Harris, Greenwald, and elementary logic

April 26, 2013

An opinion piece written by Murtaza Hussain and posted on the Al Jazeera website last month has given rise to a rather heated and very public dispute between Sam Harris and Glenn Greenwald. The dispute can be found in this vitriolic email exchange, which Harris posted on his blog, this response from Greenwald, published in the Guardian, and this follow-up piece from Harris. All are well worth reading. Those who have skimmed through this material may well wonder why these two well-educated and highly articulate men, who share much in common, can’t seem to agree on anything. What exactly is it that so divides them? And which of them, if either, has the stronger position in this debate. The following may help to shed some light on these questions.

At the heart of the dispute between Harris and Greenwald is the topic of religion, which is somewhat ironic considering that both of them are atheists. But a more specific point of conflict is the accusation made by Greenwald and Hussain that the New Atheist movement, of which Harris is a leading member, functions as a “rational” cover for racist, xenophobic, or anti-Muslim hatred. For reasons that become clear upon reading the material mentioned above, the charges of racism and xenophobia are probably misguided, but the issue of anti-Muslim hatred is not so easily dismissed. For while Harris is clearly opposed to religion in general–to what he sees as “bad ideas, held for bad reasons, leading to bad behavior”–he also clearly thinks that Islam is a particularly bad set of ideas leading to especially dangerous behavior.

In support of this point Harris writes that:

“The year is 2013, and the penalty for apostasy, everywhere under Islam, is death. I have yet to meet an apologist for the religion, however evasive, who could lie about this fact with a straight face. (Perhaps Greenwald would like to be the first.)”

At the same time, equally disturbing teachings can be found in the Old Testament and have been defended by respected Christian theologians like Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and John Calvin. Harris is well aware of this and even writes about in Letter to a Christian Nation. So a theoretical commitment to death for apostasy or heresy is not unique to Islam.

Still, Harris insists that Islam is an especially threatening religion. He notes, for instance, that it is entirely possible for one to stage a Broadway play, such as The Book of Mormon, which poked fun at Mormonism, and that what guarantees this freedom is not the First Amendment, but the fact that “Mormons do not dispatch assassins to silence their critics.” He then asks:

“Can any reader of this page imagine the staging of a similar play about Islam in the United States, or anywhere else, in the year 2013? No you cannot—unless you also imagine the creators of this play being hunted for the rest of their lives by religious maniacs.”

In response to Harris, one might point to the difficulties producers of the play My Name is Rachel Corrie faced in getting it staged at the New York Theater Workshop in 2006. So while it may be possible to poke fun at Mormonism, it is not so easy in the US to stage a serious drama—even one based on a true story–if it is considered critical of the state of Israel. In other words, Islam is not the only thing that threatens First Amendment rights in the US.

The idea that Islam is unique among religions with respect to the intolerance and violence it engenders is one that Greenwald is unwilling to concede. On the contrary, he cites an AFP report on a massive 2008 Gallup survey of the Muslim world, which he claims “destroyed most of Harris’ ugly generalizations about the beliefs of Muslims.” However, even if Greenwald could somehow be brought to believe that Islam is a uniquely dangerous religion, there would still be a deep and probably irreconcilable difference between Harris and Greenwald.

The more fundamental disagreement between Harris and Greenwald can be found in the following passage from Harris:

“Unless liberals realize that there are tens of millions of people in the Muslim world who are far scarier than Dick Cheney, they will be unable to protect civilization from its genuine enemies.”

This is an idea that Greenwald finds absurd. He writes that:

“To Harris, there are “tens of millions” of Muslims “far scarier” then the US political leader who aggressively invaded and destroyed a nation of 26 million people, constructed a worldwide regime of torture, oversaw a network of secret prisons beyond the reach of human rights groups, and generally imposed on the world his “Dark Side”. That is the Harris worldview: obsessed with bad acts of foreign Muslims, almost entirely blind to – if not supportive of – the far worse acts of westerners like himself.”

For Greenwald, Chomsky, Blum and a long line of critics of US foreign policy, there is little question that the US is the greatest purveyor of violence in the contemporary world and the greatest current threat to world peace. And for this reason, Greenwald believes, it is misguided for one to focus on the evils of Islam, whatever they may be.

Harris, of course, disagrees with this assessment of US foreign policy, but he insists on a further point, which is that even if the US were as bad as people like Greenwald and Chomsky think it is, it would still be a mistake to neglect the problems of Islam.

“Even if Noam Chomsky were right about everything, the Islamic doctrines related to martyrdom, jihad, blasphemy, apostasy, the rights of women and homosexuals, etc. would still present huge problems for the emergence of a global civil society.”

So the war of words between Harris and Greenwald ultimately involves three disputes or disagreements. The first concerns the question of whether or to what extent Islam promotes violence. Do the Muslim extremists who engage in terrorism best represent the twisted teachings of Islam, as Harris insists, or do they rather twist and distort the teachings of an otherwise peaceful religion, as Greenwald suggests? Secondly, and more importantly, there is the question of how the violence that is associated with Islam compares to the violence regularly committed by the US military and its network of contractors around the world. On this question, Harris and Greenwald are about as far apart, and unlikely to agree, as Noam Chomsky and Dick Cheney.

But above and beyond these theoretical and factual disagreements, there is the very practical matter of how we should spend our time and resources, intellectual and otherwise. On this point, Greenwald, quite rightly quotes Chomsky, who writes:

“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.”

So, in the end, the dispute between Harris and Greenwald, is not merely factual or theoretical; there is also an ethical point at issue. It is not just about Greenwald’s debatable charge that New Atheism provides “rational” cover for Islamophobia. It is also about the hypocrisy Greenwald finds in New Atheists like Harris squandering their time and resources condemning the faults of others, over which they have little control, while doing little or nothing to stop the horrors committed by the country over which they do have some degree of control or influence.

On this practical, ethical matter, Greenwald and Chomsky are surely correct. One really ought to focus one’s attention and energies on the important issues over which one has some degree of control. At the same time, it would be a mistake to think that there is one and only one cause to which each of us must contribute. Chomsky himself is a perfect example of someone who has made remarkable contributions in multiple fields. So even if we agree that American intellectuals like Greenwald, Chomsky, and Harris ought to devote most of their energy to stopping the US imperial war machine, there is still, surely, time enough for critiquing other dangerous ideas or institutions. And when it comes to dangerous or oppressive institutions, organized religion, including Islam, looms large.

The elementary logical mistake that one must not succumb to in sifting through this ongoing battle between Harris and Greenwald is the fallacy of the false dilemma, the mistake of thinking that we must choose one of two alternatives when in fact there are many. It would be a mistake to think that either Harris or Greenwald is ultimately correct in this battle, a mistake to think that the violence and oppression that exists on earth today is due exclusively either to the US military or to militant Islam, and a mistake to think that we can pay attention to only one problem at any given time and therefore must choose one problem to focus on.

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