Noam Chomsky versus Sam Harris: Rationale versus hate

Published: May 14, 2015
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Sam Harris is butting heads again - this time with Noam Chomsky.

Sam Harris is butting heads again – this time with Noam Chomsky. He recently blogged an email exchange he had with the great man himself; an exchange which, as with most things with Harris, quickly degenerated into crassness.

That this torture-advocating anti-theist would, of his own accord, publicise such classless piffle over the web, expecting quite possibly a tsunami of approval from his fans, betrays a curious audacity one may only encounter in a special breed of omniscience-claiming cult-runners. Of course Harris can be absolved of such an indictment – no cult-runner is he. But he may well be drifting perilously close to the shores of something resembling a cult operation.

Let me explain. Anyone familiar with Harris’s writings will know he advocates the profiling of Muslims or people who look like Muslims – you know, those bizarre folks with two eyes, two ears, a nose, among other ‘Muslim’ markers – at airports. And that’s just one of Harris’s more charitable, less lethal, proposals.  Stoic and measured as always, Harris in his chilling matter-of-factness has proposed ideas more lurid; for instance, a pre-emptive first strike on people who hold dangerous beliefs.

Being quite the charmer, Harris’s charm is exceeded only by his predictability. Take any matter involving Muslims and you can rest assured Harris won’t disappoint – if you’re a card-carrying Islamophobe, that is. Some of Harris’s commentary on Islam and Muslim societies could effectively serve as a sacred text of its own kind for hate groups across the world. His fans would, of course, take issue with such characterisation. They will immediately evoke the tried-old refrain that Islam is not a person; it doesn’t have rights and is open to criticism.

This, by the way, would be a perfectly legitimate point if that were really the case. Unfortunately, Harris doesn’t just stop at criticising Islam, he goes further. Take the case of the ground zero mosque which he opposed vehemently. This will be seen as a victory by the jihadists, he insisted. Never mind the said mosque is a multi-faith community centre; a decent initiative to bring people – yes, people, not jihadis – together in peaceful solidarity. But where Imam Abdul Rauf, head of the mosque initiative, saw warm handshakes and friendly embraces, cynical and clinical Harris saw jihadi high-fives. Or just take the Israel-Palestine conflict. Surprising no one, Harris came out strongly in support for Israel in the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian confrontation (2014) where Israel maintained its impressive 30:1 kill ratio.

And this is why Harris’s half-decent attempt at a dialogue with Chomsky was such a thorough buzz-kill. Instead of stepping up his game, Harris persisted with the same non-contributing reductionist arguments and absurd hypotheticals that, granted, reverberate with orgasm-inducing force within his chosen echo chambers, have little to no relevance beyond.

No wonder Chomsky called it a ‘non-interaction’.

But for the sake of argument, let’s just briefly examine Harris’s position. Intention more than the death toll matters to Harris. So even if the al Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan was hit with cruise missiles under Clinton’s orders, causing drug shortages in the country that killed tens of thousands of civilians, per Harris’s calculus Clinton can be exempted because the poor guy suspected the factory to be an al Qaeda operation. Contrast this to Bin Laden’s diabolical actions designed to inflict maximal death toll, and you have a clear winner in absolute sadism and depravity.

Chomsky, of course, effortlessly exposed the weaknesses in Harris’s puerile premise:

1. To evoke intentions when dealing with mass murderers is moot because mass murderers like Hitler, Pol Pot and the likes often think they are justified in their actions. Besides, to determine intentions in complex matters is in itself a near impossible task, and

2. The kind of ‘collateral killings’ America is infamous for “are arguably more immoral than purposeful killing, which at least recognises the human status of the victims, not just killing ants while walking down the street, who cares?” in Chomsky’s own words.

Chomsky also raised another interesting question regarding the al Shifa episode, that if Clinton mistook it for an al Qaeda operation, then why did he order the missile strikes immediately after the US embassy bombings in Sudan? This along with other examples of Clinton’s war crimes that Chomsky mentions in the exchange, raises serious doubts over Clinton’s apparently ‘good intentions’, accessible somehow telepathically to Harris alone. Mild and measured, Harris quickly changed the topic.

And this is what’s so dark about the new anti-theists. Under the patina of ‘measured rationalism’, they happily skip over vast tracts of nuance, to do exactly what they accuse their opponents of – clumsy reductionism. Yes, this is what has elevated hate-merchants like Ayaan HirsiRobert SpencerPamela Geller and just legions of folks crowding the Islamophobia band wagon to positions of prominence. This elite brigade of ‘West-is-superior’ chanting blowhards will practically go to insane lengths to peddle a narrative the perpetuation of which is most profitable in the eerie Huntington reality of today’s clash of civilisation – Islam versus West – world.

However, let it be clear: to recognise that there are profiteers in the Islamophobia industry is not to deny that Islamic reform is very much a necessity. The punishment for apostasy and blasphemy in many Muslim countries is death. One need not be a libertarian to recognise what is wrong with this. Such edicts – drawn from centuries old Islamic jurisprudence – are dangerously incompatible with modernity and point to the desperate need for more contemporary jurisprudence. Times have changed. Few centuries ago, people claiming witchcraft and sorcery were dispatched to the gallows. Now they’re promptly committed to lunatic asylums.

Reform in Muslim societies will need to emerge from within and cannot be forced from without. The good news is there are people actively involved in this project. The bad news is that hate sells. Nuance doesn’t. And this would surely make Mr Harris happy.

Taha Najeeb Khan

Taha Najeeb Khan

The writer is a New York based Pakistani who has everything perfectly figured out. He generously freelances his omniscient wisdom to spread the light.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.