Islam and the Mother Lode of Bad Ideas: In Defense of Sam Harris

The spat between Ben Affleck, Sam Harris, and Bill Maher on the HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher over Islam has become so heated and escalated that even 10 days hence, it has still managed to survive the erosive force of the 24-hour news cycle in a way unique among cable TV debates.

The feud began after Affleck interrupted Maher’s interview of Sam Harris several times, the final time as Harris began to criticize liberals for failing to speak up against human rights abuses in Muslim-majority countries. Harris lamented that liberals are afraid to criticize Islamic doctrines and their real-world consequences for fear of being branded “Islamophobes.”

Despite Harris’s numerous caveats and throat-clearings affirming the need to criticize bad ideas rather than an entire class of people, Affleck still equated Harris’s comments with bigotry and racism.

While Affleck’s charge of “racism” is surely an illegitimate one (for the simple fact that Islam is a religion rather than a race), Affleck and other panelists, such as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, continued to hound Harris after he claimed that “Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas.”

Again, this comment sent Affleck into a frenzy, and he later accused Harris of stereotyping all Muslims because of the actions of a few jihadists and thus “painting the whole religion with that same brush.”

To clarify his position, Harris asked Affleck to imagine a series of concentric circles, with violent jihadists (think ISIS or al-Qaeda) at the center, followed by Islamists who use democracy rather than violence to accomplish their goals (think the Muslim Brotherhood), followed then by conservatives who are not dangerous fanatics but who otherwise hold retrograde or intolerant beliefs about women, homosexuals, apostates (those who leave the faith), etc.

Harris is not a racist, nor is he stereotyping or painting all members of a religion with “a broad brush.”
In short, Harris is not a racist, nor is he stereotyping or painting all members of a religion with “a broad brush” (a trope we should be nudging toward retirement).

Kristof interjected and, somewhat dismissively, said that the divide we should be concerned with is not between the West and Islam, but the divide within Islam between fundamentalists and moderates.

While not wholly untrue, this latter distinction actually validates Harris’ entire criticism of Islam, the point of which is not that groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda are dangerous merely because they are violent, but because this violence is a logical consequence of beliefs in ideas that are clearly expressed in the Quran, the hadith (collections of the words and actions of the prophet Muhammad), and revered tafsir (commentaries by religious exegetes on these canonical texts).

In other words, Harris’ point is not that Islam is bad (or that all Muslims as people are bad) because some Muslims commit violence (that would be a fatuous, illogical conclusion), but because Islam, at its core, contains violent, divisive, intolerant, and otherwise bad ideas.

It is precisely this point that is obscured when Kristof (and other apologists for Islam, such as Reza Aslan, Glenn Greenwald, Chris Hedges, etc.) argue that the problem is simply “extremism,” and this word inconveniently (or conveniently for some) obscures doctrines that are unique to Islam. As Harris has argued repeatedly, each religion (a meaningless suitcase term if there ever was one) is not the same.

For instance, it is quite easy to notice when a violent Jain (the follower of a religion in India with about 4 million subscribers) is “hijacking” his religion. Jainism’s central doctrine is ahimsa­ (non-violence), and Jains quite predictably organize their lives around obeying this doctrine, such as by being vegetarians, filtering their drinking water through cheesecloth to avoid swallowing microorganisms, and by sweeping their walking paths to avoid stepping on insects.

In short, doctrines matter; not all religions are the same, and therefore an extremist or fundamentalist Jain will behave differently from an extremist or fundamentalist Muslim – that is, depending on the fundamentals of their religions.

So what are these “bad ideas” at the center of Islam? The first point, as Harris points out, is to acknowledge what unites nearly all Muslims. Belief in the monotheistic entity of Allah and that Muhammad is his prophet is nearly universal among the world’s Muslims, and Muhammad is revered as “an excellent exemplar” of conduct, according to verse 33:21.

According to a comprehensive Pew poll published in 2012, nearly 90 percent of Muslim Nigerians believe that the Quran is the literal word of God; among American Muslims, that number is 50 percent.

Other Islamic doctrines are widely accepted: 93 percent of Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa believe in fate or predestination, and overwhelming majorities believe in the existence of heaven and hell and angels. Similarly, belief in the effectiveness of the “evil eye” — the ability to do harm with one’s gaze (as attested to by Muhammad himself), is a majority belief across the Middle East and North Africa.

On their own, these figures are not terribly alarming, but they express a broad subscription to a slate of Islamic dogmas – some of which are rather more sinister. For instance, the belief that the Mahdi (a salvific figure who will purge the world of evil and preface the Day of Judgment) will return in this lifetime registered at 72 percent in Iraq, 83 percent in Afghanistan, and 68 percent in “moderate” Turkey.

When it comes to shari’a and its interpretations, the figures are also disquieting.

According to a Pew study from 2013, majorities of Muslims in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Russia believe that there is only a single interpretation of how shari’a should be understood and implemented, and majorities in even more countries believe that shari’a should be the law of the land (though the figures are stochastic when it comes to whether Islamic law should apply to all citizens or only Muslims).

As for individual punishments, the figures are alarming. Majorities of Muslims in the Palestinian territories, Egypt, Afghanistan, and Pakistan believe that death should be the penalty for both adultery and apostasy.

The views on homosexuals and women are also staggering: in every country surveyed (including cosmopolitan Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo), more than half affirmed that homosexuality is sinful, and majorities of Muslims in countries outside Europe said that a woman must obey her husband.

However, while these statistics all support Maher and Harris’s contention that intolerant beliefs have wide subscription in the Muslim world, this still leaves us to discuss the most germane subject – religious violence.

Apologists such as Kristof, Affleck, Aslan, and others contend that groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS are “extremists” who have “hijacked the faith” and do not represent the vast majority of Muslims. Statistically, this claim is true. Very small minorities of Muslims support suicide bombings, for instance, though even the famous Gallup poll overseen by Dr. John Esposito claims (conservatively) that 7 percent of the world’s Muslims are “radicalized” (equivalent to at least 90 million people).

However, these apologists go too far in claiming that groups like ISIS are distorting what is essentially a religion of peace and that they are taking the violent verses “out of context” to justify their actions in the pursuit of political ends. There are several problems with these arguments.

The first problem is that to support their claim, these apologists point to some verses of the Quran or some hadith that promote tolerance and harmony, such as the insistence that there is “no compulsion” in religion [2:256], and then hold these statements up as the true essence of the religion. However, just like the violent verses, these pacific verses were also uttered in their own “context.”

So, how are we to resolve these kinds of contradictions? The Quran supplies an answer: the doctrine of abrogation (the replacement or supersession of an earlier verse by a later verse). Indeed, verse 2:106 states, “We do not abrogate a verse or cause it to be forgotten except that We bring forth [one] better than it or similar to it. Do you not know that Allah is over all things competent?”

In other words, the peaceful verses that Muhammad uttered in Mecca (at the religion’s beginning and the nadir of Islam’s political power) have been abrogated or replaced by his more intolerant and belligerent verses that he made from Medina, where Muhammad and his followers relocated and gained in strength.

The second problem is that these groups are not distorting the faith, as liberal apologists suggest. To read any of al-Qaeda’s theological treatises (an opportunity we now have thanks to the work and translations of Islam scholar Raymond Ibrahim, whose The Al Qaeda Reader gave English readers their first glance at bin Laden and Zawahiri’s religious communiqués) is to be bombarded with countless references to the Quran, hadith, and tafsir in a way that resembles reading the most pedantic and pious text from medieval Christendom.

For instance, bin Laden and Zawahiri have carefully articulated the Islamic rationales for hatred of the infidel, distrust of Christians and Jews, the necessary establishment of a state founded on shari’a, the obligatory defense of Muslims (qua Muslims) in defensive jihad, the glory of martyrdom, and the permanent state of war between Muslims and those who have not converted to Islam or submitted to Islamic rule.

To jihadists like the members of al-Qaeda, ISIS, or the Taliban, their political grievances are borne out of their religious convictions.
Zawahiri even spills quite a lot of ink justifying the deliberate killing of non-combatants (in certain contexts), such as by referring to Muhammad’s use of catapults during the siege of the encircled city of Ta’if, where the prophet said, “They are from among them [the infidels].”

Nevertheless, apologists like Affleck, Aslan, and CJ Werleman believe that Harris is overstating the role of religion and neglecting these groups’ political or sociocultural grievances. This critique, however, is incomplete.

The salient point is that, to jihadists like the members of al-Qaeda, ISIS, or the Pakistani Taliban, their political grievances are borne out of their religious convictions.

For instance, when bin Laden declared war on the United States in 1996, he cited the presence of American troops on Saudi soil. At root, however, this is a religious grievance, since Muhammad declared shortly before he died, “Let there not be two religions in Arabia.” To the fundamentalist, everything is subordinate and reducible to the dictates of religion – a point that Westerners, especially secular liberals accustomed to the separation of religion and politics, struggle to comprehend.

The same is true of jihadists’ and Islamists’ grievances about the Israeli occupation, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, drone strikes, or the support (past and present) of local autocrats. Of course, some of these actions and relationships are or have been reprehensible, either in execution or in principle, but the fons et origo – the source and origin of these grievances – are ultimately religious, since the existence of secular autocracies in countries like Yemen or Syria, or the existence of pluralistic democracies like in Afghanistan and Iraq, is contrary to their final aim: the resurrection of a united, pan-Islamic caliphate.

Indeed, al-Qaeda has launched attacks (verbal and physical) against Saudi Arabia because it is not theocratic enough.

It is therefore easy to understand what bin Laden meant when he declared to the West, “The removal of these governments is an obligation upon us, and a necessary step to free the Islamic umma [community], make Shari’a law supreme, and regain Palestine. Our fight against these governments is one with our fight against you.”

Likewise, Raymond Ibrahim is both correct and prescient (given the expansionism of ISIS and its attacks on all enemies – including innocent religious minorities and neighboring nations) when he concludes that the conflict with jihadists is not merely a matter of “temporal grievances,” but one that is the consequence of a plausible interpretation of Islam that preaches the eternal doctrines of “jihad, dhimmitude [second-class status for non-Muslims], and general enmity for non-Muslims:”

Thus, the West is damned if it does, damned if it doesn’t. If the West voluntarily concedes to the demands and grievances of al-Qa’ida, it will be perceived as a weakness or an admission of defeat, and will eventually only encourage an Offensive Jihad, when the time is right. If the West actually loses the current war, that too will provoke an offensive response, one seen as the natural next stage in the struggle toward the total victory of Islam. This is an important reminder to those many who, while condemning al-Qa’ida’s methods, agree or sympathize with their grievances. The current battle at hand may ostensibly revolve around those grievances; but the forthcoming war will ultimately be about militarily establishing Islamic supremacy over the entire globe.

Harris and others who speak honestly about the straightforward connection between Islamic doctrines and violence (unlike those such as Reza Aslan who deny or blur this connection) are not racists, bigots, or even warmongers. And to invoke these doctrines is not to embarrass, shame, or otherwise “demonize” the world’s Muslims: quite the opposite. The purpose is to encourage a reformation of Islam akin to the Christian and Jewish reformations that facilitated the rise of modernity and the possibility of secular politics and religious pluralism – a reformation that cannot begin by dismissing or obfuscating what these canonical texts say.

Indeed, Harris has been in dialogue with reformers such as Maajid Nawaz, an ex-Islamist radical, in order to begin this very process. It is a process that must begin immediately, and one that can only be successful if people are able to speak candidly and rationally about these matters – not with the denialism and emotivism that characterized Affleck’s performance, or the intellectual acrobatics of Harris’s libelous critics.