Sunday, December 20, 2015

Sam Harris, the Jihad, and Common Sense

Michael L.

{Cross-posted at the Elder of Ziyon and the Algemeiner}

harrisIt is always a pleasure to discover a writer / thinker whose thoughts can serve as a sort-of baseline, or measure, of one's own.

Neuroscientist / Philosopher Sam Harris is just such a guy.

His first book is a 2004 offering entitled, The End of Faith.  His most recent is Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue, co-written with British Muslim reformer, Maajid Nawaz.

For most of his career Harris wrote about the intersection between faith, rationality, and cognition from the perspective of a mystically-inclined atheist neuroscientist.

{To those of you who may wonder how one can be both an atheist and mystically-inclined one need only point to the example of Mahayana Buddhism.}

In recent years, however, he has focused on the rise of political Islam and the theocratic-ideological roots of that heinous head-chopping movement.  His interlocutor, Nawaz, is a Muslim reformer and former Islamist.  Both men overcame their ideological differences in order to find common ground and both serve as a model on how to speak with those with whom we may have serious disagreements.

I want to emphasize two aspects of Harris' thinking that very much caught my attention and that I take simply to be commonsense... but important and often overlooked commonsense.  These are the link between behavior and belief and the significance of intention as an ethical matter and one of predicting likely future behavior.  Harris relates both to political Islam and the ongoing siege of the Jews in the Middle East.

The Link Between Behavior and Belief

Academics, politicians, and journalists have been searching high-and-low for the reasons why Jihadis rammed two commercial jets into the World Trade Center, killing around three thousand innocent people on September 11, 2001, and the subsequent rise of political Islam throughout the Middle East and Europe following the so-called "Arab Spring."

The answers put forth by the purveyors of public opinion generally center around socio-economic factors and the history of western and American imperialism in the Middle East.

In this way the West tends to blame itself for the violence against it.

What Harris suggests is that if we want to understand the rise of political Islam then we must listen to what they have to say about themselves.  What he, therefore, argues is that there is a direct and obvious line between belief and behavior.

Belief drives behavior.

Thus if we listen to what the Islamists say about themselves it becomes clear that they are primarily driven by a fundamentalist, Salafist, seventh-century vision of Islamic dominance and the restoration of the Caliphate under al-Sharia and all the head-chopping that entails.

This does not mean that political or socio-economic factors should be dismissed.

What this does mean - despite Barack Obama's admonishments otherwise - is that the reasons for the rise of the Jihad are directly connected to Islamic primary sources, i.e., the Qur'an and the hadiths.

Chomksy and the Significance of Intention

Harris, like numerous others before him, recently clashed with MIT linguist and left political icon, Noam Chomsky.

Harris approached Chomsky in the hope that, as with his conversation with Nawaz, they could explore the political and ideological differences between them, within the academic tradition of collegiality, and thereby lay-out in a coherent manner their differences for you and I to consider.

This was not to be and Harris published the email conversation between the two of them as a lesson on the difficulty of speaking entrapped within what I call "ideological blinkertude."

What struck me most about the conversation, however, was Harris' focus on the ethical significance of intention.

Chomsky is, essentially, a peddler of the moral equivalency canard.  He has suggested that there is no greater source of terrorism in the world outside of Washington D.C.

In support of his thesis he notes Bill Clinton's 1998 bombing of the l-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan and suggests that the negative effects on Sudanese society were at least as bad, and probably far worse, than anything that the United States suffered after 9/11.

Clinton claimed that the plant was manufacturing chemical weapons and had ties with al-Qaeda, which is why it needed to be taken out.  Chomksy claims that the attack was a wanton act of retaliation for the US embassy bombing that left 200 dead in that same country, that same year.

What Harris argues is that the difference is one of intention and that intention matters.  The people who flew those commercial jets into the World Trade Center intended to kill as many innocent people as possible.  Clinton, if we can believe his own stated intentions, did not desire to aimlessly murder people, but to prevent the creation of chemical weaponry in Sudan coming directly on the heels of the embassy bombing.

Harris, I would argue, is quite correct.

Intention does matter both for ethical reasons and because it indicates how the actor is likely to behave in the future.

Chomsky may argue that the "road to hell is paved with good intentions," and he is undoubtedly correct, but from an ethical perspective intention still matters and, as Harris points out, it demonstrates the likely behavior of the individual or the group going forward.

Will the Real Racist Please Stand Up?

I first became aware of Harris when Ben Affleck decided to get into his face on Bill Maher's Real Time a few months ago:

Essentially, all Harris said, quite rightly, is that criticisms of the doctrines of Islam get immediately conflated, on the progressive-left, with bigotry or "racism" toward Muslims as people.

Then, not surprisingly, the well-meaning Ben Affleck rushed forward to do precisely that.

Affleck is an intelligent guy - as I am sure that Matt Damon can attest - but he is wrong to conflate criticisms of Islamic doctrine, or criticisms of political Islam, with bigotry towards Muslims, in general.

In fact, without realizing it, Affleck slipped into the very bigotry that he claims to find "gross."

Anyone who thinks that criticism of political Islam (or radical Islam or Islamism) is the same as bigotry toward Muslims, in general, is unwittingly suggesting that all Muslims are essentially Jihadis.

Now that is bigotry.

Ben Affleck is a serious guy, a significant artist, writer, producer, actor, and an intelligent man with a heart in the right place.

But he is simply wrong on this matter.

I very much hope that upon reflection he gives Harris the consideration that his work deserves.


  1. Ben Affleck had a gag reflex. You can see an early head shot of him revving up when the topic is first brought up.
    Here's my favorite, "It's like saying shifty Jew." Obviously Ben doesn't know the polling data on Muslim attitudes toward Jews. The question is, would he and Kristof be as reviled by societies that are saturated in anti-Semitism (as well as bigotry toward other minorities) as they would be were it coming from Westerners?
    Could they be as outraged by the Muslim Brotherhood as they are about the Aryan Brotherhood? Or would they just pretty much ignore it? Or pass it off as a reaction to "Israeli policies?"
    I'm sure Nicholas Kristof and Ben Affleck would need to find a reason they could feel "comfortable" with, because if they couldn't it would be "racism."

    In Affleck's defense I have to say that he was most likely completely unfamiliar with Harris' work, so that when Harris said Islam is the mother load of bad ideas he could be forgiven for thinking that Harris was singling out Islam amongst all religions. But...and there is a but... you could see Affleck gearing up long before that, "Their glad you're here (snark)."

  2. I suspect criticism of any religion has made that religion better ultimately. Lord knows Islam could use some; lots of it actually.

  3. From Bernard Lewis's " What went wrong?" :

    In the course of the twentieth century it became abundantly clear in the Middle East and indeed all over the lands of Islam that things had gone badly wrong. Compared with its millennial rival, Christendom, the world of Islam had become poor, weak, and ignorant.

    ... For most of the Middle Ages, it was neither the older cultures of the Orient nor the newer cultures of the West that were the major centers of civilization and progress, but the world of Islam in the middle.
    ...It was there, too, that governments and societies achieved a degree of freedom of thought and expression that led persecuted Jews and even dissident Christians to flee for refuge from Christendom to Islam. The mediaeval Islamic world offered only limited freedom in comparison with modern ideals and even with modern practice in the more advanced democracies, but it offered vastly more freedom than any of its predecessors, its contemporaries and most of its successors.
    The point has often been made - if Islam is an obstacle to freedom, to science, to economic development, bow is it that Muslim society in the past was a pioneer in all three, and this when Muslims were much closer in time to the sources and inspiration of their faith than they are now? Some have indeed posed the question in a different form - not "What has Islam done to Muslims?" but "What have the Muslims done to Islam?," and have answered by laying the blame on specific teachers, doctrines and groups.
    For those nowadays known as Islamists or fundamentalists, the failures and shortcomings of the modern Islamic lands afflicted them because they adopted alien notions and practices. They fell away from authentic Islam, and thus lost their former greatness. Those known as modernists or reformers take the opposite view, and see the cause of this loss not in the abandonment but in the retention of old ways, and especially in the inflexibility and ubiquity of the Islamic clergy. These, they say, are responsible for the persistence of beliefs and practices that might have been creative and progressive a thousand years ago, but are neither today. Their usual tactic is not to denounce religion as such, still less Islam in particular, but to level their criticism against fanaticism. It is to fanaticism, and more particularly to fanatical religious authorities, that they attribute the stifling of the great Islamic scientific movement, and, more generally, of freedom of thought and expression.

    1. 2)
      A more usual approach to this theme is to discuss not religion in general, but a specific problem, the place of religion and of its professional exponents in the political order. For these, a principal cause of Western progress is the separation of church and state and the creation of a civil society governed by secular laws. ...

      ... At the present day two answers to this question command widespread support in the region, each with its own diagnosis of what is wrong, and the corresponding prescription for its cure. The one, attributing all evil to the abandonment of the divine heritage of Islam, advocates a return to to a real or imagined past. That is the way of the Iranian Revolution and of the so-called fundamentalist movements and regimes in other Muslim countries. The other way is that of secular democracy, best embodied in the Turkish Republic founded by Kemal Atatürk.
      Meanwhile the blame game - the Turks, the Mongols, the imperialists, the Jews, the Americans - continues, and shows little sign of abating. For the governments, at once oppressive and ineffectual, that rule much of the Middle East, this game serves a useful, indeed an essential purpose - to explain the poverty that they have failed to alleviate and to justify the tyranny that they have intensified. In this way they seek to deflect the mounting anger of their unhappy subjects against other, outer targets.
      But for the growing numbers of Middle Easterners it is giving way to a more self-critical approach. The question
      "Who did this to us?" has led only to neurotic fantasies and conspiracy theories. The other question - "What did we do wrong?" - has led naturally to a second question: "How do we put it right?" In that question, and in the various answers that are being found, lie the best hopes for the future.

  4. btw, I am hoping that maybe a few of you guys will do me a small favor.

    I received some negative feedback on this piece from a friendly source who wanted to know why I don't write material like I used to?

    I am not even certain what that person means exactly and I am certainly not adverse to fair criticism, but I do not know the meaning of that criticism.

    I am not certain if it is a matter of tone or topic or something else?

    I toned down my voice a bit on this one, but I thought that was appropriate for this particular piece.

    Or maybe the person was simply unfamiliar with Harris and, therefore, uninterested?

    I honestly do not know, but I welcome your thoughts.

    In fact, I would love for that person to come on here and expand the criticism so that I can understand it better.

    I mean that sincerely.

    Sam should be reasonably pleased with it, in any case.


  5. Not sure what he would mean Mike. Could it be he is upset that Karmafish got a haircut and a real job? ;)

  6. Intentions. Well, evidently they're saying that the actual real killing of child killer Samir Kuntar was not revenge but to prevent planned attacks on Israel by him and other terrorists. I'm good either way considering the monstrous target.

  7. Woo hoo Mike got a nomination for the Hasby awards.


    Way to go!

    1. Well, that's very nice, Doodad.

      Thank you for letting me know. I appreciate it.