A Racism Like Any Other?

Recently, philosopher Sam Harris got embroiled in a(nother) debate about his views of Islam, and whether his focus on Islam is or is not based on an irrational hatred of Islam or Muslims.  Harris compiled a detailed piece trying to lay out his refutations of the most common attacks he receives, much of which was devoted to defending his views on Islam.  Reading it left me feeling both that Harris is attacked unfairly on a range of issues that he expresses controversial and unpopular viewpoints on, and that he has a particular axe to grind with religion, as he gives no voice whatsoever to the moderates that populate (in some cases forming the majority of) each religious group.

In parrying the charge of Islamophobia, Harris — in an admittedly novel way — brings our attention to what the term means.  First, he explains that “[t]he term “Islamophobia” is now being used as a kind of intellectual blood libel to protect intrinsically harmful ideas from criticism.”  On it’s face, the idea that “Islamophobia is a term of propaganda” is hard to credit.  However, the idea that a type of racism, or insensitivity more generally, could gain such societal opprobrium as to put anyone engaged — or accused of being engaged — in such hate speech beyond the pale, is nothing new for Jews alive today.  The example of Chuck Hagel should speak for itself.  I think, therefore, that the only way to judge this idea is to let the argument play out.

While it might be argued that in this sense Islamophobia is similar to antisemitism, Harris is clear in why he thinks it is nothing like other forms of bigotry.

Islamophobia is something else entirely. It is, Greenwald tells us in his three points, an “irrational” and “disproportionate” and “unjustified” focus on Muslims. But the only way that Muslims can reasonably be said to exist as a group is in terms of their adherence to the doctrine of Islam. There is no race of Muslims. They are not united by any physical traits or a diaspora. Unlike Judaism, Islam is a vast, missionary faith. The only thing that defines the class of All Muslims—and the only thing that could make this group the possible target of anyone’s “irrational” fear, “disproportionate” focus, or “unjustified” criticism—is their adherence to a set of beliefs and the behaviors that these beliefs inspire.

Harris does have a point — Islam is not a race in the same way that Judaism is.  However, I believe that Harris, in writing and arguing as vociferously as he does, exhibits a prejudice against Muslims for their beliefs.  This constitutes Islamophobia because Muslims deserve to be treated the same way we treat all human beings — with a basic level of respect and honour.  A teaching that spans cultures in support of this claim is known generally as the Golden Rule.  Harris, however, would agree with the statement of fact while disagreeing that what he is doing is prejudiced in any way, because he argues that what Muslims believe invites such criticism:

So “Islamophobia” must be—it really can only be—an irrational, disproportionate, and unjustified fear of certain people, regardless of their ethnicity or any other accidental trait, because of what they believe and to the degree to which they believe it. Thus the relevant question to ask is whether a special concern about people who are deeply committed to the actual doctrines of Islam, in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001, is irrational, disproportionate, and unjustified.

This is why I am concerned, along with others, like Greenwald, that Harris has gone too far.  He has allowed the social climate thriving in the US now of a basic distrust of anything that reminds people of 9/11, affect his reasoning.  His reading of Islam is determined too strongly by the terrorists who destroyed what were admittedly more than a number of symbolic buildings in New York and Washington. Despite the tragedy that occurred, I think it is clear that 9/11 is not the lens through which to productively or realistically view Islam.

Harris then argues that liberals cannot hide behind a claim that Islam as portrayed by al-Qaeda is a fringe element, because:

Those who adhere most strictly to the actual teachings of Islam, those who expound its timeless dogma most honestly, are precisely the people whom Greenwald and other obscurantists want us to believe least represent the faith.

Harris needs to consider the fact that religion is extremely complex, and that the scriptural texts that ground a religion are not the only thing that speak for it.  Harris exhibits an extreme arrogance by claiming that he can speak for Islam and tell all of its adherents that if they are not fundamentalist in their beliefs, they are not adhering to the doctrine of Islam.  This seems extremely similar to a claim made, explicitly and implicitly, by Orthodox Jews to non-Orthodox Jews (though the word ‘fundamentalist’ is not the most charitable).  It represents a different worldview relating to how one’s religion interacts with modernity and the surrounding culture.

I am not a scholar of Islam, and can only use my knowledge of the myriad ways in which Judaism has and continues to struggle with this dilemma, coupled with knowing Muslims who live this struggle, to debunk Harris’ general claim.  While he often quotes Muslim texts, I have a harder time believing that he has his finger on the pulse of the nuance of Muslim communities, in the US and elsewhere.  I will wait until a plurality of Muslim scholars come out and admit that Harris has a point before I cede him authority on topics concerning Muslim beliefs and practices.

In my own experience, approaching any sphere of human life with the assumption that there is nothing redeeming about it tends to lead to finding nothing redeeming about it.  Such an approach also blinds one to the meaning, joy, and potential of the area in question.  A proper dose of intellectual humility requires one to reflect, in such situations, that countless people have structured meaningful lives around this set of (alien) beliefs, and it is more likely that we do not know enough to properly judge them, rather than it being the case that ‘I am right and they are all wrong.’

I am inherently wary of statements like the one Harris makes on this matter, when he says “I maintain that anyone who considers my views to be a symptom of irrational fear is ignorant, dishonest, or insane.”  Not only is all dialogue quashed when one party makes this his view, but it represents a hubris that a philosopher should be careful to avoid.  If the history of ideas that philosophy is the study of has taught us anything, it is that there is always another way to consider a matter.  We do not have the answers to the big questions, and I am not of the belief that I happen to live in the generation that finds them all.  Harris claims with such certainty to have found the right lens through which to view the world.  This is an inherently dangerous position to take, and the only way to move past it is to begin to undermine the foundations that have built up this certainty, in this case Harris’ reliance on reason (cold, hard logic).  What if religion drew people to it in ways that were not reducible to logic?  What if one derived a host of benefits, stretching from the general joy of community to a sense of profound meaning in the world, from adhering to a religion despite the questionable things that a given scripture says?

For an example of how Muslim scripture, like all scripture can be read in a radically different way than Harris does, see here.


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