Here’s a thoughtful new item by Sam Harris called Islam and the Future of Liberalism. A sample:
As I tried to make clear [in a recent podcast], we know that intolerance within the Muslim world extends far beyond the membership of “extremist” groups. Recent events in Afghanistan demonstrate, yet again, that ordinary Afghans grow far more incensed when a copy of the Qur’an gets defaced than when their own children are accidentally killed by our bombs—or intentionally murdered. I doubt there is a more ominous skewing of priorities to be found in this world.
Should people be free to draw cartoons of the Prophet? There must be at least 300 million Muslims spread over a hundred countries who think that a person should be put to death for doing so. (This is based on every poll assessing Muslim opinion I have seen over the past ten years.) Should Ayaan Hirsi Ali be killed for her apostasy? Millions of Muslim women would applaud her murder (to say nothing of Muslim men). These attitudes must change. The moral high ground here is clear, and we are standing on it.
Of course, millions of Muslims are more secular and are eager to help create a global civil society. But they are virtually silent because they have nothing to say that makes any sense within the framework of their faith. (They are also afraid of getting killed.) That is the problem we must keep in view. And it represents an undeniable difference between Islam and Christianity at this point in history. There are also many nefarious people, in both Europe and the U.S., who are eager to keep well-intentioned liberals confused on this point, equating any criticism of Islam with racism or “Islamophobia.” The fact that many critics of Islam are also racists, Christian fascists, or both does not make these apologists any less cynical or sinister.
The only way to know which way is up, ethically speaking, is to honestly assess what people want and what they believe. We must confront the stubborn reality of differing intentions: In every case it is essential to ask, “What would these people do if they had the power to do anything they wanted?”
This is a good beginning, and with it Dr. Harris parts ways with most of the political left. But it leaves us with the question: what to do? Here we hear only a familiar refrain: “These attitudes must change.”
Were I having a drink or three with Dr. Harris, I’d ask him:
“That’s it? ‘These attitudes must change’? But do you have any reason to think they will change? What if they don’t?”
They certainly haven’t shown any sign of doing so; the stubborn fact is that where there is any sizable Muslim population, a sizable subset of them will unapologetically harbor exactly the virulent Islamic beliefs and dispositions that Dr. Harris refers to here. “300 million Muslims spread over a hundred countries who think a person should be put to death” for drawing pictures of the Prophet, many of whom are willing to so something about it? What is the wisest posture for Western nations with large and growing Muslim populations to assume with regard to this fact? Surely it cannot be enough just to say “These attitudes must change”, and hope for the best.
I do respect Sam Harris — I admire his intelligence and forthrightness, and his readiness to consider every issue on its own merits. I often find myself agreeing with him, as I do with most (though not all) of this latest essay. I’d like to know how he would answer my question.