Archive for October, 2014|Monthly archive page

On Taking Madmen At Their Word: Sam Harris is wrong about Islam

In Politics on 2014/10/09 at 15:06

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While watching Ben Affleck’s recent spat with Sam Harris on Bill Maher’s show I had a frustrating sense of déjà vu. It’s a conversation I have both overheard and participated in multiple times. While he was at times ineloquent and overly emotional I have to say that I understand and share Affleck’s frustration with listening to people who claim to speak as liberals as they attempt to make the case that Islam is an inherently and uniquely violent religion. Bill Maher claims “I’m the liberal in the debate,” while Harris says he wants to save “liberalism from itself.” They are wrong, both about Islam and about themselves.

Upon closer inspection the arguments for the “Islam is an especially violent religion” camp quickly reveal themselves as self-contradictory. In his follow-up to the debate Harris says he clearly “distinguished between jihadists, Islamists, conservatives, and the rest of the Muslim community; and explicitly exempted hundreds of millions of Muslims” from his critique of Islamic doctrine. Yet an important part of his argument is his claim that public opinion in “the Muslim world” is overwhelmingly conservative and supportive of violence. How can he claim to be distinguishing between jihadis and the general Muslim population but then cite polls of public opinion to prove that the problem is inherent to Islamic doctrine? Which is it? Are non-combatant Muslims exempt or do their reactionary views on apostasy, jihad, and women’s rights make them part of the wider problem? In the end of course, this point is moot as the poll numbers Harris cites don’t actually support his argument. There is such variation of opinion between populations in different Muslim countries as to make the entire conversation about the cultural backwardness of “the Muslim world” meaningless.

So, Harris grossly oversimplifies poll data and contradicts himself. He is wrong about Muslims in general. He is also dead wrong about the people at the core of his concentric circles of extremism – the jihadis of ISIS and other groups. Harris dismisses the idea that ISIS functions “like a bug light for psychopaths—attracting ‘disaffected young men’ who would do terrible things to someone, somewhere, in any case.” He volunteers no reason for dismissing this idea, despite evidence to the contrary. He ignores the ignorance of many jihadis about their own religion. He ignores the judgement of Islamic scholars that groups like ISIS are un-Islamic. Perhaps most tellingly, he ignores the infamous Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik when he says that Al-Qaeda should be an inspiration to the European far-right. Harris has said elsewhere that we should ignore the myriad reasons people throughout the Muslim world might take up arms and “take Islamists and jihadists at their word.” Taking this stance as a precedent I wonder how relations with, say North Korea, might change were we to take the ruling regime at their word and base strategy on the assumption that they are working towards creating a socialist utopia where everyone is equal.

The New Atheists’ attacks on Islam might not seem so bigoted were they merely part of an overall critique of religion in general. However, prominent Atheists like Harris (and others with similar views whom I’ve interacted with personally) frequently take great pains to single out Islam specifically as being the worst case, usually betraying their cultural chauvinism by holding up Christianity and Judaism as superior belief systems. This is despite the obvious fact that, when examined in the context of history, the doctrines of all three religions both in theory and in practice are virtually indistinguishable when it comes to many of the issues cited as examples of Islam’s singular barbarity. It’s just as easy to commit violence in the name of Christianity or Judaism as it is in the name of Islam. Just because more people are using Islam at this one point in history doesn’t mean there is something inherent in Islam that makes it so. To pretend otherwise is to willfully ignore history.

Harris, Maher, and others try desperately to convince us that Islamophobia is not real, that their rants against Islam are a product of their liberalism rather than bigotry. This is hard to believe when one realizes that their arguments depend not upon examining all the facts and thinking critically about history and the global political economic system but upon cherry-picking bits of doctrine when they suit them, and ignoring doctrines that don’t support their argument. They want you to believe that the anger endemic in oppressed populations is a product of their ideologies, nothing more. Examining the motivations of violent, or even just reactionary people is portrayed as a form of cowardly appeasement. One might wonder whether Harris looks for the roots of a violent ideology as an explanation for why the youth of America’s urban cores join street gangs as. For him, context does not matter, only words and actions do.

The way Harris and others talk about Islam is dangerous because it provides intellectual cover for the imperialist policies of western governments. The west, led by the United States, is engaged in an open-ended conflict against an ever-widening circle of enemies. While our bombs drop across ever wider swathes of the “Muslim world” we are freed by Harris’s arguments from any responsibility to consider whether Islamist struggle against the west has claim to any form of legitimacy or whether our foreign policies make us culpable in any way for the violence extremists commit against the clients of the totalitarian states we support or helped create in the region.

Of course the Muslim Middle East is a horrifically illiberal place (and many American client states are the worst of all). Islamic doctrines are used in many places to oppress, terrorize, and provide legitimacy to some of the most inhuman acts in recent history. Liberal societies must stand up against this kind of brutality loudly and fearlessly, but fearlessness means keeping your eyes open and being willing to look beyond simple explanations for complex problems. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of history can figure out that any religion or philosophical system can be turned into a tool used to dominate and destroy. Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Socialism, Islam- all have within them elements that violent people can use to legitimate their violent acts. Pretending otherwise isn’t just “gross” as Affleck says, it’s stupid and it’s dangerous.

Since when is it ever a good idea to simply take madmen at their word?


The Seed Bank of Democracy: Conscientious Objection, Compromise, and the Defense of Liberty during “The Good War”

In Personal, Political Theory, Politics on 2014/10/06 at 16:21

During the final year of my undergraduate work I was named a Scholar at the George C Marshall Research Library. Upon re-reading the resulting paper years later I realized that what was one of my best pieces of academic work was never shared beyond a select circle. Below is an exerpt from the beginning of the paper. A PDF of the work in its entirety follows.


Jessie Wallace Hughan, one of the founding members of the pacifist group the War Resisters League, sent a message to President Franklin D. Roosevelt immediately after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941, urging him to keep the United States out of the war despite the attack.[1] Wallace’s plea was, obviously, ignored, and her organization, as well as and pacifism in general, had little influence in the public mind for years to come. Historian Scott Bennett points out, “Most studies on the World War II home front either ignore pacifism and conscientious objection, or mention them in passing, offering only a cursory discussion of them and treating both as issues of civil liberty.”[2]

American pacifism and conscientious objection during World War Two is an underexplored topic. An exploration of pacifism and conscientious objection during World War Two provides an interesting critique and reevaluation of the American war effort, and a fascinating glimpse at the practical application of the, sometimes contradictory, American values of individualism and patriotism. Pacifism during World War Two had a disproportionately large effect on American democracy in the 20th century compared to the small number of people involved in conscientious objection.

To understand the importance of pacifism and conscientious objection as an alternative view, or even a critique, it is first necessary to acknowledge the power, and examine the basic outline, of the concept of America’s “Good War.” In the collective national psyche of the United States, and in the glitzy materialization of that psyche that is American popular culture, perceptions and depictions of the Second World War largely fall within the bounds of a doctrine, which, for the most part, goes largely unquestioned. That doctrine is, of course, that World War Two was the 20th century’s “Good War,” that American involvement in the war was just, that those who participated in the war effort make up “The Greatest Generation,” and that to have refused to fight the expansionist forces of European fascism and Japanese imperialism would have been to shirk the moral obligations of American greatness.

The story of the Allied struggle in World War Two is one of America’s favorite stories. World War Two is a powerful meme in American culture, in print, in film, and in the ever increasingly important medium of electronic gaming. Culturally speaking, the war is an opportunity for the storyteller to place a near mythic sheen on a tale of actual historical events. The sheer horror of many of the crimes of the Axis powers makes it easy to paint the war as an epic battle between heroism and villainy. Set against this backdrop of uncomplicated, almost Manichaean struggle, the war is the symbolic crowning achievement of the United States’ journey towards becoming a world power.

One humorous example of the power and near sacred status of the meme of “The Good War” in American pop culture is a mock PSA at the close of an episode of The Simpsons television show. The episode’s plot revolves around a schoolyard battle and Bart Simpson reminds viewers that, contrary to what has just been seen; “War is neither glamorous nor fun. There are no winners; only losers. There are no good wars, with the following exceptions: the American Revolution, World War Two, and the Star Wars Trilogy.”[3] This is just one example, yet it is the quintessence of America’s pop culture obsession with World War Two. The addition of a fictional story of the fantasy genre to the list of “good wars” humorously underscores the extent to which World War Two has attained a status in American culture almost akin to that of a sacred legend.

President Roosevelt wanted America to be Democracy’s Arsenal. There were some in the United States who believed that, by it’s very nature, Democracy cannot be protected by an arsenal. That true Democracy is not established by force of arms, but is grown. They saw Democracy as arising naturally from a free society, and the seeds of that free society are the individual liberties of each of its citizens. The refusal of those who opposed violence on moral grounds to give up their individual right to maintain their consciences protected these seeds of a free society thought should be sacrificed for the short term gain of a nation fully mobilized for war. Is there such a thing as a good war? Is the militarization of a society for the purposes of violent conflict justified in certain situations? And should minorities who disagree be silenced for a time, in the interest of the greater good? A small group of Americans during World War Two answered “no.” An outline of the argument for the “Good War” narrative, juxtaposed with the words and actions of conscientious objectors, complicates, and deepens our understanding of this iconic era. The nuances of the differences in opinion between the many different groups of conscientious objectors and their respective supporters, will lead to a greater appreciation and deeper understanding of the importance of pacifism and conscientious objection to the seeds of Democracy, individual liberties.

Read the full paper here:

Seed Bank of Democracy