Oct 20, 2013

Stealing Malala

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

An excellent write-up in Salon takes on Sam Harris's disturbing crush on Malala Yousafzai.

In an era of narcissistic self-obsession, there’s something to be said for the value of self-awareness. This week, atheist philosopher Sam Harris leapt forward to claim Malala Yousafzai as another trophy in his one-man jihad against Muslims and the weak-kneed “Muslim-apologists” he perceives on the left.

That Harris has been denounced as a crude, pseudo-intellectual bigot for his various tirades about the monolithic evil of Muslims didn’t do much to deter him; but what was most interesting about his latest missive was its complete disregard for Malala’s actual words and opinions. Either he didn’t listen to her words at all before plastering her face on his website or he was too contemptuous of her to think it necessary.

According to Harris:
Given the requisite beliefs…. an entire culture will support such evil. Malala is the best thing to come out of the Muslim world in a thousand years. She is an extraordinarily brave and eloquent girl who is doing what millions of Muslim men and women are too terrified to do—stand up to the misogyny of traditional Islam
It’s worth pausing here to listen to whether Malala thinks that she is standing up to her own evil culture and the misogyny of “traditional Islam”:
“The Taliban think we are not Muslims, but we are. We believe in God more than they do, and we trust him to protect us…..I’m still following my own culture, Pashtun culture….Islam says that it is not only each child’s right to get education, rather it is their duty and responsibility.”
Whatever one thinks of this, given that these are Malala’s beliefs, anyone with a modicum of decency or respect for her would not go ahead and use her suffering as a tool to attack the very things she is fighting to defend. Yet Harris takes up this opportunity with great vigor. For him it doesn’t matter whether Malala believed she was defending traditional Islam, because anyone who tries to differentiate Islam from the acts of extremists are part of the “tsunami of stupidity and violence breaking simultaneously on a hundred shores … the determination that ‘moderate’ Islam not be blamed for the acts of extremists.’”

Another way of saying that is that Harris's blog post doesn't make a lick of sense. As I said when I first read it last week, if Muslims like Yousafzai are standing up to the Taliban and demanding education for girls, how is Islam the problem?

In Harris's world, no "Moderate Muslims" have ever pushed back against extremists before -- just Malala. She apparently sprung up out of nowhere to become the lone voice in the entire Muslim world to stand up for a girl's right to be educated.

Throughout its roughly twenty year history, the Taliban has targeted education for women and girls, closing schools, forcing professional women out of their jobs and into burqas, and confining all females to their homes. A logical person, even with no real knowledge of the Muslim world, would deduce from that basic and well-known set of facts, that countless Muslim women in Afghanistan and Pakistan were educated and working in a range of careers long before the Taliban came along. Sam Harris, on the other hand, somehow deduces that Islam has been oppressing women and keeping them from getting an education for at least a thousand years. Huh? What then does the Taliban keep closing down?

Harris's post, entitled "No Ordinary Violence," goes on with such fact-free, ahistorical leaps in logic for many florid paragraphs. Muslims kill because they are Muslims. Period. They're deluded by promises of paradise. Iraq, Afghanistan, drone attacks... all irrelevant. In fact, all that military action would be unnecessary but for their religion-fueled, as opposed to clinical, insanity. No. Really. He says that.

Yes, our drone strikes in Pakistan kill innocent people—and this undoubtedly creates new enemies for the West. But we wouldn’t need to drop a single bomb on Pakistan, or anywhere else, if a death cult of devout Muslims weren’t making life miserable for millions of innocent people and posing an unacceptable threat of violence to open societies.

Blithely ignoring the fact that his new-found heroine is a passionate Muslim, Harris exploits her iconic status to bash the religion she loves.

Shortly after Harris posted his paean-to-Malala/anti-Muslim-screed, it was reported that she had told President Obama that, actually, the drones? Kind of a problem.

“I thanked President Obama for the United States’ work in supporting education in Pakistan and Afghanistan and for Syrian refugees,” she said in the statement. “I also expressed my concerns that drone attacks are fueling terrorism. Innocent victims are killed in these acts, and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people. If we refocus efforts on education it will make a big impact.” 

Since then, not a peep from Harris about how his golden girl went off the script that exists only in his head and told the leader of the free world that it might just be ordinary violence after all.

Amazingly enough, this is not the worst thing Harris has ever said about Muslims. He has a long, documented history of bigotry masquerading as intellectual enlightenment. Even among New Atheists, his animus toward Muslims is extreme. And New Atheism has created a lot of slickly packaged Islamaphobia.

When criticism of religion morphs into an undue focus on Islam - particularly at the same time the western world has been engaged in a decade-long splurge of violence, aggression and human rights abuses against Muslims, justified by a sustained demonization campaign - then I find these objections to the New Atheists completely warranted. That's true of [Richard] Dawkins' proclamation that "[I] often say Islam [is the] greatest force for evil today." It's true of [Christopher] Hitchens' various grotesque invocations of Islam to justify violence, including advocating cluster bombs because "if they're bearing a Koran over their heart, it'll go straight through that, too". And it's true of Harris' years-long argument that Islam poses unique threats beyond what Christianity, Judaism, and the other religions of the world pose.

Not only has Harris aligned himself ideologically with European fascists who dream of turning Muslims "into soap," he opines in The End of Faith that, "Some propositions are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them."

I think it's safe to say that when one begins advocating genocide, one has given up the moral high ground.

The rabid anti-Muslim bias of New Atheists has come under increasing scrutiny as their fundamentalist zeal to rid the world religion has gained ground. They simply don't disparage all religions equally. Dawkins, for instance, has made numerous statements along the lines of “Religion poisons everything, but Islam is in a toxic league of its own.”

Dawkins has also refused to distance himself from Harris's many outrageous statements, saying at one point:

You mean the Koran and the Hadith don’t say what Sam claims they say? I’m delighted to hear that, but can you substantiate it? I do hope you can, then we can all sleep easier. If, on the other hand, Sam is summarising Islamic scriptures accurately, why should I be ashamed of myself for simply quoting Sam’s accurate summary?

What may be evident from that statement is something that he's also admitted publicly. He's never read the Quran.

Dawkins, in a recent rant on Twitter, admitted that he had not ever read the Quran, but was sufficiently expert in the topic to denounce Islam as the main culprit of all the world’s evil: “Haven’t read Koran so couldn’t quote chapter and verse like I can for Bible. But [I] often say Islam [is the] greatest force for evil today.” How’s that for a scientific dose of proof that God does not exist?

A few days later, on March 25, there was this: “Of course you can have an opinion about Islam without having read the Qur’an. You don’t have to read “Mein Kampf” to have an opinion about Nazism.”

It’s an extraordinary feat for an Oxford scholar to admit that he hasn’t done the research to substantiate his belief, but what’s more extraordinary is that he continues to believe the unsupported claim. That backwards equation — insisting on a conclusion before even launching an initial investigation — defines the New Atheists’ approach to Islam. It’s a pompousness that only someone who believes they have proven, scientifically, the nonexistence of God can possess.

As we know from years of seeing Dawkins and Harris in action, whatever scholarly standards they may apply to work in their own fields of science go right out the window when they start talking -- and writing -- about religion. They are scientists. Therefore everything they do is scientific, even when it isn't, seems to be the reasoning. As Terry Eagleton observed, "Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology."

That problem of ignorance masquerading as scholarly rigor can only be compounded when they start holding forth on a religion in which they were not raised. That they have a childlike grasp of Judaism and Christianity can carry them a ways in bashing both. But, notably, they've both made a great deal of apology for both of those religions as compared to the Islam of which they have zero experiential knowledge.

Now, into the thick of that fiercest of ironies, Sam Harris has dragged a devout Muslim, magically transforming her courage and faith into a testament to his lack of both. Hasn't she suffered enough?

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