Harris on MSNBC

November 17, 2010 • 6:56 pm

Harris aficionados may not find much new on last night’s MSNBC “The Last Word” interview, but it’s not long and he makes a good point about Islam:

There’s no version of Islam which says, “You should be free to criticize the Qur’an: it’s just the product of human minds; the prophet Muhamed was a man like any other man and can be criticized.”  There’s no Reform Judaism version of Islam, and we have to encourage one. . . It’s not an accident that we’re not having this conversation about the Amish or Quakers or Jains or even Buddhists.

Ideas have consequences, and the idea that you can get to Paradise by dying in defense of the faith—in fact, dying in defense of the faith is the best thing that can possibly happen to you—that is a mainstream notion in Islam.

Does anyone else’s b.s. detector go off when they hear the mantra, “Islam is a religion of peace”?

h/t: D. J. Grothe

99 thoughts on “Harris on MSNBC

  1. I have the same internal feeling when I hear a republican call themselves a fiscal conservative, but then, I’m cynical in general.

    1. I’m not defending the “protestors” you’re talking about, but I think that one particular picture was photoshopped.

  2. I like the question at the end about how infantile you have to be to care about a royal wedding. I’m preparing myself for months of insanity here in the UK. Hardly at the level of jihadis, but medieval nontheless.

    1. Yeah, here too probably (Australia). Our PM and a bunch of other MPs got up in parliament and started going about how excited they were about ‘our future king’ getting married. Aaarrrghghgh. If history is any precendent it’ll last about 5 years.

      1. (Australia too)

        They even cancelled the Simpsons and Big Bang Theory to show special programs about the engagement! This country has its priorities wrong!

  3. The problem I have with the phrase about Islam and peace is that the people who say it are often implying that Christianity, for instance, is. And that is not true either.

  4. No, my BS detector doesn’t go off. Because I understand that what makes religions vile has more to do with externalities than the religions themselves. That is, religions reflect societies (and their failure/success in being a society) more than any thing else.

    The correct question is, how has the west so totally fucked up so many parts of the world that it’s people have regressed to being barbarians. Because it’s just not Muslims that do shit like this, though our media hyper-focuses on it.

    1. This is the most reasonable argument here. Islam (as it is in the world today) is a product of the West, in large part. Now, I agree completely with Sam Harris that people believe what they say that they believe, but the fact is that Islam wouldn’t be as it is without us.

      1. How can you possibly know that Islam wouldn’t be what it is today without the west ? Unless that is you start from the assumption that the west is innately flawed in a way that no other society is or has been, how then would you explain the rise of Islam in the first place, since it was spread by the sword ?

  5. Does anyone else’s b.s. detector go off when they hear the mantra, “Islam is a religion of peace”?

    This is a transparently false dichotomy used by both Islam’s adherents and its critics. Islam is a religion of both war and peace, obviously. It’s simply foolish to deny either reality.

    And it is both foolish and self-defeating to declare, as Sam Harris does in his first book, that “we are at war with Islam”. America has many allies that are Muslim countries. Are we really, as Sam Harris, asserts, at war with an entire religion comprising over a billion people? Think, just for a moment, about all the implications of this statement.

    Jefferson expressed it perfectly and incontrovertibly in the Declaration: “we hold … mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.” Harris becomes unhinged when addressing the facts of the actual war with Islamic fundamentalists, concluding that because we are at war with some Muslims, we are at war with all of them.

    BTW, there is a very worthwhile Intelligence Squared debate over the question “Islam is a Religion of Peace” featuring Ayaan Hirsi Ali taking the opposing side.

    1. You really think a billion people who call themselves Muslims unquestioningly adhere to every word of their holy book?

      1. As Omar Khayyám observed, most Muslims don’t know a good bit of what’s written in the Qur’an. What are you, Taliban, to suggest that they are not Muslims?

          1. Pretty much.

            I assume the same thing about Muslims that I assume about Christians. They are only “religious” in terms of liking the community and/or traditions. They don’t actually believe in the things that the religion dictates they believe.

            When people show me that they actually believe that stuff, it’s a huge red flag for the character of that individual, because that stuff is just morally awful.

            The problem with Islam is the same problem with Christianity. Liberal/Progressive/Moderate/”Mainstream” believers simply have no desire to actually fix the problems with their religion..the bombs waiting to go off. They prefer to close their eyes and go LALALALALA I can’t hear you.

    2. Awful comment. Rationalists and skeptics are at war (metaphorically) with superstitions, etc. Does that mean that we are at war (even metaphorically) with anyone who adheres to superstitions? I say no, and most people would agree with me. Sam Harris is similar in his comments regarding Islam.

      This is an ill-conceived inflammatory comment that isn’t just close to a lie, it is a lie. In no place does Sam Harris say “we’re at war with all Muslims” nor does he say “we’re at war with Muslims”. When one talks about being at war with an ideology in the way Harris does, only a simpleton, a sophist, or someone not natively fluent in English discourse would make the illogical leaps that you have made.

      “Harris … conclud[es] that because we are at war with some Muslims, we are at war with all of them.”

      That’s bullshit and a lie. Listen to the video at 3:50. He says very specifically, “In criticizing Islam, I’m not criticizing all Muslims…”

      1. In no place does Sam Harris say “we’re at war with all Muslims” nor does he say “we’re at war with Muslims”.

        J.J.E., meet Google Books. Harris says this, in context, as war of the physical, not metaphysical, kind.

        We are at war with Islam. It may not serve our immediate foreign policy objectives for our political leaders to openly acknowledge this fact, but it is unambiguously so. —Sam Harris, The End of Faith, p. 109

        Being at war with Islam means being at war with Muslims, plain and simple.

        1. “Being at war with Islam means being at war with Muslims, plain and simple.”

          What are you, Al Zawahiri, to suggest that that’s exactly what it means?

        2. stvs, meet lack of reading comprehension. You may very well want that phrase to mean what you want it to mean. But I challenge it and Sam Harris himself challenges it. Welcome to the world of rationalizations when it becomes clear that your argument is mendacious and wrong. You can parse and backtrack all you want. It won’t change the simple fact that Harris explicitly makes a distinction between being at war with (or even criticizing) Islam and and criticizing Muslims.

          You may personally believe that isn’t the case. Fine, you’re allowed. But you are explicitly misrepresenting Sam Harris’s own position when you say what you say. You explicitly claim Harris states his position in the following way:

          “Harris … conclud[es] that because we are at war with some Muslims, we are at war with all of them.”

          You are permitted your own interpretations but you are not permitted your own facts. You are wrong and have been shown to be wrong. Plain and simple.

          1. If I wasn’t clear, your lie is in the following:

            1) You claim that Harris perceives a war with all Muslims and that fact can be gleaned from statements he made regarding being at war with Islam.
            2) In fact, Harris perceives a war with Islam, but explicitly says he doesn’t criticize all Muslims.

            Your inflammatory comment depends entirely on the figleaf of an assertion tacked to the end of your response to me:

            “Being at war with Islam means being at war with Muslims, plain and simple.”

            Says stvs? Fuck that. As I said before, you cannot impose that view point onto Sam Harris. Claiming he believes that is a lie. If Sam Harris doesn’t agree to that premise, then you are wrong. And a liar.

          2. You are not allowed to switch without comment from ugly accusations of mendacity to lack of reading comprehension. If you now believe that I misread Harris, you owe me an immediate apology for calling me a liar.

            You also owe a clear explanation of what else Harris could mean by writing in 2005 “we are at war with Islam” in the clear context “foreign policy” carried out by U.S. “political leaders”. Perhaps Harris meant that Congress should sanction the President to commission some youtube debates criticizing Islam?

            Please tell us: what, exactly, does Harris mean when he writes ““?

            1. You are willfully misrepresenting Sam Harris in the context of a video wherein he explicitly says that he isn’t even criticizing all Muslims, let alone declaring war on them. I won’t countenance the possible excuse that you didn’t actually watch to the video. If you didn’t, don’t waste our time.

              Given the following indisputable facts:

              1) Harris perceives a war with Islam.
              2) Harris doesn’t see himself as criticizing all Muslims.

              the logical conclusion is that he doesn’t make the illogical connection that you do, namely that Islam = Muslims. This has been pointed out to you in the video that was the subject of the blog post. What you do is akin to what Lilly did to TH Huxley, i.e. accusing Huxley of holding positions that Huxley himself rejected. (http://aleph0.clarku.edu/huxley/CE9/S-M.html) Huxley, in his own Victorian circumlocution, called out this mendacious tactic. Read the first 7 paragraphs in the linked essay, especially the first one.

              I grant you the charity of either reading comprehension or honesty. You cannot have both. Either you don’t understand that Harris disclaimed disputes with all Muslims or you are misrepresenting him. I suspect that you actually do understand the language in the video, so I call you a liar. It isn’t ugly because, unless you cop to not understanding plain English, you are misrepresenting Harris. Ie lying. That’s not an ad hominem. The claim you make that I call a lie is very much at issue with the discussion. An ad hominem is a logical fallacy where a person is impugned in order to decrease the credibility of the person, not the argument. I’m impugning the very facts upon which you are building the argument. My beef is with the dishonest argument, I care not for the arguer. If lying makes you look bad, that’s unfortunate for you. Collateral damage of a bad argument. In this argument, a misrepresentation of the facts (“Sam Harris is at war with all Muslims”) concerning the very topic of discussion is very much open to pointing out. In your case, you tell an untruth. Ergo, you lie. Not ugly. Just fact. And it undermines your argument.

            2. “we are at war with Islam” means “we are at war with Islam”

              “we are at war with Islam” does not mean “Harris … conclud[es] that because we are at war with some Muslims, we are at war with all of them.”

              In fact, when Harris says “In criticizing Islam, I’m not criticizing all Muslims…” he is explicitly rejecting the implication that “because we are at war with some Muslims, we are at war with all of them.”

              That’s simple. That’s about as clear an explanation as I can give you.

              There’s nothing deep here, nothing hidden. Harris is comfortable criticizing (or even waging a war) against an ideology and doesn’t think that logically entails criticizing (or even waging a war) against the people that may be nominally associated with that ideology. It isn’t that hard.

            3. Wow, JJE, you clearly don’t mean to be criticizing stvs’s *reading* comprehension based on his ability to listen to Harris’s argument in the video. He’s reading Harris 2005 correctly, right? If there’s a problem there, it’s Harris’s writing.

            4. @Peter:
              No. When Harris writes “we at war w Islam” he is not implying we should be at war (either metaphorically or literally) with each individual Muslim. This tactic has been explained countless times by every Gnu spokesperson: we criticize/ridicule the religion itself, not the people in its thrall. (unless those people behave in really despicable ways, deserving of personal criticism)

            5. @ Peter

              No. Again, the trivial distinction is between Islam and Muslims. It is easy.

              @ Peter and stvs

              Ask yourselves this. After watching the video, do you honestly think that Sam Harris would describe his own position as “since we are at war with some Muslims, we are at war with all Muslims?” Seriously, do either of you personally think that Sam would describe himself that way?

              If you’re not being perverse, then you’d have to say “no”. (Which in that case, again makes stvs’s comment a lie, because he was putting words in Sam’s mouth he didn’t even think that Sam believes.)

              And to be honest, it would also be very perverse to believe that Sam in 2005, even without the evidence of his MSNBC interview above, would admit to believing that “because we are at war with some Muslims, we are at war with all Muslims.”

              This is a classic case of a strawman. Both of you clearly understand that the position of being at war with all Muslims is an untenable one. And you disagree with Harris. So, you quote Harris’s writing selectively to give the impression that he holds an untenable position and ignore evidence to the contrary.

              You may be personally confused at how Sam reconciles being at war with an ideology and not being at war with its nominal adherents (though it isn’t a very difficult concept). But that’s your problem. To imply that because you don’t understand Sam that he must hold an untenable position and to make a positive assertion to that end is wrong and is a lie.

              I am so sick and tired of the very fabric of rational discourse being challenged in this pernicious way. You challenge the very facts at issue and poison everything downstream. When you misrepresent someone’s own position and then criticize that person based on that misrepresentation, you committed the worst “sin” of rational discourse. (It would be like a scientist committing fraud.) And whining that “Sam himself was unclear! I’m justified in filling in the areas that I don’t understand with whatever I please.” is crap. Unless you can really and truly say to yourself that you believe that Sam Harris perceives a war against every single Muslim man woman and child in every nation in the world, then you have shamefully and dishonestly derailed the conversation.

            6. When Harris writes “we at war w Islam” he is not implying we should be at war (either metaphorically or literally) with each individual Muslim. This tactic has been explained countless times by every Gnu spokesperson: we criticize/ridicule the religion itself, not the people in its thrall.

              You are mistaken. By “We”, Harris clearly means not the GNU atheists but the U.S. and its GWOT. Waging a “war on Islam” is as foolish and self-defeating as waging a “war on terrorism”.

              For the record, I doubt that Harris sincerely believes this tangent to his rheforic, or at least I hope that he doubts it. Surely Harris deserves criticism here, and none of Harris’s defenders have defended his unambiguous meaning.

            7. “none of Harris’s defenders have defended his unambiguous meaning.”

              This is patently untrue. The meaning is unambiguous, but it is the polar opposite of what you represent it to be. How can it be written any simpler?

              Islam ≠ All Muslims. Full stop, end of story. That you disagree is besides the point. That you construe your disagreement with Harris’s plain English as sufficient warrant to put words into someone his mouth, and then admit as a footnote that “For the record, I doubt that Harris sincerely believes this tangent to his rheforic” is disturbing. The bulk of the thrust of your criticism relies on Harris himself accepting an equivalence between an ideology and those who that ideology claims as followers. He does not.

              Declaring war on obesity ≠ declaring war on the obese.

              Declaring war on bad education ≠ declaring war on the uneducated.

              Declaring war on superstition ≠ declaring war on the superstitious.

              Declaring war on Islam ≠ declaring war on Muslims.

              All of these are about (whether effectively or not) combating forces that harm people, not the people subject to those forces. And no matter how many times you insist by fiat that Harris’ language endorses such equivalency, it remains untrue.

            8. You are mistaken. Being at war with Islam in the context of the very real GWOT means being at war with actual Muslims.

              This is Harris’s unambiguous meaning. But don’t take my word for it—a second on Google shows, e.g., Johann Hari making the very same criticism of Harris (that Harris commendably has on his site), with the same clear reading of Harris’s book that I have. Does this make Johann Hari a liar too, J.J.E.?

              ‘The End of Faith’ then takes a strange and disturbing turn. Harris says starkly, “We are at war with Islam. It may not serve our immediate foreign policy objectives for our political leaders to openly acknowledge this fact, but it is unambiguously so.” Really? Who is this ‘we’? In the context of the chapter, he is clearly talking not about atheists but about the United States. But surely this is the country he has already identified as pickled in superstition, a nation where more people believe in the Virgin Birth than Darwinism? Why are ‘we’ automatically on the side of an evangelical Christian President against (in his formulation) even the most moderate of Muslims?

              Harris’ answer is patchy, and draws on some pretty dubious hard-right sources – Alan Dershowitz, Bernard Lewis, and Samuel Huntington, for example. He crosses a line here from condemning all religions for their gross delusions to claiming that Islam is a uniquely poisonous and evil system. “Islam is undeniably a religion of conquest more than any other religion human beings have devised, [it] has all the makings of a thorough-going cult of death,” he writes.

              It is at this point that a crucial flaw in Harris’ argument becomes clear. Although he does not state it explicitly, part of him clearly believes that religious moderates are as bad as fanatics; that there is little real difference, and even the most democratic and moderate of believers is “capable of anything”. Militant atheist though I am, I can’t follow him into this bog.

            9. Two points. First of all, it is telling that you have to hinge your entire argument on this one point, which incidentally stands in stark contrast to the actual topic of the thread. And it is also telling that the allies* you choose to recruit in defending this point are reacting to the very same point made in the same place by Harris. Surely if you had a real point to make (especially in the context of a video where Harris explicitly and preemptively challenges your assertion) you would be able to support it by more than that single statement.

              The second point is that you are clearly engaging in demagoguery. There are probably some very real and convincing reasons that you disagree with Harris. And I might even agree with you. But apparently you can’t articulate them. So, in order to express your distaste with him, you latch on to the most disagreeable statement you can find that seems related to the topic at hand and twist it to fit. The frame is: “If Harris really believes we are at war with random run of the mill Muslims (or even “all” Muslims as you assert), he is unhinged and unreliable.” And you even admit you don’t even believe that! So, you take a frame about how unhinged Harris is and use it to try to discredit him, and then admit that you don’t actually think he believes that, but man, he should really clean up his language because, you know, somebody could really misinterpret that statement to smear him.

              Does your irony meter not ping at all?

              * Hari’s criticism is more on point. And in fact, he actually doesn’t home in on the “Sam Harris is at war with all Muslims” bullshit. He quite accurately (and presciently) nailed exactly where he parted ways with Sam Harris:

              “Although he does not state it explicitly, part of him clearly believes that religious moderates are as bad as fanatics; that there is little real difference, and even the most democratic and moderate of believers is “capable of anything”. Militant atheist though I am, I can’t follow him into this bog.”

              Indeed, Hari hit the nail on the head, as you will see if you read Harris’ exchange with Sullivan two years later.

            10. stvs:
              I agree that “we” is not meant to represent the Gnus. Surely Sam intends it to include anyone who wishes to live in a world free from oppressive and dangerous religions.

    3. “This is a transparently false dichotomy used by both Islam’s adherents and its critics. Islam is a religion of both war and peace, obviously. It’s simply foolish to deny either reality.”

      That’s like saying that Charles Manson is both a bloodthirsty murderer, and also a gentle, harmless person just because he happens to be asleep 1/3 of his life.

      1. No, a spectacularly diverse group of individual human beings is not analogous to a murderous psychopath. Your statement is just well-poisoning, in the original and earliest sense of that expression.

        1. A spectacularly diverse group of individual human beings are just that …. human beings. And we respect them too much as individuals to respect their ridiculous religion.

  6. I’m curious why Sam tries so hard to explain Muslim violence as a product of Islam. Notice that Hezbollah’s suicide terrorist campaign against Israel, the US and France did not begin until 1982, the year Israel invaded Lebanon, and foreign troops were sent to act as peace keepers. How does Sam explain this? Does he think this spurred the Shia muslims in Lebanon to finally start reading their Qu’rans?

    I think Sam ought to read Robert Pape’s book Dying to Win, which finds that virtually all suicide terrorists, including muslim terrorists, are driven by a desire to expell foreign combat forces from territory they prize, and not by their religious books.

    1. Why aren’t Tibetans blowing themselves up on buses in Shanghai? Why weren’t Lebanese citizens blowing themselves in Damascus during Syria’s long occupation of their country? Why do the individuals that choose this course of action nearly always turn out to be Muslim and why, if their goal is to drive out foreign troops do they choose “soft” targets of little to no military value?

      1. Not to mention the long history of British occupation of India, which did not precipitate suicidal terrorism. . .

          1. We have indeed. What’s your point? That the mutiny inspired acts of suicidal terrorism? Which one? Mangal Pandey, Tantia Tope, Laxmibai, Nana Sahib?

      2. This is historically and militarily naïve. Read Gibbon’s account of the early Christian suicide fanatics, the Donatists of North Africa. The Donatist schism, which lasted for centuries, sustained a dispute that left the Empire in Africa weakened and ripe for conquest by Islamic Armies.

        If terrorism or suicide attacks are a product of Islam, then why were they used by the pre-Islamic Donatists?

        Terrorism is a military strategy that can be used by any weaker party against a conventionally stronger one. Christians have used it, Muslims have used it, Hindus have used it, Americans have used it; it is pervasive. Terrorism is used because it can be part of a successful military and political strategy, no matter how appalling it is. If this were not so, no one would use terrorism, for nowhere does natural selection act as quickly as with failed military strategies.

        To blame terrorism solely on any religion—even if that religion, like Islam, can be used in its service—is to gravely misjudge and misdiagnose the problem.

        1. Nobody’s saying that terrorism was created or patented by Islam. The point is that Islamic terrorism is … well, Islamic. Islam is not merely a religion, it is a totalitarian ideology that demands obeisance from believers and exhorts them to fight against infidels without compunction. The fact that many ordinary Muslims (come to think of it, they are rather extraordinary) choose not to heed the dictum does not change the doctrinal intolerance or violence.

      3. You raise some good points, Andrew B.

        I think there is now enough data on specifically suicide terrorism that we can reasonably predict when it will and when it will not occur.

        For one thing, it seems to occur only against democratic states, and I think this is because terrorists view those governments as being more willing to bend to popular pressure to end an occupation. This may explain why there is no suicide terrorism by the Tibetans against China.

        Suicide terrorism is also carried out as part of a larger nationalist rebellion, such as the Chechens against the Russian government, or the Palestinians against the Israel, or the Tamil Tigers against Sri Lanka.

        Religion does play a role in determining the presence of suicide terrorism, but here it only matters whether there is a religious difference between the occupying and occupied parties, and not so much on the religions themselves.

        Lastly, it makes a difference whether there have been prior concessions. In the case of the Irish Republican Army against Great Britain, or the Nagas against India, or the Moros against the Philippines, all of those campaigns were nationalist rebellions with religious differences between the parties, but there were concessions granted by the occupying power.

        In cases such as the Sikhs against India, the aforementioned Chechens against the Russians, the Iraqis against the US, the Lebanese Shia against Israel/US/France, there were no concessions, and here we see suicide terrorism.

        (if you have Pape’s book handy, see page 100 for a chart on the matter)

        Another reason Islamic fundamentalism is a poor predictor of suicide terrorism is that the two do not correlate well, at least not nearly as well as the relationship between US influence and propensity to become a suicide terrorist. Look at where the members of Al Qaeda come from. They do not come from the states that are the most fundamentalist. Before 2001, none of the Al Qaeda suicide bombers came from Afghanistan, arguably the most fundamentalist country. None came from states the US listed as “state sponsors” of terror, such as Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria and Sudan. However, a whopping 34 of its willing bombers have come from Saudi Arabia (where there were US troops stationed more than a decade after the Gulf War).

        (see page 115 of Pape’s book on this issue)

        I get the impression that Sam Harris’s hatred of religion blinds him to the data that suggest other factors play a much larger role in fostering destructive behavior such as suicide terrorism.

    2. That’s like asking:

      “I’m curious why Sam tries so hard to explain fire as a product of combustible material. I think Sam ought to know that virtually all fires are driven by a oxygen and a spark, and not by combustible material.”

      1. So which foreign combat forces are they trying to expel when blowing up a school bus carrying mostly little girls?

        1. Or tossing acid in the faces of those girls? Or stoning women? Are those just pathological effects of occupation?

          1. By Pape’s logic, we should just cover up all women with a bin-liner and make them stay indoors, devoid of all human contact. That’s a demonstrably effective way of preventing both acid attacks and stoning.

      2. Oxygen is a necessary but not a sufficient ingredient for fire.

        Islamic fundamentalism is neither necessary nor sufficient for suicide terrorism.

        From 1980-2003, the world leader in suicide terrorist attacks was the Tamil Tigers, a separatist group in Sri Lanka that is ethnically Hindu but which self-identifies as secular Marxist.

        1. Exactly. The sufficient ingredient is the combustible material, which in this case happens to be religion. What makes you think JJE’s choice of the right metaphor was oxygen?

          1. Your observation about the LTTE (the Tamil tigers) is completely besides the point. Nobody’s making the claim (far less Sam Harris) that suicide terrorism is exclusive to Islam. However, the disconcerting truth is that the espousal of violence for the cause of defending its beliefs is a dominant aspect of Islam. There is an abundance of verses in both the Quran and the Hadith that are unambiguous about it. Any attempt to contextualize them or even interpret them metaphorically fast acquires the dimensions of a joke to which no one laughs.

        2. I’m not sure this changes the thrust of the argument. And I’m not sure that you’ve convinced me that there is any one necessary and sufficient condition for terrorism. Nobody claims that Islam is the only source of terrorism. Nobody claims that Islam is the only ingredient in Islamic terrorism. The question is, does Islam encourage terrorism?

          This can be contrasted with does Shintoism encourage terrorism? (Perhaps in during WWII if you count Kamikaze pilots.) Does Scientology encourage terrorism? (Probably not, despite their many flaws.) Does Mormonism encourage terrorism? (Not to my knowledge, though I’d be happy to be corrected.) Does Christianity encourage terrorism. (Certainly.)

          Et cetera.

          And to get back to your example of the Tamil Tigers, do Tamil Tigers volunteer at training camps far away from home for fighting in a war that is also far away from home? They do not. Terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan (and other places as well) are not always fighting for their own homes. They are frequently fighting for their religion in foreign lands. Like the Crusades. I think that is an important distinction that is glossed over by lumping in everything into one big bundle.

          1. Nobody claims that Islam is the only ingredient in Islamic terrorism. The question is, does Islam encourage terrorism?

            I agree that is the question, or something similar, such as “To what extent does Islam contribute to terrorism?”

            What strikes me is that there are about 1 billion Muslims in the world, and yet only a tiny fraction become terrorists. So even if it were the case that most terrorists were Muslims (Robert Pape’s data suggest about half of all suicide terrorists are Islamic fundamentalists), we still have to explain why the rest of them are not terrorists if they’re all reading the same book.

            The reason it’s important to point out cases such as the Tamil Tigers is that it opens the door for other explanations for the terrorism besides Islam. And it turns out that when you look at the data, we are able to identify common themes in those cases where we see suicide terrorism. Those were outlined in an earlier comment I made in this thread, but just to recap, they are 1)Occupation by democratic government; 2)Nationalist rebellion; 3)Religious difference; 4)Lack of prior concessions.

            In the case of al Qaeda, you might ask, how is it a nationalist rebellion? The nationalist rebellion here is a sort of pan-Arabism, and its goal is to expel the United States from the Middle East, and especially from Islam’s holy cities such as Mecca and Medina. You’ll notice that al Qaeda’s recruits come from those countries where the US has combat forces or where an unpopular government is backed by the US (I think this is the case for Morocco, which was the home of 12 al Qaeda suicide bombers as of 2003)

            Furthermore, even if it is the case the Islam is the root of most terrorism, we still don’t have an explanation for its timing. Why does it coincide so neatly with foreign occupation from a country of another religion? As I asked initially, is this the time when Muslims finally get around to reading the Hadith?

            Robert Pape’s explanation, which is the best I’ve heard, is that foreign occupation by another religion leads the occupied people to believe the invaders will substantially change the culture. This seems to be the case with Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which was not vociferously opposed by most Lebanese at the time, but became extremely unpopular when it became clear Israel planned to stay, and not only that, but to replace the local Shia government with leaders more in-line with Israeli interests.

            Again, we have to concern ourselves with data, and the data point to a chiefly political explanation for suicide terrorism.

            1. “Again, we have to concern ourselves with data, and the data point to a chiefly political explanation for suicide terrorism.”

              You are right. But, as with Islam, political motivations are neither necessary nor sufficient for terrorism. There is plenty of domestic terrorism (public executions and maiming of women, for example) that isn’t geopolitical in nature. (Unless we want to restrict our attention only to geopolitical terrorism. I doubt you are begging the question though, so I’ll let that rest for now.)

              I have no special beef with Islam (though if I had to rank it in terms of “badness” it would be near the top, but that’s irrelevant. Something has to be ranked first.)

              At the expense of going slightly off topic (though I assert this applies to Islam more than most ideologies) I think the underlying motivation isn’t the political context. The political context is merely a catalyst. I believe the underlying problems are largely motivated by prescriptive authority driven dogma. This is a surprisingly concise description and I think very general. Suicide bombers wouldn’t sacrifice themselves in such numbers without a largely unquestioning belief that their cause is the just cause. And where does that derive from? And this criticism extends to Nazism, Stalinism, Maoism, and even relatively harmless things like Catholicism (which only kills and endangers millions based on prescriptive dogma). So, no, Islam isn’t the only offender. Just a very important and high profile one. And it is particularly bad, though again I think these are differences of degree rather than of kind.

    3. You gotta be kidding. Moslem terrorism against the west is only a fraction of all Moslem terror. The vast majority of which is against other Moslems and almost all of it is religiously based.

  7. I think there’s a sort of fundamental definitional question being finessed (not by Harris, but by whomever it is you’re thinking of “sneering” at): whenever one says “Islam is _________,” how is it that we should go about evaluating that assertion? (The same issue applies to “Christianity is _________,” “Judaism is _________,” and presumably lots of other religions as well.) Do you consult the holy book(s)? Do you look into the religion’s history? Do you conduct opinion polls of self-declared adherents? Do you abide by the declarations of clergy, theology scholars, or other supposed authorities? Do you pick and choose the elements you find congenial and reject everything else that’s offered, concluding that the latter is “perversion” of the religion?

    It seems to me that there’s enormous ambiguity about the very question; thus, it seems to me that there’s really no agreement as to what the title “Islam” actually corresponds to.

    So I’m not sure that there’s any statement of the form “Islam is _________” that’s clearly defensible.

    Of course, there are approaches to the “how should we go about evaluating” question that make more sense to me than others, and as a result I think I would venture some preliminary comments of that general form—but it’s hard to miss that the very endeavor of characterizing a religion is something that Western society doesn’t have a clear take on at all.

  8. Mohammad’s Fits is as flawed as Moses’s Folly [ no Moses!] and Christinsanity, but the adherents use the saner parts as how to live. See Wlater Kaufmann on that.
    Add these titles: Ellen Whites’s Black Magic, Smith’s Fraud, the Buddha Wrong Path [ Ah, the original wasn’t dogmatic.] the Dao No Way, Yahweh’s Fools,the Holy Rollers, the Shinto Warriors, Zoroaster’s Remnant [ the Parsees], the Hindu Illusion, the Jain[?], the Popes’Brigades [?] and the Protestant[?] and add others.

  9. “There’s no Reform Judaism version of Islam, and we have to encourage one. . .”

    “Does anyone else’s b.s. detector go off when they hear the mantra, “Islam is a religion of peace”?”

    Uh…. the Muslims who assert that ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ are the ‘proto-reform-Judaism’ version of Islam. And for what it is worth, lots and lots and lots of Muslims simply do not care about any of this as long as they get to go to work, come home safely, eat a good meal, and play with their children. Which sounds pretty darn familiar to me.

    1. Because they don’t actually believe in their religion. It’s a tradition and a community focus. Which is fine, IMO.

      The question is how much are they doing to discredit the “true believers”. In the case of Islam and Christianity (which is almost as bad IMO), the answer is not much at all.

      Personally, I think the only way out for Progressive monotheism is to reject monotheism. The problem isn’t the religion. The problem is the theism in and of itself. I know this is a VERY different stance than a lot of people have. And that’s not to say that religion in and of itself can’t be problematic. But the idea that there’s someone of near infinite power up above who’s watching and passing judgment and influencing our world tends to lead to very specific outcomes. And those outcomes are usually not good.

          1. That is the thing really. They are thinking. Start from that idea of god, and when you see bad things in the world, well god must have intended it.

            All this is a logical versimilatude way of looking at the world once you accept the primary leap which is god.

            This is why it is monotheism in particular that is the problem.

  10. “There’s no Reform Judaism version of Islam”

    Erm… Mr. Harris should research his subject a little bit more. Never heard about liberal Muslim scholars? Gamal al-Banna, for instance? The little brother of the guy who founded the Muslim Brotherhood, he teaches that a large part of the accumulated tradition of Islam (the Hadiths) is so much dead weight that should be thrown overboard in order to make Islam more in accordance to ideals of peace and humanity. He advocates a secular society, with separation of state and religion.
    BTW, he’s not exactly an obscure character (all the al-Banna family are celebrities in most Muslim countries) and appears often on TV in Egypt.

    It’s nice that Sam Harris wants to encourage Muslims to make their religion and culture evolve, but he’s not going to accomplish much if he ignores what already exists, is he?

  11. “The little brother of the guy who founded the Muslim Brotherhood, he teaches that a large part of the accumulated tradition of Islam (the Hadiths) is so much dead weight that should be thrown overboard in order to make Islam more in accordance to ideals of peace and humanity. He advocates a secular society, with separation of state and religion.”

    Terrific. Can’t see why Islamic societies around the world would be unconvinced by such persuasions?

  12. When muslims conquered Spain, they only fought the christian army–didn’t kill common folks. In fact, not only they were left alone; common people were encouraged not to convert to Islam but to keep their own religion instead. The reason was simple, non muslims had to pay taxes. Muslims had not. And they needed the money.

    The government changed, but the common people barely noticed anything. They just had to pay taxes to someone else. For the most part, their lives remained the same.

    This happened 1200 years ago.

    To me, it’s the most peaceful you can get in terms of conquering a new territory. Certainly a lot more peaceful that, say, the way you guys dealt with native Americans, or the way we Europeans dealt with Latin America and Africa.

    That’s for Islam by itself. When it comes to Islam today as seen by the leaders of Islamic countries, that’s a whole different story. I just wanted to point out that Islam can be (and has been throughout History), like Christianity and Judaism, interpreted in different ways, and that it’s not intrinsically violent by its very nature.

    1. I agree that Islamic conquerors of yore never implemented the “the-only-good-indian-is-the-dead-indian” policy of racial extermination. However, according the status of dhimmis to non-Muslims and forcing them to pay tax (the ‘Jizya’ was infamous in Mughal India) to confirm their inferior status is hardly a hallmark of any religion of peace.

  13. The most populous Muslim country in the world is Indonesia, where nearly all the cultural stereotypes about Islam cherished by know-nothing Americans, and apparently by Sam Harris, can be laid to rest. It’s a version of Islam where you can pray at the grave of a Sultan, convert to Catholicism to go to parochial school, and base your performing arts culture on the Ramayana. True, there is a worrying trend toward the type of extreme Islam, but this is due to influxes of money and influence from the Middle East and the absence of any counter-narrative from the West. (The U.S. has been too embarrassed to acknowledge the existence of SE Asia since our awkward forays into Vietnam and Indonesia.)

    Islam is whatever it is that people who call themselves Muslims do in their daily religious lives, not what fear-mongering network news shows and popular book writers decide to drool over. And religion is never anything but an ad hoc rationalization for events driven by more complex cultural/political factors. The middle east is a shit stew of tribalism, colonialism and the cold war.

    1. Would you not consider that to be a triumph of Indonesia rather than one of Islam?

      I think it is trivial to say that this is a complex situation. What I think is important to ask is, does Islam help?

      To give a flavor of the way I’m thinking (don’t take it too seriously, it is for heuristic purposes only):

      Yi = (B1)*(Xi,1) + (B2)*(Xi,2) + … + (Bn)*(Xi,n)

      Let B1 be a measurement of the effect of Islam and B2 be some economic or conflict measure, etc.

      Just because you can find an instance where other factors shield the harmful effects of Islam (Indonesia) on Y doesn’t mean that Islam doesn’t have a terrible effect. The question you have to ask is, what would Indonesia be without Islam? Maybe Indonesia is doing so well because the strongly negative B1X1 term is being outweighed by a strongly positive B2X2 term. I think what Tim Harris says is quite relevant to this perspective.

      1. I don’t consider a triumph of anyone. Certainly not “Indonesia”–a colonial invention with one of the most corrupt governments on earth. My semi-informed opinion is that it has to do with the particular blend of cultural elements of the place. Just as psycho jihadists are of theirs.

        I’m the wrong person to ask if Indonesia would be better off without Islam. I think for every place X with religion Y, X is better off without Y.

    2. “Islam is whatever it is that people who call themselves Muslims do in their daily religious lives, not what fear-mongering network news shows and popular book writers decide to drool over.”

      Do you have any idea how a faithful Muslim lives his/her daily religious life?

      1. Yes, I have many Muslim friends, from India, Malaysia, Indonesia, the United States, and Egypt. They vary from “very observant” to “pass the bacon and gin.” They all self-identify as Muslim, and no one gets to point and say some are more or less Muslim than others.

        1. Except when a self-identifying Muslim blows himself up as a one-way ticket to heaven we should all, as a matter of principle, brand him a lesser Muslim or perhaps no Muslim at all.

          1. And by the way, my question to you was regarding `faithful’ Muslims leading their `religious’ lives. There is nothing even remotely religious about the dietary preferences of your bacon-loving friend.

  14. Do I detect a patronizing scent in some of these comments? So the West has shaped the world in such a way that Islamic terrorism is unavoidable. In other words, Muslims are incapable of developing a reasonable and reasoned strategy to rid themselves of Western oppression. All they can think of is blowing themselves up, because they are… well, underdeveloped savages with no personal responsibility for their actions.

  15. Glad you mentioned Indonesia, Miko – although there is a fair bit of religious tension there, between Muslims and Christians (naturally), as well as between the Balinese, who are mostly Hindu and the nation’s Muslims (who are in the majority). But I’ve seen Muslim high- school children from Java in Bali on a school-trip enjoying themselves at a (in places comically obscene) performance, and underlying Indonesian Muslim culture is the older Hindu culture (not to menion all sorts of spirit cults); and this cultural complexity surely has something to do with why Islam in Indonesia is more eirenic than in in some other places. As for what has been happening in other parts of the Muslim world, it is surely fair to say, without being patronising, that it results from a variety of factors, both indigenous (and not necessarily nice at all: attitudes towards women, which are not necessarily or wholly Islamic: things like female circumcision are largely tribal practices in origin)and non-indigenous. And then there are the responses to influences, and more, from outside. Had Mossadeq been allowed to remain in power, for instance, one wonders what Iran would be like now. I suspect it would be more like Turkey. Because of oil, the West has been stirring the pot for a very long time, and though one is right to feel a revulsion towards suicide bombers etc, to hold the people who advocate and practice such acts to account, and to criticise Islamic teachings, I don’t think one should let this revulsion and dislike of Islam to blind one to what is a very complex situation in which the West is certainly not the only victim.

  16. On Oct 02, 2010, Geert Wilders, a member of the Dutch parliament of Partij voor de Vrijheid, gave a speech in Berlin. Excerpt:
    “Today I am here, however, to warn you for looming disunity. Germany’s national identity, its democracy and economic prosperity, is being threatened by the political ideology of Islam. In 1848, Karl Marx began his Communist Manifesto with the famous words: “A specter is haunting Europe – the specter of communism.” Today, another specter is haunting Europe. It is the specter of Islam. This danger, too, is political. Islam is not merely a religion, as many people seem to think: Islam is mainly a political ideology.” … and … “Islam is the Communism of today.”
    After reading the transcript I wondered what would be the comment of someone who is not, or not yet, prejudiced in either way. Say, an Australian Aborigines. 
 He could invoke the old proverb, saying, “Nothing sharpens more the vision of white Europeans than the homing phase of a badly thrown boomerang, coming back at them with deadly force.”
 Now we see the danger. But not when we started to screw them in every which way: In Indonesia by the Dutch, in Algiers, Syria, Lebanon, Niger by the French, in Mauritania and Morocco by the Spanish, In Egypt, Lybia, Sudan, Palestina, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and India by the British. Egypt and Libya by the Germans. There was not one Islamic country the kristian West did not regard as free to loot and not subjugated. And the currently most kristian United States … ? Lybia, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan comes to the late mind, while closely (kissingly and handholdingly) allied to the most militant variant of Islam, the Wahhabi of Saudi Arabia. All that, while our Ground Zero, where also 22 people of Moslem faith were killed, is a “sacred site.”
    And now, almost contemporary with Wilders speech, Israeli settlers are burning mosques in the occupied West Bank. Are we wondering about the Islamists and still not about ourselves … ?
    Our Aborigenes friend could even refer us to our own folksy wisdom: about the chicken now coming home to roost …
    And here we are talking of that Islam that once regarded the all “Peoples of the Book” untouchable; about that Islam in which name the Ottoman Empire took in the Jews as refugees whom the most kristian Isabella I and Ferdinand II of Aragon expelled in 1492 by the agency of Tomás de Torquemada, a Dominican friar, the head the Holy(sic!) Roman Catholic Inquisition in Spain. That Islam.
    One could take an entirely different tack to see this problem. If we were to come to the conclusion, but only if, that our western approach to real Christian ideals is a total disaster by now and therefore it has to come to an end as such, is it not possible that an agent is needed to put apply that end to it … ? Could that agency not be our own creation, the Islam we greatly helped militarize in all its history … ?
 By the way: how about not sucking the oil teat so vehemently … ? How about resolving the Israel / Palestinian issue that incenses the Arab world since 1949 … ? How about the endearing quality of our Predator Drones killing civilians by the dozen every week in Afghanistan and Pakistan … ?
    I, however, am not worried. The biggest market for US made porno flicks, and Go-ogling porn on-line, are the countries of Islam, Saudi Arabia leading. They will catch up with our values pretty soon alright …
    However, excluding the fairly cynical approach shamelessly displayed above, one could take a third approach – the ever returning problematic of evil.
    In a world endowed with free will the possibility of moral evil is better than one with perfectly programmed automatons of goody-goodies. The story of human evil is such that one cannot make this assertion without trembling, but I believe that it is true nevertheless. Better – but in what sense … ? A world which is allowed to make itself better is better than a puppet theatre and it is the only world not presupposing a Cosmic Tyrant. This might be the opposite side of the same coin, that our nature is inextricably linked with that of the physical world which has given us birth …
    There are even fallen angels; why not jihadists and kristianistas and assorted misfits … ? Whom would we measure ourselves against, especially our judgmental selves, huh … ?

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