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Blind Faith: Sam Harris Attacks Islam

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[Re-posted] Sam Harris is on a mission to eradicate what he sees as the pernicious influence of religion from modern life. Now he’s written a misleading and shallow analysis of Islam and suicide bombers. His single-minded crusade has led him to a one-dimensional conclusion: It’s the religion, stupid.

Except that it’s not. Sam, you’re oversimplifying.

You’re attributing this behavior to religion alone, when logic and facts tell us it’s driven more by culture and politics than it is by theology. There are more than 1 billion Muslims worldwide, yet the vast majority of suicide bombers come from one language group (Arabic) comprising no more than 20% of all Muslims. While the practice has now spreading outside that one group (as we saw recently in Britain), it is doing so with training, support, and guidance from within it.

Suicide bombing is a vile and hideous act that targets the innocent. Nevertheless, one isn't defending this horror by pointing out the obvious: A few hundred murderers cannot be used to condemn the beliefs of a billion people.

In the nexus of history, culture – and yes, religion - that is the Middle East today, many factors are at play. Overlooking all but one of them plays into your personal agenda, Sam, but does violence to the truth. How is it that millions of Muslims lived peaceful lives over the last 1300 years, and virtually all of them continue to do so today, if suicide bombing reflects something inherent in the religion?

One commenter on the Harris post points mentions Robert Pape’s excellent book on suicide bombers, “Dying to Win.” For a reasoned analysis of the phenomenon that is free of bile and bias, the reader is directed to this fine work. As for Harris, his words could be used against any religion (or lack thereof). Take this sentence:

How many more architects and electrical engineers must fly planes into buildings before we realize that the problem of Muslim extremism is not merely a matter of education?

Now imagine we’re in World War II. Replace “buildings” with and replace “Muslim” with “Shinto” – or just “Japanese.” Or imagine these are the 1970’s, when U.S. saw wealthy young college students blow themselves up making bombs in a Greenwich Village apartment. SLA fighters, having assassinated a popular school superintendent in Oakland, have just ended their own lives rather than surrender to police. The Red Brigades and the Red Army Faction are committing acts of terrorism in Europe. Then rewrite Sam’s next sentence accordingly:

How many more middle-class American and European citizens must blow themselves up and kidnap or kill noncombatants before we acknowledge that atheist terrorism is not matter of poverty or political oppression?

There’s no doubt that religious beliefs have permitted and even provoked terrible acts but, as the Gulags and 70’s-era terrorists have shown, so has their absence.

Sam throws another straw-man argument in there, too, in his brief against Islam. After describing the brutal occupation of Tibet, he asks:

Where are the throngs of Tibetans ready to perpetrate suicidal atrocities against Chinese noncombatants? They do not exist. What is the difference that makes the difference? The difference lies in the specific tenets of Islam. This is not to say that Buddhism could not help inspire suicidal violence. It can, and it has (Japan, World War II). But this concedes absolutely nothing to the apologists for Islam. As a Buddhist, one has to work extremely hard to justify such barbarism. One need not work nearly so hard as a Muslim.

What Harris fails to mention is that Tibetan Buddhism is relatively unusual among religions in this respect. Most other faiths (and atheism itself) fail to rise to its standard of nonviolence. “One need not work nearly so hard” to justify violence under Christianity (Crusades, Iraq War, etc.), Judaism, Hinduism, or “Godless Communism” (Russian Revolution, World Wars I and II, invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, etc. etc.)

But wait … Harris isn’t saying that all violence is bad, just suicidal violence. He’s not saying that it takes more lives than other kinds, or that it’s a more unpleasant form of death. Nor is he saying that the politically-inspired killing of civilians is wrong in all instances, or he would have to condemn not only the Arab Muslims but their foes.

He’s just saying that suicide bombing is more evil … according to some standard he fails to define. And what else is unique today about those bombings? Oh, yeah – it’s being done by Muslims. Thus does Harris condemns his targeted faith with logic worthy of any fundamentalist preacher.

The sentence which follows betrays a poor understanding of Islam:

The world, from the point of view of Islam, is divided into the “House of Islam” and the “House of War,” and this latter designation should indicate how Muslims believe their differences with those who do not share their faith will be ultimately resolved.

The Qu’ran is, in fact, very specific about the rights of other religions to practice different beliefs, and is equally specific in its declaration that attacking civilians is a violation of Islamic tenets. The fact that terrorists violate these precepts does not justify Harris’ misstatement of the faith.

Coincidentally (or not), Harris echoes the statements of Daniel Pipes and other neoconservatives who have singled Islam out for special censure. When Harris writes that “…the basic thrust of the doctrine is undeniable: convert, subjugate, or kill unbelievers; kill apostates; and conquer the world,” he’s repeating the words of neocons everywhere. Consider this statement:

The idea that Islam is a “peaceful religion hijacked by extremists” is a dangerous fantasy—and it is now a particularly dangerous fantasy for moderate Muslims to indulge.

Here, Harris takes a page directly from the Pipes playbook. We, not you, have decided that your religion is not peaceful. We will therefore establish tests which you as a Muslim must pass before you are allowed to call yourself “civilized.”

Sam, if you claim to speak for reason over blind faith, where are your citations for these inflammatory statements? Are you referring to Qu’ranic passages about beheading and slaying infidels? There are similar statements in the Old Testament, yet you would be widely and rightly condemned if you made similar statements about Judaism or Christianity. When an author congratulates himself these days for being “politically incorrect,” as you do, he’s usually feeding somebody’s prejudice against a despised minority – as you are.

While claiming to speak for “reason,” you make the following statement:

We are now in the 21st century: all books, including the Koran, should be fair game for flushing down the toilet without fear of violent reprisal. If you disagree, you are not a religious moderate, and you are on a collision course with modernity.

These are harsh and divisive words. Books are sacred to many faiths, and are revered by many non-religious folk for their poetry and wisdom. In your zeal to end the harms caused by religion, don't be driven by blind faith down a course of intolerance. Sam, in the name of reason, please turn back.

UPDATE AND NOTE: The original post deleted by technical error. Apologies to readers and all 20 commenters whose writings were lost. The debate continues here.

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