Head-in-the-Sand Liberals by Sam Harris

By Sam Harris, SAM HARRIS is the author of "The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason." His most recent book is "Letter to a Christian Nation."

TWO YEARS AGO I published a book highly critical of religion, "The End of Faith." In it, I argued that the world's major religions are genuinely incompatible, inevitably cause conflict and now prevent the emergence of a viable, global civilization. In response, I have received many thousands of letters and e-mails from priests, journalists, scientists, politicians, soldiers, rabbis, actors, aid workers, students — from people young and old who occupy every point on the spectrum of belief and nonbelief.

This has offered me a special opportunity to see how people of all creeds and political persuasions react when religion is criticized. I am here to report that liberals and conservatives respond very differently to the notion that religion can be a direct cause of human conflict.

This difference does not bode well for the future of liberalism.

Perhaps I should establish my liberal bone fides at the outset. I'd like to see taxes raised on the wealthy, drugs decriminalized and homosexuals free to marry. I also think that the Bush administration deserves most of the criticism it has received in the last six years — especially with respect to its waging of the war in Iraq, its scuttling of science and its fiscal irresponsibility.

But my correspondence with liberals has convinced me that liberalism has grown dangerously out of touch with the realities of our world — specifically with what devout Muslims actually believe about the West, about paradise and about the ultimate ascendance of their faith.

On questions of national security, I am now as wary of my fellow liberals as I am of the religious demagogues on the Christian right.

This may seem like frank acquiescence to the charge that "liberals are soft on terrorism." It is, and they are.

A cult of death is forming in the Muslim world — for reasons that are perfectly explicable in terms of the Islamic doctrines of martyrdom and jihad. The truth is that we are not fighting a "war on terror." We are fighting a pestilential theology and a longing for paradise.

This is not to say that we are at war with all Muslims. But we are absolutely at war with those who believe that death in defense of the faith is the highest possible good, that cartoonists should be killed for caricaturing the prophet and that any Muslim who loses his faith should be butchered for apostasy.

Unfortunately, such religious extremism is not as fringe a phenomenon as we might hope. Numerous studies have found that the most radicalized Muslims tend to have better-than-average educations and economic opportunities.

Given the degree to which religious ideas are still sheltered from criticism in every society, it is actually possible for a person to have the economic and intellectual resources to build a nuclear bomb — and to believe that he will get 72 virgins in paradise. And yet, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, liberals continue to imagine that Muslim terrorism springs from economic despair, lack of education and American militarism.

At its most extreme, liberal denial has found expression in a growing subculture of conspiracy theorists who believe that the atrocities of 9/11 were orchestrated by our own government. A nationwide poll conducted by the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University found that more than a third of Americans suspect that the federal government "assisted in the 9/11 terrorist attacks or took no action to stop them so the United States could go to war in the Middle East;" 16% believe that the twin towers collapsed not because fully-fueled passenger jets smashed into them but because agents of the Bush administration had secretly rigged them to explode.

Such an astonishing eruption of masochistic unreason could well mark the decline of liberalism, if not the decline of Western civilization. There are books, films and conferences organized around this phantasmagoria, and they offer an unusually clear view of the debilitating dogma that lurks at the heart of liberalism: Western power is utterly malevolent, while the powerless people of the Earth can be counted on to embrace reason and tolerance, if only given sufficient economic opportunities.

I don't know how many more engineers and architects need to blow themselves up, fly planes into buildings or saw the heads off of journalists before this fantasy will dissipate. The truth is that there is every reason to believe that a terrifying number of the world's Muslims now view all political and moral questions in terms of their affiliation with Islam. This leads them to rally to the cause of other Muslims no matter how sociopathic their behavior. This benighted religious solidarity may be the greatest problem facing civilization and yet it is regularly misconstrued, ignored or obfuscated by liberals.

Given the mendacity and shocking incompetence of the Bush administration — especially its mishandling of the war in Iraq — liberals can find much to lament in the conservative approach to fighting the war on terror. Unfortunately, liberals hate the current administration with such fury that they regularly fail to acknowledge just how dangerous and depraved our enemies in the Muslim world are.

Recent condemnations of the Bush administration's use of the phrase "Islamic fascism" are a case in point. There is no question that the phrase is imprecise — Islamists are not technically fascists, and the term ignores a variety of schisms that exist even among Islamists — but it is by no means an example of wartime propaganda, as has been repeatedly alleged by liberals.

In their analyses of U.S. and Israeli foreign policy, liberals can be relied on to overlook the most basic moral distinctions. For instance, they ignore the fact that Muslims intentionally murder noncombatants, while we and the Israelis (as a rule) seek to avoid doing so. Muslims routinely use human shields, and this accounts for much of the collateral damage we and the Israelis cause; the political discourse throughout much of the Muslim world, especially with respect to Jews, is explicitly and unabashedly genocidal.

Given these distinctions, there is no question that the Israelis now hold the moral high ground in their conflict with Hamas and Hezbollah. And yet liberals in the United States and Europe often speak as though the truth were otherwise.

We are entering an age of unchecked nuclear proliferation and, it seems likely, nuclear terrorism. There is, therefore, no future in which aspiring martyrs will make good neighbors for us. Unless liberals realize that there are tens of millions of people in the Muslim world who are far scarier than Dick Cheney, they will be unable to protect civilization from its genuine enemies.

Increasingly, Americans will come to believe that the only people hard-headed enough to fight the religious lunatics of the Muslim world are the religious lunatics of the West. Indeed, it is telling that the people who speak with the greatest moral clarity about the current wars in the Middle East are members of the Christian right, whose infatuation with biblical prophecy is nearly as troubling as the ideology of our enemies. Religious dogmatism is now playing both sides of the board in a very dangerous game.

While liberals should be the ones pointing the way beyond this Iron Age madness, they are rendering themselves increasingly irrelevant. Being generally reasonable and tolerant of diversity, liberals should be especially sensitive to the dangers of religious literalism. But they aren't.

The same failure of liberalism is evident in Western Europe, where the dogma of multiculturalism has left a secular Europe very slow to address the looming problem of religious extremism among its immigrants. The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.

To say that this does not bode well for liberalism is an understatement: It does not bode well for the future of civilization.

I detect a strawman here.

There are a few holes in this argument. Firstly conflating the forces fighting the United States in Iraq, resistance to Israel in Palestine and the messianic, apocalyptic movement that is Al Quaeda seems a trifle simplistic. You have other factors like nationalism, struggles over land and resources and intra ethnic conflict with the Palestinian and Iraqi cases and a global extremist messianic movement in the case of Al Quaeda. The fact that Islam is a common denominator does not mean they are all the same thing; this would be like saying ethnic conflict in the Balkans and Northern Ireland were interlinked because in both cases the combatants were largely Christian.

Using the example of the 9/11 conspiracy movement hardly demonstrates that liberalism is in crisis. David J. Stewart of www.jesus-is-savior.com and a slew of other apocalyptic Christian fundamentalists have bought into the 9/11 conspiracy theories. The 9/11 conspiracy buffs don't demonstrate anything other than some people will believe anything they read and that there is a sucker born every minute. Conflating those who have criticised the Bush administration for coining the term "Islamic Fascism" with the 9/11 conspiracy buffs seems a little disingenuous to say the least.

The most disagreeable part of this argument centres on the claim that the Israeli military has a benign policy of deliberately avoiding civilian casualties, or that when they do occur they are the result of Hamas using "human shields". Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director at Human Rights Watch has stated that “The government’s failure to investigate the deaths of innocent civilians has created an atmosphere that encourages soldiers to think they can literally get away with murder.” (http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2005/06/21/israel-failure-probe-civilian-casualties-fuels-impunity) Certainly the recent brutal bombardment of the Gaza strip seemed to fly in the face of any supposed strategy to minimise civilian casualties.

I do not see that liberals have a duty to become apologetics for western industrialised democracies when they behave in a way which violates the human rights of civilians - men, women and children, whoever their enemies might be. Likewise it is a thinking person’s duty and responsibility to oppose Islamic fundamentalism in all it forms, this should not mean throwing away the principles on which western civilisation has been founded while pursuing this noble aim.

 


Hambydammit's picture

 This article was first

 This article was first published in the LA Times in 2006, and I was one of the thousands of liberals who wrote to Sam.  I am not a political commentator, and am certainly not qualified to opine on the future of the world as it relates to Islamic extremists.  I did then and still do today take issue with the notion of the end of liberalism being caused by misunderstanding of Islam.  Liberalism in the U.S. may well be at an end, but I suppose we're going to have to wait four years to be able to really answer that question.  If it ended, I don't think it had much to do with Islam, to be honest.  

In any case, Bill Clinton was not a liberal, and I don't think Barak Obama is.  In most western countries, both would be slightly right leaning moderates at best.  There really is no such thing as a liberal party in the U.S., and there hasn't been for a long time.  The only truly liberal political parties struggle to get one or two percent of the popular vote in major population centers, and get virtually nothing in rural America.

I do agree with Sam that Islam as a whole, and Islamic fundamentalists as a specific group are probably the most dangerous enemies of humanity today.  Anyone who has read my writings knows that I hold moderates and liberals directly responsible for a lot of evils in the world.  I agree that tolerance really can go too far, and some things really are to dangerous to permit, even in the name of freedom.  This is a dangerous line to try to draw, however, and I am not in a position to be able to say precisely where that line is with regard to Islam.  I really wish America hadn't destroyed all its international credibility over the last eight years.  I wish we weren't as doggedly religious (if not as militantly destructive) as Muslims.   In short, I wish we had a leg to stand on so that we could make a credible statement about the danger of the spread of Islam.

 

Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin

http://hambydammit.wordpress.com/
Books about atheism

Vastet's picture

As far as the middle east

As far as the middle east goes, I must greatly disagree with you. Israel is just as complicit as anyone else in the area. There is no moral high ground for anyone. They have killed a lot more children than Hamas. And before you go off on some fictional horse saying that Hamas is hiding behind people, of course they're hiding. The most powerful nations on Earth want them destroyed. Nations with real technology; like nuclear missles, unmanned drones, satellites, technically sophisticated armies, etc.; not homemade pop rockets. You'd hide too. It's an unbalanced battlefield. In any unbalanced battlefield, the weaker side will do whatever they can to equalize. It is as much Israel and the US's fault as it is Hamas'. Which is not to say they are blameless, but it's what I would do. It's what you would do. It's what anyone would do when faced against such a power as they face. Blaming Hamas and the others for self preservation is just amusing. Better to slap Israel and Palestine(and everyone else involved) across the face for their rights abuses, and provide UN protection/authority to everyone for a generation or two. If Israel doesn't like it, fuck them. It's their fault as much as anyone elses. Only the UN has more blame for creating the issue in the first place. Ironically it may be the only way to end it too.

Proud Canadian, Enlightened Atheist, Gaming God.

Moral highground

 " There is no moral high ground for anyone. They have killed a lot more children than Hamas"

 

This is exactly what Sam is talking about. Hamas deliberately hides among civilians, going so far as to dress up as them, while Israel (us) takes great strains to avoid killing innocent people. 

 

War is not a video game and saying Israel has killed more children than hamas begs the question - how many Israeli children must die to fit your warped view of morality? Atheism is rational. Religion is irrational. Hiding in hospitals and brainwashing children to kill Jews is irrational.

 

How can any so-called Atheist somehow draw moral equivalence between a country like Israel, protecting itself, to blood thirsty Muslims that don't care about life? 

 

It is insulting. Harris' positions are sound and you seem incapable of disputing them without resorting to elementary strawman arguments. 

 

Vastet's picture

Abban wrote:This is exactly

Abban wrote:
This is exactly what Sam is talking about. Hamas deliberately hides among civilians, going so far as to dress up as them, while Israel (us) takes great strains to avoid killing innocent people.

No shit sherlock. Reading comprehension problems? I said that already. I also said WHY, something an idiot like yourself never considers. Go back to kindergarten and come back when you have something to say that doesn't drip with ignorance, racism, and stupidity.

Proud Canadian, Enlightened Atheist, Gaming God.

Jean Chauvin's picture

Hi OPIE

HI OPIE,

You need to understand that ALL liberals are atheists by definition. It is 100% impossible for a Chrisitan to ever be a liberal. So logically speaking, atheists' heads are in the sand by definition of the thread.

Respectfully,

Jean Chauvin (Jude 3).

A Rational Christian of Intelligence (rare)with a valid and sound justification for my epistemology and a logical refutation for those with logical fallacies and false worldviews upon their normative of thinking in retrospect to objective normative(s). This is only understood via the imago dei in which we all are.

Respectfully,

Jean Chauvin (Jude 3).

Vastet's picture

Poe, troll, or someone

Poe, troll, or someone unfamiliar with the English language and the definitions of religious and political terms. Which are you?

Proud Canadian, Enlightened Atheist, Gaming God.

Hamas and Israel

Quote:
No shit sherlock. Reading comprehension problems? I said that already. I also said WHY, something an idiot like yourself never considers. Go back to kindergarten and come back when you have something to say that doesn't drip with ignorance, racism, and stupidity.

 

So you agree with Harris's views on Israel or not? My post was very explicit and I quoted your exact words. Hamas is a terrorist organization, Israel is a sovereign democratic nation defending its citizens.

 

You dubiously place Hamas and Israel in the same category - something that is totally not in line with Harris' views or mine. Seeing as you describe yourself as a "gaming god" it must be easy to see the conflict as a video game. But it isn't. The Palestinians are merely pawns and tools, part of the greater Arab/Iranian struggle against the Jews that goes back before Israel even existed.

 

Read up on the PLO. The US diplomats they assassinated, airplane hijackings, etc. Robert F. Kennedy - a Presidential candidate that probably would have won - was assassinated by a Palestinian militant because he supported Israel.

 

 

 

Vastet's picture

Abban wrote:Quote:No shit

Abban wrote:

Quote:
No shit sherlock. Reading comprehension problems? I said that already. I also said WHY, something an idiot like yourself never considers. Go back to kindergarten and come back when you have something to say that doesn't drip with ignorance, racism, and stupidity.

 

So you agree with Harris's views on Israel or not? My post was very explicit and I quoted your exact words. Hamas is a terrorist organization, Israel is a sovereign democratic nation defending its citizens.

Hamas is much more than just a terrorist group. If you had done any research at all you'd know they are practically the only group in all of Palestine capable of giving welfare and government-style programs to those in need. They are also a resistance group. Not a terrorist group. They just use terrorism. But then, so does Israel (so does everyone who engages in warfare for that matter, but that's another topic). Israel also steals their land at every given opportunity. Suggesting Israel is a white knight in this conflict is the height of stupidity and ignorance. 

Abban wrote:
 

You dubiously place Hamas and Israel in the same category - something that is totally not in line with Harris' views or mine.

And you're both wrong. Israel should not exist. It has no right to exist. It failed as a nation hundreds of years ago. THE single biggest mistake in all of WWII was the creation of Israel at it's conclusion. Not because jews wanted their own land (something they have as much right to as any other group of people), but because land was stolen so they could have it.

 

That said, they have it now, so it's kinda too late to fix that problem at the source. And Israel has little interest in solving it peacefully. If they wanted peace, they'd not have stolen so much of the Palestinians land in the last 15 years.

Abban wrote:
 

Seeing as you describe yourself as a "gaming god" it must be easy to see the conflict as a video game. But it isn't.

Again you're wrong. Life is a game. The only difference between a game and life is you don't get a retry or a continue in real life (usually). They both operate under the same rules. 

I'll note I sense desperation in your weak attempt to attack my credibility. Try sticking to the topic at hand. I know my signature is awesome, but that's not what we're talking about.

Abban wrote:
The Palestinians are merely pawns and tools, part of the greater Arab/Iranian struggle against the Jews that goes back before Israel even existed.

 

Read up on the PLO. The US diplomats they assassinated, airplane hijackings, etc. Robert F. Kennedy - a Presidential candidate that probably would have won - was assassinated by a Palestinian militant because he supported Israel.

 

You really are clueless. After all the mucking about the US has done in that region, they ALL have full rights to kill as many Americans as they like. The US started it after all. Read up on all the human rights abuses by the US and Israel in the last 50 years. And then wait 50 years so all the crap they're still doing is declassified and you can read up on it too. In the meantime, watch some Al Jazeera (sp). And keep in mind while you do so that both Israel and the US are democratic nations, where every single citizen is a representative of that nations government. Like it or not.

Proud Canadian, Enlightened Atheist, Gaming God.

 "Hamas is much more than

 "Hamas is much more than just a terrorist group. If you had done any research at all you'd know they are practically the only group in all of Palestine capable of giving welfare and government-style programs to those in need. They are also a resistance group. Not a terrorist group. They just use terrorism"

I think you should re-think your status as an atheist. Hamas is a terrorist organization. If you did YOUR RESEARCH you would know Hamas uses its monopoly over Palestinian welfare to brainwash generations of Palestinians into hating Israel, Jews, Americans, etc.

Just as the Taliban controls the "welfare" system in Afghanistan, they own the schools. Clerics in Saudi Arabia. It's all part of their plan. The Muslim Brotherhood does the same in Egypt.

 

And virtually all of this aid is provided by the UN/EU/ It's not like Hamas is some humanitarian organization as you disingenuous imply. Thousands of Palestinians visit hospitals every day in Israel, whereas the PA ended their insurance policy over a year ago. 

 

" Israel should not exist. It has no right to exist. It failed as a nation hundreds of years ago. THE single biggest mistake in all of WWII was the creation of Israel at it's conclusion. Not because jews wanted their own land (something they have as much right to as any other group of people), but because land was stolen so they could have it."

A) Israel was founded in 1948, not a hundred years ago.

 

B) What land was "stolen?" Oh, you mean the partition of India in 1948? When 1,000,000 Hindus were expelled from their land to create a hindu-free Muslim Pakistan? Oh, you mean the killings of 20,000 aborginals by British settlers in Australia? Oh wait, you mean the 13,000,000 eastern europeans evicted by the communists? Oh, you mean the 1,000,000 Jews expelled by the Muslims - confiscating a land four times the size of Israel? Do these nations have a right to exist?

 

C) What about America? Uh? Do we have a right to exist? What about Canada - arguably the largest land grab in modern history, closest to Australia? 

 

Like all Jew haters, you apply a double standard to Israel and completely ignore the history of the world. Stop playing Call of Duty and read a fucking book you twat. 

 

 

iwbiek's picture

i agree with the article,

i agree with the article, though with some reservations, especially my usual reminder that islam is not by any means a monolithic religion.  the typical westerner gets an admixture of three pictures when they think of islam: a rich wahhabist prince with a harem of oppressed women (let me say once again that wahhabism is embraced pretty much only by the house of ibn saud), a bigoted twelver shiite adoring the imam (the situation in iran), or an angry sunni militant a la al qaeda or the taliban, perhaps residing in europe (who would most likely be opposed to both wahhabism and shiism, btw).

the fact of the matter is, the majority of the world's muslims lie in neither europe nor the middle east.  the country with the largest muslim population in the world, last time i checked, is indonesia, with almost as large a population in india, and none of them to my knowledge has ever proclaimed jihad on the west or threatened to kill a cartoonist.  same goes with the large muslim populations in the balkan and turkey.  why do most people know nothing about this vast majority of muslims, who have striking differences in ritual and theology from their middle eastern counterparts?  because they don't feature in the news.  in india and pakistan, the suicide bombers are just as often as likely to be hindus as muslims, and hinduism is almost universally regarded as a "peace-promoting" or "pluralistic" religion, when in fact they have been shown over the centuries to be xenophobic and aggressive.  let's not forget they virtually wiped out buddhism in its country of origin.

my point is, as always, that the idea that islam is somehow inherently more likely to be violent than any other religion is absurd and not borne out by history (yes, i know what the quran says, but the quran has been applied by muslims throughout the centuries with about as much consistency as the bible has been applied by christians).  almost all religions (definitely all three abrahamic religions) have had periods of committing obscene violence in one area or another, depending on socio-economic factors.  if the palestinians didn't have the dome of the rock and 72 virgins to look forward to today, they'd just be doing the same things for other reasons, like "blood and soil" or "peace, land, and bread."

even the controversy over the image of muhammad is inconsistent.  there are examples of muhammad being portrayed in muslim artwork, even with his face showing, depending on the place and time.  take a look at this:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Depictions_of_Muhammad

remember when south park actually did show muhammad way back in the second or third season?  there was no uproar at all.  this kind of inconsistency suggests there are other, more primary reasons for this backlash than centuries-old religious tradition.

in my experience, those who lay the responsibility for islamist terrorism squarely at the feet of the religion of islam as a whole know almost nothing about the history of worldwide islam.  they've read a translation of the quran, maybe even a slim volume on islam with a heavy political spin, and watched a lot of cnn, and think they're experts.

"I asked my father,
I said, 'Father change my name.'
The one I'm using now it's covered up
with fear and filth and cowardice and shame."
--Leonard Cohen

Vastet's picture

Ah, the racist scum did have

Ah, the racist scum did have a response... such as it is...

"I think you should re-think your status as an atheist."

Thanks for proving you haven't the slightest idea what you're talking about. Again. Try researching yourself for once. Also, start actually READING what I say. I know an imbecile like yourself has trouble with big words and simple concepts, so keep a dictionary and thesaurus near for every word or phrase I write which is beyond your comprehension. You won't look so stupid.

a) Yippie! You can look things up after all. But I'm not going to apologise for rounding UP, in Israel's FAVOUR! LOL. Moron.

b + c) as much as Israel. As I already stated, however, what's done is done. And can't be un-done.

I already refuted everything else. Try again. Lol.

Proud Canadian, Enlightened Atheist, Gaming God.