By Jeffrey Tayler
“It’s gross! It’s racist!” exclaimed Ben Affleck on Bill Maher’s Real Time in October 2014, interrupting the neuroscientist “New Atheist” Sam Harris. Harris had been carefully explaining the linguistic bait-and-switch inherent in the word “Islamophobia” as “intellectually ridiculous,” in that “every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry toward Muslims as people.” The result: progressives duped by the word shy away from criticizing the ideology of Islam, the tenets of which (including second-class status for women and intolerance toward sexual minorities) would, in any other context, surely elicit their condemnation.
Unwittingly, Affleck had confirmed Harris’ point, conflating religion with race. In doing so, the actor was espousing a position that can lead to a de facto racist conclusion. If you discount Islamic doctrine as the motivation for domestic violence and intolerance of sexual minorities in the Muslim world, you’re left with at least one implicitly bigoted assumption: the people of the region must then be congenitally inclined to behave as they do.
There was a disturbing irony in Affleck’s outburst. Few public intellectuals have done as thorough a job as Harris at pointing out the fallacies and dangers of the supernatural dogmas of religion, for which far too many are willing to kill and die these days. An avowed liberal (who plans to vote for Hillary) Harris is the author of, among many books, the groundbreaking The End of Faith. Yet Affleck seemed predisposed to regard him with hostility, possibly because Harris, at least for some on the Left, has acquired a toxic reputation — one stemming from what amounts to a campaign of defamation involving, by all appearances, a willful misrepresentation of his work, plus no small measure of slipshod “identity politics” thinking.
Harris has been lambasted as, among other things, a “genocidal fascist maniac” advocating “scientific racism,” militarism, and the murder of innocents for their beliefs, as well as racial profiling at airports, a nuclear first strike on the Middle East, plus, of course, Islamophobia and a failure to understand the faiths he argues against. (This is just a partial list.) The result? Harris has had to take measures to ensure his personal security, with negative ramifications in almost every area of his life. “I can say that much of what I do,” he told me in a recent email exchange, “both personally and professionally, is now done under a shadow of defamatory lies.”
The attacks against Harris have emanated predominantly from a prominent yet persistent handful of supposed progressives (and their peons), among whom are the religion scholar and media personality Reza Aslan, and the journalists from The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald (famed for transmitting Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations to the world) and Murtaza Hussain. Lately, with Harris’ publication of Islam and the Future of Tolerance, they have even taken aim at his coauthor and friend, the onetime Islamist turned reformer Maajid Nawaz.
Nonetheless, Harris’ own words, conveyed through his books, podcasts, blog posts, interviews, and Twitter feed, bely the attacks, which can be as mean-spirited as they are groundless and muddled. They have tainted the debates we need to conduct about Islam and terrorism in particular, but, more generally, the danger religious fundamentalism poses to our constitutionally secular republic and to the largely post-Christian countries of Western Europe now confronting huge inflows of Muslim migrants. The sum effect is to leave us all less well-off, less safe. And certainly more confused.
The charge of insufficient religious expertise is the least substantial, but nonetheless worth dispensing with, given that it could potentially be leveled at any nonbeliever disagreeing with faith’s precepts. In a 2007 debate, for instance, Reza Aslan accused Harris of having a “profoundly unsophisticated” view of religion, and of relying on Fox News as his “research tools” – an assertion that can be disproved by just opening The End of Faith, a meticulously compiled treatise with 237 pages of text (in the paperback edition) followed by sixty-one pages of footnotes and twenty-eight pages of bibliography listing some six hundred sources. In this opus, Harris walks us through the many follies of faith (mostly Christianity and Islam), but one key message transpires: belief guides behavior. A self-evident proposition no reasonable person would argue with.
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