by Donovan Schaefer
American atheist Sam Harris recently responded to the swirl of celebrity surrounding Pakistani girls’s education advocate and assassination survivor Malala Yousafzai by claiming her as one of his own. Harris, who holds the most stridently anti-Muslim position of all of the New Atheists, argues that Malala is best understood as a non-Muslim, who is hated by the Taliban because she is “standing up to” Islam. As Murtaza Hussain points out, this goes against Malala’s own self-identification as a Muslim: “what Harris and the Taliban also have in common are that neither considers Malala to be a genuine Muslim.” Hussain quotes Malala in her own words reaffirming her status as a practicing Muslim and the illegitimacy of the Taliban’s religiously-authorized campaign against her.
Why does Harris enlist Malala as a partisan against Islam, in spite of her own proclamations to the contrary? Is there is something in the makeup of American atheism–especially white atheism–that leads to epistemic overconfidence? Harris is so certain that he knows what Islam is–that all of the billion plus Muslims in the world must be dancing to the same simple beat–that individuals such as Malala who do not fit his simplistic template are easily ironed out. A young woman standing up for education–even if she invokes the authority of Islam–must not be a Muslim, because we know exactly what Muslims are and they are not that. This is an iteration of the epistemic overconfidence of white atheists–a defiant epistemology that runs across the American pundit class. A lack of confrontation by difference leads to a globally unsophisticated view of the world, a sheer obliviousness to complexity.
But I’m not entirely satisfied by this explanation. I had a conversation recently with an atheist friend in which we expressed a shared hope that Harris’s enrollment in a PhD program at UCLA would help him overcome his seeming addiction to extravagantly broad pictures of complex religio-political factors and mature into a more sophisticated and compelling voice for 21st century US atheism. But with his bizarre post about Malala, Harris has shown that he has no interest in meeting these expectations, returning again to strident insistence that there is no tangible distinction between moderate and extremist religion and overinflated, teenagerish lines like “[a] tsunami of stupidity and violence is breaking simultaneously on a hundred shores.”
This makes me wonder if the recurring problem with white American atheism’s Islamophobia is more than just overconfidence, and more even than ambient racism. Is it symptomatic of the American media ecology that in order for pundits to remain in currency, to continue selling books and commanding five-figure sums at speaking engagements, that they must devise broad, expansive claims that breathlessly sweep up large segments of the world in convenient, square, brightly colored packages? Is hyperbole the only way to remain competitive in the high-velocity American media economy?
Or does it run even deeper than dollar signs? Does the alchemy of American punditry traffic in hyperbole because hyperbole is simply exciting, the most interesting thing that you can do with political commentary, even worth the near-total sacrifice of accuracy? In other words, is the American media economy shaped not only by money, but by flows of affect? And is white atheism in the US just as invested in the brash, total-war proclamations–the unblinking affirmations of certainty–that channel these flows as the religions they claim to stand against?