Earlier this month, Salon engaged in a correspondence with Sam Harris about his thoughts on atheism, the Left, Islam, American foreign policy, and anti-intellectualism in political discourse.
We were particularly interested in Harris’s liberal critique of the American Left, which he says has failed to talk honestly about the origins and consequences of Islamic extremism. This conversation took place before the recent attacks in Paris, but many of these themes have been widely debated since then.
This was mostly an email correspondence, not a traditional interview, so remarks were edited throughout.
Let’s start with your views on Islam. You’ve acknowledged that Islamic extremism is a hydra-headed problem that can’t be reduced to single variable – certainly I agree with that. Given that the Islamic world has not always been what it is today, and has at times been more civilized than the Christian world, how much weight can we give to factors like history, economics, geopolitics, foreign policy, or Western interventionism? And if these non-religious variables are significant, does it undermine the argument that Islam is a uniquely problematic religion?
The short answer is that I think the problems we are seeing throughout the Muslim world—jihadism, sectarian conflict, and all the attendant talk of Muslim “humiliation”—are almost entirely religious. And wherever rational grievances do exist, they are invariably viewed, and become magnified, through a religious lens. The truth is that a belief in specific religious doctrines is sufficient to produce the all violence, intolerance, and backwardness we see in the Muslim world.
The abysmal treatment of women, the hostility to free speech, the daily bloodletting between Sunni and Shi—these things have absolutely nothing to do with U.S. foreign policy or the founding of Israel. And, contrary to the assertions of many regressive Leftists and Islamist apologists, violent jihad is not a product of colonialism or the 20th century. The tactic of suicide bombing is relatively new, of course, as is the spread of jihadist ideology on social media, but if you had stood at the gates of Vienna in 1683, you could have not helped but notice the civilizational problem of jihad.
Yes, politics and ordinary grievances enter into many of these recent conflicts. It isn’t difficult to see why a person who has lost his or her family in an errant drone strike might hate America, and there is no question that a desire for revenge transcends religion or culture. But the truth is that a sincere belief in the metaphysics of martyrdom can turn an ordinary person into a dangerous religious maniac. And only Islam preaches this doctrine as one of its central tenets.
There are obviously regressive tendencies in all religions, particularly Christianity, which is not to say Christianity and Islam are equivalent. But the question is: If there are external, non-doctrinal factors that have shaped Islam and the Muslim world, how should Western critics incorporate that into their critiques of Islam as such?
Well, the developed world has a responsibility to act with the welfare of humanity in mind. So, to the degree that the liberal critique of American power holds any truth, we should address these injustices and do our best not to manufacture new ones. We are living in a global civilization, with economic, environmental, and political concerns that transcend national boundaries. I’m not saying that we’ll have a world government anytime soon, but we need to do our best to rectify the worst disparities of wealth, health, and education globally, so that everyone can enjoy a minimum standard of well-being.
So, I agree that the West bears a disproportionate responsibility to help the world, given our relative wealth and power. And I certainly can’t argue that we’ve done the best job of this. But that doesn’t mean we are responsible for the global death cult of jihadism. We are confronting people, in dozens of countries, who despise more or less everything that we value, and are right to value—including free speech, open societies, gender equality, scientific rationality, and more or less everything else about civilization that is worth preserving. And the reasons why they hate these things are almost entirely religious.
You can make the list of U.S. crimes and missteps as long as you want, but it still doesn’t explain ISIS. The fact that we invaded Iraq is merely a background condition for this local explosion of jihadist triumphalism and horror—one that is fully explained by a commitment to a specific interpretation of Islamic scripture. Unfortunately, these same ideas are currently addling the brains of the people throughout the world who have no terrestrial grievances whatsoever. Medical students and engineers, who are second and third generation British citizens, have joined ISIS. There is nothing about Western foreign policy, global capitalism, or white privilege that explains this.
Many would push back and say much of that is true but there’s also the problem of antecedent causes. After World War I, for example, countries like Britain and France and Russia constructed the modern Middle East, for reasons of self-interest and without concerns for sectarian rivalries. These agreements prepared the way for much of the political chaos we’ve seen since. In Iraq, for instance, where ISIS was born, the British imposed a Hashimite monarchy which marked the boundaries of the country irrespective of ethnic and religious tensions. We can’t sidestep this history when talking about these problems today; it’s only part of the story but it absolutely matters. Do you agree?
But the religious lunacy and tribalism was already fully in place—and that is why the West’s careless partitioning of the region was so problematic. I agree that the history of colonialism isn’t pretty. But the example you raise just proves my point. In fact, this practically became a science experiment that dissected out the crucial variable of religion. There are (or were) Christians living in all these beleaguered countries. How many Christian suicide bombers have there been? Where are the Pakistani, Iraqi, Syrian, Egyptian, and Palestinian Christians who are blowing themselves up in crowds of noncombatants? Have there been any? I’m guessing there must have been a few, but the Muslim supply of such people is apparently inexhaustible. In every case, we’re talking about the same people, speaking same language, living in the same places, enduring same material deprivation. In fact, the Christians of the Middle East have it worse. They’ve not only suffered the legacy of colonialism, they’ve been hounded out of their countries and often killed outright by their Muslim neighbors—and they still haven’t organized themselves into a death cult. What’s the difference that makes the difference? Religion.
We can also look outside the Muslim world to see that injustice and inequality rarely produces this kind of extraordinarily destructive behavior. Many countries in Latin America have legitimate grievances against the U.S. Where are the Guatemalan suicide bombers? Where are the Cherokee suicide bombers, for that matter? If oppression were enough, the Tibetans should have been practicing suicidal terrorism against the Chinese for decades. Instead, they practice self–immolation, for reasons that are totally understandable within the context of their own religious beliefs. Again, specific beliefs matter, and we deny this at our peril. If the behavior of Muslim suicide bombers should tell us anything, it’s that certain people really do believe in martyrdom. Let me be very clear about this: I’m not talking about all (or even most) Muslims—I’m talking about jihadists. But all jihadists are Muslim. If even 1 percent of the world’s Muslims are potential jihadists, we have a terrible problem on our hands. I’m not sure how we deal with 16 million aspiring martyrs—but lying to ourselves about the nature of the problem doesn’t seem like the best strategy.
A key difference I see is that Islam is bound up with a civilization and a culture in way that Christianity isn’t, or isn’t any longer. The enlightenment project, the modern scientific revolution – these things prepared the way for secular politics in the West; they made possible Jefferson’s wall. And I don’t think there’s a “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” equivalent in Islam – though perhaps I am mistaken. How significant is this difference and do you think it matters in terms of our expectations and our approach to dealing with the Muslim world or with other parts of the world that do not share our cultural legacy?
Yes, these are points I’ve often made. Islam hasn’t suffered the same collisions with secularism and science that Christianity has. And there are also doctrinal differences that make it more impervious to these collisions than Christianity and Judaism were. Unfortunately, the Qur’an doesn’t contain anything like that line from Matthew, ‘Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.’ To the contrary, it is difficult to find an Islamic rationale for truly separating religion and politics. Finding a durable basis for such a separation is one of the great challenges of our age, and that’s why I support reformers like Maajid Nawaz, who is attempting to do just that. As you know, he and I have written a book together, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue. The whole point of the book is to find some path forward toward Islamic secularism and liberal reform. But the thing that has to be admitted up front, is that Islam presents some unique challenges in this regard.
You’ve been critical of liberal commentators like Glenn Greenwald, Reza Aslan and Nicholas Kristof. Do you not take any of their points, especially as it relates to blanket condemnations of Islam?
Unfortunately, these people are consistently on the wrong side of the issues. For instance, each of these men, with varying degrees of malice and stupidity, has publicly attacked Ayaan Hirsi Ali as a bigot. And yet Ayaan is pure victim of Islamic theocracy. She is also humanist hero who fully recapitulated the Enlightenment project having been given almost no intellectual tools. Just think of it: Here is a woman who was raised in a condition of medieval theocracy in Somalia and subjected to FGM. Sensing that there was more to life than this, she fled an arranged marriage, emigrated to Holland, learned Dutch, got an education and became a member of Parliament, only to see her colleague Theo Van Gogh killed in the street by a jihadist. To this day, these barbarians threaten her wherever she goes. And people like Greenwald, Aslan, and Kristof attack her for the stridency with which she criticizes the misogyny and intolerance of free thought that are manifestly endemic to Islam. Not only do they get the ethics of the situation absolutely wrong, they make her life more dangerous in the process. It is an absolute scandal.
These people are part of what Maajid Nawaz has termed the “regressive Left”—pseudo-liberals who are so blinded by identity politics that they reliably take the side of a backward mob over one of its victims. Rather than protect individual women, apostates, intellectuals, cartoonists, novelists, and true liberals from the intolerance of religious imbeciles, they protect theocrats from criticism.
The profundity of this moral blindness seems to have achieved an almost crystalline form in the person of Glenn Greenwald. Greenwald is a gay, Jewish atheist who would be murdered three times over in scores of Muslim communities for reasons that are unambiguously religious. And yet, he considers any focus on this particular brand of theocracy—even by someone who has suffered under its shadow as much as Ayaan has—to be a sign of malice toward innocent people. When cartoonists get butchered in Paris to shouts of “We have avenged the Prophet!” Greenwald races to his keyboard to castigate the dead, liberal cartoonists for their (nonexistent) racism. He allies himself with a group like Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and works tirelessly to blur the line between legitimate civil rights concerns and theocratic bullying. These are the people who get Ayaan blacklisted from speaking at universities, and Greenwald has publicly stated that there is not group he is prouder to have collaborated with.
According to Greenwald and the rest of the regressive Left, one can criticize religion in general, but any special focus on Islam must motivated by bigotry or “Islamophobia.” And on that assumption, many of these people think it’s fair to slander and demonize anyone who does focus on Islam—even a true Muslim reformer like Maajid Nawaz. Maajid is a former Islamist, who now runs a counter-extremist think tank in the UK. And yet for merely entering into a dialogue with me about the prospects of spreading secular, liberal values in the Muslim world, he was branded a “native informant” and a “porch monkey” by Greenwald’s colleague at The Intercept, Murtaza Hussain, and a “lapdog” by Reza Aslan’s employee, Nathan Lean. These people are simply desperate to shut down dialogue on what is fast becoming the most important political and ethical question of our time. Everything they do in this area is dishonest and destructive. So, no, I don’t take any of their points to heart. And contrary to what you imply in your question, I don’t offer any “blanket condemnations” of anything or anyone. I speak about the specific consequences of specific ideas, in so far as they are believed. If 68 percent of British Muslims believe that anyone who “insults Islam” should be prosecuted and punished—then when criticizing the disastrous consequences of that idea for the U.K., I’m talking about those 68 percent. If 30 percent want to live under shari’ah, then I’m talking about precisely those people in that context. These real poll numbers, by the way, and they’re very troubling.
When talking about America’s role in the world, you’ve used the phrase “well-intentioned giant.” Did you coin that or were you borrowing it? And do you really believe that America’s intentions in the world are especially noble?
No, I was simply commenting on the work of Arundhati Roy, who coined that phrase to disparage U.S. foreign policy. In certain respects, I believe we are a well-intentioned giant—guilty of all the lumbering ineptitude that the image implies.
Do you think that’s true because there’s a difference in terms of the intentions and goals that America pursues in the world, relative to other nation-states? And how might our intentions and goals look to people on the receiving end of our foreign policies?
I’m glad you asked, because many people appear totally confused about this, especially on the Left. Intentions are hugely important. In many cases, intention is only thing that differentiates a truly evil person (or regime) from one who is a mere victim of circumstance. A surgeon performing an appendectomy is not the same as Jack the Ripper just because he’s cutting another person with a knife—and this remains true even if the patient dies. Needless to say, we make such distinctions in our criminal justice system all the time. The difference between first-degree murder, manslaughter, and a tragic accident is largely a matter of what the defendant intended to do and why.
I understand the importance of intention in that context, but it’s more complicated when you apply that logic to something like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which I know you’ve written about. You’ve argued that there’s a discernible difference in intentions here. But this conflict, like many others in the world, is asymmetrical. One side has more refined and advanced methods of killing and certain luxuries that the other side doesn’t, and you might say that one side is extreme by virtue of their circumstances. I’m not interested in drawing a moral equivalence. But I am asking if you think these distinctions matter when you’re talking about intentions and goals and tactics in a geopolitical context?
Generally speaking, I think we have to listen carefully to what people say they want out of life and take these declarations at face value. And when they say they want to go over to the next valley and murder every man, woman, and child, we should believe them. Given the fact that human beings have repeatedly shown themselves capable of genocide, it doesn’t take an especially morbid imagination to accept that people who say they want to commit genocide will do so, if given the chance. In the case of Hamas, we have an avowedly genocidal organization (just read its charter) that was democratically elected. And this occurred in the context of a wider culture that has nursed a genocidal hatred of Jews for generations—and expressed this hatred in everything from its scripture to its textbooks. I’m not saying that the Palestinians don’t have any rational grievances against Israelis. Of course they do. But their culture has also been poisoned by religious hatred. And this same hatred exists throughout Muslim world. Ayaan Hirsi Ali remembers being instructed as a teenager in Somalia to pray for the destruction of the Jews. Needless to say, neither she nor her teachers had ever met a Jew. In fact, they had very likely never met anyone who had ever met a Jew. And yet this annihilationist hatred was still central to their worldview.
Sure, but there are genocidal instincts and commands strewn through the Christian tradition too. They just happen not to be operative at this moment in time.
Yes—and they are not operative for historical and theological reasons that we can understand. And we must find some way recapitulate these changes in an Islamic context.
Returning to your original question, we know that the Israelis aren’t genocidal because it is well within their power to commit genocide today, and they’re not doing it. That’s a very important difference. Given what is being said on the Palestinian side, and given the atrocities they’ve perpetrated with their limited means, we have every reason to believe that if the power balance were reversed, and the Israelis were an impoverished minority living within and beside a well-armed Palestinian state, we would see a very different outcome.
To be fair, though, that’s a counterfactual and we don’t really know what would happen if that were the case, if in fact it was Jewish settlements and neighborhoods that were being oppressed and occupied and backed by major powers for decades. It’s hard to know what people will do when they lack the luxury of options, when moderation fails.
It is a counterfactual, but recall what I said about the Palestinian Christians, Tibetans, Native Americans, and so forth. Not every oppressed group readily becomes a death cult. Not every religious ideology can spawn ISIS. There is no reason for us to pretend that all belief systems are the same.
The reality is that the Israelis, for all their faults, have been more restrained in their use of force than the U.S. has—if for no other reason than that they are more vulnerable to world opinion. Every Palestinian child the IDF kills inches Israel ever closer to the brink of exile from the community of nations. Thus, when four children are blown up on a beach in Gaza by an Israeli missile, one thing should be absolutely clear: The missile went astray. Children were not the target because, even by the most self-interested and cynical calculus, killing Palestinian children is disastrous for Israel. Intentions matter—not to the dead children, obviously, or to their grieving parents—because intentions are the only guide to what a person or nation will do next. What people intend to do, the story they tell themselves and others about why they are pursuing specific goals, is the best indication of what they will do if they acquire the power to do it. The Israelis currently have the power to kill as many Palestinian children as they want. The fact that they kill so few, amid circumstances that have all the hallmarks of “collateral damage,” tells us something about them. The fact that the Taliban enters a school in Peshawar and methodically butchers 132 kids, after forcing them to watch their teacher being burned alive, tells us something about them.
The regressive Left is blind to these distinctions. For instance, we recently bombed a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders, killing 22 doctors, nurses, and patients. This was an utter tragedy—for the bombed, obviously, but also for U.S. foreign policy. It was obviously a mistake, because bombing this hospital was totally against our interests. And yet, judging from my Twitter feed, fans of Noam Chomsky reacted as if President Obama had called a meeting and declared his intention to destroy one of the most beloved charities on earth by murdering its staff en masse.
We are better than our enemies. And the horror is that even such a simple statement of moral fact will be derided as wartime propaganda by many of our readers. Indeed, many will think that even using a term like “enemy” in this (or any) context is a kind of jingoistic outburst. These people take civilization for granted—which is a luxury we can’t always afford. As impossible as it may be to believe, many of our readers think that we are worse than the jihadists. I am long past imagining that there is anything I can say to rectify this sort of moral confusion. (But here goes…)
Simply recall who we’re fighting—groups like al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS. These people kill doctors, aid workers, and journalists on purpose. They are telling us with every breath how they want the world to be. They are not saying, “Sorry guys, we just don’t have the weapons you have, and so we’re obliged to use asymmetric, seemingly barbaric tactics like burning people alive in cages, taking sex slaves, and crucifying children. However, all this savagery doesn’t reflect how we want to live at all. Sorry for shooting Malala in the head. We won’t behave like that once we build the Caliphate.” On the contrary, the Taliban still intends to kill Malala, and they have proudly told us so. And the ghoulish videos we see streaming out of ISIS are not their My Lai massacre. They’re not some moral error these people are struggling to correct. They reflect a sustained and conscious effort to put their best foot forward to the rest of the Muslim community. This behavior, which would otherwise be impossible to understand, makes perfect sense given their interpretation of Islam. And that’s the problem.
What do you say to someone like Reza Aslan, who has a legitimate point when he argues that religions don’t promote peace or violence – people do. Do you think it’s true that, fundamentally, religions are justificatory props and that it’s more concrete or existential grievances that are really animating behavior?