A recent half-debate or exchange of heated emails between atheist author and public intellectual Sam Harris (author of The End of Faith) and famous Leftist intellectual Noam Chomsky exploded over the internet this past year. Followers of Sam Harris’ intellectual career in the past couple years have noticed his resurgence as a popular opinion leader due to his appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher in the months leading up to the election, his series of talks with Cenk Uygur, Maajid Nawaz, and his string of recent video blogs and blogs on political topics.
The crux of their half-debate was on the topic of Islamic terrorism, a topic chosen by Harris. Harris maintained that Islamic doctrine is the main cause for Islamic terrorism and tactics like suicide bombing are built into the logic of the Qu’ran. Chomsky tried shifting the debate to the terrain of US policy in the Middle East. Somewhere in there Harris called Chomsky an Islamic apologist, Chomsky called Harris ignorant about US history (in effect). Sam Harris’ argument against Chomsky is long and complicated, so I’ll link to it at the end of the article. Basically, Harris distinguishes between actors in Middle Eastern conflicts based on intention. Harris believes that one can say with certainty that Bush had “good misguided intentions”, and Hussein was an evil dictator in Iraq. Chomsky and Harris spend most of the email exchange arguing about the bombing of a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan authorized by President Clinton. Harris is on the side of Clinton thinking that there were chemical weapons at this plant. Chomsky goes on to demonstrate, in delicious detail (already published!) why this is not the case.
For the amount of time Harris later spends claiming his detractors are moralizing, I find this argument nothing but moralizing. That term itself is cheap- its a moral debate, aren’t we inherently moralizing? Furthermore, Harris claims later that we should not foolishly label people racists or bigots and shut down the conversation. Harris’ idea that Bush’s intentions are completely pure in the Middle East seems to me to be naive, but I will humor his argument more. If on the basis of moral intentions, we judge these actors in the sphere of foreign policy, Hussein=bad, America=good. But does intention completely justify the actions that come after it? Harris at times comes off as a weird sort of utilitarian (I will get back to this point later). It seems that stupid justifications of imperialism come with the territory of Mill-style utilitarianism, so this is fitting.
In his article, Harris mentions the My Lai massacre to argue that what distinguishes us from our current enemies is that “as a culture, we have clearly outgrown our tolerance for the deliberate torture and murder of innocents. We would do well to realize that much of the world has not” (Harris blog). Clearly, given the fact that this blog post was written in 2015, after Guantanamo Bay and after evidence has clearly shown that orders from higher ups were given in for torture in Abu Ghraib, this argument rings hollow for many Americans. Which Americans have outgrown our tolerance for deliberate torture? Certainly not Trump supporters…
Harris throughout his debate seems intent on believing that America has the best of intentions, and our enemies only the worst. In terms of the My Lai massacre, this was certainly horrific, but it is prescient that Harris leaves out Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia and other acts of terrorism by the United States. These acts were so horrific that we can almost forgive Chomsky for thinking that reports of Pol Pot’s genocide were exaggerated US propaganda.
Here’s an idea- what if the moral terrain is NOT BLACK AND WHITE. What a concept.
Some background on Harris. Sam Harris, in his book The End of Faith, became well known for his hard hitting anti-theist stance, based on the idea that religion is based on an attempt to fool the public into believing things that are essentially irrational, and that religion is the cause of many ancient and modern problems. His central thesis is that fundamentalism is the only honest form of a religion, because any religion that admits the supernatural must take this literally or be hypocritical. He makes a series of accusations that Islam in particular is a religion based on a conquest narrative, although he says Christianity at certain points in its history also had this strain of belief.
These arguments of course are no more original than Feuerbach and even a certain strain of Marxism, although he delves into the neuroscience of belief and other topics. With current political events about Islamic terrorism being what they are, it is only natural that Sam reemerge as the “voice of reason” not afraid to denounce Islam for what it is: a warlike ideology fueled by irrational beliefs.
I read this book when I was fairly young: 13 or 14, and I found the arguments pretty convincing at the time. Although I was young, I still hold that Harris does not pull punches when it comes to his argument. The fundamentalism question is still an intriguing thought problem. However I think it rests upon an assumption: an assumption that there can’t be a “legitimate” interpretation of a religion that is non-dogmatic and open to questioning. It has been argued that early Buddhism, which was also non-theistic, had this kind of character, when Buddha talks about testing his words like the purity of gold to determine if they suit your mind.
The “ideological mystification”/superstructure argument upon which Harris’ argument is based lacks the cultural-historical or context dependent analysis which has challenged the standard rationalist idea of religion as superstition and means of deception. Harris even lacks the classic Marxist depth of assuming that religion is a tool used by the owning classes to control the proleteriat, or the soul of a heartless world. Harris’ argument isn’t so much anti-organized religion or anti-clerical as anti-religion in all its forms. This is where our opinions diverge. The Absolute primacy of the atheist argument over the deist argument philosophically is not self evident to me either (neither is the other way around). But I digress.
Harris is a part of the growing new school of New Atheism or militant atheism. This community of people, I claim, has taken Sam Harris as a thought leader in the field of politics as well as religion. His analysis about Islam and terrorism has found support among the ranks of people who find the “dominant” narrative about multiculturalism and the idea of religions all being peaceful to be a cheap lie told to the public, a PC fabrication meant to maintain the status quo. For these New Atheists, Islam is seen as a bastion of bad ideas, from backwards ideas about the role of women in society to how to treat members of religions other than Islam.
The proof is in the pudding of the Qu’ran for Harris. He cites passages that run the gamut from stoning the infidel to the right to have slaves. While these passages ARE atrocious, they also ignore the context of the era in which the Prophet Muhammad lived, not to mention the context of modern day Islam, in which, despite the human rights abuses against women in parts of the fundamentalist Islamic world, such as Saudi Arabia, slavery is no longer acceptable (unless it is forced labour in Dubai by migrants, but that has more to do with capitalism than Islam).
In effect, I think Sam Harris is a bad anthropologist. He ignores the context in which the mujahideen, which would later become Al Qaeda, arose (the Soviet-Afghan War, in which Osama bin Laden’s forces were trained famously by our CIA). He ignores the context of the revival of fundamentalism in Iran (again due to CIA-backed overthrow of a democratically elected government). The entire history of the Middle East is stained with the history of colonialism, so deep that the motivations of Islamist fighters against the “evil West” are not evident, maybe even to themselves.
It boggles my mind that when Sam Harris makes the moral argument that Islam is to blame when it comes to terrorist willingness to use suicide bombers, that when we do the same thing and allow civilians to be killed in an attack by drones, or wholesale bombing as in the case of the Iraq War, he does not blame our ideology, he does not blame Christianity for example. Or better yet, he does not blame the doctrine of American exceptionalism. In fact he leaves out our moral failures entirely, or brushes them off as irrelevant.
Now, Sam Harris makes the compelling argument that this is a false equivalency, but there are huge problems with this argument. One is that one can view ISIS tactics against the West as simple total war retaliation tactics against an occupying force. This is anathema in conservative circles to even mention, due to the horrific nature of the terrorist bombings, and they are horrific. But one must question the moral logic of a Just War and acceptable losses entirely to come to that conclusion. The moral weight of overwhelming civilian casualties by American forces in Iraq or Palestine seems not to have hit Sam Harris as deeply as bombings closer to his own place of abode.
It seems over and over that Sam Harris speaks from a positioned subjectivity, and his knowledge of politics is pidgeon-holed by the “popular” political discourse. Whatever is on CNN is the topic of the day. This is shoddy thinking at best, and get everything wrong at its worst. To ignore history and view any event is to be blind. It is all to easy to come to easy morally appealing conclusions about Islam and the clash of cultures. The only problem for Harris is that the Islamic world just needs to adopt our values. This smacks of colonialism to many people in the Middle East, from pan-Arabists to the small but still present community of radical Leftists.
But in Sam Harris-land, liberals ignore hard truths about different value systems in the Middle East that just aren’t compatible with our values. I could go ON AND ON about this debate, but it basically just boils down to Harris believing that liberals’ “PC culture” has eroded critical thinking about Islam. Bill Maher, normally a staunch liberal and quasi-progressive, has been lately the poster child for this kind of anti-PC liberalism. An atheist himself, he falls into Harris’ camp and has been for years on the question of Islamic fundamentalism. Frankly, this resonates with American voters for good reasons, because Islamist terrorism remains a real threat in the minds of American voters who seek security and peace.
Too often though have the desire for peace and security allowed us to use questionable tactics in the war on terror that have just fueled the fires of the enemy. Even Bill Maher, who most of the time is staunchly anti-war, has not taken Obama to ask enough for continuing the several wars he promised to pull out of. Our current bombing of Yemen and the hospital in Sana’a that was destroyed by American-funded Saudi Arabian bombers is continued proof of our less than noble role in the region. Obama not only did not fully pull out of the countries he was supposed to, he expanded the fight to Libya, where he took out Muammar Gaddafi in a move totally equivalent Bush’s deposition of Saddam Hussein. This pattern of regime change seems inescapable to those currently in power. Obama has served as a “neo-con lite” for liberals to feel not guilty about. In fact, conservatives should be ecstatic about President Obama, who dropped so many bombs over the course of his presidency in the Middle East the army ordered that they could not continue due to low supply.
Conservatives, neo-cons, and Harrisites continue to justify our engagement in the Middle East by the phrase “we are at war”. The phrase “we are at war” is not a neutral phrase. Far from being a statement of fact, it is a call to continued engagement. For neo-conservatives, if we aren’t on the offense in a fight against terrorism (which is by no means a war in the traditional sense of the word), we will never win. Chomskyian analysis of foreign policy in the Middle East leads to the conclusion that peace in the region, whether it is the conflict in Palestine or Yemen, has to be won *gasp* by de-escalation. Harris’ arguments for viewing Islam as the primary reason for the reason that these people fight against us is not a neutral argument in terms of the ontological question of what we should do in the Middle East. It assumes an uncompromising Other which must be defeated, instead of a complex process of radicalization that involves a complex interplay between economics, politics, and religion. Many Islamist resistance fighters in Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Middle East for example, are explicitly anti-imperialist, while maintaining their allegiance to an Islamist creed. In other words, they are desperate and driven into the hands of the radicals, who they see as courageous enough to defeat their enemy and a desperate chance at a better life. Islam also provides a sense of community and common culture for which to strive for and is deeply rooted in the everyday life of the people.
In my mind, we must Courageously do what is right, and that is refuse to bomb the Middle East in order to stop the bleeding. Peace through strength did not ended well in the 20th fight against communism, and I believe it will not against Islamic terrorism. Harris seems all too willing to ask “tough moral questions” in regards to people that he has never met, and has not dared to question the establishment narrative surrounding Middle Eastern conflicts. It does a disservice for him to pretend that he is in in any way a foreign policy expert, or “just trying to have a dialogue” with Chomsky, in order to push this anti-Islam narrative that has been latched onto by populist right wingers, the alt-right in particular, Trump supporters, and the anti-immigrant Right.
What does Harris get right? In my mind, Harris is right about some things for the wrong reasons. Just like many Americans, he has bought the conservative narrative anti-political correctness, an argument that should not be underestimated, because it narrowly won Trump the presidency. Harris makes the argument on his podcast that Trump won (partially) because of liberal political correctness. I have listened to people in polling stations, and random places around the country, and one theme I hear over and over for why someone voted Trump was fear of terrorism; in this respect Harris is correct. “He will defeat ISIS” they say. He does get something right- there is a certain culture on the Left that does not denounce human rights abuses in countries like Saudi Arabia as forcefully as it should. Harris is right about political correctness, but in a way only slightly more aware than conservatives. Harris is channeling the anti-PC vector in current politics and has some interesting points to make. But I must in the end disagree with him in the end.
But Harris is wrong because the values he claims to defend are undermined by his willingness to entertain logic (such as his thought experiment about torturing terrorists in a ticking time bomb scenario in his End of Faith book) that goes against Western values, humanist and Christian values, and willing to go down the path of being a talking head about Islam and foreign policy, with no end in sight. Its almost as if Harris is shy about some of his political beliefs, that he is a closet anti-immigrant and Euroskeptic, and just does not want to alienate his liberal fanbase. I think he is simply confused about the matter, and decided to vote for Hillary Clinton, and probably thought that Bernie Sanders was a nutcase on foreign policy.
Harris needs to do some serious soul-searching about the direction of his career as a public intellectual. Make no mistake Sam Harris: those that follow you on social media and repeat your arguments are not enraged anti-PC liberals, they are conservatives, alt-righters, and Trump supporters. They hound the comment sections of your videos. They dominate the conversation surrounding it. The stupid anti-PC anti-SJW culture on the internet has bred and attracted misogynists, racists, homophobes, anti-Semites, and outright bigots. Those on the staunchly PC side sometimes aren’t the most politically savvy bunch (see my article on Pop Politics articles), but they can claim to staunchly defend the rights of minorities in a day where one religious minority, Muslims, have seen hate crimes against them SPIKE in the rise of Donald Trump.
Harris is one step from normalizing Donald Trump in this regard. In my mind, the complete moral higher ground of the United States in the realm of the wars in the Middle East is a foolhardy assumption until we stop ALL BOMBING. If we truly want to be better than our enemies, pacifism is the standard we should hold ourselves to.
In my mind, current political narratives are always a double blackmail. “If you hate Trump, you have to like Hillary Clinton”. “If you like Trump, you must be against mainstream conservatives”. The narrative is confused because the ideological lens through which any story is presented is not always clear. In reality, the similarities between Trump and Clinton, or Republicans and Democrats, is too close for comfort for many to admit.
In my mind, in regard to being PC, Democrats and Republicans are both wrong. Liberals sometimes do underestimate our enemies (ISIS, etc.) while Republicans are not afraid to saber rattle. When Russia hacks into our election system, some liberals are quick to make excuses or deflect and not believe Putin is capable of this (our future President is under this assumption as well). But we also should not listen to the likes of Lindsey Graham and turn this situation into another Cold War. In a recent Senate hearing on the Russian hacks, Sen. Lindsey Graham said that “I would do much more than Obama”, and is “ready to throw a rock”. This kind of saber rattling is exactly the kind of thing that actually got Trump elected with regards to Russia. Russia is not and should not be at war with us, either by proxy in Syria or elsewhere. I do not think we should be allied with them either. I think Obama’s step toward sanctions is the right choice for some of the wrong reasons (where were the sanctions after Russia bombed civilians in Syria? Oh wait we are doing that too…).
Russia and America both do not have the higher moral ground here. The two sides of the Cold War are equally culpable for current historical trends in the Middle East. When it comes to the foreign policy of mainstream Democrats, mainstream Republicans, and Trump, give me NONE OF THE ABOVE. Trump is still far closer to a moderate Republican than many realize in terms of foreign policy. We should never normalize bigotry and racism. But if we truly want to not normalize him, we should acknowledge that we should never have normalized our imperialist aggression in the Middle East. Those lives can never be reclaimed.
I don’t expect Sam Harris to convert to Chomsky’s view on foreign policy. But I am of the opinion that he shouldn’t bring a knife to a gun fight again, because he got destroyed in that debate. However I do believe if Harris had a dialogue with Leftist intellectual Slavoj Zizek, they would have a more fruitful and productive debate, specifically about Islam, terrorism, and political correctness. Zizek has written extensively about problems regarding Western intentions in the Middle East and political correctness for example. There are more contradictions in this realm than meets the eye, particularly in regards to humanitarian justifications for intervention. I believe that Harris is probably too easily swayed by the humanitarian argument for intervention. I expect Harris to lean further to the Left if he is given a chance to stand on equal footing with someone, unlike the Chomsky debate. Chomsky was being somewhat uncharitable with him, but probably because Chomsky kept having to explain things that he had already published in detail. Then again, if Harris can’t see our clear moral failure in Iraq by now, I don’t know what will change his mind.