Wednesday, October 15, 2014

When facts are not just facts: How Sam Harris sneaks ideology into his supposedly objective account of the world

On the October 3 airing of Real Time with Bill Maher, host Maher and New Atheist author Sam Harris clashed with actor Ben Affleck in a discussion about Islam. The clash began by Maher criticizing today’s liberals as being too soft on Islam. Maher says that liberals are supposed to stand up for things like free speech, gender equality, and freedom of religion, but these things take a back seat when such freedoms are at stake in the Muslim world. Instead, says Maher, liberals will defend Muslims whenever they are attacked for being anti-woman, anti-gay, or anti-free speech due to the fact that Muslims are perceived by liberals as a minority in need of rescue. Harris agreed, saying that liberals attack only “white theocracy” but treat Islamic theocracy as a sacred cow. On the other side of the table, Affleck countered that the overwhelming portion of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims are not violent extremists hellbent on killing apostates and homosexuals. This led Harris to “break it down” for Affleck:
“Just imagine some concentric circles…At the center you have jihadists. These are people who wake up in the morning wanting to kill apostates, wanting to die trying, they believe in paradise, they believe in matrydom. Outside of [that circle] we have Islamists. These are people who are just as convinced of martydom and paradise and wanting to foist their religion on the rest of humanity, but that want to work within the system, they’re not gonna blow themselves up on a bus…Those two circles arguably are 20 percent of the Muslim world.”
Here, Harris is doing what he has always done best: Present the “facts” as if they can speak for themselves. While it may at first blush seem that Harris is merely providing Affleck with cold, hard, statistical data, what he is actually doing is painting an intensely ideological picture. Notice how Harris chooses to present his data in terms of concentric rings. Such a strategy forces the listener to imagine a situation in which ISIS and other violent jihadis are at the very center of the hard core of Islam. Instead of using concentric rings, Harris might have asked Affleck to imagine a sheet of graph paper with intersecting vertical and horizontal lines; at the very tip of the upper-right-hand corner, one could draw an extremely tiny dot using a pen with the finest possible tip. This tiny, almost imperceptible mark, would represent jihadis and the rest of the sheet would be other Muslims. But Harris doesn’t use such an image or anything like it, because the graph paper image would clearly imply that jihadis occupy only the fringe extreme of Islam. By using his concentric circles imagery, Harris is able to coyly seduce the listener into buying the notion that ISIS represents the true hard core of Muslims (and, I might note, the concentric rings have the additional ideological benefit of resembling a bulls-eye).


Supporters of Harris’ position have pointed out in comments on another web site that the reason Harris puts jihadis at the center of his concentric rings is that jihadis are the truest of the true Muslims, the only Muslims who, in Harris’ words, take their religion seriously. This is nonsense. There are indeed many passages condoning violence in the Qur’an, but these passages are addressed to people who were fighting a defensive war in a specific place and time (namely, the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century). An example is verse 22:39:
“Permission (to fight) is given to those against whom war is being wrongfully waged.”
Furthermore, as Fareed Zakaria points out in an excellent article from this week, if psychopathic violence really were an inherent part of the essence of Islam, we should expect to see violence of the kind carried out by ISIS all throughout Islamic history. Anyone familiar with Islamic history (which Harris clearly is not) knows that this is not the case. As the historian Zachary Karabell puts it (in Zakaria's article), “If you exclude the last 70 years or so, in general the Islamic world was more tolerant of minorities than the Christian world. That’s why there were more than a million Jews living in the Arab world until the early 1950s — nearly 200,000 in Iraq alone.”

The real answer, I think, is to treat violent jihadis as what they really are – not as strict adherents to Islam, which they clearly aren’t (since they fight aggressive wars, something strictly forbidden by the Qur’an), but instead as fascists. This is the position advocated by Nick Cohen at The Guardian. As anyone familiar with history knows, the natural enemy of fascism is not liberalism, which often collaborates and accomodates fascism, but rather the radical left – socialism. This, I think, explains why Harris’ criticism of Islam is so utterly impotent – as a liberal, he is stuck in the hypocritical position of condemning one type of violence (jihadism) while advocating another (the less exciting but no less ferocious violence of global capitalism).

If Maher weren’t such a cherry-picker, he might have introduced this issue to his panel back in July, which is the only time that I know of that he had two actual leftists on his show (Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! and Marxist economist Richard Wolff). Perhaps then, a truly meaningful discussion, contextualizing groups like ISIS in the history of colonialism, imperialism, and globalization, could have taken place. But if the conversation is left to liberals, all we will get is what we got in Harris’ appearance: Ideological and historically uninformed potshots.