Ask Iris: How is Sam Harris wrong? Part 1.

A friend and Loyal Reader™ forwarded me a recent screed by Sam Harris. He asked if I would be willing to indulge him in letting him know what in it, if anything, I think is “objectionable, disagree with or find otherwise ill-advised.” Harris’s post, entitled “What Hillary Clinton Should Say about Islam and the ‘War on Terror,’” is written in the form of a proposed speech that he would like for the Democratic nominee for president to give before the November election. “Its purpose,” Harris says, “is to prevent a swing toward Trump by voters who find Clinton’s political correctness on the topic of Islam and jihadism a cause for concern.”

I did a debunking of Harris almost two years ago on this very topic. It was a tedious exercise, mainly because like all right-wing conservatives and reactionaries, he bases his irrational, evidence-free, simplistic, black-&-white views and arguments, such as they are, on falsehoods and factual inaccuracies that are a cakewalk to disprove. The task was all the more unbearable because I’ve always found Harris an unoriginal and uninteresting thinker and a witless and dull writer, so much so that I’m genuinely amazed he is not a regular op-ed columnist for the New York Times.

That said, he is certainly an incendiary polemicist. Or he tries to be anyway, but for me he comes off as smug and comically uninformed as any ordinary Fox News host. Except for a few items that popped up in my feeds, Harris had largely dropped off my radar. Those sure were a couple of doozies, though. Last year he made his jaw-dropping claim that far-right fabulist and then-presidential candidate Ben Carson is “one of the best people” on the subject of Islam and terrorism, even as Carson’s “own advisers admit [he] struggles with grasping basic facts surrounding international conflicts.” Before that, Noam Chomsky—who is the farthest thing from an unoriginal and uninteresting thinker or a witless and dull writer—ate him for lunch. Oh, and then there was that one time I made a bobblehead of Sam Harris for absolutely no reason whatsoever.


Researching for today’s post, however, I came across many more Harris grotesqueries that I was fortunate enough to miss, ignore or block from memory: support for racial profiling, torture, preemptive nuclear war, demanding that the US government admit that it is and ought to be “at war with Islam” and that “The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.”

Sensible fascists. Jeezus.

A decade ago, Harris wrote that Muslim immigrants to Europe exploit the Western values of their host countries by “demanding tolerance for their backwardness, their misogyny, their anti-Semitism, and the genocidal hatred that is regularly preached in their mosques.” He is inexplicably unaware that, in accordance with his much-touted “Western values,” his fellow US citizens not only demand “tolerance for their backwardness, their misogyny, their anti-Semitism, and the genocidal hatred that is regularly preached in their mosques churches“—and also happens to be the foundational principle upon which US “civilization” is and has always been based—they fucking receive it. He’s also unaware that immigrant populations assimilate to their host culture within a few generations—well, at least if they’re treated decently, for instance by having their host country not declare war on their religion or its presidential candidates threatening and demonizing them.

I honestly don’t know why I am undertaking this task again. Maybe because I find it troubling that anyone but a Fox News viewer would take the guy seriously on this issue, when conducting a cursory investigation into the facts and evidence for yourself will reveal how completely and utterly wrong he is about a unique nexus between Islamic religious ideas and terrorism (and misogyny), as well as how unethical, irrational, irresponsible and dangerous it is to promote such falsehoods. Maybe I’m doing this because I have some unhealthy masochistic tendencies I really should bring up in therapy. Maybe it’s because I like honoring the 1940s-era pianist and comedian Oscar Levant who said, “The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”

Well, regardless, now I’ve gone and done it. My comments and edits to Harris’s latest…whatever it is are in blue.

SPOILER ALERT: Sam Harris is still wanking all over the same, tired hobbyhorse. He has learned nothing. And he likely never will.


The following is part of a speech that I think Hillary Clinton should deliver between now and November. Its purpose is to prevent a swing toward Trump by voters who find Clinton’s political correctness on the topic of Islam and jihadism a cause for concern, especially in the aftermath of any future terrorist attacks in the U.S. or Europe.—SH

Ah yes, the old favorite right-wing dog whistle, “political correctness.”


The possibility that other people understand terrorism far, far better than Sam Harris does would never occur to him, any more than it would ever occur to Donald Trump or Ben Carson (or to any number of sensible European fascists). 

*  *  *


Today, I want to talk about one of the most important and divisive issues of our time— Sam Harris’s bizarre obsession with claiming a unique link between the religion of Islam and terrorism. I want you to know how I view it and how I will think about it as President: in short, it is false, dangerous, counterproductive and easily demolished bullshit. After all, other people actually know a great deal more than Sam Harris does about radicalization and terrorism, including the fact that here in the US, right-wing terrorists have killed more people and pose a far greater threat than jihadis, and not a single one of those assholes is a Muslim. And the ratio would be even waaaay further skewed if we counted anti-abortion violence as terrorism, which of course it is, but our rancid media refuses to call it that for some reason (*cough* Christian privilege *cough*). I also want you to understand the difference between how I approach this topic and how my opponent in this presidential race does: he approaches it like the ignorant and dangerous fascist he is, while my approach is more…hmm…well, reality-based.

The underlying issue—and really the most important issue of this or any time according to Sam Harris—is human cooperation. What prevents it, and what makes it possible? In November, you will be electing a president, not an emperor of the world. [Hahaha OMFG. Citation needed.] The job of the president of the United States, even with all the power at her or his disposal, is to get people, both at home and abroad, to cooperate to solve a wide range of complex problems. [How is it even possible for someone to be this naive?] Your job is to pick the person who seems most capable of doing that America’s Owners deem well suited to serving their interests, whether or not that includes ensuring that instability (and thus terrorism) proliferates in the Muslim world. 

Maybe I wasn’t supposed to say that. Whoops! Anyway.

In the past, I’ve said that groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda have nothing to do with Islam. And President Obama has said the same. Because it’s demonstrably true. This way of speaking, according to Sam Harris’s evidenceless assertion, has been guided by the belief that if we said anything that could be spun as confirming the narrative of groups like ISIS—suggesting that the West is hostile to the religion of Islam, if only to its most radical strands—we would drive more Muslims into the arms of the jihadists and the theocrats, preventing the very cooperation we need to win a war of ideas against radical Islam. I now see this situation differently. I now believe that we have been selling most Muslims short. And I think we are all paying an unacceptable price for not speaking clearly about the overblown link between specific religious ideas and the sectarian hatred that is dividing the Muslim world. We need to push back against ignorant berserkers like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Donald Trump and Sam Harris who counterfactually insist that “religious ideas” specific to Islam are the ultimate cause of terrorism, when that quite plainly is not the case

All of us, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, must oppose the specific ideas within the Islamic tradition that Sam Harris insists inspire groups like ISIS and the so-called “lone-wolf” attacks we’ve now seen in dozens of countries, as well as the social attitudes that are at odds with our fundamental values—values like human rights [citation desperately needed], and women’s rights [citation desperately needed], and gay rights [a very recent phenomenon in the West, and one which still receives a fuckton of pushback], and freedom of speech [but only for white manbabies; anyone else who speaks freely to say “no” to them or point out white manbabies’ wrongness or sense of entitlement is subject to relentless threats of rape, death and other forms of violence, SWATting, doxxing and harassment campaigns in order to silence them, and often succeeding. FREE SPEECH™, everyone. These values are claimed to be non-negotiable. BWAHAHAHAHA!

But I want to be very clear about something: Bigotry against Muslims, or any other group of people, is unacceptable, including when Sam Harris does it. It is contrary to the values that have made our society a beacon of freedom and tolerance for the rest of the world. It is also totally counterproductive from a security point of view. However, talking about the consequences of ideas is not bigotry. Muslims are people—and most of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims simply want to live in peace like the rest of us. Islam, however, is a set of ideas. And all ideas are fit to be discussed and criticized in the 21st century, however relevant they may actually be to terrorism.

Every religious community must interpret its scripture and adjust its traditions to conform to the modern world, or so says Sam Harris anyway, who is definitely not the Emperor of the World, and who claims with a straight face to support Western values like, oh, say, religious freedom. Western Christians used to murder people women they believed were witches. They did this for centuries. And Westerners still kill women in numbers that dwarf US war and terrorism casualties combined—they simply find different excuses and rationalizations now to justify it. Terrorist attacks are horrifying and tragic. All violent deaths are. But we do ourselves no favors by obsessively focusing on only terrorism committed by Muslims to the exclusion of similar atrocities (and worse) committed by others, and then claiming Islam is somehow a unique threat. People who actually know what they’re talking about don’t do that. Reality-averse right-wing hysterics do. 

It’s hard to exaggerate the depths of moral and intellectual confusion this history represents, especially in the light of all of the unwarranted blame and focus on Islam by people who simultaneously ignore similar and much greater evils endemic to Western culture because it doesn’t support their narrative. But it is also true that we have largely outgrown such confusion in the West [O.M.F.G.]. The texts themselves haven’t changed. The Bible still suggests that witchcraft is real. It isn’t. Why, it’s almost as if the specific religious ideas themselves don’t directly cause the violence! If they did of course, by Sam Harris’s “logic” Western Christians would still be murdering “witches.” And we now know yet Sam Harris thinks that a belief in witches was the product of ancient ignorance and fear, while the existence in the West of plenty of modern day believers in witches, the vast majority of whom are well-educated whites, is definitive proof that this is not the case. Criticizing a belief in witchcraft, and noticing its connection to specific atrocities—atrocities that are still committed by certain groups of Christians in Africa—isn’t a form of bigotry against Christians. Criticizing any belief as harmful or false isn’t bigotry. But blaming a belief in witchcraft for atrocities committed by some African Christians is actually a form of bigotry against pagans. And in a society founded on religious freedom, that is reprehensible. Yet for Sam Harris it’s the only basis for moral and political progress.

Oh, and as usual, facts once again reveal Sam Harris’s inexplicable ignorance. In Africa, atrocities committed against accused witches looooong predate the arrival of Christian missionaries. See, people who actually study and understand this phenomenon know that witchcraft accusations are a form of control and dominance for men over women. (Gosh, does that sound familiar? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?)


  • In recent years [in Africa], accusations of witchcraft have risen to unprecedented heights.

  • [T]he number of women accused in relation to the number of men accused in the past fifteen years has been twenty to one. [!!!]

  • [T]hese accusations are significant as an attempt to control the behavior of women.

  • Specifically, it is a manner of controlling female sexuality in an age when urban settings don’t facilitate Victorian ideas of femininity.

  • Accusing someone of being a witch will essentially cut him or her [but let’s face it, mostly her] off from the family and any future inheritance.

  • [W]itchcraft accusations have risen due to several [other] factors:  (1) seasonal rainy season famines, (2) tensions in the house, (3) women’s leisure, (4) men’s frustrations, (5) general insecurity, (6) economic deprivation and food insecurity and (7) availability of an easy solution. It is key to note reason number three “women’s leisure.” This means that women having free time puts people in a suspicious mindset against them, and are thus more likely to be accused of witchcraft.

In Ghana, by the way, the arrival of Pentecostal (Christian) missionaries actually had a positive effect on the fates of those accused of witchcraft.

What all of this tells us is that religious ideas—whether Christian or Islamic or pagan or otherwise—can often serve as a convenient fig leaf for the self-righteous cry of violent misogynists who already want to punish and harm women for reasons having nothing to do with religious ideas. Ask yourself: if violent misogynists didn’t have a Bible or Koran they could point to to justify their actions, would they latch on to some other justification? OF COURSE THEY FUCKING WOULD. 

Suffice it to say, Sam Harris is as knowledgeable about witch persecution in Africa as he is about the causes of terrorism. 


End Part 1.

I don’t know about you, but so far this might be my favorite Hillary speech ever! And now I intend to do something a whole lot less boring than pointing out with ease the many, many ways that Sam Harris is wrong. Like, I dunno… clipping my toenails?

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