Sam Harris on ISIS: Why they hate us and why they fight us

April 29, 2019 • 3:00 pm

Here’s a just reissued “Waking Up” podcast from Sam Harris, discussing whether Islamist fighters, like those in ISIS, really believe what they say they do, and whether religion is really responsible—at least in large part—for their acts. We all know the “religion denialists” about Islamic terrorism: ostrich people like Robert Pape, Karen Armstrong, and Reza Aslan, who assert that the terrorism has purely political causes, is due to the disaffection of young men, and/or is the fault of the West. Anything but Islam, they say. (These folks remind me of those accommodationists who try to exculpate religion as the main cause of creationism.) In this episode Sam maintains that religion really is a major cause of Muslim terrorism, and he reads from an issue of the ISIS magazine Dabiq in which the organization explains “Why we hate you and why we fight you.” (Answer: It’s Islam, Jake.)

I wrote about the Dabiq article three years ago, but for some reason that magazine has gone offline. (Could it be because ISIS has come down a lot since then?) Nevertheless, the article is archived here, and I recommend that you read it. It’s not long, and says exactly what Sam says it does. Then listen to the podcast if you’re so inclined: Sam has a number of things to add to what the jihadists wrote. Unless you think ISIS was lying in this article, you’ll find it most enlightening.

Click on the screenshot to hear the podcast.

h/t: Fred

37 thoughts on “Sam Harris on ISIS: Why they hate us and why they fight us

  1. WEIT readers might also look at Sword and Scimitar by Raymond Ibrahim, a highly readable account of conflicts between Christendom and Islam, clearly illustrating ISIS’s religious roots and its continuity with history.

  2. Well, the Sri Lanka attackers included upper middle class folks, and at least one attacker studied aerospace engineering in the UK and Australia, where he was allegedly radicalized.

    I suppose the violence is the fault of the west, from the perspective of our living in a number of ways that a strict follower of Islam would find distasteful or blasphemous.

    1. I assume your last paragraph is satirical. Certainly sounds like victim-blaming.

      ‘Victim-blaming’ in the sense of pointing out that the victim is partly at fault, is not always spurious. To take a recent example, ‘shouldn’t have gone to North Korea and tried to steal a poster’ is kinda self-evident, even if the consequences were out of all proportion.

      But should we ever compromise our comparatively relaxed and easy-going way of life to pacify religious bigots of any persuasion? No, not one inch. They can go to hell.


    2. “…in the UK and Australia, where he was allegedly radicalized…”

      Nice job, Western governments! To allow countries that until recently were untouched by Islam become exporters of Islamist terror.

  3. I haven’t yet listened to this podcast from Sam Harris, but I have read the Dabiq article and will reread.

    At the moment, what strikes me, in light of Harris’s podcast and this post are the recent reports about the ISIS women (and some of the children, too) in the refugee camps who are terrorizing everybody else and trying to turn the camps into ISIS enclaves. An NPR report: “We Pray for the Caliphate to Return”

    Of course, they’re a minority and it’s the majority that’s being terrorized, but that’s no consolation given the way Daish functions they’ll rule if something isn’t done.

    However, is the solution repatriation, as some seem to think? That’ll just send the Daish die-hards, woman though they are, back to the countries they came from and they’ll create chaos there.

    I prefer to call them Daish instead of Isis because I’ve heard they detest the appellation “Daish”.

  4. I think the scientific method could be applied in such cases. Do people following a given ideology engage in more overall violence or terrorism than those with more pacifist ideologies under X, Y, or Z circumstances? Etc. Until I see data of that nature, I am agnostic on the degree to which religion influences behavior. (Christianity is technically a pacifistic religion in theory, but this doesn’t seem to have transferred to practice historically.)

    We have our own nut jobs popping up seemingly left and right in this country and the West in general engaging in mass shootings. They were not deeply enculturated into a particular belief system. They slap on these bizarre pell mell ‘manifestos’ or conspiracy theories by way of explanation, but the pattern is remarkably similar to that of ideological terrorists. Same phenomenon, totally different (or with a total lack of) ideology – to my mind the jury is still out on causal factors there.

    1. It would be unethical to try to run such an experiment, in the sense of taking identical populations and adding a number of followers of different ideologies and faiths.
      So we are stuck with different incidents and situations that cannot be easily compared.

      I think, however, a reasonable person can look at the percentage of the population who adheres to a particular faith, and the number of deaths through terrorist incidents occurring worldwide.

      It might bear also considering how organized religion figures into the equation, as far as the aspect of group attacks by affiliated members. With that in mind, I cannot think of a Christian or Hindu equivalent of Al-Shabaab or Boko Haram.

      1. I mean by analyzing available data. I do think Christian groups are far less likely to say they are doing something in the name of religion, however, that doesn’t speak to whether or not they engage in more or less violence once you put a particular verbal rationalization aside. Central and South America are largely Christian and there is crisis-level gang violence there, for example. Book Haram is one militant group in Africa, however, there have been many others, many of them Christian or otherwise affiliated.

        Again, I’m pretty open / agnostic on the topic, but I think we’d need much better data points before saying much about it one way or the other. People’s stated reasons for doing something may or may not match the reality of why they’re doing it – not because they’re lying, but because when it comes to complex sociological happenings, people don’t necessarily know why they do what they do.

        1. We can look at the canonical scripture and determine how easily it can be interpreted to support violence. A story about a prophet who killed hundreds of prophets of a different god can, in principle, be used to support violence. However, I don’t think the one in the bible is used for that purpose.

          Seen as historical texts, from an academic point of view, these texts are innocuous — we should have moved on from the dark ages.

          Many people talk about religion being incompatible with science; it’s first failing is its incompatibility with history.

      2. It would be unethical to try to run such an experiment, in the sense of taking identical populations and adding a number of followers of different ideologies and faiths.

        Hell, I think even Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo (the latter of Stanford prison experiment fame) would be down with your assertion. 🙂

        1. Apologies for repeating myself, but just to clarify that I wasn’t casually proposing something dystopian, I meant via analysis of history, not running an experiment in a lab.

          (I feel I should also add, that of course doesn’t speak to value judgements. For example, I would never look at violent hate crime and say “Well, do supremacists really commit more overall crime than the general population?” It doesn’t matter, because one crime motivated by hate is unacceptable, period. And people may feel the same way about committing violence in the name of God or religion – in that case the overall number is not the point being discussed.)

          1. I think I did actually understand your original intent. My first point was really just that it is dizzyingly complex to analyze the data we have available to us, instead of a controlled experiment. Off the top of my head, how can you compare two countries with similar low rates of violence, when one of them is a high-trust society, and the other is a police state?
            But to distill all of this to it’s essence, what we need to know is what risks we face in the future, and what factors increase those risks.
            My current job includes developing and implementing procedures to ensure the physical security of personnel and equipment in my comapany’s facilities in the less developed parts of the world. There is a pretty large infrastructure that does just what we are speaking about here, in order to provide people like me with objective data about the risks we face in particular areas. That data is necessarily developed without political agendas or bias.
            Probably any of the subjects which are mostly very politically charged also have numbers of people who have to deal with the objective reality of the issues. There are people within the US military, for one example, who have to get up every day and figure ways to continue to go forward with the goal of sexually integrating units, but have to come up with real solutions to issues of strength, endurance, and injury rates. The solutions they develop cannot happen unless there are also people quietly developing and analyzing objective data on those issues.

      3. An experiment cannot be set, but natural behavior can provide a lot of data. As with human genetics, which is quite advanced, though scientists cannot cross humans the way they cross other organisms.

    2. Denigration is the first step in slaughtering people in out-groups. In Islam and Christianity god damns all unbelievers to hell and eternal punishment. Seems to me that’s the ultimate denigration. Gibbon in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire pointed out that this was a new evil thing that Christianity brought to religion.

      1. I don’t think it was new at all. Pagan gods were not exactly merciful when it came to waging war on one’s neighbors. And some degree of in-group out-group thinking is inevitable in anything but the most postmodern, nihilistic society (criticizing Islam is, itself, a form of criticizing out-group members after all.) I think it’s likely existed for as long as humans have existed and probably before that.

        This is why I am never sure if religion should be viewed more as cause or effect. To my mind the tribal (not mystical) aspects of religion may simply be a walking, embodied manifestation of game theory come to life.

  5. Always good to listen to Harris as he reminds us of reality. Especially liked the line about – How many bombs have we dropped on Finland?

  6. Iagree with Harris most of the time but it’s also possible that Dabiq might have been just as much about provoking or picking a fight with ‘the west’ as it was about recruiting from it.
    There are Islamists who want nothing more than to goad western powers into a fight and Dabiq seems ideal for that purpose

  7. By the way, I’ve been noticing the headline writing lately- which ones use the T word, which don’t, and which religions are associated with either using the T word or not. It’s consistent with the recent observation by Maajid Nawaz, which PCC(E) elaborated on here.

  8. You can’t take a leader’s word as representative of what the followers are thinking. For example, if a North Vietnamese leader gave a speech about his cause during the Vietnam War, I’m sure it’s full of references to the glories of Communism. The grunt on the front lines? Not so much.

    Even the statements of the average person need to be taken with a grain of salt. Polls during Obama’s early years showed large percentages “believed” he was born in Kenya. Are they really that stupid? Well, some of them. But for most it’s just a way of saying “I’m against Obama.” These statements are emoting, not thinking.

    Kinda like Sam Harris’s “analysis”. His thinking cap is decidedly off.

    1. The important thing is that “the grunt on the front lines” does what the leader says, for lack of a reasonable alternative. And because people don’t like to think of themselves as hapless victims of the evil or the crazy, they with time successfully convince themselves that all’s well with the world. The Janissaries, ripped from their families at age 10-14, in several years became the most loyal servants of the enemy. Most Russians like Putin.

  9. I can tell by a few of the replies here that some folks have never had the pleasure of dealing with a genuine religious fundamentalist. To spare them that particular discomfort I suggest that anyone thinking that you can’t just take a religionist at their word that they should engage in discourse with some of the current crops or Flat Earth conspiracy theorist and then get back to us on whether or not an otherwise intelligent person can be dangerously deranged over a deeply held belief

    1. I understand your comment- and it promoted the following thought :

      I observe that creationism or flat earth … flat earth … theorists.. are quite a lot different from ISIS in that they are not cults. The cost of leaving a creationist clan is less costly. Though, in that case they have everything to do with religion.

      That means if there are coerced ISIS fighters who really don’t like their whole package are not inclined to ditch the group. Yet, they remain bound – but could even convince themselves ISIS are Not True Muslims.

      I don’t know what to make of that, except that it is difficult to know what is going on.

  10. I’ll have to listen later, but it will be interesting to compare this (where does Harris get his data?) with the work by Scott Atran, which shows that the proximate motivations are *all* of:

    political grievances
    the enemy of my enemy is my friend
    and, crucially:
    “band of brothers”

  11. I agree with Harris about the character of the beast. However, the likes of Maajid Nawaz show that there is always hope.
    Has Maajid ever expanded on the how and why of his change of mind (one could nearly call it a de-conversion, I guess)? I think that (2) is at least as important as fighting Islam militarily (1).
    And thirdly, if we want to win the war against fundamentalist Islam, we need to get rid of our need for oil. We need to go solar ASAP.
    Fighting Islam militarily reminds us of Shaw’s: ‘don’t get into a battle with a pig, you’ll get all muddy and the pig likes it’. (Need I add: ‘it has not escaped our attention….’?)

  12. So essentially what we can glean from the article and Sam Harris’ commentary is that people who hold to a fundamentalist interpretation of their religion tend to behave with a war-like intolerance to anyone not of their faith. I would say that is an idea so blindingly obvious to anyone with even a cursory reading of history that it is amazing the regressive left and the Islam apologists can’t see it, but given how we have seen the regression left and the Islam apologists interpret the world, hardly surprising.

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