Sam Harris On Liberalism & Religious Extremism genre: Hip-Gnosis & Just Jihad & Six Degrees of Speculation

War on terror

Sometimes in the heat of our American political system, we not only fail to rationally debate the issues, we often miss some of the substance that may actually underlie the topics that receive our partisan attention. The war on terror has been characterized in numerous ways in order to achieve political advantage despite the fact that it remains a threat to all Americans. In our attempts to discredit our political adversaries, we look for the phraseology that best serves our partisan interests as well as motivates the voters each Party sees as essential to victory.

Nonetheless, outside the confines of our political landscape, the realities of those who seek to inflict terror upon all Americans see our polarization as a symptom of a failed culture that simply supports their extreme beliefs. While I would argue that we have yet to fully understand the complexities that are fomenting this extremist animosity towards Western Civilization, there can be no doubt that it would behoove us to set aside some of our partisanship in order to conduct the honest discussion that is necessary to address this growing clash of cultures. No doubt one Party will be declared the victor in November, but the basis of that victory may fully ignore the dangerous realities that stir just over the horizon.

In an interesting article in the Los Angeles Times, Sam Harris offers a glimpse into the growing extremist ideology that exists in much of the Middle East regardless of our sometimes myopic political calculations. I can't say that I concur with some of the assertions or conclusions offered by Harris, but he makes a compelling argument for a comprehensive analysis of our extremist adversaries as well as a reasoned dialogue about how to best confront what appears to be a growing conflict that will only accelerate if we continue to ignore the realities in favor of pursuing political partisanship.

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.

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.

I'm not sure that Harris can make the conclusion he offers without falling victim to the vulnerabilities of generalization. However, from the perspective of attempting to offer an argument that we Americans are prone to adopting polarized positions on countless issues, I am willing to overlook the license he seems to have taken. Certainly there is a mindset that would prefer that we annihilate our Islamic adversaries and there are also those who suffer the belief that a civil dialogue can solve every conflict. Often those opposing positions are adopted without a full understanding of the people we identify as the enemy which is a dangerous oversight.

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.

Again, the conclusion Harris seems to offer when he asserts that many of the most radicalized Muslims have had the benefit of better education and economic success than many of their fellow Muslims lacks ample analysis. It appears that Harris is attempting to conclude that their radicalization is not a product of inadequate education and a lack of economic assertion that ignores the fact that often those who take the lead in societies or cultures that lack economic opportunity or sufficient education are frequently those who have been able to rise above the standard. Their education and economic success does not necessarily make them more threatening or more extreme.

The individuals whom he refers to often become those who champion the cause of the less fortunate and they frequently do so while maintaining the basic religious ideologies that exist within their culture. They often see their achievements as good fortune achieved in an otherwise oppressive world order and their education and economic success simply becomes the vehicle they employ to advance their cultural and religious beliefs.

In other words, better education and economic success does not necessarily predict or preclude a rejection of radical ideology or religious doctrine. Extremist beliefs may wane when these individuals are less isolated and able to dialogue with powerful people in other cultures…people that they can perceive to have integrity and who are not believed to be intent on perpetuating the mechanisms that support the poverty and despair that they may believe is inflicted upon their societies.

Given the mendacity and shocking incompetence of the Bush administration — especially it’s 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.

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 understand the point Harris is attempting to make but even his Western European example fails to address the underlying factors that make these disaffected immigrants adhere to the extremist ideologies that they embrace. He also fails to address the issues that are creating the fascist reaction that he points out is taking place in Europe. The religious differences are merely the point of contention much like the basis of all prejudice…they provide an obvious difference much like skin color. That is not to minimize the realities of the divide but I don’t believe one can conclude that the problem is simply one of religious ideology or extremism.

One can look at the issue of Mexican immigration in the United States for the purposes of comparison. There are many within the U.S. who oppose immigration and who assert that those who are entering the country continue to hold allegiance to their country and culture of origin...they do not want to assimilate. People like Pat Buchanan routinely make such arguments whereby they reject any attempt to allow illegal’s a path to citizenship on the basis that these individuals don't want to embrace American culture...they want to maintain and import their own culture.

If Mexicans were also Muslims, the problem would be exacerbated because of the underlying religious doctrines. However, there is no doubt that the Muslim immigrants in Western Europe and the Mexican immigrants in the United States are all seeking the same thing...economic opportunity. Many Americans on the lower end of the wage scale view the immigrants as a threat to their economic well being. The same is true of those Harris identifies as fascists in Europe. Nonetheless, the focus of this animosity often becomes skin color and language.

The European problem is simply complicated by the addition of religious differences. Unfortunately, it would be difficult to determine whether to attribute Muslim animosity in Europe and the Middle East solely to religious ideology or to what degree it originates from their perception that they are an economic underclass. The latter is likely to exacerbate the former despite the fact that it may be difficult to cite ample and definitive substantiation.

Harris is correct to identify the threat posed by religious extremism. He did so with his book and he does so again in this article. The outstanding question is how to address these threats. Racial prejudice may not be perfectly analogous, but I think it offers some insight into the perils of unbridled extremist ideologies on both sides of a conflict. Our own Civil War points out the potential for ideology to lead to violent conflict. How we address religious extremism may well demonstrate what we did or didn’t learn from our own experience.

However, identifying the threat and crafting the solution are two distinct endeavors. Harris clearly identifies the threat but seems more inclined to then pivot and blame liberalism for our inability to confront the issue rather that offer any reasoned solutions. By acknowledging that liberalism is "generally reasonable and tolerant of diversity" and at the same time blaming it for not combating religious literalism is incongruent logic. In reality, liberalism clearly understands the dangers of religious literalism which is exactly why it promotes reasonability and tolerance. Further, that understanding is why liberals believe that the war in Iraq and the war on terror will ultimately require political solutions rather than an ever expanding military strategy.

As world population and a world economy continue to expand, our abilities to prevent the inherent racial, cultural, and religious clashes that come with proximity will become more challenging. Succumbing to the absolutism that accompanies any us/them equation is certain to trigger accelerated conflict. It is essential we refrain from adopting a broad brush strokes mentality. A reactionary strategy is nothing more than the fuel for escalation. In the end, it is individuals who define the differences upon which conflict is predicated…whether they be Islamist, Liberal, or otherwise. It will be the politics of leadership that will eventually bridge the divide.

It is only our common humanity and the resulting social contract that can overcome these obstacles. Each individual must endeavor to acknowledge and demand that primary reality well before we allow those in positions of power to invoke the sword. Those who choose violence and do so premised upon a belief that God is guiding them offer the best evidence that religion is nothing more that a human construct to oppress others and impose the will of one ideology upon all others…an unequivocal bastardization of the very essence of the principles and values upon which religion is predicated. It also corrupts the construct upon which this country was established and from which we have been able to command the moral high ground in order to defeat extremism.

Until we humans can successfully manage this complex worldly existence, I rather doubt “God" believes or expects that we can or should prosecute his fully unknown agenda. Those who assert otherwise have no standing in this reality and will likely find that the reality they seek to impose will leave them standing on the outside looking in…here and wherever they so fervently expect to travel.

Daniel DiRito | September 18, 2006 | 8:16 AM
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1 On September 21, 2006 at 4:58 PM, LanceThruster wrote —

Wrote this to Sam and the LA Times:

I am uncomfortable with Mr. Harris so readily bestowing the moral high ground on America and Israel in regards to the supposed aversion to intentionally killing noncombatants. Additionally, to qualify it “as a rule" depends on what time frame you’re looking at.

The US was more than willing to slaughter Native Americans wholesale by a variety of methods and Israel in its formation used terrorist bombings and the contaminating of local Arab water supplies with Typhus. US leaders have on multiple occasions contemplated nuclear strikes on various enemies and were largely dissuaded by the potential consequences rather than the moral high ground of preventing their use.

On the recent conflict in Lebanon, a rabbi decreed that it is correct to wage total war because there are no innocents in regards to the enemy. This is from a religious figure in a country that has not even acknowledged its own nuclear arsenal. Furthermore, one need not actually kill another people to fully oppress and brutalize them. In truth, both nations gauge how acceptable the killing and other unjust treatment of civilians is by the threat level they have assigned to the enemy or the value of their resources. That the rationale is often fabricated makes the deaths even more unjustified. Deaths that are once removed from a seemingly direct hand such as collateral damage, sanctions, or creating chaos and instability are not excused.

I feel that the strength of reason is diminished, as is the potential for truly winning hearts and minds when we choose not to be honest brokers for peace. There are certainly issues with radical Islam, but that still does not preclude dealing with Muslim and Arab people (or any people for that matter) fairly. War historian Gwynn Dyer has written that nations are willing to enforce a permanent peace only when they have their own objectives met. Pre-1776 most people of the American colonies were not about rejecting a guerilla movement expanding into full-scale war for the sake of peace.

Regarding the motivations of certain educated Muslims, though religious beliefs Mr. Harris or I would find irrational certainly play a part, it is not right to dismiss their desire for justice for their own people, though we can take issue with their methods. It must be added though, that the more powerful create the rules by which the weaker are expected to abide. Author Joseph Heller explained that, “Catch-22 means that people have the right to do to you anything that you cannot prevent them from doing to you."

The moral high ground rightly belongs to those who say, “Though you have killed many innocent people over a religious or political conflict, we shall not respond in kind." True defense should be just that - defense.

2 On October 3, 2006 at 7:56 AM, Antiquated Tory wrote —

I don't mean to flame Mr Thruster, but the attitude he is describing was summed up over a century ago by PT Barnum, 'Never give a sucker an even break.' That is the code of the carnival, the code of international politics and generally the code of the in-group when dealing with the out-group.
As for the US and Israel, I do not find it shocking that they frequently follow this code, which has always been ubiquitous. I find it commendable that they manage to rise above it as often as they do. As Issac Asimov once commented about an iceberg, the amazing thing isn't that 85% is below the water but that 15% is above.

By and large I would agree with your take on the Harris piece, but I would add a couple points:
1) Regarding the 'educated and successful' supporter of Salafism, this reminds me of nothing so much as the comfortably upper middle class, university educated Communist--and to a lesser extent, the middle class Irish American who donates to The Cause. Look closely at these people and I think you'll find a varying mixture of guilt for a life of unearned ease, psychological problems, nostalgia for the 'purer' way of life of one's ancestors, social ineptitude and neither-fish-nor-fowl alienation.
2) Both Arabs and South Asians have very strong honor/shame cultures. Individuals internalize cultural values to varying extents, of course, but you still have quite a large mass of people (mostly men) suffering from a strong sense of humiliation at their group's always being the sucker to whom the US, the West, Israel, etc never gives an even break. The Salafic worldview provides a framework for redeeming their honor through fighting the evil and corrupt forces that are conspiring to destroy Islam.
(Personally I'd rather see MENA and Moslem S Asia figure out a way to play the West at its own game. After all, China and E Asia were just as 'humiliated' and were much poorer 60 years ago; nobody plays them for suckers now. As for the occasional Leftie call for us all to simply give the suckers an even the words of Morrisey, maybe in the next world.)

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