By profession, Sam Harris is a brawler. The New Atheist writer has ongoing feuds with Salon, AlterNet, The Guardian, Glenn Greenwald, and plenty of religious leaders. Whether Harris is a brawler because he loves to fight, or because conflict is the cost of truth-telling, we will not adjudicate, other than to say that all of this scrapping looks like good business. The man is a magnet for controversy, in a media economy where controversy sells.
Harris’ latest throwdown is with Omer Aziz, a law student at Yale and contributor to Salon. In December, Aziz published a scathing review of Harris’ latest book, Islam and the Future of Tolerance (co-written with Maajid Nawaz). Harris then invited Aziz onto his podcast, but only on the condition that Aziz follow a bizarre and rigid set of rules.
Aziz accepted, and they spoke for four hours, but then Harris refused to air the resulting conversation. Harris claimed that the conversation was boring. Aziz accused Harris of “protecting himself, because what he said in those four hours was as extreme and belligerent and ignorant as anything he has ever written.” Harris eventually relented, releasing the podcast on his website with a snarky title.
In an essay published on Salon last week, Aziz accuses Harris of hypocrisy, cowardice, and suppressing free speech. Then he implies that Harris is a white supremacist.
Aziz is not the first to accuse Harris of ideological extremism. But the term white supremacy, even applied indirectly, is a heavy one. We have criticized Harris before for his sketchy thought experiments and dubious rhetorical support of Western military power. At least in his public intellectual persona, he often seems willfully ignorant. But is it also fair to say that Sam Harris advocates an ideology that has justified the privilege of white peoples and the exploitation of non-whites by essentializing and subordinating other ethnic groups?
The Intellectual Roots of Sam Harris
The fact that Omer Aziz can call Sam Harris a white supremacist in a popular and well-received article speaks to a significant shift in American political discourse. When Sam Harris broke onto the national stage late in the summer of 2004 with his first book, The End of Faith, the United States was at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The direct after-effects of September 11th continued to shape domestic and global politics. Twelve years later, with attacks on American Muslims on the rise, and a serious presidential contender claiming that “Islam hates us,” it’s much easier to see the resemblance between New Atheist invectives against Islam and other, more traditional forms of American bigotry.
The End of Faith, which Harris started writing on September 12th, 2001, has a straightforward message: religion, and especially Islam, drives violence and harm. Eliminating faith, therefore, will improve the human condition. It is time to move past religion. The book spent 33 weeks on the bestseller list, sold more than a quarter of a million copies, and turned Harris into a public figure.
Harris directs a disproportionate amount of ire towards Muslims in The End of Faith. (He still regularly attacks the entire Muslim world, a group of 1.6 billion people who he thinks ought to be profiled because their “Koranic eschatology” is inherently violent.) But in 2004, many viewed Harris as a rationalist thinker analyzing an overseas threat, rather than as a white intellectual targeting a vulnerable minority. A largely positive New York Times review of The End of Faith could include, just in a few sentences near the end, that the reviewer felt some discomfort with Harris’ obsessive focus on Islam.
Revisiting The End of Faith twelve years later, though, it’s striking to see how incessant, and how flimsy, Harris’ charges against Islam really are. In the opening pages, Harris invites his readers to imagine a young man who gets on a bus and then uses a homemade bomb to kill himself and twenty innocent people. The man’s parents are proud. They’re confident that their son will go to heaven. With just these facts, Harris asks, why is it so easy to guess that the young man is Muslim? That his reader can so easily guess the right answer, Harris argues, is evidence that something is fundamentally wrong with Islam.
Harris anticipates criticism of this argument. It ignores, he points out, other cultural and political factors related to Islamic terrorism, including poverty, Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, and the collusion between Western powers with corrupt dictatorships. “But,” he argues, “we can ignore all of these things…because the world is filled with poor, uneducated, and exploited peoples who do not commit acts of terrorism.”
This is quite the thought experiment. Imagine a suicide bomber. Did you think he was Muslim? You did, because Islam is the main reason he’s doing this. Scholars will tell you that it’s complicated—that there are too many other causes working all at once to say that Islam is somehow uniquely at fault here—but you can ignore those experts. Why? Because you can’t think of other terrorists right now, can you?
Harris is making a three-step move here, which he uses so often that we ought to name it after him: the Sam Harris Shuffle. First, postulate a highly artificial example or thought experiment, like a supposedly hypothetical description of a suicide bomber that is carefully constructed to evoke a specific religious group. Second, affirm the intuitions and stereotypes that inevitably come to the reader’s mind. (It isn’t that you’ve primed the pump, it’s that they are onto something!) Third, inoculate against nuance. Promise that there is one magic explanation, which P.C. culture doesn’t want you to know about.
The Sam Harris Shuffle is all about eliding messy truths. Truths like the fact that the vast majority of terrorist attacks in the United States were carried out by non-Muslims. Or that the vast majority of terrorist attacks in the E.U. aren’t even motivated by religion, but other causes such as anarchism and political separatism. Or that plenty of other groups commit acts of terrorism and violence, but they don’t happen to fit the narrow thought experiment that Harris has constructed.
Fast-forward 12 years, and Harris’ arguments carry a new kind of charge. The United States is only beginning to reckon with the devastating consequences of its policies in the Middle East, which have led to hundreds of thousands of deaths. Closer to home, the surveillance and regulation of Muslims has become a major theme in the Republican presidential primary. Islamophobia is starting to merge with more traditional forms of white supremacy.
Meanwhile, Harris keeps plugging away. He has been open in his disdain for Trump and other Republican candidates. But his critiques of Islam—in their content, in their conclusions, and in their cognitive style—closely resemble the newest flavor of American demagoguery.
Where New Atheism and Donald Trump Meet
In his December review of Islam and the Future of Tolerance, Aziz criticized Harris for writing that Islamophobic incidents in the United States are “tiny in number, often property-related, and still dwarfed five-fold by similar offenses against Jews.” Aziz countered that
violence done against one minority should never be downplayed because there is greater violence against another minority. Harris has the supreme privilege—a rich, white man’s privilege, I should add—of remaining aloof and ignorant about these crimes, and it makes one wonder if he knows any Muslims beyond Maajid Nawaz and the two others he always cites, or if he has ever set foot in a Muslim-majority country and talked to more than a handful of Muslims.
In his most recent critique of Harris’ privilege, Aziz argues that Harris identifies Muslims primarily in terms of their religion:
Harris referred to me as a “young Muslim writer,” echoing his remarks during our debate where he referred to the same Middle Easterners he considers backward subhumans as “your fellow Muslims.” Imagine the grotesque stench of anti-Semitism if I called Sam Harris a “Jewish neuroscientist” or referred to Jewish terrorists in the West Bank as Harris’s “fellow Jews.”
That wording, and what he sees as Harris’ general ignorance about the nuances of a religious group with close to two billion followers worldwide, leads Aziz to his most provocative point:
This is what white supremacy does: It reduces another person’s complex humanity to a two-dimensional stick-figure and allows the objectifier to remain so ignorant of how other people actually live that this ignorance becomes a privileged badge of honor rather than a mark of impoverishment.
What’s so striking about this assertion is that, by this stage, Aziz isn’t even talking about religion or God. As Aziz identifies, the basic issue here isn’t Harris’ conception of religion, but rather his fundamental understanding of social groups.
From his privileged Western viewpoint, Harris reduces social collectives to essential types. Where white supremacists subscribe to a typology of race, however, Harris assigns people to groups based on their creeds. It is telling that Harris is such a strong proponent of Samuel Huntington’s widely discredited “Clash of Civilizations” thesis, which posits a civilizational war between Islam and the West, and which has been popular among both neocons and white supremacists for years.
Like Huntington, Harris sees humans as mere pawns in the titanic struggles of big motivating belief systems, like Christianity or Islam. He seems to believe that something as abstract as Islam can get inside the heads of hundreds of millions of people and animate them to act and think in the same way. This simplifies the world into a caricature that would have been attractive to many in the years immediately following September 11, 2001. If conflict arise between groups of people for a more diverse set of reasons—including competition over resources and struggles for social power—terrorism would not be so easy to solve.
Since most people in the world—unlike educated Americans born to affluent parents in the 1970s—are born into specific belief systems and lack easy routes to shed them wholesale, Harris’ creed-based essentialism ends up dividing the world into two parts: educated, liberal, mostly-white Westerners who have an inordinate amount of power; and the mostly non-white rest of the world who are subject to that power.
It is in this sense that Harris really does resemble a white supremacist. Harris doesn’t see Muslims as a diverse set of individuals, but as a monolithic Other that is violent, out to get us, and in need of civilizing. Harris would point out that his rationalism and classical liberalism set him apart from right-wing ideologues, and certainly from a demagogue like Trump. In that bounded sense, he’d be correct. But his essentialism, his vision of geopolitical struggle, and his willingness to generalize about Islam all do resonate with contemporary demagoguery. And those overlaps may be more salient than specific differences in policy or epistemology.
To be clear, Harris is not endorsing white supremacy in the popular sense of the term; he doesn’t posit the essential superiority of whiteness. But when it comes to Islam, he has arrived at very similar conclusions. In doing so, he offers a dangerous example of how hardline atheist thinkers can evoke underlying prejudices under the guise of rational objectivity.
If there’s any lesson to be learned from this bizarre political season, it’s that essentialist rhetoric about minority groups still has mass appeal. And the odd convergence between Harris’ rationalism and the political far-right is a reminder that not even rationalists are immune to the specter of prejudice.
Also on The Cubit: Fighting Fire with Ire: 3 Lessons from Noam Chomsky’s Takedown of Sam Harris