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The On Being Project

Sam Harris: Moral Clarity or Islamophobia?

Last month a contentious exchange broke out between Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald and one of the torchbearers of the so-called New Atheist movement — Sam Harris. The quarrel began when Mr. Greenwald tweeted a link to an Al Jazeera article by Murtaza Hussain. The article argued that some of the New Atheists (Mr. Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens) endorse, under the guise of rational scientific discourse, forms (often venomous) of anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Particularly problematic for Mr. Greenwald was Mr. Harris’ assertion — cited by Mr. Hussain — that “[the] people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.”

Mr. Harris then wrote to Mr. Greenwald, protesting Mr. Hussain’s “quote-mining,” criticizing the Al Jazeera article as “defamatory garbage,” and expressing frustration with Mr. Greenwald for promoting the piece.

However, reading Mr. Harris’ quote in context does little to call into question the conclusion reached by Mr. Hussain. Indeed, Mr. Harris confirmed Mr. Hussain’s conclusion when he explained to Mr. Greenwald that it was his (Mr. Harris) intention to “bemoan the loss of liberal moral clarity in the war on terror.”
It is a curious line of reasoning that allows Mr. Harris to espouse positive views about fascist speech and about the “moral clarity” of the Christian Right (a group included in the context provided by Mr. Harris) without assuming any of the liabilities of these positions. He endorses the “sensibleness” of their speech, neither as fascist speech nor as the speech of the Christian Right, but rather as the displaced speech of an authentic liberalism. Mr. Harris thus identifies his position with fascists and religious fundamentalists through his presumed ability to sanction their views without himself being identified with their practices.

This is the reason Mr. Harris takes such offense at the accusation that he is a racist or an Islamophobe. He is, as he states, “not making common cause with fascists,” but rather recovering the reasoned liberal position of defending “civil society” — a task, he claims, that in recent years has “been outsourced to extremists.”

Thus for Mr. Harris, the inability or unwillingness of secular, multicultural liberalism to press a vigorous critique of Islam is a symptom of its failure. With respect to Islam, liberals, according to Mr. Harris, ought to be ones “pointing the way beyond this iron-age madness,” but they have failed by virtue of their multicultural tolerance.

One of the critiques, advanced by Mr. Hussain against New Atheists like Mr. Harris, concerns the way in which their rational thinking is not as free from history as it presumes; on the contrary, it often exhibits the tendency to rehearse oppressive (at times racialized) features of colonial thought. Mr. Harris’ phrase “this iron age madness” functions as a clear example of the way in which he codes ‘non-Western’ as traditional, backward, and repressive, allowing the West to represent itself as modern, forward thinking, and free.

This form of reasoning confuses its descriptions with its presuppositions, using the former to covertly ground the latter.
In a notable example of such confused reasoning, Mr. Harris asserted, in a Huffington Post piece quoted by Mr. Hussain, that “the outrage that Muslims feel over US and British foreign policy is primarily the product of theological concerns.”

Here we see Mr. Harris’ assumptions: 1) theological concerns cannot provide a basis for reasonable claims; 2) theological concerns are symptoms of a mistaken (traditional, backward, culturally determined) understandings of oneself and the world; and 3) non-theological (atheistic) concerns as the only kinds of concerns capable of grounding an accurate view of oneself and the world.

Mr. Harris’ assumptions mask the vast differences internal to modes of religious thought (an oxymoron for Mr. Harris) and religious life. It also obscures the fact that there might, in fact, be non-theological reasons for Muslims to feel outraged over U.S. and British foreign policy.

Mr. Harris’ new form of atheism sounds very much like an old form of colonialism.

This is seen most clearly at those moments when Mr. Harris shows us the ethical character of his thinking. He writes, in the email response to Mr. Greenwald, “one of my main concerns is for all the suffering women, homosexuals, freethinkers, and intellectuals in indigenous Muslim societies.”

Appealing to the discourse of Western moral superiority, Mr. Harris invokes their plight as a way to justify belligerent attitudes against Islam. His reasoning predicates the West as the source of salvation and precludes the possibility of thinking meaningful social transformation outside the framework of an atheistic liberalism.

This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


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