When Satirists Make Better Intellectuals Than Scientists

Recently a friend of mine (hat-tip to @dalliasd) tweeted this opinion piece by Glenn Greenwald over at The Guardian. The piece was a reaction to the stances of Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and popular public intellectual, on Islam. I won’t re-hash all the arguments here. The Greenwald piece, which is worth a read, lays them all out.

Suffice to say, Harris argues that Islam is fundamentally different from other religions, as quoted by Greenwald: “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death.” This strikes me as a surprisingly naive, melodramatic, and ignorant statement coming from someone who is supposed to represent contemporary rational thought.

I wanted, for the purposes of this post, to hone in on one statement in particular, regarding the proposed building of a mosque and Muslim community center at Ground Zero back in 2010; again, quoted by Greenwald:

“The erection of a mosque upon the ashes of this atrocity will also be viewed by many millions of Muslims as a victory — and as a sign that the liberal values of the West are synonymous with decadence and cowardice.”

It’s hard to know where to begin with this one. While Harris probably thinks he’s framing the mosque as one battleground in a conflict between religious fundamentalism and liberal secularism, it is glaringly about politics, not religion. What Harris is doing is categorizing Muslims (in general and in particular) as being in opposition to “the liberal values of the West,” and creating a dichotomy in which these two categories are mutually exclusive.

Most obviously, the statement should sound absurd to anyone who’s spent any kind of time in New York City. People of all stripes, including approximately 600,000 Muslims, live, work, and worship in the city. There are already mosques all over the place, as there are temples and churches and synagogues. I don’t want to paint New York as a utopian melting pot, as it certainly has its problems with discrimination and racism and inequality. But, deep in its Lazarus-ian (and, as it happens, liberal-Western) heart of ideals, it is supposed to be a place where anyone can go to work hard and pursue their dreams; regardless of their background. It’s been that way for ages. And people of all backgrounds continue to flock there.

So it makes little sense to assert that millions of Muslims would see the building of a mosque near Ground Zero as a kind of ideological victory when there are already mosques in that neighborhood (indeed, there was a Muslim prayer room inside the World Trade Center itself). Furthermore, Middle Eastern and Islamic culture and cuisine ubiquitously weave throughout the buzz of lower Manhattan, amid kosher food carts and Indian restaurants and West African music shops. Is Harris also afraid that the increasing popularity of halal cuisine is going to be touted as a moral victory by Islamic fundamentalists?

An estimated 60 to 70 Muslim New Yorkers died in the attacks on the World Trade Center. But Harris’ rudimentary “us-them” dichotomy precludes him from realizing the possibility that a Muslim spiritual center at Ground Zero might play some kind of positive role in the healing process for Muslim New Yorkers who lost (Muslim or otherwise) friends or loved ones there.

Muslim New Yorkers counter-demonstrate at anti-mosque demonstration.
Photo by David Shankbone. Creative Commons license.

Another logical inconsistency rendered invisible by Harris’ false dichotomy is that the West’s liberal ideals, particularly in the United States as embodied in the first amendment, include religious freedom and the right to practice one’s religion free from government interference. How can the building of a mosque be a victory over Western values when freedom to practice your religion is itself a “Western” value?

By a complete coincidence, I was unwinding watching clips from old episodes of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart when I saw a report on the mosque by correspondent Wyatt Cenac. I’ll highlight some of the dialogue for those who can’t access the clip.

Stewart introduced the report: “As you know, this proposed Islamic center down in lower Manhattan has caused quite a bit of controversy. The terrorists hate us for our freedoms; is this any time for us to be exercising those freedoms?”

As if going through my critique point by point, Cenac investigated the Muslim threat in lower Manhattan. And coming to the frightening realization that there were Muslims everywhere (!!!), he says: “Perhaps most chilling, they’ve already created a spicy ring of deliciousness near Ground Zero.” In an interview with a halal food cart vendor, he broaches the topic of the mosque:

Cenac: I noticed there are a lot of halal carts around. Is this your nefarious plan to get us all satisfied and full and tired and logy so that we can’t resist when you take over with the new mosque?

Vendor: We started here before they had the idea of building the mosque already. This is the most stupid thing I’ve ever heard in my life. You know why? Because here in America, it is teaching one thing to the whole world. You know what is that?

Cenac: God is great?

Vendor: Freedom of religion. Christian, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, whatever, anything.

Cenac: But mainly Christian.

In the report’s closing analysis, Stewart tries to reason with Cenac:

Stewart: You realize, uh, none of what you uncovered is… is real. Or a threat.

Cenac: [laughs] They might not be now, but they will once this mosque is built! And that is the last thing this neighborhood needs.

Stewart: Yeah, I understand. Do you know what it is you’re standing in front of right now? You’re down near Ground Zero…

Cenac: Uh, I don’t know, it says Masjid. Is that a Jewish magic shop? Ooh, I’m gonna make a golem!

Stewart: No… [laughs], it’s— they don’t make golems, it’s not a magic shop, Masjid is a mosque. It’s a mosque.

Cenac: Wait, that’s a mosque??

Stewart: Yes, that’s right.

Cenac: But we’re four blocks from Ground Zero!

Stewart: Yes, I know, that mosque actually is in the neighborhood I live in, it’s been there for forty years. It predates the World Trade Center.

Cenac: Holy crap, Jon! Two mosques near Ground Zero? Now I get it!

Stewart: You get what, Wyatt? What do you get?

Cenac: That’s their plan! That’s how they’re going to take over. They’re going to build a mosque every two blocks, until the city’s completely covered!

Stewart: Wyatt, I think you’re thinking of Starbuck’s.

I may be over-stating this, but I think Jon Stewart and the correspondents and writers at the Daily Show are really the popular public intellectuals of our time. (Not the first time satirists have filled this role; see Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, George Orwell, and The Onion, among many others.) In between the base silliness and college humor, there is an earnest and critically analytical curiosity driving the headlines, reports, and interviews.

At the same time, it goes beyond Socratic gadfly-like feigned ignorance and confronts audiences and guests alike with well-informed and well-constructed arguments, which sometimes take the form of what I would call high sarcasm. I personally don’t always agree with the arguments, but I can at least see the logic behind them. I can’t say the same for Harris, who, as a “real” public intellectual, I would expect to circumvent obvious flaws in logic; think a little bit harder about the issues he analyzes; and be conscientious about how he articulates his positions. Now what I’d really like to see is a response to Harris from Bassem Youssef.

About Carol Jean Gallo

PhD student at Cambridge. Interested in local context and global affairs and the crossroads and misinterpretations between them.
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One Response to When Satirists Make Better Intellectuals Than Scientists

  1. skutsch says:

    It’s sad, because I liked Harris’s strident atheism when he came out with “Letter to a Christian Nation,” but now he’s turned into a raging racist. Thank Odin we still have Jon to keep us sane.

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