Sam Harris on the war, jihadism, and morality

November 14, 2023 • 9:30 am

I’m on my way back to Chicago, and I strongly recommend that if you have an hour to spare, you can’t do better than spend it listening to Sam Harris’s excellent podcast on the war. In an earlier post I linked to the written transcript, but the audio version is below. I have to admit that this is one podcast I listened to as well as read for two reasons: Sam’s measured eloquence and especially the thoughtfulness and rationality of his message.

Sam discusses the war at length, but his real concern is the philosophy of jihad as embodied in Islamism and how it plays out in violent conflict. His thesis, which isn’t new but which he expounds at length, is that the members of Hamas really believe in the Islamic doctrine of this life being of little consequence compared to the life to come.  And if you die doing jihad (construed as a “holy war”, not as a simple striving to better oneself), you are rewarded with Paradise (replete with either raisins or virgins).

Sam says you can’t understand the concepts of suicide bombing, martyrdom, or the brutality of the October 7 butchery (complete with gleeful cries of “Allahu akbar” by the butchers) without realizing that they’re motivated by taking religious doctrine literally. This leads to his conclusion that religion in general is harmful, but that Islam is, at present, the most dangerous of faiths.  In fact, he sees it as posing an existential thread not just to Israel, but to the whole world.


Below is the audio from the phone call same Sam quotes in his piece. It’s from an elated Hamas terrorist who’s just killed ten Jews, who brags about it to his family while talking on the cellphone of one of the Jews he killed. This is the elation of jihadism achieving its aims, and although I’ve listened to it many times, the horror it inspires grows each time. Can this be a human being? Even the Nazis didn’t get such joy from their mass murders of Jews.

I’ll give a few quotes from Sam’s podcast, though I think I’ve posted others before.

Now, there are many things to be said in criticism of Israel, in particular its expansion of settlements on contested land. But Israel’s behavior is not what explains the suicidal and genocidal inclinations of a group like Hamas. The Islamic doctrines of martyrdom and jihad do.

These are religious beliefs, sincerely held. They are beliefs about the moral structure of the universe. And they explain how normal people—even good ones—can commit horrific acts of violence against innocent civilians—on purpose, not as collateral damage—and still consider themselves good. When you believe that life in this world has no value, apart from deciding who goes to hell and who goes to Paradise, it becomes possible to feel perfectly at ease killing noncombatants, or even using your own women and children as human shields, because you know that any Muslims who get killed will go to Paradise for eternity.

If you don’t understand that jihadists sincerely believe these things, you don’t understand the problem Israel faces. The problem isn’t merely Palestinian nationalism, or resource competition, or any other normal terrestrial grievance. In fact, the problem isn’t even hatred, though there is enough of that to go around. The problem is religious certainty.

. . .Look at these protests we’re seeing all over the world, which began before Israel had dropped a single bomb. Now that there have been several thousand Palestinian casualties, cities across the globe are seething with rage. But Assad has killed hundreds of thousands of his fellow Muslims in Syria. The Saudis have killed well over a [sic] one hundred thousand Muslims in Yemen. Where are the protests? No one cares, least of all Muslims. They only care when non-Muslims produce these casualties—and they especially care when Jews do it. Israel is routinely condemned by the United Nations, and the U.N. could not pass a condemnation of Hamas for the atrocities it committed on October 7th.

As I said, I don’t know whether a ground invasion is the right approach. But there is no question that Israel had to act; they have to destroy Hamas; and, whatever they do, noncombatants will get killed in the process. Again, this is Hamas’ fault.

He enumerates several instances of jihadist killing that don’t involve Israeli “colonization,” including the horrors of 9/11. The events of October 7 lie among thousands of others that can’t be pinned on Israel, or even on Jews, but on a religious fanaticism devoted to worldwide domination.

There may be two sides to the past, but there really aren’t two sides to the present. There are two sides to the story of how the Palestinians and Jews came to fight over land in the Middle East. Understanding all of that is important—and I think it is important to understand the cynical game that the Arab world has played with the plight of the Palestinians for the last 50 years. If there is a stable political settlement to ever be reached between Israel and the Palestinians, it will entail a full untangling of the facts from all the propaganda that obscures them, while keeping the problem of jihadism in view. It will also entail that the religious lunatics on the Jewish side get sidelined. As I said, the building of settlements has been a continuous provocation. But even on the point of religious fanaticism, there really aren’t two sides worth talking about now. Whatever terrible things Israeli settlers occasionally do—and these are crimes for which they should be prosecuted—generally speaking, the world does not have a problem with Jewish religious fanatics targeting Muslims in their mosques and schools. You literally can’t open a Jewish school in Paris because no one will insure it. Yes, there are lunatics on both sides, but the consequences of their lunacy are not equivalent—not even remotely equivalent. We haven’t spent the last 20 years taking our shoes off at the airport because there are so many fanatical Jews eager to blow themselves up on airplanes.

That last sentence is typical of Sam’s eloquence, and of course it’s true. Who are the haters? Who are those eager to kill civilians?

He highly recommends watching the movie below, about an incident of Islamist terrorism in India, and of course I will:

Again, watch “Hotel Mumbai” or read a book about the Islamic State so that you can see jihadism in another context—where literally not one of the variables that people imagine to be important here [in the current conflict] is present. There are no settlers, or blockades, or daily humiliations at check points, or differing interpretations of history—and yet we have same grotesque distortion of the spiritual impulse, the same otherworldliness framed by murder, the same absolute evil that doesn’t require the presence of evil people, just confused ones—just true believers.

. . . and, as usual, he helps us calibrate our moral compasses, which, for many —especially entitled college students—seem to be drawn to the wrong magnet. The bit below may be the most trenchant part of the podcast:

Of course, the boundary between Anti-Semitism and generic moral stupidity is a little hard to discern—and I’m not sure that it is always important to find it. I’m not sure it matters why a person can’t distinguish between collateral damage in a necessary war and conscious acts of genocidal sadism that are celebrated as a religious sacrament by a death cult. Our streets have been filled with people, literally tripping over themselves in their eagerness to demonstrate that they cannot distinguish between those who intentionally kill babies, and those who inadvertently kill them, having taken great pains to avoid killing them, while defending themselves against the very people who have just intentionally tortured and killed innocent men, women, and yes… babies. And who are committed to doing this again at any opportunity, and who are using their own innocent noncombatants as human shields. If you’re both sides-ing this situation—or worse, if you are supporting the wrong side: if you are waving the flag of people who murder noncombatants intentionally, killing parents in front of their children and children in front of their parents, burning people alive at a music festival devoted to “peace”, and decapitating others, and dragging their dismembered bodies through the streets, all to shouts of “God is Great.” If you are recognizing the humanity of actual barbarians, while demonizing the people who actually worry about war crimes and who drop leaflets and call cell phones for days, in an effort to get noncombatants to leave specific buildings before they are bombed, because those buildings sit on top of tunnels filled with genocidal lunatics—who again, have just sedulously tortured and murdered families as though it were a religious sacrament, because for them it is a religious sacrament. If you have landed, proudly and sanctimoniously, on the wrong side of this asymmetry—this vast gulf between savagery and civilization—while marching through the quad of an Ivy League institution wearing yoga pants, I’m not sure it matters that your moral confusion is due to the fact that you just happen to hate Jews. Whether you’re an anti-Semite or just an apologist for atrocity is probably immaterial. The crucial point is that you are dangerously confused about the moral norms and political sympathies that make life in this world worth living.

Just a couple more; there are many nuggets of wisdom in the podcast, which is one of Sam’s best, and you shouldn’t even be reading these extracts if you can listen to the whole podcast. I found—and perhaps this is just me—that I can’t get much out of Sam’s words unless I devote my whole attention to the audio.

About that phone call above, Sam discusses the taboo that many are thinking about but nobody will utter: How many Palestinians support what Hamas did, even if they didn’t kill Jews with their own hands? Surely there are many, and that means that Israel (and by proxy, we) are at war not just with Hamas, but with Palestine. Sam:

Of course, we can do our best to turn the temperature down now. And we can trust that the news cycle will get captured by another story. We can direct our attention again to Russia, or China, or climate change, or AI alignment, and I will do that on this podcast, but the problem of jihadism and the much wider problem of sympathy for it isn’t going away. And civilized people—non-Muslim and Muslim alike—have to deal with it. As I said in a previous podcast on this topic: We all live in Israel now. It’s just that most of us haven’t realized it yet. at war not just with Hamas, but with a lot of “ordinary Gazans” who don’t belong to terrorist organizations but approve of their aims.

If you listen to the discourse about the war, you might think that there are two distinct classes of Gazans: the terrorists who kill and the rest—peaceful people who don’t wish for the extermination of Israel and will support a two-state solution that leaves Israel as a state. Yes, there are peaceful ones, but neither Sam nor I think this dichotomy is accurate:

As I told Graeme [Wood], this is not the type of call that would have been placed from Vietnam, by an American who just participated in the My Lai Massacre. Nor is it the parental reaction one would expect from an American family, had their beloved son just called them from a killing field. I mean, as terrible as Vietnam was, can you imagine a call back to Nebraska, “Mom, I killed ten with my own hands! I killed a woman and her husband, and I’m calling from the dead woman’s phone. Mom, your son is a hero!” Do you see what a total aberration that would have been, even in extremis?

This call wasn’t a total aberration. This wasn’t Ted Bundy calling his mom. This was an ordinary member of Hamas, a group that might still win an election today, especially in the West Bank, calling an ordinary Palestinian family, and the mere existence of that call, to say nothing of its contents, reveals something about the wider culture among the Palestinians.

It’s important to point out that not only members of Hamas, but ordinary Gazans appear to have taken part in the torture and murder of innocent Israelis and the taking of hostages. How many did this? And how many ordinary Gazan’s [sic] were dancing in the streets and spitting on the captured women and girls who were paraded before them after having been raped and tortured? What percentage of Palestinians in Gaza, or the West Bank, many of whom are said to hate Hamas for their corruption and incompetence and brutality, nevertheless support what they did on October 7th with a clear conscience, based on what they believe about Jews and the ethics of jihad? I don’t know, but I’m sure that the answers to these questions would be quite alarming. We’re talking about a culture that teaches Jew hatred and the love of martyrdom in its elementary schools, many of which are funded by the UN.

This leads Jews like me, who are purely secular, feeling a bit nervous: a feeling I’ve never had for more than an hour in my whole life (that was when I got beat up by a pack of Jew-hating students in junior high). The anger you see in the eyes and hear in the words of college pro-Palestinian protestors must reflect in part an antisemitism that was underground but is now surfacing. Its ubiquity is scary.

Surely some of the students who chant “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” know what it really means, and it’s not, as Rashida Tlaib claims (knowing she’s lying) an “aspirational call for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence”:

In truth it’s a call for the extermination of Israel, and for many by violent means. It is a call for the end of the only democracy in the Middle East, simply because it’s largely Jewish. The students who chant this, even at my school, make me nervous, but they don’t make me frightened. Some are filled with hate, others ignorant, but all need their moral compasses recalibrated. That, it seems to me, is nearly impossible.

h/t: David, Rosemary

Nick Cohen on the embrace of Islamism by the “progressive” Left

October 30, 2023 • 12:30 pm

Nick Cohen wrote an article in the Spectator that’s paywalled for most of us, but thank Ceiling Cat he also published it on his Substack site, “Writing from London.”  It was originally called “Why the far Left supports Hamas“, but the title was changed when the piece moved to Substack. The original title was more accurate!

This is Cohen at his best, though I haven’t followed him regularly. If you do, subscribe to his site.

First, the observation:

It’s not often that Brits can say that the US is behind the UK. But in understanding the dynamic between the successors to the old socialist left and radical Islam, US thinkers have years of catching up to do. It is not as if American commentators are wrong or uninteresting, it is just that, unlike their counterparts in Europe, they have not begun to come to terms with the Islamisation of the worst strains of left-wing politics, and the wider consequences for the progressive cause.

Moderates in the US  were pushed into taking a stand after the glorification of murder at a demonstration organised by the New York chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America on 8 October. Mark that date. I hope when historians look back on these times they will notice that in the US and across Europe, the white far left and radical Islamists were organsising rallies to celebrate the attack on Israel.  No  Israeli retaliation had taken place on 8 October. The blood of the dead was not even dry,  Demonstrators were not protesting against an Israeli assault on Gaza city but in favour of the murder of Jewish civilians.

I hadn’t realize that many demonstrations in favor of Palestine preceded any Israeli retaliation, and thus were really either demonstrations of favor of Hamas and what it did, or anticipatory demonstrations damning Israel for what it might do. Given the timing, the obvious celebration of some of them, and my unfamiliarity with any anticipatory demonstrations, you can’t discount a motivation the these protests celebrated the killing of Jews.

I won’t reproduce Cohen’s whole analysis of “Why the far Left supports Hamas” (the original title), but here are a few trenchant paragraphs. His main idea is that Hamas (and Palestine) provides the Far Left with a cause it needs: a cause so pressing that it demands war and killing. Bolding below is mine:

The most imperialist country in the world is Russia, but the far left cannot oppose it  because Putin  is anti-western, and that is all that matters to them. Most people think that climate change won’t bring a radical reordering of society — “we’re just going to build some solar panels and electric cars and stuff,” as Smith puts it. There doesn’t seem much mileage in shouting about neo-liberalism given that it died in the 2008 crash.

In these circumstances, the Palestinian cause offers a way out of end-of-history ennui. Israel could be described as a colonial state, albeit one founded by refugees fleeing fascism. The struggle against it appeared to fit  a classic pattern.

And, as Smith nicely emphasizes, by supporting Hamas, the far left could draw a dividing between itself and the rest of the US progressive movement. A useful tactic because, if you are running a political or religious sect ,you need your members  to believe in something that most people will regard as insane: supporting the mass murder of Israeli teenagers, hailing your church’s leader as God’s chosen, insisting that Joe Biden stole the election from Donald Trump. Sect members not only prove their  loyalty to their leaders. [sic] Crucially, they cut themselves off from friends, family and acquaintances,  who in normal circumstances might moderate their thinking and point out that the slogan “from the river to sea” means the ethnic cleansing of every Jew living between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean, as Hamas has just proved in the most brutal fashion imaginable.

. . . You can mock and denounce the far left as much as you like, and I have done my fair share of both. But the connection to ultra-reactionary regimes and movements did not bother Labour party members who voted for Corbyn to be their leader – twice!  You can blame Labour members as loudly as you like, and I have done my fair share of that too. But the fact remains that if you want to support the Palestinian cause, you have to accept at some level that the most dynamic anti-Zionist force is Hamas not one of the dying secular and socialist parties, and work out how to deal with that uncomfortable fact.

It is not, therefore, just sinister and stupid far-left sects who are caught in a conflict of principles. Unless they are very careful many progressives will find themselves ignoring the victims of Hamas crimes against humanity as Tilda Swinton, Steve Coogan, Charles Dance and 2000 other artists did when they signed a petition condemning Israel that did not even mention the slaughter by Hamas that started the war.

Note that the UN did that, too, as you saw in the previous post. Cohen also digs up an old quote from Hitchens:

The far left copes with radical Islam by celebrating Hamas. At times it seems many progressive people cope with radical Islam by pretending it does not exist. They cannot look at the Hamas founding charter and see its Nazi-era conspiracy theories about Jews or examine how it enforces a reactionary dictatorship on the people of Gaza. They just talk as if it is not there.

Writing in 2008, the ex-Marxist Christopher Hitchens said that “The most depressing and wretched spectacle of the past decade, for all those who care about democracy and secularism, has been the degeneration of Palestinian Arab nationalism into the theocratic and thanatocratic hell of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, where the Web site of Gaza’s ruling faction blazons an endorsement of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

In the end, Cohen says “the radical Islamist movement. . . is visibly dying” and suggests that perhaps Palestine will one day “be represented by people you need not recoil from in disgust.” One can hope. . .