The Muslim Ban: Trump Disdain Drowns Out Sam Harris’ Common Sense

Neuroscientist and author Sam Harris has stood on the shoulders of giants, and he knows it. He has demonstrated himself to be both brilliant and humble, passionate and measured, erudite and perspicuous—combinations not seen in many, if any, men.

He is a known and admired name in my home (our daughter, at age three, would hear his voice on SoundCloud and ask, “Is that Sam Yass?”). It has been with some disappointment that we’ve watched and listened these last two years to the slow drip of Harris’ anti-Trump sentiments drowning out his once unmatched common sense. Most recently, in his latest blog post, “A Few Thoughts on the ‘Muslim Ban’,” he dispensed not only with logic but long-held views he himself held on the threats posed by Islamic terrorism:

“I think Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ is a terrible policy. Not only is it unethical with respect to the plight of refugees, it is bound to be ineffective in stopping the spread of Islamism. As many have pointed out, it is also internally inconsistent: It doesn’t include Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, or Lebanon, any of which has been a more fertile source of jihadist terrorism than several of the countries Trump named.”

Either because of ignorance or intentional omission, Harris, like the mainstream media, failed to share the fact that the seven countries affected by the so-called “Muslim ban” were actually designated by President Obama, not President Trump—and by an act of Congress, not by Executive Order. This matters not for purposes of shifting blame (or praise, depending on your politics) but it shows the quality and bipartisan nature of the policy itself.

For someone who literally wrote the book on lying (titled “Lying“) Harris ought not be so flippant with untruths.

The unusual brevity of his response to the policy itself is glaring. Noticeably absent from the critique was Harris’ recommendation for improving it, whether by full rescission or amendment—though literally a sentence after calling it a “terrible policy” Harris does state that, by not including other terrorist hotbeds in the Middle East, the policy “is bound to be ineffective in stopping the spread of Islamism.” Half of something terrible cannot be made better by doubling the recipe, as I’m sure Harris knows. All of this seems to indicate that Harris supports the policy but opposes the policy maker.

Back when it was all but guaranteed that Hillary Clinton would be our next president, Harris was capable of being the calm voice of reason, warning us in a November 2015 podcast, “On the Maintenance of Civilization,” to look at the problem of refugees and refugee vetting logically, to listen, and to listen even to those with whom we disagree:

“Step back here. Take the personalities of the people on the Right out of the equation. Is it crazy to express, as Ted Cruz did, a preference for Christians over Muslims in this (vetting) process? Of course not. What percentage of Christians will be jihadists, or want to live under Sharia Law? Zero. And this is a massive—in fact it is the only concern when talking about security.

If we know that some percentage of Muslims will be jihadists, inevitably; if we know that we cannot be perfect in our filtering (of refugees); if we know that a larger percentage will, if not be jihadists, will be committed to resisting assimilation into our society, then to know that a given refugee, or family of refugees is Christian is a wealth of information, and quite positive information in the context. So it is not mere bigotry, or mere xenophobia, to express that preference. ..this is a quite reasonable concern.”

If a refugee’s penchant for jihad is “the only concern when talking about security,” then a temporary visa restriction on travelers from religiously tumultuous countries is not “terrible” or “unethical.” By Harris’ own admission, it’s actually “quite reasonable.”

If one Somali is willing to wage jihad, that is one more than we should have allowed entry into the United States. If it was “reasonable” in 2015 to take religion into consideration when vetting refugees, it’s just a reasonable today, and for the same reason.

Harris continued, stating  that “reasonable concerns are being denied at every turn”:

“For instance, the president (Obama) has said that no refugees have ever become terrorists. But that’s simply untrue. There are Somali refugees living in Minnesota, who have gone to fight and wage jihad for Al-Shabaab. So it is just factually false, morally blind, and politically stupid to treat this as a non-issue.”

Somalia, it should be noted, is included in Trump’s “Muslim ban.”

It should not require pointing out that Trump had been president for literally a week when he issued the “Muslim ban.” It should not need to be clarified that the Muslim ban doesn’t actually ban Muslims (if it did, significantly more than seven countries would be affected). It should not require apology when an incoming president asks to halt visa travel for a mere 90 days while he reviews the country’s refugee vetting processes. As the prince of logic, Harris is the last person I would think to be in need of these elementary reminders.

While there are couple points made in his blog post that are poignant—such as that reform within Islam needs moderate, secularist Muslims, and restricting their visas will not advance that movement—there are other statements that, whether out of pure rage of negligence in proofreading, lack anything resembling logical processing:

“The fact that atheists like me can’t find the time to worry about the religious crackpots (Trump) has brought with him into power is a measure of how bad the man is. Christian fundamentalism has become the least of our concerns.”

If it’s that bad, why wouldn’t you take the time to worry about it? To not feel the need to make time is evidence of its banality. Prior to this blog post, Harris expresses his regret in wasting two fruitless hours “debating what it means to say that a proposition is (or seems to be) ‘true.’ ” His post before that was a meme. I will not claim to know what is best for Harris, but worrying about “religious crackpots” is why he was placed among Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett as one of the so-called “Four Horseman” of the modern atheist movement.

As Harris well knows, to have the privilege to be so unbothered by “crackpots” is a compliment to the gods before which said crackpots prostrate. Were beheadings, subjugation, and female genital mutilation on the docket of Trump’s cabinet picks, I would hope Harris would make time to worry about it, as he has so thoughtfully, so passionately, in the past. One might even expect some modicum of mutual respect between a man who spent his career educating the world about these issues and the man who is re-evaluating his administration’s position toward perpetrators of said issues.

Many Americans were sad to see the end of an era in master elocutionist Barack Obama’s  departure from the White House (some less than others). I will continue to exercise patience in allowing time for society’s recalibration from president scholar to billionaire celebrity. I just hope Harris does not believe he found a niche so much as a rut. The world is better off with Harris the Cold Logician. It does not need more critics. 

As always, I encourage you to be a responsible consumer of information and read the full text of Harris’ blog here: “A Few Thoughts on the ‘Muslim Ban’ “

Read Trump’s Executive Order here: Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States


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