Thoughts on the Greenwald/Harris debate over Islam

Sam Harris and Glenn Greenwald, two thinkers I admire, have recently become entangled in a debate over Islam. Basically, for those who haven't been following this, a slew of articles have been published recently attacking Harris and his fellow "New Atheists" on the grounds that they are "Islamophobic," i.e., irrationally fixated on Islam as opposed to other religions, possibly revealing their racism and bigotry. Greenwald retweeted one such article, which set off an email exchange between him and Harris that did not go so well. Greenwald then wrote a column on the whole episode (siding strongly with those who accuse the New Atheists of "anti-Muslim animus"), Harris wrote an exasperated response, and people on Twitter have been choosing sides ever since, creating an especially bitter proxy war between fans of Greenwald and Harris. 

Substantively, this is just the latest chapter in a debate that has been raging since 9/11, centered on the question of whether or not Islam is, at present, a uniquely barbaric and dangerous religion, and, furthermore, whether or not those who answer this question in the affirmative are, by definition, bigoted, racist, or irrational. Harris has spent the last decade arguing that Islam is simply not comparable to any other religion in the world, that no other religion is producing the kind of mayhem that is being carried out under the banner of Islam, and that the reason for all this is because Muslims really do take ideas like jihad and martyrdom seriously. Greenwald and his allies typically reject the religious explanation and argue that modern Islamic terrorism and violence, particularly that which targets the U.S., is properly understood as retaliation against U.S. militarism in the Muslim world that stretches back decades. I'm obviously simplifying a complex debate, and I hope neither side would accuse me of misrepresenting their position, but I think that's a fairly accurate, if brief, explanation of the fundamental divide.

I confess that I've been puzzled by this recent episode and by the broader debate that has raged for years. It has always seemed rather obvious to me that a) Harris is correct that Islam is, at present, motivating violent and reactionary behavior at the grassroots level on a truly terrifying and probably unique scale, and that the level of popular support in the Muslim world for heinous religious ideas, such as penalizing apostasy with death, is extremely alarming, and b) Greenwaldians are correct that the wave of Islamic terrorism - as distinct from the domestic barbarism in Islamic societies - can only be viewed in the context of decades of U.S. militarism, bombing, sanctions, and bullying. For the life of me, I cannot see why any person has to choose between these two views. Why is it so hard to state the following?
The U.S. is a militaristic state that has bullied the Muslim world for decades - overthrowing governments, supporting dictators, dropping bombs, occupying sovereign countries, implementing genocidal sanctions -  creating a wildfire of resentment and hatred that has engulfed generations of Muslims. At the same time, Islam has failed to modernize in the way that most other religions have and, with its religiously inspired stonings, subjugation of women, intolerance of homosexuals, metaphysical belief in martyrdom, sentences of death for apostates, honor killings, and other depravities, is, in its present form, simply irreconcilable with any conception of a progressive civil society. 
That is it. Now, I loathe - loathe - reflexive "the truth is in the middle" analysis, but in this case, it's the only conclusion I can reach. I've been genuinely mystified that, throughout this debate that has endured for years, I have yet to come across a single book, or even a single column, that argues the position that the Greenwaldians and the New Atheists are both right. 

Christofer Pierson, in a blog post retweeted by Greenwald, has come pretty close to doing this. It's a cogent and thoughtful piece that grants validity to some criticisms of Harris, rejects others, and ultimately sides with Greenwald. While I sympathize with a lot of it, it does seem to take a sedulously timid approach to the subject of Islam, which is, of course, what Harris finds so maddening. Let's pick it up where Pierson discusses his thoughts, as an atheist, on Islam:
As an atheist, I certainly have my own issues with Islam, as I do with any faith. Of course I agree with Harris that radical Islam is an unhealthy belief system for females, non-heterosexuals, and freethinkers. So is right-wing Christianity  and ultra-Orthodox Judaism. What most bothers me about Islam in particular is the insistence of so many Muslims  that alternative thinking about or mocking of the religion be taboo, even among those who aren’t Muslim.  Which isn’t to say I think mocking Islam is a reasonable or wise (let alone intelligent) thing to do. I just think responding to hostility toward one’s beliefs with demands for punishment (often of people who have nothing to do with the “crime” in the first place) is pathetic–there’s no more polite way of phrasing it. And certain Muslims do frequently respond that way, as witness the spontaneous reactions to the Mohammad cartoon controversy in Europe, Koran desecration in Afghanistan and the Innocence of Muslims movie last fall.
Given what he is actually talking about here, this strikes me as inappropriately tepid. As Harris wrote in his response, "the year is 2013, and the penalty for apostasy, everywhere under Islam, is death." Death. Is "pathetic" really the appropriate term for sentencing someone to death for criticizing a set of ideas? It reeks of the cautious language so many atheists and liberals use when discussing the most reactionary tenets of Islamic fundamentalism.

Pierson also cautions that mocking Islam is not "reasonable or wise." But why is that? Satirists, comedians, and cartoonists mock for a living. Is he saying that mocking Islam is unwise ethically, on its merits, or that it is unwise because doing so might get one killed? If it's the latter, that it's a pretty dramatic indictment of Islam, and I'm inclined to agree. But if it's the former, he's proving Harris's point that secularists have abdicated their responsibility to defend, staunchly and unequivocally, the right of people everywhere to freely mock Islam, or any other religion, without worrying about potentially being murdered. Continuing:
But I don’t believe, as Harris seems to believe, that there’s something “wronger” with Islam than with any other religion. It seems crystal clear to me that much of what makes Muslims seem so irrational, hostile and uncivil toward the West has more to do with the centuries-old global politics of East v. West and North v. South than with Islam v.  Judeo-Christianity. I’m not sure Harris gets that. In fact, Theodore Sayeed has suggested that Harris’s bias against Muslims is possibly the consequence of his being a Zionist, i.e., a staunch supporter of Israel, right or wrong. “For a man who likes to badger Muslims about their ‘reflexive solidarity’ with Arab suffering,” Sayeed writes, “Harris seems keen to display his own tribal affections for the Jewish state. The virtue of Israel and the wickedness of her enemies are recurring themes in his work.”
It's not as though Harris simply "believes" this as a matter of faith. He has spent years explaining exactly why he has come to believe this. As Harris has pointed out, there is no other religion on Earth whose most fervent adherents are carrying out violence, in the name of faith, on a comparable scale. It's probably impossible to be any more opposed to U.S. militarism and empire than I am. But we must make a distinction between international terrorism and domestic barbarism. I'm happy to blame the former on U.S. foreign policy. But the domestic atrocities in Islamic societies - treatment of women and gays, stonings and beheadings, murderous pursuits of apostates, violence against other Muslims - simply cannot be logically explained by U.S. militarism. Islamists often explicitly state that they are doing these particular things in the name of Islam and I think we should take them at their word. Anyone who attempts to conjure up alternative explanations will surely find themselves sliced up by Occam's Razor.

What seems "crystal clear" to Pierson - namely, that the "irrational, hostile, and uncivil" behavior we see from Islamists is fundamentally political, not religious - is not self-evidently true. It's something that has to be demonstrated, with evidence, which he does not do (not because he fails, but because he simply doesn't try).

(As for Harris's alleged tribal allegiance with the State of Israel, that is not something I'm interested in delving into at the moment. Having read virtually everything he's written, I haven't personally gotten that impression, and I know he has criticized the Jewish settlers who have stolen land in the West Bank, but even if that criticism is accurate, it has little to do with this debate about Islam and "Islamophobia.")

In short, my view on all of this is that one can be an unrelenting critic of U.S. foreign policy, and also acknowledge that Islam is uniquely reactionary at the grassroots level, having failed to modernize domestically in the way that other religions have. Harris is far too dismissive of the role of U.S. foreign policy in creating this wave of Islamic terrorism: there is a reason that Islamists are not targeting Sweden, or Venezuela, or New Zealand. I also differ sharply with Harris on torture, guns, profiling, and several other issues, so it is not my aim to reflexively defend him. But he is also right to point out that "Islamophobia" is a rather fatuous term that mostly serves to protect Islam from rational criticism. Atheists are not obliged to view all religions as equally noxious. As Harris pointed out in his exchange with Greenwald, Mormons responded to "The Book of Mormon" by placing an ad in Playbill. Do we have to wonder how Muslims would react to a highly visible and successful Broadway show mocking their religion unmercifully? Surely, Jainists, whose religion is literally premised on non-violence, would react to someone mocking their faith, or even to a foreign occupation of their country, in a qualitatively different way than Muslims. Jainists would not, under any circumstances, fly planes into buildings or blow up subways. We atheists have to be honest with ourselves about these distinctions among religions. It's okay to say out loud that Jainism is a more peaceful religion than Islam. It's a simple truism.

There is no doubt, as Greenwald pointed out, that, in terms of scale, the violence carried out by Bush and Cheney dwarfs anything done by bin Laden and Co. And, yes, Bush and Cheney are both Christians. But there is a profound difference between a religious person committing a violent act and a religious person committing a violent act in the name of religion. This is a point that the New Atheists have been trying to hammer home for a decade now. It is not appropriate to blame Islam every time a Muslim commits a violent act. But it is appropriate to blame Islam when a Muslim commits a violent act and states explicitly that he was doing so because he wanted to please Allah or reach Paradise. It's impossible to seriously argue that the Iraq War was launched for reasons relating to Christian fundamentalism. People like Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, the true architects of that war, are secular actors. Lunatics, war criminals, yes, but secular.

Just to be perfectly clear about where I'm coming from: I'm an atheist with contempt for all religions, but some more than others (Yes, I have a soft spot for Buddhism, i.e., every atheist's favorite religion). I think Islam is the most reactionary religion in the world at present. My politics are radically left, probably identical to Greenwald's, way left of Harris's. I think the U.S. is a criminally violent state.

I just think it's baffling that I have never come across anyone else who holds these views simultaneously, because none of them are in conflict (or at least they shouldn't be). In any event, I hope more people will approach this argument in the kind of constructive way that Pierson did, even though I don't necessarily agree with everything he had to say.

In any case, regardless of the degree to which I might agree with Harris about Islam, as a U.S. citizen, I concern myself almost exclusively with U.S. violence, for the very simple reasons laid out here by Noam Chomsky:
"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."
Violence carried out by the U.S. is violence that I'm helping to fund. It's being carried out in my name and I'm responsible for it. I can play a small role in trying to stop this violence. An extremely small role, for sure, but a role nonetheless. I have no conceivable role to play in stopping the violence, particularly domestic violence, carried out by religious lunatics on the other side of the world. I can hate it, I can be enraged by it, but being that I can't do much about it, the moral value of denouncing it seems to be, like Chomsky said, zero. This is, ultimately, the most important point here, and Greendwald understands it, while Harris, sadly, does not.