and neither is Bill Maher, and neither are the other various Islamophobic ideologues. Wanting to castigate a single vast religion, and call it the “mother-lode of bad ideas”, is no more justifiable than the situation Sam Harris decries in the United States, where there is widespread distrust of atheists, such that it is essentially impossible to rise to high government office unless one is at least outwardly religious. Sam Harris wants us to be able to criticize bad ideas, but not his bad idea, which is that “Islam” is a singular entity, and is entirely evil and to be feared. That claim makes as much sense as me denigrating Sam Harris because Stalin killed a lot of innocent people, and both of them are atheists.
Sam Harris is clearly a very intelligent man, but fear makes everyone stupid, including Sam Harris. Fear leads him to say stupid things about Islam, Communism, religion in general, and so on. The fact that he does so as a public figure, unfortunately, encourages other people to let fear make them stupid.
And stupidity is truly the mother-lode of bad ideas.