No, Sam Harris is not Islamophobic

Cue the liberal freak-out over the title of this post.

Frequently antagonistic comedian Bill Maher made news last week when he and Ben Affleck got into a Fox News style shouting match over Islam. Maher was joined by fellow atheist and famous neuroscientist Sam Harris. Both of them made the argument that while most Muslims are peaceful and moderate, the main problem with Islamic jihad is Islam itself.

Ben Affleck’s first response to the completely valid point was predictable: That’s racist!

“[It’s] the only religion that acts like the mafia that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book,” Maher said. “There’s a reason why Ayaan Hirsi Ali needs bodyguards 24/7.”

Harris’ response was more eloquent and – I’d argue – relevant…

“[Muslim cultures] often keep women and homosexuals immiserated…we have to empower the true reformers in the Muslim world to change it,” he told Affleck. “And lying about doctrine and this behavior is not going to do that.”

He’s absolutely right.

Islamophobia exists. I’m not debating that. Far-right leaders and talking heads proposing the abolition of First Amendment freedoms for Muslims is probably the best example. It is ludicrous to think that most Muslims are fanatical jihadists, too. The Muslim faith has a-billion-and-a-half adherents worldwide. Incredible and brilliant people are among its followers. Islam – like the world’s other large religions – is also full of different theological interpretations of the Qur’an. Liberal and moderate Muslims exist, despite most press coverage.

But the Qur’an, like the Christian Bible, is also an incredibly violent book with troubling morality. Calling for the death of blasphemers or stoning women and homosexuals can be found in both. Genocide, sexism, homophobia, racism….these are all central themes of the Old Testament and the Qur’an. Pointing this out is not Islamophobic or anti-Christian – it’s a fact. It also has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that most Muslims have darker skin than Europeans and Americans.

Even though I’m not religious, I have immense respect for religious leaders who recognize Bronze Age religious texts for what they are – too-frequently barbaric. Just like Harris, I believe that these brave men and women should continue to be empowered to fight fanaticism and savagery within their cultures. Progressive Muslim Akmal Ahmed Safwat of the Democratic Muslims of Denmark says it best for religious reformers: “The Qur’an’s divine instructions were interpreted and explained by fallible and mortal men who were the product of their time and culture.”

If secular liberals and progressives are to continue to fight the spread of fundamentalist Christianity (as we should definitely continue to do), we have to be intellectually honest and continue to denounce radical and fundamentalist Islam as well. That’s not racist, bigoted, or neoconservative. It’s vital to maintaining a pluralistic society.

Sam Harris

 

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