Islamophobia, by Any Other Name

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Hi! I’m Sam Harris! I think the Muslim ban was a bad idea but I also think Islam is a primitive and evil religion! Try to reconcile that! (Photo Credit: Steve Jurvetson/Flickr)

As I’m sure you’re aware, on the evening of January 29, in Quebec City, a 27-year-old man named Alexandre Bissonnette walked into the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec mosque and started firing. By the end, six men were killed, with others injured, and the next day, Bissonnette was charged with six counts of first-degree murder and five counts of attempted murder with a restricted weapon. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was quick to condemn the attack as a terrorist act and one of cowardice on the part of the assailant, and authorities and Canadian citizens alike called for a spirit of inclusivity and togetherness in the wake of the violence. While mass shootings have become regrettably almost run-of-the-mill in America, mass shootings in Canada have been relatively sparse.

Within the United States, however, for a number of vocal Trump supporters during the early confusion of details filtering down from Quebec, the attack on the Centre Culturel Islamique was Exhibit A as to why the recently-enacted “Muslim ban” is not only advisable, but patently necessary. Initial reports identified two suspects in connection with the shooting, one of whom was Mohamed Belkhadir, a 29-year-old engineering student originally from Morocco. The jingoists among us, eager to fly the Stars and Stripes at first notice of an exclusionary narrative onto which to latch, were likely already foaming at the mouth at mention of the name “Mohamed,” and news of Belkhadir’s connection with the crime just sent them over the top. See, this is why we don’t want to let refugees from Muslim nations into the country! There’s too great a danger! You never know when ISIS might be lurking around the corner! Bear in mind Morocco isn’t one of the countries specified in President Trump’s ban on immigration, but let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good argument, shall we?

Except for the eventual revelation Mohamed Belkhadir was not actually a suspect in the mosque attack, but a witness. Oops! According to reports, Belkhadir was trying to administer first aid to a friend and fled to the cultural center’s parking lot when he saw someone with a gun, not knowing that person was a cop. Indeed, the search for a narrative and the desire to run with it led to a hasty presumption based on unconfirmed information and betrayed a series of arguments predicated on racial and xenophobic prejudice. What’s more, regarding the person of Alexandre Bissonnette, a synopsis of various media sources by Manisha Krishnan, writing for VICE, paints a picture of the Laval University student that might easily be recognized stateside as well as in Canada. According to these reports, he is a loner, a subscriber to right-wing views, a xenophobe, someone who displays misogynistic tendencies and trolls a Facebook group for refugees, is a white nationalist, and—to top it all off—is a fan of Donald Trump and his policies. Oops, again! While I personally might balk at the idea that Bissonnette is one of the Trump Train lot, as, ahem, not every Trump supporter is a mass murderer, that Bissonnette would seem to be an admirer of the President’s puts an almost ironic twist on the quick finger pointed at the Muslim world wholesale by those espousing similar right-wing views.

There are any number of striking things about this example of brutality. Certainly, the idea that Donald Trump’s influence translates into French Canada and abroad may startle, though the rise of white nationalism is certainly not limited to Trump; Alexandre Bissonnette is also said to be an admirer of France’s Marine Le Pen, whose National Front party has gained popularity by adopting a similar anti-immigrant stance. What also grabs the attention, however, at least for yours truly, is statistical information regarding all Canadians’ attitudes toward Muslims. Justin Trudeau, either because he’s being diplomatic, he truly believes it, or both, has, in the wake of the mosque attack, consistently preached the country’s support for the Canadian Muslim community and solidarity with the population. Personal views, meanwhile, tend to vary. Alyssa Favreau, a Montreal-based writer, connects the Quebec shooting to a rising sea of anti-Muslim sentiment.

As Favreau notes within the piece, police-reported hate crimes against Muslims more than doubled in Canada from 2012 to 2014, and the raw number (99) stands to be much larger because the majority of these crimes go unreported. What’s more, the attitudes of average Canadians toward Islam on the whole speak to a vague apprehension about the religion and its practitioners. A 2015 survey by the Quebec Human Rights Commission found that, despite about half of respondents having reservations about organized religions in general, a significantly higher percentage of those surveyed said they felt more uncomfortable about someone wearing a hijab as opposed to one wearing a cross. As for the Canadian population as a whole, based on a Forum Poll (Canada’s leading public opinion service) survey, more than a quarter of respondents had unfavorable feelings about Muslims. In other words, if Trudeau’s sentiments conveyed the sense some sort of love-fest exists in his country for followers of Islam, evidence points to the contrary.

In the United States, meanwhile, according to a report by Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and the director of the University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll, just under half of respondents across a composite of four polls during the election year disapproved of Islam on the whole; the approval rate for Muslim people fared yet better, with 70% of respondents viewing this subset of the population in a positive light, as opposed to 28% surveyed viewing Muslims in a negative light as of October 2016. This actually marks an improvement on these ratings since November 2015, and in spite of the salience of events like the Orlando shooting. As Telhami instructs, the upward trend in pro-Muslim leanings is almost exclusively attributable to changing views among Democrats and independents, and may well be a reaction to Donald Trump’s divisive actions and rhetoric. While the direction of this trend may be surprising, the source seems less so. After all, we would expect more liberal-oriented respondents to more readily embrace Islam and those who practice the faith.

If American views of Islam and Muslims are on the upswing, and even though progressives would like to see improvement on the dimensions governed by the polls interpreted by Shibley Telhami and his associates, it is therefore somewhat troubling to have people who would more readily identify with the left espousing views that mischaracterize Islam. By and large, I appreciate the comedy of Bill Maher, and while I may not agree with all of his positions on key issues, I have a certain degree of respect for the man. His stances on Islam and Muslims, on the other hand, I patently disagree with, and his embrace of fringe theories about this religion is not only arguably counterproductive, but potentially dangerous as well.

On a recent airing of his show, Real Time with Bill Maher, the namesake host featured a conversation with Sam Harris, author, cognitive neuroscientist, and co-founder of Project Reason, on the nature of Islam. Harris, no stranger to the program and notable for being a leader within what has been coined the New Atheist movement, had some choice words for the Muslim world and those liberals who support them. According to Sam Harris, “the left has allied itself with Islamists and closet Islamists,” and while on one hand, he and Bill Maher reject the merits of the Muslim ban, he had this to say about criticisms from left-leaners of others possessing Islamophobic tendencies: “You don’t have to be a fascist or a racist or even a Trumpian to not want to import people into your society who think cartoonists should be killed for drawing the Prophet.” Maher was quick to chime in at one point on this broad subject, condemning comparisons made between Islamist terrorist groups and the Ku Klux Klan, saying dismissively, “The KKK is not seeking nuclear weapons.” Um, bully for them then?

Both Sam Harris and Bill Maher, in discussing Muslims and Islam in this way, appear to be making a fundamental error. Harris, making a sweeping generalization, evidently believes all Muslims and refugees from countries where the predominant faith is Islam think cartoonists should be killed for drawing the Prophet Muhammad or otherwise representing them in a less-than-holy light, when realistically, this is a hallmark of radical or ultra-conservative Muslims, and not necessarily your everyday followers. As for Maher, he makes the distinction between the Ku Klux Klan and various Islamist groups, as if to say, “See? What did I tell you about Islam!” If saying the KKK doesn’t want nukes is your primary defense of this group, though, it’s a bit of splitting proverbial hairs, no? It’s like saying Donald Trump isn’t Hitler because he hasn’t tried to exterminate the Jews. That’s really a cold comfort, and besides, dude’s still got ample time in his first 100 days and Stephen Bannon the Skeleton King pouring poison into his ear. In either case, Harris and Maher are conflating the work of jihadists with that of rank-and-file Muslims, and such discourse not only seems to be steeped in faulty logic, but potentially is dangerous given the national voice these figures possess.

Sadly, this is nothing new for either man. Though a bit dated by Internet standards, Salon in 2015 compiled a compendium of Bill Maher’s “greatest hits” on Islam, which includes references to Muslims’ beliefs as “pernicious,” the Koran as a “hate-filled holy book,” and to Islam itself not being a religion of peace. As for Sam Harris, Glenn Greenwald, perhaps the best journalist you’ve never heard of, penned a lengthy op-ed about Harris and other New Atheists on “anti-Muslim animus” back in 2013. I know—positively ancient, right? And yet, not much seems to have changed or evolved within Harris’s world view since. Greenwald acknowledges Sam Harris’s antipathy toward organized religion as a whole (Bill Maher, though not an avowed atheist, is like-minded in his distaste for organized religion and its more deleterious effects), but notes how Harris, for lack of better phrasing, has a hard-on for Islam and those that worship in accordance with its precepts. From the essay:

The key point is that Harris does far, far more than voice criticisms of Islam as part of a general critique of religion. He has repeatedly made clear that he thinks Islam is uniquely threatening: “While the other major world religions have been fertile sources of intolerance, it is clear that the doctrine of Islam poses unique problems for the emergence of a global civilization.” He has insisted that there are unique dangers from Muslims possessing nuclear weapons, as opposed to nice western Christians (the only ones to ever use them) or those kind Israeli Jews: “It should be of particular concern to us that the beliefs of devout Muslims pose a special problem for nuclear deterrence.” In his 2005 “End of Faith”, he claimed that “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death.”

This is not a critique of religion generally; it is a relentless effort to depict Islam as the supreme threat. Based on that view, Harris, while depicting the Iraq war as a humanitarian endeavor, has proclaimed that “we are not at war with terrorism. We are at war with Islam.” He has also decreed that “this is not to say that we are at war with all Muslims, but we are absolutely at war with millions more than have any direct affiliation with Al Qaeda.” “We”—the civilized peoples of the west—are at war with “millions” of Muslims, he says. Indeed, he repeatedly posits a dichotomy between “civilized” people and Muslims: “All civilized nations must unite in condemnation of a theology that now threatens to destabilize much of the earth.”

This isn’t “quote-mining”, the term evidently favored by Harris and his defenders to dismiss the use of his own words to make this case. To the contrary, I’ve long ago read the full context of what he has written and did so again yesterday. […] Yes, he criticizes Christianity, but he reserves the most intense attacks and superlative condemnations for Islam, as well as unique policy prescriptions of aggression, violence and rights abridgments aimed only at Muslims. As the atheist scholar John L Perkins wrote about Harris’ 2005 anti-religion book: “Harris is particularly scathing about Islam.”

The larger significance of these kinds of attitudes, as Glenn Greenwald sees things, is that this thinking can be used to justify all sorts of aggression, human rights abuses, and violence against Muslims, the kinds of acts to which rights activists independent of political affiliation strongly object. They include anti-Muslim profiling, state violence (i.e. liberals are “soft” on terrorism), support for Israel even in the face of international criticism, and torture. What’s more, whereas defenders of divisive behavior and rhetoric on the right might view this as justified based on vague ideas of Christian righteousness or outright racism and xenophobia, the foundation of New Atheism’s anti-Muslim sentiments is feelings and notions of a moral superiority. Sure, Sam Harris and his confederates might view their objections to Islam as more correct because they are not based on strict adherence to religious doctrine, but viewed in the context of secular morality and a battle of good versus evil, they are equally as insidious, if not more so. “They know not what they do”? Hardly. Harris and Company know exactly what they do—and that’s the point.

As Glenn Greenwald frames his arguments, then, Bill Maher’s and Sam Harris’s wholesale character assassination of Islam fits in all-too-nicely with a generalized American and Western condemnation of the Muslim world, and a tendency to side with our own interests even when they may be seen as wrong. Greenwald describes the problem with Harris’s denigration of Muslims and Islam quite succinctly:

Harris’ self-loving mentality amounts to this: those primitive Muslims are so tribal for reflexively siding with their own kind, while I constantly tout the superiority of my own side and justify what We do against Them. […] He is at least as tribal, jingoistic, and provincial as those he condemns for those human failings, as he constantly hails the nobility of his side while demeaning those Others.

As Sam Harris and other New Atheists would have it, the end game of Islam is to convert everyone to the faith, politically subjugate those who don’t convert, or kill those who stand in the way. Otherwise, the assumptions they make about the way Muslims think are based not on factual observation or rational, intellectual inferences, but rather a spirit grounded in religious or “tribal” attitudes—and if we really want to get down to brass tacks, this liberal Islamophobia is pretty much a religion in of itself. So much for that whole “no religion” bit.


It’s one thing for educated folks like Bill Maher and Sam Harris to sneer at the section of right-wing America that, to paraphrase Barack Obama’s infamous quote, clings to its Bibles, its guns, and its resentment against the foreign and the unfamiliar. It’s quite another, however, for their likes to convey an elitist tone and deride the Muslim ban as an obvious poor choice while they, in the same breath, denigrate Muslims and what they believe. So, while Maher, Harris and other non-believers/agnostics may thumb their noses at those who get caught up in matters of sectarian conflict, looking down at the rigidity of organized religions from atop their high horses, by painting Islam and Muslims with broad, largely negative strokes, they are no better than the Americans who, say, argue Muslims are a danger to the United States because they want nothing more than to make sharia law the supreme law of the land and subvert our existing statutes in the name of Allah.

Speaking of which, on that last note, in another one of those quasi-ironic twists that I seem to love these days, if anything is liable to bring religiously-motivated laws into a position of greater influence and effect, it is not Muslims, but the man behind the ban himself, President Donald Trump. Alongside plotting a gutting of the Dodd-Frank Act, a piece of legislation crafted in direct response to the irresponsible banking, lending and other regulatory practices which led to the global financial crisis almost a decade ago, Trump vowed recently to destroy the Johnson Amendment, which effectively bars churches from making political contributions, and thus, is an important aspect of the separation of church and state in the United States. Evidently, and in short, Trump, his cronies, and Republicans who aid and abet him in terrible policy-making are content to let the financial industry and religious organizations alike run amok. As many of us may reason, they might as well. You know, after confirming the likes of Rex Tillerson, a man who has ties to Vladimir Putin and who until recently helmed a company that dealt with countries considered state sponsors of terrorism, and Betsy DeVos, whose millions of dollars of political contributions somehow are supposed to count for a complete lack of competence and experience, there’s almost nowhere to go but up. Almost.

What we don’t need, therefore, returning our focus to the topic of anti-Muslim sentiment, is more noise from individuals professing to uphold science and intellectualism but instead giving way to beliefs that smack of white ethnocentrism and are reliant on a warped understanding of a religion practiced by over a billion people worldwide. People like Sam Harris argue liberals are in bed with jihadists and others like Bill Maher feel political correctness holds us back from having an honest and open conversation about Islam and the Muslim world, and at worst, makes us “pussies.” Little do they realize, however, it is, to a considerable extent, their closed-mindedness which only fuels mutual misunderstanding between East and West and drives us all further apart.

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