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Sam Harris slurs Malala: Famed atheist wrongly co-opts teenager’s views

19 October 2013 Salon 44 Comments Email This Post Email This Post

malala_harris-620x412Harris seems a bit desperate these days.

By Murtaza Hussain

In an era of narcissistic self-obsession, there’s something to be said for the value of self-awareness. This week, atheist philosopher Sam Harris leapt forward to claim Malala Yousafzai as another trophy in his one-man jihad against Muslims and the weak-kneed “Muslim-apologists” he perceives on the left.

That Harris has been denounced as a crude, pseudo-intellectual bigot for his various tirades about the monolithic evil of Muslims didn’t do much to deter him; but what was most interesting about his latest missive was its complete disregard for Malala’s actual words and opinions. Either he didn’t listen to her words at all before plastering her face on his website or he was too contemptuous of her to think it necessary.

According to Harris:

Given the requisite beliefs…. an entire culture will support such evil. Malala is the best thing to come out of the Muslim world in a thousand years. She is an extraordinarily brave and eloquent girl who is doing what millions of Muslim men and women are too terrified to do—stand up to the misogyny of traditional Islam

It’s worth pausing here to listen to whether Malala thinks that she is standing up to her own evil culture and the misogyny of “traditional Islam”:

“The Taliban think we are not Muslims, but we are. We believe in God more than they do, and we trust him to protect us…..I’m still following my own culture, Pashtun culture….Islam says that it is not only each child’s right to get education, rather it is their duty and responsibility.”

Whatever one thinks of this, given that these are Malala’s beliefs, anyone with a modicum of decency or respect for her would not go ahead and use her suffering as a tool to attack the very things she is fighting to defend. Yet Harris takes up this opportunity with great vigor. For him it doesn’t matter whether Malala believed she was defending traditional Islam, because anyone who tries to differentiate Islam from the acts of extremists are part of the “tsunami of stupidity and violence breaking simultaneously on a hundred shores … the determination that ‘moderate’ Islam not be blamed for the acts of extremists.’”

Besides their own unique brands of extremist myopia (one formed in Ivy League universities, another in the illiterate villages of a war-torn country) what Harris and the Taliban also have in common are that neither considers Malala to be a genuine Muslim. Without even the pretense of substantiating his argument, Harris claims that criminals such as al-Qaida and Al Shabab – universally denounced among religious authorities in the Muslim world – have “have as good a claim as any to being impeccable Muslims.”

It’s unlikely that anyone who possessed even the tiniest legitimate regard for Malala’s struggle would co-opt her views so blatantly to pursue their own seething bigotries against her culture and beliefs. Endorsing Malala’s Nobel-worthiness and using her photograph without paying even minimal attention to her own views is emblematic of Harris’ naked condescension toward the “millions of Muslim women, freethinkers, homosexuals, and apostates” whom he constantly promotes himself as the savior of.

Aside from his flailing attempt to add Malala to the list of brown women in distress rescued by his virtuous blogging, Harris repeats a litany of facile arguments about terrorist violence that appears to evince near-absolute ignorance about the subject. According to Harris, although the terrorists who attacked the Boston Marathon and a soldier in Woolwich, England, both claimed to be acting due to “military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan” and said that “the only reason we did this is because Muslims are dying daily,” he alone knows that this is a cheap ploy to distract from their single-minded religious ecstasy.

For a man who believes that the Iraq War was fought for a great “humanitarian purpose,” it is obviously impossible to fathom how such an action could result in any form of “blowback” other than a bouquet of flowers and profound thanks. Harris goes forward to claim that since neither of the attackers were Afghan or Iraqi themselves, this is thus proof that their actions were apolitical and rooted solely in religion. How Harris knows this secret truth – a belief that stands in completecontrast to the actual claims of the perpetrators – is never really explained.

In Harris’ universe if Muslim terrorists claim to be acting in the name of a political cause, they are actually acting in the name of Islam. If, however, an activist such as Malala Yousafzai claims to be acting in the name of Islam, she is actually standing up against Islam and her own barbaric culture. Her own claims to the contrary in this formulation are irrelevant; she is little more than a prop to be used for Harris’ own self-aggrandizement.

As he helpfully adds about Malala toward the end of his piece: Her nomination is said to have noticeably increased anti-Western sentiment in Pakistan — a fact that deserves some honest reflection on the part of Islam’s apologists …

Given her own words, Malala is ostensibly among the “Islam apologists” he is targeting; but this doesn’t come into play in Harris’ myopic worldview. Although Malala may claim to be a devout Muslim acting in accordance with Islam, this is merely an inconvenient detail that can be safely ignored. Harris doesn’t cite how exactly he knows that her nomination has increased “anti-Western sentiment” in Pakistan or what exactly he’s basing this belief on; but he doesn’t have to. It’s simply another expression of the naked ignorance and fear of the brown, Muslim hordes on the other side of the Earth, which Harris has built his career on.

When you don’t even feel you have to listen to the voices of the people whose cause you’re championing, it’s a reasonable indication of the fact that this has less to do with them than with you. Malala Yousafzai deserves to be respected and understood on her own terms; Harris’ cringe-worthy attempt to co-opt her name and image is yet another ugly episode in an increasingly sordid intellectual career.

Murtaza Hussain writes on foreign policy and civil liberties for Al Jazeera and Prism Magazine. Follow on Twitter at @mazmhussain.


  1. Sam Harris, you ignorant slut!

  2. DICK

  3. Hes a dunderhead.

  4. “When you don’t even feel you have to listen to the voices of the people whose cause you’re championing, it’s a reasonable indication of the fact that this has less to do with them than with you. Malala Yousafzai deserves to be respected and understood on her own terms; Harris’ cringe-worthy attempt to co-opt her name and image is yet another ugly episode in an increasingly sordid intellectual career.” I can’t say it any better than that.

  5. This is fascinating and very well written. I totally agree with the writer. Smells of desperation, P.R. move. Harris has accomplished nothing close to what she has. And never will.

  6. Malala the infamous pakistani drama queen or as i may say a part of a script being performed by the
    americans to take over pakistan w.r.t terrorism and shit.

  7. i’m a little cautious here about slinging him about as an atheist, because I don’t feel as though his atheism is responsible for his ignorance or disrespect. That being said, though he may be a self-proclaimed atheist, he is frighteningly moronic.

  8. It’s pretty disappointing how morally and intellectually bankrupt a lot of the New Atheists are.

  9. We must show this young lady respect she deserves it

  10. The nice thing about being an Atheist is that we have no “group”. If one Atheist is an asshole, it says nothing about any other Atheist. Ergo … the fact that Sam Harris is or isn’t an Atheist is irrelevant.

  11. Waqar Jan Shamim Akbar Malala Zindabaad

  12. Um – guys – she is IN the UK, not the USA and she has absolutely valid points about the cultural and educational oppression of women and girls in many cultures. Please get your countries straight. Listen to her speeches. She is speaking on behalf of all women and children oppressed. Stop linking her to your conspiracy theories and start listening to her words. Open your ears. If you want to pretend that these things don’t happen, then you are as ignorant as those that are oppressive are.

  13. Both characters of the same drama

  14. Yeah and that picture you posted is valid – how again?

  15. who in the hell is Sam Harris anyway? i’ll bet more people know of Malala than of Sam. Poor baby, he must be jealous.

  16. There are many ppl who’s injuries are severe yet don’t reflect outwardly. The point I’m making here is not that u should or shouldn’t dislike a country’s government for their actions. That is fine, but be careful how you skew your own views by linking your conspiracies to reality. Then you become as lost as people watching misguided news broadcasts. Sadly, when ppl close their eyes to the injustices within any country, we lose sight of our own responsibility to humanity. If you don’t hear what she is actually saying, you are also just as bad as these bigots that refuse to see clearly because they prefer to be blind.

  17. Giving atheists a bad name. Ms. Yousafzai deserves total respect and autonomy even BEFORE you consider her personal courage and strength of will.

  18. As an atheist, I am thoroughly disgusted by Sam Harris’ claims and blatant Islamophobia. Unfortunately, we see this kind of thinking from many non-Muslims. The things many Christians say about Islam is even worse. Some feminists also treat Islam as a “misogynistic tool used to oppress women”. It’s sickening to hear the hateful things that people spew without care. Sam Harris does not reflect the views of the Atheist community. He is a selfish twat using Malala for his own twisted view of Islam. Please do not point to him as the poster child of the “moral degradation” of Atheism. Point to him as an example that Islamophobia runs rampant in every sector life, and this pseudo-intellectual way of thinking needs to be stopped. The “educated” are completely uneducated about the realities of Islam and Muslims. And that’s a huge problem.

  19. Wow, some folks really do sound bitter. The venom barely concealed within what people say is so illustrative of certain characters, and the quality of their arguments, that nothing further need be said.

    It’s almost as if someone struck a nerve…

  20. I don’t understand why the new atheist movement, if there r enough of them to call it that, r so vitriolic and malicious. Is it do stressful to reject belief?

  21. Harris a jew and a zionist. He’s really not an atheist.

  22. Sam Harris, Atheist Taliban

  23. Anything to promote his blog… Shameless and he’s boring to boot!

  24. Goddamn, he looks like a smug, self-satisfied bastard. It’s militant, even fundamentalist atheists like Sam Harris and, say, Richard Dawkins that turn a lot of folks off atheism. Don’t believe in God/Goddess/That Which Is? Fine. But be respectful.

  25. I suppose when most of what we think about are the radicals… That could apply to any group really.

  26. Sam Harris has no clue about anything except evil hate mongering. Don’t give him air time or face time or any other time. maybe he could go join the Taliban; he would fit right in.

  27. What an idiot…I so sick of these fools and how embarrassing they are for America.

  28. I subscribed to this group because I’m an American against islamophobia. (I’m against discriminating against people of whatever religion they follow because in American we have a very important right that allows you to subscribe to whatever religion you want.)

    But, being against discrimination of a group of people who subscribe to a belief doesn’t mean I can’t criticize aspects of that belief. Just like they can criticize aspects of my beliefs. We also have the freedom of speech and there’s nothing wrong with this kind of exchange.

    If you actually read what Sam Harris has to say, he makes some decent points, and he NEVER “slurs Malala”. In fact, he only had very kind things to say about her. This post is at best an example of what yellow journalism is. For shame.

  29. The message that the Prophet MuhammadPBUH came with changed all of that and upset the men who wanted to keep things the way they were. But what he said was a message from the Creator of women it wasn’t something that he invented himself. The Prophet Muhammad told women that they were equal to men: just as important as men spiritually, socially, as individuals and as members of society. The Qur’an gave women rights of inheritance and to keep their identity and family names after they got married. In European countries women would change their names when they got married signifying that they now belonged to their husbands.

    He told men that women were to be respected and not used as sexual objects or abused and that they must take full financial responsibility to provide and nurture their marriage partners and any children they father, even if the marriage breaks up. He condemned the killing of baby girls and encouraged raising daughters with as much pride as sons. He said that women should never be forced to marry against their will and should be able to choose and refuse.

    He encouraged women to study and learn and in fact his wife Aisha was one of the greatest and most knowledgeable jurists and teachers in Islamic history. In the words of author Ruth Roded: “In reading the biographies of thousands of Muslim women scholars, one is amazed at the evidence that contradicts the view of Muslim women as marginal, secluded and restricted.” In her study she found that the proportion of female lecturers in many classical Islamic colleges was higher than in modern Western universities.” Here in Britain – women had to fight for their right to enter universities and only started getting degrees in 1920! If there are men in the world who are stopping women from being educated, they are going against the teachings of Prophet Muhammad.

  30. Islamic extremists don’t represent all Muslims and Sam Harris doesn’t represent all atheists.

  31. WOW — Mr. Harris, you are a loathsome excuse for a human being.

  32. Dennis Kirk Kelch Agreed. The joy of atheism to me is not being tied to a particular dogma. Guys like Sam Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins are very full of themselves and equally dogmatic.

  33. Oh, good God/dess!!!! I’ve never heard of this guy before, and I could have went on having a perfectly content existence had I continued to not know of him. Ce la vie……

  34. Damn Sam….way to make us atheists look good -__________-

  35. Aaron Napier Yeah, but Sam Harris isn’t such criticising aspects of Islam, he’s saying Malala is the best thing to come out of Islam in a thousand years (I.e. Ever) That’s called a backhanded insult. He appears to be paying a compliment to the girl but is instead insulting billions of Muslims, saying that good things rarely come out of “the Muslim world”. He also treats Malala as an exception to the rule and doesn’t acknowledge that she is a devout Muslim herself. He’s a hypocrite. He goes around calling us “apologists” for not wanting massive generalisations to be made about Muslims being “savage” then jumps on the Malala bandwagon while ignoring the girl’s own beliefs, instead using her to push his own tirade.

  36. Aaron Napier Sam Harris has the freedom to say this and we have the freedom to criticise him for it.

  37. Kelsea Anderson Care to elaborate? I’m sure you want to blame “cultural sensitivity” for this, but Malala is a devout Muslim and Harris is making huge generalisations about her religion while using her to push his point.

  38. Harris, God love him, is an idiot.

  39. Can’t waste my time reading what he has to say. Malala is most worthy to read what she says and listen to her also!!

  40. No one co-opts that young woman. She met and told Obama to stop killing people. Just like that. Do not underestimate a woman because she is a woman. This girl is very strong and principled.

  41. I hope those reading this don’t use this as an excuse for verbal attacks or prejudice towards atheists. Like any belief, or lack of belief system, it is not the inherent condition of that belief system that usually converts individuals into bigots. They have usually always been that way and just find excuses for it in whatever belief system they subscribe to. As an atheist myself, the views that this man expresses do not in any way reflect what I, or any of my peers, friends etc in my circle of atheist associates think or feel.

  42. Aaron Napier
    If anyone is doing yellow journalism it is Sam Harris. Making one or two good points is not worth mentioning if your entire career is based on a continuous lie. In his case, the half-truth is worse than a lie because he is intentionally deceiving not only himself but others. As for what he said against Malala, yes that would be defined as slurring since he has manipulated the intention of her voice. As the article pointed out, he does not think of her as a real Muslim.

  43. A reasonable request, Kristin Connor.

  44. How the fuck does Sam Harris insults Malala ? He praises her !

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