Sam Harris, Glenn Greenwald, and the recent animus against 'New Atheism'
#1
Recently, there have been well publicized allegations about 'Islamophobia' against Sam Harris, primarily, and other 'New Atheists' secondarily.

What are your thoughts about it?

I list the anti-New-Atheist arguments below, along with a few words about the problems with the arguments:

1. New atheists are basically racists 'couching' [Hussain, Al Jazeera] their racism in atheism. A common example used here is Hitchens' claim that cluster bombs should be used on Islamic terrorists. Hussain and Greenwald both misrepresent Hitchens' quote about cluster bombing enemy combatants as cluster bombing of muslims.

2. Most Islamic practitioners are black or brown, so 'Islamophobia' is a form of racism. A non-sequitur, really.

3. Glenn Greenwald, sticking to his role as an anti-American-imperialism activist, talks about how Harris' criticism of Islam is a symptom of 'blaming the other'. I think there's a problem conflating American politics with criticism of Islam. The main topic of Greenwald's writing has been criticism of transgressions caused by American foreign policy. While there is legitimate space for such criticism, Greenwald would do well to understand that while Harris criticizes Islamic doctrine, Islamic terrorism itself is more complex. Islamic doctrine is the main driver of Islamic terrorism. There are other causes of such terrorism- including geopolitical factors. Greenwald ignores Islamic doctrine as a cause, in his apparent zeal in characterizing Harris as a neocon.

4. Harris is an 'extreme right-wing' nut [Hussain, Al Jazeera], thanks to his support of torture and racial profiling. This is again a misrepresentation of Harris' views. In reality, Harris only examined the moral nuances of torture and racial profiling. His refined claim was that torture and profiling should not be categorically precluded. From a consequentialist, utilitarian point of view, extreme situations permit torture (e.g. captured enemy combatant with knowledge of nuclear terrorism). Profiling, he supported based on empirical evidence. Important disagreements about the strategic usefulness of profiling were raised by Bruce Schneir in his debate with Harris.

To me, there seems to be a fundamental problem with the allegations of Islamophobia from Greenwald and others. Not one of them acknowledges the inequities of Islamic law. It appears that they fail to notice how societies suffer under Islamic regimes. This is an alarming omission. As most of us here know, 'New Atheism''s primary concerns pertain to the incompatibility of Islamic doctrines with human rights.

While it is disturbing that Greenwald and others do not discuss this, it isn't very surprising if you consider the fact that their primary expertise and background is in the criticism of American politics and foreign policy.

Hussain: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion...18256.html
Greenwald: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/...lim-animus

Defense:
Harris: http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/...troversy2/
Coyne: http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/...bia-again/
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#2
(11-Apr-2013, 08:11 AM)karatalaamalaka Wrote: 1. New atheists are basically racists 'couching' [Hussain, Al Jazeera] their racism in atheism. A common example used here is Hitchens' claim that cluster bombs should be used on Islamic terrorists. Hussain and Greenwald both misrepresent Hitchens' quote about cluster bombing enemy combatants as cluster bombing of muslims.

I think Glenn's only mistake here is that he takes Hitchens' blood curdling neo-con rhetoric and associates it to new atheists. But you can not be hard on Glenn for that, after all Hitchens wore both hats.

(11-Apr-2013, 08:11 AM)karatalaamalaka Wrote: 2. Most Islamic practitioners are black or brown, so 'Islamophobia' is a form of racism. A non-sequitur, really.

He does not accuse Harris of being a racist, but he understand why someone could view him as one given the racial background of muslims and Sam's ethinicity. But Glenn is only focused on Sam's irrational anti-muslim rants. Here is a cut-paste from Glenn's article that essentially says that.

Quote:Whether Islamophobia is a form of "racism" is a semantic issue in which I'm not interested for purposes of this discussion. The vast majority of Muslims are non-white; as a result, when a white westerner becomes fixated on attacking their religion and advocating violence and aggression against them, as Harris has done, I understand why some people (such as Hussain) see racism at play: that, for reasons I recently articulated, is a rational view to me. But "racism" is not my claim here about Harris. Irrational anti-Muslim animus is.

(11-Apr-2013, 08:11 AM)karatalaamalaka Wrote: To me, there seems to be a fundamental problem with the allegations of Islamophobia from Greenwald and others. Not one of them acknowledges the inequities of Islamic law. It appears that they fail to notice how societies suffer under Islamic regimes. This is an alarming omission.

I believe Glenn Greenwald addresses this with the words of Noam Chomsky in the same article.

Quote:"My own concern is primarily the terror and violence carried out by my own state, for two reasons. For one thing, because it happens to be the larger component of international violence. But also for a much more important reason than that; namely, I can do something about it.

"So even if the U.S. was responsible for 2 percent of the violence in the world instead of the majority of it, it would be that 2 percent I would be primarily responsible for. And that is a simple ethical judgment. That is, the ethical value of one's actions depends on their anticipated and predictable consequences. It is very easy to denounce the atrocities of someone else. That has about as much ethical value as denouncing atrocities that took place in the 18th century."

I believe both Glenn and Noam are in the right here.

Quote:As most of us here know, 'New Atheism''s primary concerns pertain to the incompatibility of Islamic doctrines with human rights.

All religious doctrines are incompatible with human rights. But why would Glenn spend any of his time on that? He will call out Islamophobia where ever he sees it. He sees it in Sam Harris and calls it out. To the extent to which new atheists are obsessed with defending Sam Harris's un-nuanced (I know you call it nuanced but I don't) positions on Islam they should also be called out.
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#3
(11-Apr-2013, 09:21 AM)Captain Mandrake Wrote: I believe both Glenn and Noam are in the right here.

Not in any absolute sense.

It doesn't even take into account the difference in the extent of harm caused by American transgressions vs. Islamic doctrine. The latter is clearly worse for the future of the free world. In the present context, this argument of Chomsky's overemphasizes the geo-political factors that cause Islamic terrorism while underplaying the role of religious dogma.

But the correctness of their moral stance is irrelevant here. My point is that Greenwald's attack is blunted by his refusal to address one of the principal tenets of 'new atheism', which is the incompatibility of religious (particularly, Islamic) doctrine and human rights. There is no reconciling the two. I don't understand how these are "straw men" as Greenwald claims:

Quote:Let's first quickly dispense with some obvious strawmen. Of course one can legitimately criticize Islam without being bigoted or racist. That's self-evident, and nobody is contesting it. And of course there are some Muslim individuals who do heinous things in the name of their religion - just like there are extremists in all religions who do awful and violent things in the name of that religion, yet receive far less attention than the bad acts of Muslims (here are some very recent examples). Yes, "honor killings" and the suppression of women by some Muslims are heinous, just as the collaboration of US and Ugandan Christians to enact laws to execute homosexuals is heinous, and just as the religious-driven, violent occupation of Palestine, attacks on gays, and suppression of women by some Israeli Jews in the name of Judaism is heinous. That some Muslims commit atrocities in the name of their religion (like some people of every religion do) is also too self-evident to merit debate, but it has nothing to do with the criticisms of Harris.

These are very germane to any discussion about the overarching philosophy of 'new atheism'.

Besides, how does Greenwald's disagreement with American policies justify his virulent and logically flawed attack on 'New Atheism'?

He may disagree on a few things with Harris- the justification for the Iraq war (Greenwald himself supported it once), categorical preclusion of torture as a method of interrogation, etc. But that still isn't sufficient to characterize the entire 'New Atheism'-movement as being singularly obsessed with bashing Islam without moral scruples.


---
Greenwald's views on the Iraq war:

Quote:Despite these doubts, concerns, and grounds for ambivalence, I had not abandoned my trust in the Bush administration. Between the president’s performance in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the swift removal of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the fact that I wanted the president to succeed, because my loyalty is to my country and he was the leader of my country, I still gave the administration the benefit of the doubt. I believed then that the president was entitled to have his national security judgment deferred to, and to the extent that I was able to develop a definitive view, I accepted his judgment that American security really would be enhanced by the invasion of this sovereign country.
(source: http://www.democraticunderground.com/100297462 )

Clearly, he is pragmatic here. He is not categorically pacifist. It is hypocritical of him to rail against Harris for making similar exceptions in other contexts.
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#4
(11-Apr-2013, 09:21 AM)Captain Mandrake Wrote: ...Sam Harris's un-nuanced (I know you call it nuanced but I don't) positions on Islam they should also be called out.

Nuance is irrelevant when it comes to criticizing religious dogma.

I only commended his nuanced approach to arguing about complex moral issues such as torture and profiling.
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#5
(11-Apr-2013, 09:21 AM)Captain Mandrake Wrote: He will call out Islamophobia where ever he sees it. He sees it in Sam Harris and calls it out. To the extent to which new atheists are obsessed with defending Sam Harris's un-nuanced (I know you call it nuanced but I don't) positions on Islam they should also be called out.

Clearly, Greenwald is cherry-picking Harris' criticism of Islam.

Harris, Hitchens, etc. have written several hundreds of thousands of words criticizing Christianity and other religions too.

Evidently, in today's world, Islamic terrorism is a bigger problem than say, Christian, Jewish, or Hindu terrorism. More people and regimes adhere more strictly to Islam than any other religion. (Buddhist, Hindu, Christian regimes are terrible in the handful of societies they rule over.)

Why does Greenwald have to single out Harris' criticism of Islam and vilify 'New Atheism' based on that?

The only way Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins, etc. can be innocent of the bigotry alleged by Greenwald is if they held back in their criticism of Islam. So is his suggestion that Islam, some of whose practitioners are brown-skinned enemies of USA, be treated gently just because it can, paraphrasing him, lead some to the rational conclusion that Harris may be racist and neo-con? Something doesn't sound right there.
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#6
(11-Apr-2013, 08:11 AM)karatalaamalaka Wrote: 3. Glenn Greenwald, sticking to his role as an anti-American-imperialism activist, talks about how Harris' criticism of Islam is a symptom of 'blaming the other'. I think there's a problem conflating American politics with criticism of Islam. The main topic of Greenwald's writing has been criticism of transgressions caused by American foreign policy. While there is legitimate space for such criticism, Greenwald would do well to understand that while Harris criticizes Islamic doctrine, Islamic terrorism itself is more complex. Islamic doctrine is the main driver of Islamic terrorism. There are other causes of such terrorism- including geopolitical factors. Greenwald ignores Islamic doctrine as a cause, in his apparent zeal in characterizing Harris as a neocon.

I find it difficult to tease out the part of the point here that is relevant to your thesis. Is the following your point?
Glenn views American foreign policy as the biggest source of violence and Harris views Islamic doctrine to be the biggest source of violence. And that you (karatalaamalaka) think that Harris’ views are more accurate than Glenn’s views? Is that the point you are making?

PS: Reading one of your later post (http://nirmukta.net/Thread-Sam-Harris-Gl...27#pid8027 ) I think I understand your position. I will respond in a separate post.

(11-Apr-2013, 08:11 AM)karatalaamalaka Wrote: 4. Harris is an 'extreme right-wing' nut [Hussain, Al Jazeera], thanks to his support of torture and racial profiling. This is again a misrepresentation of Harris' views. In reality, Harris only examined the moral nuances of torture and racial profiling. His refined claim was that torture and profiling should not be categorically precluded. From a consequentialist, utilitarian point of view, extreme situations permit torture (e.g. captured enemy combatant with knowledge of nuclear terrorism). Profiling, he supported based on empirical evidence. Important disagreements about the strategic usefulness of profiling were raised by Bruce Schneir in his debate with Harris.

However you spin it you cannot change the fact that Harris supports torture and racial profiling. Also what difference does it make to the person subjected to torture or racial profiling that these programs have the support of Harris’ nuanced arguments? You also seem to imply that these programs actually do not exist and Harris is only hypothetically testing out the ethical boundaries of such programs with his logical arguments. This is patently false. These programs do exist and Harris plays a role in desensitizing the public to increase the appeal of these programs. In that sense, I too think he is a extreme right-wing tool.
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#7
(11-Apr-2013, 10:03 AM)karatalaamalaka Wrote:
(11-Apr-2013, 09:21 AM)Captain Mandrake Wrote: ...Sam Harris's un-nuanced (I know you call it nuanced but I don't) positions on Islam they should also be called out.

Nuance is irrelevant when it comes to criticizing religious dogma.

I only commended his nuanced approach to arguing about complex moral issues such as torture and profiling.

Point noted. However, a nuanced approach as opposed to an un-nuanced approach to support torture and racial profiling makes no difference to those who are at the receiving end of these programs.
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#8
(11-Apr-2013, 08:11 AM)karatalaamalaka Wrote: 3. Glenn Greenwald, sticking to his role as an anti-American-imperialism activist, talks about how Harris' criticism of Islam is a symptom of 'blaming the other'. I think there's a problem conflating American politics with criticism of Islam. The main topic of Greenwald's writing has been criticism of transgressions caused by American foreign policy. While there is legitimate space for such criticism, Greenwald would do well to understand that while Harris criticizes Islamic doctrine, Islamic terrorism itself is more complex. Islamic doctrine is the main driver of Islamic terrorism. There are other causes of such terrorism- including geopolitical factors. Greenwald ignores Islamic doctrine as a cause, in his apparent zeal in characterizing Harris as a neocon.

(11-Apr-2013, 09:56 AM)karatalaamalaka Wrote: It doesn't even take into account the difference in the extent of harm caused by American transgressions vs. Islamic doctrine. The latter is clearly worse for the future of the free world. In the present context, this argument of Chomsky's overemphasizes the geo-political factors that cause Islamic terrorism while underplaying the role of religious dogma.

I simply disagree with you. IMO, it is the other way around. Not only do you (and Harris) overestimate the role Islamic doctrine plays in the phenomenon that you call as “Islamic terrorism” but you also overestimate the negative impact of this phenomenon on the world.

First, there are lots of different causes for “Islamic terrorism” with Islamic doctrine being just one of the causes. How these causes (poverty, education, lack of democracy, colonial hangovers, Islamic doctrine) interact with each other and to what extent they contribute to this phenomena are questions that need to be answered first before we can fully assign the blame to Islamic doctrine. I do not think anyone has done that conclusively. But even if we agree for the sake of the argument that Islamic doctrine is the sole driver of Islamic terrorism we cannot just say that Islamic terrorism is the top most issue that threatens the world. Here are some of the other issues: global financial crisis, global climate change, state sponsored terrorism including the illegal invasion of sovereign nations. Chomsky (and Greenwald) seem to think that Islamic terrorism though is a serious issue pales in comparison to other issues that they typically focus on. I agree with them.

Now coming back to Greenwald’s article, it is not an attack on new atheism. It is just an attack on Harris and his horrible views. He makes this point in this update to the article.

Quote:Sam Harris in 2005: "I am one of the few people I know of who has argued in print that torture may be an ethical necessity in our war on terror."
Sam Harris in 2012: "We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it."
Sam Harris in 2005: "In our dealings with the Muslim world, we must acknowledge that Muslims have not found anything of substance to say against the actions of the September 11 hijackers, apart from the ubiquitous canard that they were really Jews." (Harris' own ugly canard would come as news to CAIR, the leading Muslim advocacy group, as well as most of the world's Muslims).
By themselves, those statements - fully in context - negate 90% of the comments from Harris defenders. If you're going to defend him, do remember to defend these.
One last point: I absolutely do not believe that Harris - or, for that matter, Hitchens - is representative of all or even most atheists in this regard. The vast majority of atheists I know find such sentiments repellent. They are representative only of themselves and those who share these views, not atheists generally.

I am a new atheist who also finds these views of Harris (and Hitchens) repellant, and I do not feel like the new atheist movement has been smeared by Greenwald at all. If at all anything the secular humanists in the new atheist movement who have been on the fence on Harris might just move past him as they try and fail to defend his horrible views highlighted by Greenwald in this article.
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#9
(11-Apr-2013, 10:14 AM)karatalaamalaka Wrote: The only way Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins, etc. can be innocent of the bigotry alleged by Greenwald is if they held back in their criticism of Islam. So is his suggestion that Islam, some of whose practitioners are brown-skinned enemies of USA, be treated gently just because it can, paraphrasing him, lead some to the rational conclusion that Harris may be racist and neo-con? Something doesn't sound right there.

Islam can be criticized with out prescribing racial profiling programs for muslims and muslim-like people. Islam can be criticized with out riling up xenophobic hatred and putting undue burden on someone who wants to build an Islamic cultural center. Islam can be criticized with out associating yourselves with neo-cons.

PS: No one will accuse new atheists of anything if they have views like PZ who also criticizes Islam on a regular basis.
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#10
My thoughts on this are explained below. I’m basing them on what I’ve seen being said on New atheism and Islamophobia on the Internet and not strictly on what has already been said in this thread. After I started composing my reply, it turned out to be pretty long. So here’s a tl;dr:

  • I agree that Islamophobia is a misused term. There is no justification to call Harris an Islamophobe (I’m assuming that the term means a Muslim hater, a bigot who judges a Muslim just because the Muslim is a Muslim)

  • But Greenwald has a valid point about bigotry in new atheism. He heavily dilutes that point by misrepresenting Harris’ views (by way of endorsing Hussain’s article).

  • Harris’ views about profiling are problematic.

--

The non tl;dr version:

At the root of the issue are misguided views about multiculturalism and post-colonialism that certain sections of the left hold. In their wariness of the harm Western hegemony can do to a society, they err on the side of caution and end up lending credence to fundamentalists in that society by way of chastising anyone from the West speaking up against the fundamentalists.

This problem arises because there is a fine line between being sensitive to a society that isn’t privileged like a developed western country and calling out fundamentalism in that society. But I believe one can toe this fine line as long as they pay attention to what people from that society, who are fighting the fundamentalists and also subcribe to secular humanism, are saying.

I’ll cite an example from the Indian context. Both Neo-Hinduism and Hindutva have ridden on the coattails of post-colonial guilt and multiculturalism . While neo-Hinduism sought to preserve dangerous superstitions and shaky ethics in the garb of reviving a culture decimated by colonialism, Hindutva took advantage of that to sell their hateful agenda. It would be galling to see a critique of Hinduism get brushed aside as the work of a brown sahib, a servant of imperialism. This is a very common experience many of us have faced. Just because we use philosophical ideas that borrow from the West, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ve borrowed all of them including those that justify imperialism. By any agreeable definition of harm, Hinduism causes harm. Pointing it out can never be being an apologist for western aggression.

So I view Islamophobia in the same context. Just because a new atheist is stringent in their criticism of Islam, that does not make them an Islamophobe. Just because the West is guilty of immense crimes, that doesn’t mean that a Westener cannot point out the ills of Islam. Frankly, this is an annoying trend I see on the left. White guilt is better served by paying attention to what people from the non-privileged society are saying rather than anoint themselves as arbiters of what is good and what is not good for a non-privileged society.

That said, all is not rosy with the new atheism. I believe this is what Greenwald wanted to highlight but squandered the opportunity by misrepresenting some of Harris’ views.

There is a clear problem of bigotry amongst the new atheists. Again, using the Indian context, it’s hard to miss it. I’ve touched upon this in my post about some Hindu atheists. New atheism can become a convenient mask for muslim hatred. When Harris comes to a conclusion, there is a fair bit of reasoning involved in it. But some new atheists just go with the conclusions while completely ignoring the reasoning behind them.

Jerry Coyne says this in his critique of allegations of Islamophobia:

Quote:Granted, there are those bigots who dislike Muslims because many of them are “brown people,” or want to deny them immigration or prohibit them from building mosques or worshiping in the U.S., but New Atheists are not among these.

That is simply not true. I'd even go as far as to say that this is a version of the no true scotsman argument. There are new atheists who dislike muslims just because they are muslims and not because they are muslims who subscribe to an ideology of intolerance and violence. I agree with the other points that Coyne makes, but saying there are no bigots is what I think leads people like Greenwald to think that there is an Islamophobia problem in new atheism.

This can be also be reasoned like this - new atheists can’t magically be expected to be free of all biases that are pervasive in the environment they grew up in. It is very reasonable to expect that new atheists are more knowledgeable about science and are well informed about the reasons for why there is no god. There are a lot of popular books of that teach them that. But being a new atheist tells you nothing at all about where they stand on matters which are hard to notice like intersectionality. The science in those matters isn’t as cut and dried as hard sciences like physics and there is a great deal of moral reasoning involved in them. So it is unreasonable to think that no new atheists hold bigoted views.

That brings me to another point. IIRC Harris defines muslims as those who subscribe to Islam. And he defines Islam as an ideology of intolerance and violence without making it abundantly clear that those definitions don’t lead to the logical conclusion that muslims are intolerant and violent. I may well be wrong on thinking Harris has said it. Even if he did, I don’t think he is that daft to believe in the conclusion. As is usual with him, I expect that his views are nuanced. But I’ve seen atheists subscribe to that conclusion. That is the justification used by bigots to dislike Muslims just because they are Muslim.

What does lack nuance is Harris’s position on profiling. This is one thing he gets completely wrong. In consequentialism, you need to first define what “good” is. Only after establishing agreement on what “good” is can you make an argument on how to maximize “good”. In his argument for profiling, Harris presumes what “good” is, just like how he presumed what “good” is in his book The Moral Landscape.

Once you define “good” in a simplistic way as that which does not benefit Islamic fundamentalism, it becomes a logical certainty that profiling is justified. A more nuanced view would take into consideration the CMB like discrimination that is prevalent against Muslims. It is easier for Harris to say that he himself doesn’t object to being profiled. He is an US citizen with a non-muslim name and who doesn’t do what other Americans expect Muslims to do. Given that, I’d assert that he has little clue of what it is like to be a Muslim post 9/11. Hence his preference for profiling. Also, just because Israel does something, it doesn’t become the template of morally acceptable behaviour. Humans rights regularly come in the way of efficient law enforcement. You just cannot prefer the latter over the former and still claim that you are maximizing “good”.

An ironic aside - Sam Harris whilst battling allegations of Islamaphobia shares the similar kind of rosy picture for Hinduism that some leftists have for Islam. Just like you cannot divorce Islam’s positives from its political ideology you cannot divorce Hindu spirituality from the moral effects it had. I don’t mind separating those two when making an argument, but if you insist on combining both, you better apply the same standards everywhere.
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#11
(13-Apr-2013, 08:52 AM)Lije Wrote: An ironic aside - Sam Harris whilst battling allegations of Islamaphobia shares the similar kind of rosy picture for Hinduism that some leftists have for Islam. Just like you cannot divorce Islam’s positives from its political ideology you cannot divorce Hindu spirituality from the moral effects it had. I don’t mind separating those two when making an argument, but if you insist on combining both, you better apply the same standards everywhere.

People on the left might pull their punches because of post-colonial guilt. They may even hinder genuine criticism of flaws in Islamic societies as they did when Time magazine had this image of an Afghan girl with mangled face on their cover.

But do people on the left actually have a rosy picture of Islam? Can you give me some examples?
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#12
(13-Apr-2013, 09:45 AM)Captain Mandrake Wrote: But do people on the left actually have a rosy picture of Islam? Can you give me some examples?

By rosy, I mean they tend to ignore that Islam is directly responsible and instead lay all the blame on political and economic factors. I'm guessing Harris would do the same for spirituality. He'd ignore the role played by spiritualists like Shankara in sustaining a dehumanising system and say that the fault lies not with spirituality but with something else.
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