Posts Tagged ‘terrorism’

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?