Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Stay Classy, Sam Harris.

By Garrett FitzGerald

If by 'stay classy' I mean 'thank you for removing the last shred of doubt that your flagrant Islamophobia is just a thin cover for deep-seated notions of cultural - and potentially racial - superiority.' 

You see, Sam Harris is really upset about TSA screenings. More specifically, Sam Harris is upset at Muslims for making the rest of us have to endure ever more elaborate rituals of inspection before we board planes. And Sam Harris is also really mad at our overly PC culture for failing to fess up to the fact that the TSA really only need concern itself with people who look like they are, or could be, Muslim.


Harris keys off his defense of profiling with a couple of anecdotes about some of the more appalling excesses of post-9/11 airport security screenings. Harris recalls standing in mute horror as a small child and an elderly couple are needlessly harangued by TSA agents who, cowed by the "tyranny of fairness" into some twisted "perversion of vigilance," must harass these harmless innocents rather than focus on the obvious bad guys (Muslims. Harris is talking about Muslims).

The solution, to Harris, is simple:
"We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it."
But why stop at simply eye-balling Muslims extra hard on their way through security? Why not have dedicated security checkpoints just for Muslims? Better yet, why not have wholly separate (but equal!) airlines reserved just for Muslim travelers, thus allowing Sam Harris to breathe easier at 30,000 feet?
You see, the crux of Harris' argument boils down to the notion that being forced to wait in line or enduring the occasional pat-down constitutes a legitimate complaint and societal concern, while the notion of systematically profiling Muslims, or even people who "look Muslim," does not. Harris even has the gall to suggest that Muslims (and the people who "look Muslim") should support such a system: "[Wouldn’t] they, too, want a system that notices people like themselves?"

And what, precisely, does Sam Harris consider a Muslim to look like? Like some sort of anecdotal or hypothetical caricature. Someone who "[shows] up at the airport dressed like Osama bin Laden." The man behind Harris in a TSA line "who could have played the villain in a Bollywood film." One of the several burqa-clad wives that the villains Harris sketches for us has in tow.

But apparently unbeknownst to Sam Harris, religion is not a terribly reliable indicator of either race or fashion sense. Former NPR journalist Juan Williams learned this lesson the hard way, after he was fired by NPR for coming clean to Bill O'Reilly about his own irrational fear of flying with people "in Muslim garb." As Juan explained to Papa Bear:
"I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”
If there were any take-aways from the Juan Willaims debacle, the first and foremost thing that folks who nurse Islamophobic tendencies should have learned is to include the disclaimer "I'm not a bigot" before launching into a defense of bigotry. The second, which throws just the biggest of wrenches in the arguments of both Harris and Williams, is the incredible diversity of appearances of Muslims around the world, both in terms of physical appearance and what passes for "Muslim garb." This staggering diversity is perhaps illustrated nowhere better than the Muslims Wearing Things Tumblr that began as a response to Juan Williams' comments. Take a moment to scroll through the pages upon pages of Muslims wearing things while doing things, and ponder these numbers while you do.

According to the 2010 figures from the Pew Research Center, fully two-thirds of the world's Muslims, a whopping 62.1%, live in the Asia-Pacific region, compared to only 19.9% of the global Muslim population found in the Middle East-North Africa region. Muslim populations can be found on literally every continent, and you can trace an unbroken line between Indonesia and Senegal of nations with populations of at least 1-5 million Muslims. Short of admitting that Harris's assumptions are based on a deeply problematic, hyper-stereotypical, and patently Orientalist view of what a Muslim man or woman might look like, in saying that we should profile "anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim," Harris has effectively implicated the whole of humankind's genetic diversity.

This is not Sam Harris' first time crossing the line between his hobbyhorse critiques of religion and outright scape-goating of Islam. Although Harris holds scant regard for most any forms of religious belief or expression, he reserves a particularly deep-seated malice for Islam and its followers. In 2004, Harris made a similar appeal for re-framing or admitting the true focus of War on Terror: "It is time we admitted that we are not at war with terrorism. We are at war with Islam." And while there are plenty of other, and even more flagrant, Islamophobes out there in the world, Harris' particular brand of anti-Muslim bigotry comes off as all the more hypocritical because chastising people for making irrational, unsubstantiated claims about religion despite demonstrable proof to the contrary is kind of his thing.

And Harris is far from the only public intellectual who couches deeply problematic cultural and racial views behind urbane critiques of religion. British literary theorist Terry Eagleton has repeatedly criticized several stalwarts of the so-called New Atheist movement and other members of Britain's "liberal literati" for pushing their party line of thinly-veiled Western cultural supremacy. According to Eagleton, the woefully reductionistic views shared by many of these individuals toward religion in general take on particularly ominous tones in their flagrant mischaracterizations of Islam, and effectively position otherwise liberal-minded thinkers, in Eagleton's words, as the "intellectual wing of the War on Terror."

The following clip offers an excellent primer regarding Eagleton's thoughts on the subject. Eagleton's discussion of this trend toward (il)liberal Islamophobia begins at about the 4:15 mark.

On a brighter note, Harris might be due for a bit of an education in the coming weeks. Loonwatch cites a recent post from Harris' website in which Harris indicates the possibility of a forthcoming discussion (debate?) between Harris and University of Chicago professor Robert Pape, the author of highly influential works on terrorism, including Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. Very simply put, Pape's exhaustive research on global incidences of suicide terrorism from 1980-2003 indicate a much stronger correlation between the use of suicide terrorism and frustrated aspirations of nationalism, particularly in situations of occupation and colonization, than exists between the use of suicide terrorism and religious ideology. According to Pape,
[There is] little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any one of the world’s religions...Rather, what nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland. 
Needless to say, Pape's research sharply contradicts the security rationale of Harris' particularly Islamophobic flavor of Orientalism, and completely undercuts the argument at the heart of Harris' defense of profiling. We'll keep you posted.  In the meantime, you stay classy, Sam Harris.

Photo: from the Flickr photostream of Jurvetson.


  1. Thank you so much!!! You are so great and rational. Would have hugged you.