Last week, the blogger Hemant Mehta, who writes under the moniker “The Friendly Atheist,” told us to remove our heads from our asses and send Sam Harris an apology for an essay we published the previous week.
The piece’s headline, Is Sam Harris Really a White Supremacist?, was provocative, but it wasn’t a random ad hominem attack; a critic at Salon had recently suggested that Harris, a prominent atheist writer, was espousing white supremacy. Others have made similar charges in the past. And regardless of what you think of Harris’ reasoning, there’s no question that some of his claims about Islam have started to sound awfully similar to the Islamophobic invective coming from the far right.
Harris has said that “we are at war with Islam,” and he has argued that Muslims ought to be profiled. Mehta himself agrees with critics that Harris’ plan to profile Muslims is, “in part,” racial profiling.
As we wrote last week, “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.”
Indeed, as Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz calls on law enforcement to “patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods” it’s more important than ever that we investigate how some corners of intellectual atheism can so closely align with right-wing, anti-Islamic bigotry.
So when Harris was obliquely accused of white supremacy, we took pause. “Is Sam Harris Really a White Supremacist?” isn’t just the title of our article; it’s a question that we asked each other. Harris is, of course, very different from someone like David Duke, the KKK leader whose vision of white superiority is the public face of “white supremacy” for many Americans.
At the same time, bigotry comes in many forms. It is possible to buy into racially-tinged narratives of global conflict, and to target specific groups of people, without embracing the kind of white supremacy characteristic of Duke.
After a close reading of Harris’ writing, we ended up arriving at a somewhat mixed conclusion. We were very critical of Harris, but we were aware of the connotations of the phrase white supremacy:
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.
We thought of this mixed conclusion as an example of nuance. But some thinkers seemed baffled that, having posed a complicated question, we were able to arrive at something other than a straightforward “Yes” or “No.”
— Sam Harris (@SamHarrisOrg) March 21, 2016
We’ve taken some time to give The Friendly Atheist a friendly read, and his main argument is that we simply got Harris wrong.
[Aghapour and Schulson] say [Harris] doesn’t see Muslims as individuals, but as monolithic… Not only did Harris write his latest book with someone who identifies as a Muslim, he’s actively praised Muslim reformers like Malala Yousafzai, and supported the work of moderate Muslims who want to reform the extremist views within the faith.
While we’re glad to hear that some of Sam’s best friends are Muslim, we don’t see how that makes his arguments any more or less bigoted. Our case is that, no matter who his friends are, whom he works with, or whom he praises, Harris makes dubious arguments about Islam based on a flawed and prejudicial Clash of Civilizations ideology.
We’ll frame the real issue here in a simple binary, in order to make it easier for some people to understand. Is Islam:
(A) A dynamic tradition that is practiced, interpreted, adapted, and lived out in a global patchwork of cultures and communities, across the lives of 1.6 billion people?
(B) A belief system that’s at war with other ideas?
Though they make a nod to option (A), Harris’ and Mehta’s writings both incline sharply toward option (B). This Us versus Them approach can yield some ugly thinking.
For example, Mehta writes that, “Harris has been trying to address the matter of how Islam, more than any other faith, is a threat to our civilization.”
“Our civilization”? We’re not sure which civilization Mehta is talking about, but we’re pretty sure that millions of Muslims are active, equal members of the American polity—to say nothing of the other nations Mehta and Harris might have in mind when they drop a term like “our civilization.” Surely Mehta was just referring to strains of militant thinking within Islam, and not implying that anyone who follows Islam is somehow following a creed opposed to “our civilization.” But his language is sloppy, and revealing in its sloppiness.
Here’s Mehta offering further reflections on Harris:
He doesn’t condemn all Muslims as violent or supportive of violence. Far from it. Rather, he sees Islam as a religion with holy writings that, when taken literally as they are by so many people, have already lead to death and destruction. Unless we can reform the faith, this won’t stop. And that won’t happen unless we’re willing to admit the problem lies in the core beliefs and the fact that some people take them at face value.
As we demonstrated last week, reducing a global religion to one or two “core” elements of your choosing is shoddy thinking, bad scholarship, and an open door to uglier, more essentializing forms of critique. Apart from his plea that “we” reform Islam (though one wonders with some trepidation who the “we” is here), Mehta’s essentialist rhetoric echoes that of Muslim extremists themselves, who likewise insist that violence is somehow a fundamental, core tenet of Islam.
To be clear: we are not saying that Islam has absolutely nothing to do with the acts of violence committed in its name. A terrorist attack is the grotesque culmination of numerous socio-psychological forces, and religious beliefs aren’t necessarily immune to responsibility. But religious beliefs are never the sole actor, either. All essentialist claims about Islam—whether about its inherent violence or its inherent non-violence—are misguided simplifications.
Commenters NB: The comments section for the previous piece was closed due to the numerous posts attacking the authors. Commenting is open below, but RD expects all commenters to address the ideas above and to treat the authors with respect. — eds