By Hesham Hassaballa
In the wake of the horrific murders of the three young American Muslim college students in North Carolina, there was much said about the fact that the killer – Craig Stephen Hicks – was an atheist who railed against religion on his social media sites. Thus, many people sought out the response of famed “New Atheist” Sam Harris, who has been a frequent critic of Islam and its doctrines. He published his response in the Washington Post, and I reproduce it here in its entirety:
“There is a huge difference between legitimate criticism of bad ideas and bigotry against specific groups of people (which, in the worst case, can result in hate crimes). It is one thing to believe that specific doctrines within Islam (or any system of thought) are unfounded, harmful, and in need of public criticism; it is another thing entirely to hate Muslims (or Arabs, immigrants, etc.) as people.
“For instance, I am currently writing a book with a Muslim friend, Maajid Nawaz, who I consider a true hero (Islam and the Future of Tolerance). In this book, I tell Maajid why I think many of the doctrines of Islam are dangerous and irredeemable, while he argues that the tradition has found ways to circumvent the very issues I raise. The result isn’t bigotry; it isn’t even socially awkward. We are simply two friends having a civil conversation on a very important topic.
“If a person considers his atheism (a lack of belief in God) or secularism (a commitment to keeping religion out of public policy) a basis for hating whole groups of people, he is either deeply confused about what it means to think critically or suffering from some psychological disorder.”
Of course, he condemned – and rightly so – bigotry against Muslims. Yet, when it came to Islam, there was a heretofore unseen nuance: “It is one thing to believe that specific doctrines within Islam (or any system of though) are unfounded, harmful, and in need of public criticism…”
I found that quite interesting because, here is what he said about Islam on that now famous Bill Maher episode: “Islam at the moment is the mother lode of bad ideas.” Other quotes that paint Islam in a negative light, taken from Dr. Muqtedar Khan’s excellent piece, include:
“Islam is all fringe and no center.”
“The idea that Islam is a ‘peaceful religion hijacked by extremists’ is a dangerous fantasy.”
Here, he is not talking about “specific doctrines within Islam,” but all of Islam. Again, in his forthcoming book Islam and the Future of Tolerance, he will discuss with Maajid Nawaz his problems with “many of the doctrines of Islam.” Again, more nuanced. But this nuance is lost when he says, “Islam is…the mother lode of bad ideas.”
This is leaving aside entirely the point of whether what he says about Islam is actually true. He bases many of his claims on a superficial reading of Islamic sources and opinion polls taken in the Muslim world. This is exactly akin to pointing to the beliefs of the Westboro Baptist Church and then saying, “Christianity is terribly intolerant.” Or, pointing to the actions of Craig Stephen Hicks and saying, “Atheism is a murderous ideology.”
Sadly, however, this is par for the course when it comes to attacking Islam and Muslims. As Dr. Khan wrote:
“New Atheists construct their arguments about Islam and Muslims based on horrible things happening in some parts of the Arab World and Pakistan, and generalize it to all Muslims and attribute it to Islam. Female genital mutilation is rampant in Egypt; it must be because of Islam, they argue, since most Egyptians are Muslims. But they ignore the fact that more than a billion Muslims elsewhere — Turkey, Iran, South Asia, East Asia — do not practice it.”
Such actions are not befitting a scholar and intellectual with the stature of Sam Harris.