Who Looks Muslim?: a response to Sam Harris’s defense of profiling

Sam Harris posted a blog entry titled In Defense of Profiling, in which he argues in favor of profiling “Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim”.[1] Harris previously briefly mentioned his support of profiling in the article Bombing Our Illusions from 2005.[2] I’ve disagreed with Harris in the past, because even though he does a good job of pointing out some of the problems with religion,[3] he focuses on Islam to the point of changing the topic to Islam even when a non-Muslim commits an act of terrorism.[4] This recent article is another example of Harris’s horrible suggestions when it comes to addressing Islamic terrorism.

I disagree with Harris on this for several reasons, the primary one being that we can’t determine a person’s beliefs or plans to commit a crime based upon their appearance or the country they’re from. There are people from all different countries and of all different appearances who commit crimes and a suggestion that we should base our profiling on people’s appearance is unfounded. Skin color and race don’t cause people to commit crimes. There are those who will respond at this point, “Islam is not a race!” True, it’s not a race, but the suggestion that we can determine who is more likely to commit a crime based on appearance (based on how people “look”) immediately calls to mind the fact that there are discriminatory stereotypes about who is likely to commit a crime, sometimes based on skin color or country of origin, and these are discriminatory. If we can’t determine a person’s beliefs and plans to commit a crime based on appearance, then allowing profiling based on appearance allows those in charge of security to make decisions based on factors like race, whether consciously or unconsciously.

Even if Harris says he would base his profiling on religion, instead of race, the idea that we can determine who “looks Muslim” is odd, because there are Muslims from many different places, with very different appearances. Even a person’s name isn’t a reliable indicator, as many Muslim parents (with different ways of following Islam) name their children Mohammad, just as many Christian parents name their children after characters in the Bible (e.g. Matthew, Mark), and this doesn’t indicate a person’s beliefs, let alone whether or not they are an extremist. Additionally, if we believe (as I think Harris does) that it’s possible to convince people to change their religious beliefs, then it’s even more ridiculous to suggest we should profile against people who “look Muslim”. The very fact that there have been so many religions in human history (something which atheists usually use as an argument for why it’s unlikely any of them are true) should suggest we can’t predict what someone’s religious beliefs are based on their appearance, or the country their family is from, or their name.

The premise of profiling based on religion, even if we could find a way to accurately predict what religion a person is a member of, is discriminatory. Religious affiliation isn’t a reliable indicator, even if one believes that the attackers are motivated at least partially by their religious faith, because such a small percentage of the people in the religion are actually carrying out the attacks. So, even though there are some visual clues in some circumstances that indicate a person is probably a Muslim (e.g. they are carrying a copy of the Qur’an with them in their luggage, they are wearing some jewelry with a pendant that reads “Allah” in Arabic) that doesn’t warrant an assumption that the person is a terrorist, or is even likely to be a terrorist.

There are, it must be pointed out, terrorists of different religious beliefs and no religious belief. Many people react differently to terrorism that is committed by members of a minority religious group compared to terrorism that is committed by a member of the majority religious groups. When there are attacks committed by Christian terrorists our politicians and commentators don’t suggest that we should profile in order to prevent future attacks. We don’t suggest that security personnel in hospitals or clinics should profile people who “look Christian” (whatever that means) after there are attacks on abortion providers. When there are attacks by Islamic terrorists, however, then some people are quick to suggest profiling. It seems that people are advocating actions against others that they would consider unjust if done to themselves, members of their own faith or skin color.

One of the questions I always want to ask people who advocate profiling is the following: Would you advocate profiling if it was against a group that you’re a part of? It may seem that Harris has preemptively responded to this question, because he suggests that he would expect to get attention if there was a person who looked like Ben Stiller who was wanted for crimes against humanity. Harris also suggests that he himself should not be outside the group that would be targeted for profiling. I don’t think this is a good argument. First, because in his Ben Stiller scenario, the security officials would be looking for one particular criminal, with some idea of what that person looks like, whereas his suggestion of profiling Muslims treats a whole group of people as suspect, assuming that the person who would commit a particular crime would look like that group of people. Second, because (let’s be honest) the likelihood of this happening to him is remote. It’s easy to suggest profiling when you live in a society where the odds of it happening to you are remote. (I have this same reaction when politicians suggest profiling; they know it would be unlikely to happen to them, as they’re well-known figures.) While Harris may say that he’s part of the group that’s included, he knows that if we profile those who “look Muslim”, most people would not think that he fits the stereotypical description. Harris all but admits this when he writes, “Granted, I haven’t had to endure the experience of being continually profiled. No doubt it would be frustrating.” No doubt, Mr. Harris, no doubt. That he writes this makes me think that he hasn’t properly considered what it would actually feel like to be targeted for profiling. Harris demonstrates his ignorance of what it feels like to be singled out in this way when he suggests (in the 2005 article and this recent one) that Muslims should actually be in favor of profiling against themselves. Oddly, he seems understanding of complaints regarding long lines in the airport, but dismisses the concerns about the discriminatory nature of profiling. Perhaps it is possible to find those who may agree with Harris, who may agree that profiling against themselves is okay, but the fact that a few people would volunteer is not a reason to profile, or proof that such profiling would be effective; people agreeing to be discriminated against isn’t an argument in favor of discrimination.

If someone is behaving suspiciously, then of course, that should raise concerns, but that’s behavior, not appearance or religious affiliation. After all, it is an action that we are trying to prevent and which we are against. People making suggestions for profiling based on appearance claim that it will increase the efficiency and effectiveness in our security, while they are just advocating discrimination. They want security officials to unjustly assume that certain other people are more likely to be criminals. Additionally, there are those who complain about the infringement on our rights from certain aspects of the security checks, so how does it become okay if we “only” did this to people who “look Muslim”? We should not see security as a way to separate our society into those who should be suspected and those who are obviously innocent based on appearance. Our aim should be to protect and also preserve the rights of all, not just those who don’t “look Muslim”.

This is the latest example of Sam Harris’s questionable suggestions about Islam. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt when I read The End of Faith (in which he does make some good arguments on the topic of why religion is incorrect) as some of his suggestions were written in a way that one could say they were a thought experiment, rather than a full endorsement. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt when I read that article from 2005, as the part about profiling was a sentence with no elaboration on it. I can’t give him the benefit of the doubt on this issue anymore. He is, plainly, advocating that discriminatory actions are justified in dealing with the problems in Islam, and that is something I must condemn.


Note/Recommended Reading

The above is an edited and expanded version of a comment I wrote in response to Hemant Mehta’s blog entry Sam Harris: We Should Profile Muslims at the Airport, in which Mehta points out some of the problems with Harris’s suggestion.[5]

Professor PZ Myers has a good post about this titled NO RACIAL PROFILING, PLEASE. Here’s quote in which I think he makes an excellent point:

Shall we single out people who look like them [Timothy McVeigh and Eric Rudolph] for special scrutiny? Of course not, that would be so many people, you might say, and most light-skinned European-Americans are not terrorists, so it would be an incredibly inefficient screening protocol. So why should we focus on people with dark complexions and Semitic features? There are many of them, too, and the overwhelming majority are most definitely not terrorists, and it would similarly be terribly inefficient. We would be harrassing mostly innocent people…but of course, these are innocent minorities, so their rights be damned to give the majority a little more privilege.[6]

Greg Laden has written Sam Harris is Right: Profile away!, in which he makes a good point through satire.[7]


Update as of 16 May 2012

Bruce Schneier has written The Trouble with Profiling (8 May 2012) in response to Sam Harris’s defense of profiling. This essay has been posted on Sam Harris’s website, and a future post with Harris and Schneier discussing the issue in greater depth is planned. (URL: http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-trouble-with-profiling)


[1] Harris, Sam. In Defense of Profiling. Posted on 28 April 2012 at SamHarris.org. Retrieved on 30 April 2012 from http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/in-defense-of-profiling.

[2] Harris, Sam. Bombing Our Illusions. Posted on 10 October 2005 at The Huffington Post. Retrieved on 30 April 2012 from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-harris/bombing-our-illusions_b_8615.html.

This article can also be found on Sam Harris’s website at http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/bombing-our-illusions-oct-10-2005.

[3] Sharmin, Ani. Weird Arithmetic and Reasonable Criticism: Some Thoughts on Park51 and Islam [Part 2 of 3]. Posted on 9 September 2010 at The Eternal Bookshelf. Retrieved on 1 May 2012 from https://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/2010/09/09/arithmetic-and-criticism-part-2/.

[4] Sharmin, Ani. Assumptions, Ideologies, and Horrible Actions: Some Thoughts on the Reactions to the Attacks in Norway. Posted on 6 August 2011 at The Eternal Bookshelf. Retrieved on 1 May 2012 from https://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/2011/08/06/assumptions-ideologies-and-horrible-actions/.

[5] Mehta, Hemant. Sam Harris: We Should Profile Muslims at the Airport. Posted on 29 April 2012 at Friendly Atheist. Retrieved on 30 April 2012 from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2012/04/29/sam-harris-we-should-profile-muslims-at-the-airport/.

[6] Myers, PZ. NO RACIAL PROFILING, PLEASE. Posted on 30 April 2012 at Pharyngula. Retrieved on 30 April 2012 from http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2012/04/30/no-racial-profiling-please/.

[7] Laden, Greg. Sam Harris is Right: Profile away! Posted on 1 May 2012 at The X Blog. Retrieved on 1 May 2012 from http://freethoughtblogs.com/xblog/2012/05/01/sam-harris-is-right-profile-away/.

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: In Defense of Profiling : Sam Harris « SINMANTYX
  2. Trackback: My EPIC Takedown of Sam Harris’ “In Defense of Profiling” < ~C4Chaos
  3. Anonymous.
    May 28, 2012 @ 02:07:15

    Sam Harris is only good at making points in Atheism. He has no knowledge of Middle Eastern Politics, Muslim World and Israel/Palestine conflict. He has cited a book called ‘The Case for Israel’ which is a fraud. He is just not serious!

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