I have followed fairly closely the ongoing controversy among liberals on the issue of how to talk about Islam in the context of what we see going on in the Middle East. Unfortunately, there are some contemporary liberals who are so enamored with the ideas behind multiculturalism (which is not a bad thing in itself; but context is everything) that they can’t bring themselves to see that there are precious few Muslim-majority countries in the world that are advanced enough to have accepted what most of us consider to be necessary and universal human rights.
On comedian and commentator Bill Maher’s HBO show recently, both he and Sam Harris, a liberal and a thinker I greatly admire even when I disagree with him, got into a rather heated (and now famous) debate with actor and liberal activist Ben Affleck and left-leaning journalist Nicholas Kristof. The background issue was “Islamophobia,” a term that liberals have invented to describe what they consider to be unfair and bigoted criticism of Muslims and Islam, found mostly among right-wingers. Maher and Harris, nobody’s right-wingers, were essentially accused of racism and bigotry for their outspoken views on the dangers inherent in not just radical Islam, but in its non-radical form.
Below is the segment, which you can watch and then return for my take on it all, but note the key point that Harris tries to make:
The crucial point of confusion is that we have been sold this meme of Islamophobia, where criticism of the religion gets conflated with bigotry towards Muslims as people. It’s intellectually ridiculous.
“It’s gross and racist,” says Affleck of Maher’s and Harris’ views. To which Harris responds (my emphasis):
Ben, we have to be able to criticize bad ideas. And Islam at this moment is the mother lode of bad ideas.
Affleck says in response:
That’s an ugly thing to say.
Is it? Well, maybe it is. But at this moment it is not as ugly as denying that Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas. Much like Christianity was centuries before, Islam here in the 21st-century is truly the source of a lot of not only bad ideas but a lot of accompanying bad actions. And that is what many liberals find so hard to accept. They want to believe that there is room in the tent of civilization for all kinds of belief systems, and when it comes to Islam, liberals reflexively want to be inclusive. They don’t want to judge Muslim cultures too broadly or too harshly, even though they have little trouble criticizing conservative evangelicals who want to put their fingerprints on government and culture. Perhaps that is because so many conservative evangelicals not only make bigoted judgments about Muslims, but they also make bigoted judgments about liberals.
But the truth is that some belief systems inherently reject our Western notions of civilization, which, for instance, include a profound respect for women’s rights. There are some folks who don’t want to live in any social tent in which women are equal with men. And there are things in Islam, in book-based Islam, that encourage Muslims to shun such Western ideas, that encourage Muslims to not integrate into Western societies too deeply. In the worst cases, there are things in Islam that foster a desire on the part of a minority of Muslims to not just reject universal human rights, but embrace terrorists who want to destroy Western culture—one head at a time.
After the exchange on Maher’s show, Harris wrote:
Kristof made the point that there are brave Muslims who are risking their lives to condemn “extremism” in the Muslim community. Of course there are, and I celebrate these people too. But he seemed completely unaware that he was making my point for me—the point being, of course, that these people are now risking their lives by advocating for basic human rights in the Muslim world.
Harris followed with this:
Although I clearly stated that I wasn’t claiming that all Muslims adhere to the dogmas I was criticizing; distinguished between jihadists, Islamists, conservatives, and the rest of the Muslim community; and explicitly exempted hundreds of millions of Muslims who don’t take the doctrines about blasphemy, apostasy, jihad, and martyrdom seriously, Affleck and Kristof both insisted that I was disparaging all Muslims as a group.
I have read most of Harris’ books and listened to many debates he’s been in. I completely understand where he’s coming from, even if many liberals don’t. There is room in liberalism for both critics of Islam and for critics of genuine bigots who lump all Muslims together and condemn them. Harris is the former without being the latter. But some liberals don’t see it that way and are unfairly attacking a fellow liberal. Here’s what Harris has to say about that:
One of the most depressing things in the aftermath of this exchange is the way Affleck is now being lauded for having exposed my and Maher’s “racism,” “bigotry,” and “hatred of Muslims.” This is yet another sign that simply accusing someone of these sins, however illogically, is sufficient to establish them as facts in the minds of many viewers. It certainly does not help that unscrupulous people like Reza Aslan and Glenn Greenwald have been spinning the conversation this way.
It turns out that Harris had good reason to go after Reza Aslan and Glenn Greenwald (a man whom I have heavily criticized for his stance on the Edward Snowden leaks and his grossly unfair attacks on President Obama). In a post a few days ago that was titled, “On the Mechanics of Defamation,” Harris wrote:
Let me briefly illustrate how this works. Although I could cite hundreds of examples from the past two weeks alone, here is what I woke up to this morning: Some person who goes by the name of @dan_verg_ on Twitter took the most easily misunderstood sentence in The End of Faith out of (its absolutely essential) context, attached it to a scary picture of me, and declared me a “genocidal fascist maniac.” Then Reza Aslan retweeted it. An hour later, Glenn Greenwald retweeted it again.
Here is the Tweet:
You can read for yourself, in context, what Harris meant by the statement that was nicely fitted onto that eerie photograph of him and sent to millions of people around the world. But Harris points out,
Both Greenwald and Aslan know that those words do not mean what they appear to mean. Given the amount of correspondence we’ve had on these topics, and given that I have repeatedly bored audiences by clarifying that statement (in response to this kind of treatment), the chance that either writer thinks he is exposing the truth about my views—or that I’m really a “genocidal fascist maniac”—is zero. Aslan and Greenwald—a famous “scholar” and a famous “journalist”—are engaged in a campaign of pure defamation. They are consciously misleading their readers and increasing my security concerns in the process.
That two liberals would do this to another liberal is unconscionable. Harris ends his blog post with this:
Aslan and Greenwald know that nowhere in my work do I suggest that we kill harmless people for thought crimes. And yet they (along with several of their colleagues) are doing their best to spread this lie about me. Nearly every other comment they’ve made about my work is similarly misleading.
Both Aslan and Greenwald are debasing our public discourse and making honest discussion of important ideas increasingly unpleasant—even personally dangerous. Why are they doing this? Please ask them and those who publish them.
And that is why I decided to write about this issue. Last night, on MSNBC’s All In With Chris Hayes, the host did a segment featuring Reza Aslan in which they discussed these issues. And he did that segment without once mentioning the slanderous tweet that both Aslan and Glenn Greenwald (who also appears as a guest on Hayes’ show from time to time) retweeted and disseminated around the world. I don’t know if Hayes knew about the tweet. But I was sorely disappointed in the liberal commentator, whom I much admire. If he did know, shame on him. If he didn’t know, he or his staff should have done better research.
Sadly, it is quite likely that Reza Aslan and Glenn Greenwald will continue to enjoy the support of liberals in the media, and Sam Harris will continue to endure the slander that is represented by that offensive tweet.
And liberalism is the lesser for all of it.