Sam Harris and the Orientalization of Islam

The argument about Islam between Ben Affleck and Sam Harris on Bill Maher’s HBO show Real Time brought to mainstream attention a phenomenon that’s been simmering for a long time: Islam brings out something ugly in many of the most vocal atheists like Harris and Maher.

Part of the problem is obvious in the staging: Maher has arranged the show in such a way that the onus of defending non-jihadi Muslims falls not on some prominent Islamic leader, or even on a rank-and-file Muslim, but on Ben Affleck, an actor who (as far as I know) has no connection to Islam. Affleck occupies a position that I occasionally find myself in (usually with regard to political issues like Birtherism) and thoroughly hate: He recognizes that the conversation is taking an ugly turn, and he’s completely unprepared to respond to it, but everyone else is just letting it go. He boils over not because he thinks he is the right person to have this argument, but because he’s the one who’s here.

Probably this post has already gotten three comments from people who have read no further and are shocked that I’m taking Affleck’s (and Islam’s) side over Harris and Maher. The Weekly Sift has a substantial atheist/agnostic readership, and for good reason: I’m a consistent defender of the wall of separation between Church and State, and I fight back against the attempts by right-wing American Christians to subvert concepts like religious freedom. Whether or not I am an atheist myself depends on your definitions, but a major theme of my explicitly religious writing and public speaking (like this recent example) is how someone with a secular worldview can get the benefits claimed for traditional religion (serenity in the face of death, for example) without accepting its doctrines.

Plus, I’m usually a Bill Maher fan. (Though don’t expect me to defend him segueing out of a Sarah Palin joke with “speaking of dumb twats“.) I’ve linked to a number of his New Rule rants, and used a Maher quote to lead off the Sift as recently as September 29.

So, Harris and Maher might ask, what’s up with me? Why do I have what Joseph Farah has called the “liberal blind spot on Islam“? Here’s how Harris made that case on Real Time:

We have been sold this meme of Islamophobia, where every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry towards Muslims as people.

Maher had introduced the segment like this:

Liberals need to stand up for liberal principles. … Like freedom of speech, freedom to practice any religion you want without fear of violence, freedom to leave a religion, equality for women, equality for minorities (including homosexuals). These are liberal principles that liberals applaud for, but then when you say “In the Muslim world, this is what’s lacking” — then they get upset.

The discussion that follows largely misses what I think is the main point, and in that sense it resembles those why-don’t-you-care-about-black-on-black-crime discussions that followed the shootings of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. Statistics are quoted (“78% of British Muslims think that the Danish cartoonist should have been prosecuted”, much like “[blacks make up] 50% of homicide victims in this country, and 90 percent of those victims are killed by other black people.”), and many true facts are stated — but stated within a frame that already embodies the offensive content. “This is based on reality, Ben,” Maher insists. “We’re not making this up.”

Nicholas Kristof does push back in the right direction:

This does have the tinge, a little bit, of the way white racists talk about African Americans.

But, like Affleck, he isn’t prepared well enough to unpack that idea.

Let me give it a shot. The problem here is the one that Edward Said wrote the entire book Orientalism about: The privileged outsider encloses some large group of diverse “others” inside a conceptual fence, gives the enclosure a name like “the Orient” or “the Muslim world”, and then takes it on himself to pronounce what the defining essence of that fenced-off region is.

Remember when Cliven Bundy said, “I want to tell you one thing I know about the Negro”? It doesn’t really matter where Bundy goes from there. The racism is already built into the idea that there is such a being as “the Negro”, and that a white man like Bundy is qualified to make pronouncements about the defining characteristics of “the Negro”.

Now look at what Harris snuck into the Islamophobia quote above: “the doctrine of Islam”. To Harris, Islam is not a cacophony of people who have been arguing with each other since the 7th century. It’s one thing. It has a unified body of doctrine, and Harris can tell you what that doctrine is. And if there are people who consider themselves Muslims but disagree with whatever Harris defines from the outside as the essence of Islam, well, too bad for them.

Harris’ rhetoric is shot through with this orientalist framing. Elsewhere in the conversation he maps it out:

Just imagine some concentric circles here. You have 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 martyrdom. Outside of them we have Islamists. These are people who are just as convinced of martyrdom, and Paradise, and wanting to foist their religion on the rest of humanity, but they want to work within the system. They’re not going to blow themselves up on a bus. They want to change governments. They want to use democracy against itself. Those two circles are arguably 20% of the Muslim world. … But outside of that circle you have conservative Muslims, who can honestly look at ISIS and say: “That does not represent us. We’re horrified by that.” But they hold views about human rights, about women, about homosexuals that are deeply troubling.

Look what he’s done there: Jihadists are the real Muslims. They’re at the center. The further you are from being a jihadist, the fringier your Islam is.

So the question of who is a real Muslim, and what makes someone a real Muslim — that’s not something for Muslims to wrangle out among themselves, it’s for a hostile outsider to pronounce. That’s where the bigotry is. Statistics about how many people fall into Harris’ concentric circles are irrelevant. The bigotry has already been baked into the circle-drawing itself.

In case that point went past you, Harris underlines it later on:

There are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are nominal Muslims, who don’t take the faith seriously, who don’t want to kill apostates, who are horrified by ISIS, and we need to defend these people, prop them up, and let them reform their faith.

So if you think you’re a Muslim, but you don’t support ISIS or want to kill apostates, your Islam is just “nominal” and you “don’t take the faith seriously”. It doesn’t matter if you’re an imam and have devoted your life to your vision of Islam and your relationship with Allah; you’re not “serious”. Because it’s up to Sam Harris to decide what “serious” Islam is. And, like a colonial governor of hostile natives, he’s going to “prop up” the people he has identified as not “serious” about the native culture.

Harris ought to be old enough to remember the final decade or so of the Cold War — the era when “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance — when similarly vicious framing was used against atheists: Soviet Communists were the real atheists. Secular humanists might nominally be atheists, but they were just fellow-traveling dupes of the Soviet Communists.

If you lived through that, you shouldn’t want to do it to anybody else.

Such manipulation of categories and essences is a fundamental flaw in all of Harris’ writing, as I pointed out when I reviewed The End of Faith for UU World magazine in 2006. He implicitly assumes from the outset that fundamentalism is the essence of religion. This isn’t a conclusion he draws from facts, it’s the a priori conceptual framework into which facts are placed.

The End of Faith presents contemporary religious debate as an argument between fundamentalists like Osama bin Laden or Pat Robertson and atheists like Harris. Everyone else is a “moderate” — wishy-washy people who don’t have the intellectual integrity to choose between fundamentalism and atheism. The message of The End of Faith is that “moderates” need to get off the fence; by continuing to support theistic religion in any form at all, they’re empowering the fundamentalists.

When Harris argues that “moderates” do not represent the essence of their faith, he quotes scripture — just as a fundamentalist would. He accepts without question or examination the fundamentalist assertion that a faith is defined by a literal interpretation of its scripture.

A more mature view of religion is contained in another book I reviewed for UU World: James Carse’ The Religious Case Against Belief. To Carse, Christianity is the conversation that Jesus began, not a belief system laid down by Jesus and recorded once-and-for-all in the New Testament. Likewise, Islam is not the Quran, it is the sum total of conversations the Quran has inspired. The Bible and the Quran are central cyclones of mystery that over the centuries have spun off any number of belief systems, each of which has its day in the sun and then eventually crashes, as all human belief systems must.

This is not some bizarre notion unique to Carse. In Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel The Penitent, the novel’s ultra-orthodox narrator announces a similar opinion: that the highest form of Judaism was not the one Moses brought down from Sinai with the Torah, but the Judaism that developed after millennia of discussion about the Torah.

Harris’ failing isn’t that he has gotten the essence of Islam (or of religion in general) wrong. (This is another key point of Orientalism.) It’s that religion is a complex human phenomenon that can’t be reduced to a single essence. There is nothing to know about “the Negro” or about the Orient or Islam or Judaism or religious people in general. These are all conceptual fences that enclose diverse populations, not natural categories that each have a unique Platonic essence. So you can quote all the statistics you want about, say, the size of Jewish noses. But that caricature of the big-nosed Jew is still anti-Semitic.

So finally, what should we make of the claim that “you can’t criticism Islam” or “you can’t criticize religion”? First, note it’s resemblance to the common claim by white conservatives that they can’t criticize President Obama without being called racists. If you look at the specific instances they point to, it’s usually not that hard to see something racist going on. And the airwaves seem to be full of criticism of President Obama; lots of people manage it without sounding racist. Conservatives should learn to see what separates racist criticism of Obama from non-racist criticism of Obama, not squawk because somebody thinks they’re racists.

The reason to pause before you criticize Islam or religion isn’t that these topics are or should be surrounded by some special aura of protection. It’s that there’s really no such thing as Islam or religion, at least not in the sense that most critics would like to assume.

Want to criticize something that people do, like when families murder their own girls in “honor killings“? By all means criticize that. Want to point out that many such murderers justify themselves by pointing their Muslim faith? That’s fine. (Of course, you might also point out that the problem appears in other religions too, and that many other Muslims disagree with the killings.) What you shouldn’t do, though, is set yourself up as the Pope of Islam and pronounce that the killers are the “real” Muslims and their critics are just “nominal” Muslims.

Vlad Chituc, who writes for a very good secularist blog called NonProphet Status, has an excellent set of suggestions for criticizing religion effectively and without orientalizing it. One of them resembles what I’ve been saying here:

You also have to be appropriately specific: if you say that Christianity is sexist, and your friend practices a form of Christianity that isn’t, then there is a discrepancy you need to address. Is it the Bible that is sexist? Or just certain passages? Are they being interpreted in the same ways? Suddenly the conversation gets more productive and detached from a facet of their core identity.

… I occasionally hear various sorts of essentialist arguments where it’s claimed that religions just are their holy books. That seems obviously wrong to me: no one would say that Christianity is anti-fig because Jesus cursed a fig-tree in Mark, and no one would say that a pro-fig Christian isn’t even really Christian because of their position on figs. I don’t see why we ought to treat passages about homosexuality any different.

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  • Anonymous  On October 13, 2014 at 9:10 am

    Well said!

  • Geoff Arnold  On October 13, 2014 at 9:57 am

    Excellent piece. Good complement to this:

  • Aravawen  On October 13, 2014 at 10:20 am

    I’ve watched Maher off and on for years. In his case, it is so obvious to me that when he was age 12 or so, and decided that religion was bullshit (he’s told the story on air before; can’t remember the exact details), he had the extreme overreaction that a lot of people seem to have if they leave the belief system of their upbringing (in Maher’s case, Catholicism). Absolute rejection of and hostility toward EVERYTHING about it, and an embrace of the concept farthest from it (fundamentalist Atheism), is all he is capable of regarding the topic of religion. For whatever reason, he’s been unable or unwilling to find any form of nuance or engage in any thoughtful contemplation between those two extremes. It’s like his Achilles’ Heel regarding his critical thinking skills.

  • Miquel  On October 13, 2014 at 4:20 pm

    “The Bible and the Quran are central cyclones of mystery that over the centuries have spun off any number of belief systems, each of which has its day in the sun and then eventually crashes, as all human belief systems must.” And I think the point that Sam Harris is trying to make is that some of these “spinoffs” are extremely dangerous and while you sit around and wait patiently for these “bad” or “unreasonable” ideas to crash and die, he is trying to speed up the process. Perhaps he naively thinks that he can speed up the death of bad ideas by reminding people to examine their beliefs and their behaviors based on those beliefs. He is reminding Muslims that it says in the Quran (4:95) that “moderate”, “peaceful” Muslims are not worthy of the special rewards in paradise. Perhaps you’re right and a “more mature” view would be to just accept that people have crazy beliefs based on a few old books and we should all just have more patience and respect for people’s beliefs until that last Christian finally admits, “dammit, he’s really not coming back”.

    • weeklysift  On October 15, 2014 at 8:13 am

      You miss the point, which is that these ideas and the people who support them should be argued against without smearing Islam as a whole. Harris isn’t just arguing with ideas or people, he’s smearing Islam.

  • Justin S  On October 13, 2014 at 4:46 pm

    As an admitted non-expert on this issue, but one who currently sides with Maher & co, I would be more receptive to apple to apple counterpoints.

    It’s easy to say “XX is a diverse group.” but Maher points to some hard to dismiss details (hard for a non-expert like me, at least). These details need to be directly rebuffed in order for the opposing view to be persuasive.

    Are there any Muslim-majority countries that are not aggressively infringing on women’s rights and gay rights, etc?

    Is it true that in western countries, when polled, western Muslims would oppress people if given the chance?

    Are there large majority groups speaking out against religion-based hate and oppression? If so, to what degree? Who are they and what populations do they represent?

    Without addressing these questions, your rebuttal feels more academic than practical. I believe you when you say that there is a massive amount of diversity in the Muslim world… but that’s not exactly what this is about. Does that diversity extend to Muslim states? If a high percentage of the places where Muslims have control, via democracy or otherwise, are oppressing people, Maher’s position seems a lot more valid than you’re making it out to be.

    • Anonymous  On October 14, 2014 at 4:29 am

      —- Your neglecting is the very American history one learns in American high schools: American women fought hard and long to gain the rights they have. Regrettably, many Arab states [ Arab not Islamic states ] haven’t developed sufficient civil society for that to occur within.
      —–It matters whether political arrangements, foster or retard the development of civil society. Certain societies, like that of Libya, have developed little beyond the relationships of ruler and subject. .This resembles the (failed) policies of Roman Emperors who didn’t permit their subjects to organize, out of fear of losing control. Some Arab rulers likewise fear letting their subjects become too organized. Without sufficient civil institutions activism for women is far more difficult and far more uncertain.

    • John Hornstein  On October 14, 2014 at 7:57 pm

      Bill Maher and Sam Harris are right. Sadly.

    • Philippe Saner  On October 15, 2014 at 12:13 am

      Are there any non-Muslim countries that aren’t infringing on women’s rights and gay rights?

      Gender equality is a noble aspiration, but I can’t think of any country that’s achieved it. And there are homophobes everywhere.

      People claim things are worse in Muslim countries, but I’ve never seen an analysis that controlled for confounding variables. So I don’t have much reason to buy the claim that Muslims are worse than Christians or Hindus or whatever.

    • weeklysift  On October 15, 2014 at 8:16 am

      Re-read the closing quote. The problem with what Harris is doing is that it’s a generalized smear on the religion, rather than a specific argument with people and governments about ideas.

      • Justin S  On October 15, 2014 at 10:10 am

        After reading & appreciating your posts on Rape Culture, your response here kind of sounds like you’re trolling, though I would assume that is by accident.

        How is your position any different than the man who says “well not ALL men do that” when discussing rape culture? All the thoughtful, impressive points you raised on that subject seem to apply here, yet it feels like that logic has been disregarded.

        The real problems that have sparked this whole discussion are things like the criminalization of apostasy. That is a real and widespread problem in the Muslim world, and an issue that the Muslims within the Western world show a frightening amount of support for. That’s what has people like Maher making the comments that you are critiquing. No amount of saying “well not all Muslims are like that” will help the situation, but that frame of mind would likely extend the length of time that we accept the violence in the same way that this all applies to rape culture, no?

      • weeklysift  On October 16, 2014 at 9:19 am

        Suppose women were on TV claiming that there is something fundamentally wrong with being a man, and that the men who aren’t rapists aren’t really men. That would make the two situations analogous.

        Play that out a little further. Suppose the women are saying that at the center of masculinity are the rapists. The next circle out are the physical and verbal harassers who don’t go all the way. Beyond that are the circle of men who approve of harassment. And way out on the fringe somewhere are “nominal” men who treat women well.

        That’s a little different than just talking about a rape culture. That’s actually AGREEING with the rapists who describe themselves as “real men”.

  • Brent Holman  On October 13, 2014 at 11:08 pm

    As I understand it, there were 2 massive migrations of proto-germanic peoples who swept out of Europe, through the Middle East, even as far as India.
    King Feisal looks like a Prussian with a TAN.
    This might explain the rabid ferocity of some of these extremists.
    Not that Feisal was an extremist, he chided Lawrence on the Brits not knowing the true name of God, or how to properly worship same.
    But he felt that since he believed in the one true God, the Brits were just being silly.

  • thebhgg  On October 16, 2014 at 8:00 am

    > This isn’t a conclusion he draws from facts, it’s the a priori conceptual framework into which facts are placed.

    This might be the most powerful* critique of anti-reason I have ever seen. In a stroke you’ve made my few months of subscribing completely worth it.

    Thank you!

    * powerful, meaning it does the most work in the shortest time.

  • irrevspeckay  On October 17, 2014 at 10:11 pm

    Two of the three rules for interfaith engagement, proposed by Krister Stendahl, former dean of Harvard Divinity School and Bishop of Sweden, are when learning about a religion different than one’s own, to ask its adherents rather than its enemies and to never compare the best of yours to the worst of theirs. Seems like wise advice for all of us.

  • Amy Zucker Morgenstern  On October 18, 2014 at 3:10 am

    “Such manipulation of categories and essences is a fundamental flaw in all of Harris’ writing.” Yes. He is a very sloppy thinker, and I think he gets sloppy for the same reason so many religious writers do: he is more concerned with protecting his dogma than discerning the truth.

    Thanks for a very incisive piece.

  • Mounir El Harim  On October 21, 2014 at 11:40 am

    Mr. Doug Muder you have to admit something: the conversation on Real Time forced many liberals to really think about and try to defend their positions on this issue. And your defense is weak sauce if I may say so myself. For example: “The reason to pause before you criticize Islam or religion isn’t that these topics are or should be surrounded by some special aura of protection. It’s that there’s really no such thing as Islam or religion, at least not in the sense that most critics would like to assume.” Really, that’s your defense? We shouldn’t respond to numbers and reports and what we’re hearing and seeing because really, what IS Islam? That’s wishy-washy at best my friend. And one of your central arguments about Sam being bigoted is misinterpreting what he said about Muslims taking their faith seriously. I understand your viewpoint that “religion is just this nebulous thing floating around that is the sum total of every muslim ever…” but you have to understand that that’s not how muslims see it at all. They take their ridiculous and vile “holy” book very seriously, and they really do tend to think that people should be punished for criticizing their ‘prophet.’ I think you should either accept that FACT or stop trying to talk about this topic as if you’re an expert.

    • weeklysift  On December 5, 2014 at 3:22 pm

      This is how WHICH Muslims see it? Again, you’re using “Muslim” as if it meant exactly one thing.

  • Anonymous  On October 31, 2014 at 11:44 pm

    There are some interesting points here about Harris framing Islam as a colonialist might which I find thought provoking – the fact still remains that all religions today have majority moderate followings due to cherry-picking of the original doctrines. Religions have been forced to become moderate by the evolution of human morality. For a religion to be worth its’ salt, for it to be a guide to moral behavior, the opposite should be true. If human morality evolves and drags theology along with it, what do we need religion for? Nothing. In that sense, Sam Harris and all the new atheists are right on the mark.

    • weeklysift  On December 5, 2014 at 3:19 pm

      Liberal interpretations of scripture go way, way back. For example, universalism — the belief that no one is going to Hell for eternity — goes back at least as far as Origen in third century.

      Such doctrines are are not cherry-pickings of the “original” doctrines. The idea that fundamentalists — a movement that began in Christianity around the turn of the 20th century — define what doctrines are “original” is part of the problem.

  • Anonymous  On December 4, 2014 at 1:56 pm

    “Look what he’s done there: Jihadists are the real Muslims. They’re at the center. The further you are from being a jihadist, the fringier your Islam is.”

    According to theology this is a true statement, if a real Muslim is defined by his adherence to the Quran. Therefore those Muslims carrying out the many suras of Jihad are the core group.

    I love how liberal’s understand so many things better than everyone else–even adherents to that thing. LOL

    • weeklysift  On December 5, 2014 at 3:14 pm

      According to WHOSE theology is that a true statement?

      This is all circular logic. According to the theology of the jihadists, jihadists are the true Muslims.

  • Anonymous  On April 5, 2015 at 10:01 am

    So you are concerned that Harris did not specify the brand of Islam in question which IS still responsible for all the things which Maher and Harris rightfully criticize. Even if you are right about that Islam is still a belief system\. Race is not. Race or National Ethnicity are not choices people make. So even if granted that he should be more specific about WHICH doctrine of Islam he is referring he did use statistics to back up his point discussing specific beliefs about what the penalties for apostasy should be and treatment of minorities, and women. This is a much bigger problem than his not being specific enough especially if the numbers he uses and quotes depict and accurate depiction of reality.

  • Anonymous  On April 5, 2015 at 10:16 am

    and you are also making a claim that people just “use religion to justify violence” without believing it. Well that is a claim Harris has also challenged. He broguht up the specific text people do use to justify such actions. And maybe some people don’t really believe it and others do but do violence nonetheless but if your point is that no one really believes it but have other motives, you’d have to explain why violence is taken against innocent cartoonists and young gurls wanting an education. You would have to in some what provide a motive to make sense of harming those who in no way represent a threat to them personally. If you say they are not “really representing Islam” the “real Islam” whatever they would sorely disagree with YOU. And just because you want to expand the meaning beyond the original texts does not mean that the people whom Harris is talking about DO. You are engaging in a semantic battle whereas Harris is quoting statistics based on behavior BECAUSE of religious belief. which would not be done in the absence of that belief. So you want to name others who act based on Christian or other religion violence. I’m sure you might find some, but in comparison to the religious attacks based on Islamic belief is far greater. And additionally HARRIS’ POINT is that the texts DO correlate to the behavior whereas in Christianity anyone performing violence in the name of Christianity is not really following what Jesus said. Having said that there are plenty of Christians who DO go against what their faith ACTUALLY teaches and discriminate against others in the name of Christianity. So that is one decent point you made. Still even the most devout Christians at least thus far do not seem to behave violently as justified by their faith

    • weeklysift  On April 5, 2015 at 8:13 pm

      You seem to have forgotten the Protestant/Catholic wars in Ireland.

  • No Way  On June 14, 2016 at 11:42 am

    Extremeists are in the center for Harris’s analogy because they are the most extreme and doing the most harm, not because they represent the majority in the Muslim world. They certainly do not in the United States, but as Harris backed up with polling statistics, the do in Egypt. What you’ve done is taken a minor detail about how Harris has presented his analogy and used your misinterpretation of it to discredit the greater merit of hit argument.


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