Sam Harris On Islam

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.


  1. Well, he did say “must.”

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted March 21, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Right — and pigs must fly, and the Cubs must win the Series…

    Posted March 21, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Permalink
  3. Virtually all pundits I have read are long on “must change” and really short on “how”, other than “hope” and/or “vote the bums out”. I certainly will do my part in voting against the bums, but it is really frustrating that the only other “avenue of attack” is “hope”.

    “Hope” is such a hopeless activity, but hopefully some obaminoids are beginning to understand that …

    Posted March 21, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Henry, it isn’t just the Left who says this sort of thing when it comes to the question of Islam in the West.

    Many on both sides of the aisle concede that there is a serious problem — but hoping that Islam will transform itself seems to be as bold a solution as anyone is willing to consider, in public at least.

    Posted March 21, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Permalink
  5. Robert says

    I read the whole piece and while I am not quite the admirer of Harris that you are, it contained some excellent points. However, the West needs to make plans not based on “This must change” but based on the reality that “it” will not change, at least not in this generation. Let us deal with reality, since that seems to be Harris’s big goal in life. He is knwon for his attacks on mysticism and the fantasy of God. His belief that because he holds the “moral high ground” people are going to acknowledge this and change their ways is as much a fantasy to me as my vision of God is to him. His belief is the more negative for our survival.

    Also, I don’t know exactly who these “Christian fascists” are but I think it’s a very unfortunate term:

    ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

    ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

    ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

    Posted March 21, 2012 at 6:46 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm,

    I know it’s not just the Left; but the Left won’t even acknowledge there’s a problem we need to confront.

    George Bush summarized it thusly: “These people want to kill us.” What part of that simple remark does the Left not understand? We live in a complex, intertwined world. But that doesn’t mean every problem we must deal with is complicated. If Islamofascists want to kill us, we need to figure out how to kill them first.

    No rational person wants to die prematurely. If someone is trying to kill you and all your loved ones, you should want to kill him first. Since when did this fundamental law of survival become problematic?

    If the Left must have its deranged view of a holier-than-thou set of ethical standards, there is always the opportunity of human-shield duty in Gaza. Please, go defend, with your obese self-righteous ass, the scumbags lobbing missiles into Israeli elementary schools.

    The only group more repulsive than the terrorists are the Leftist assholes who make excuses for their malignant hatreds.

    Posted March 21, 2012 at 9:18 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Agreed, Robert. And while I do respect Sam Harris’s feisty intelligence, I think he is, like most liberals, too optimistic about the malleability and perfectability of human nature. In particular, even though I’m an atheist myself, I think his attack on religion is foolhardy; I’ve come round to the opinion that irreligious societies are at a Darwinian disadvantage in terms of competition between groups. (I have a little post about this, here.)

    As I’ve written elsewhere, I think that’s unfortunate; it puts me in the difficult position of accepting that my culture as a whole may benefit from fostering beliefs that I personally believe to be nothing more than persistent, and often horribly destructive, delusions.

    Posted March 22, 2012 at 12:29 am | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    Henry, I think that simply slaughtering all the world’s Muslims is perhaps not the perfect solution, especially given that some of us might have some qualms about massacring the millions of them who don’t want to kill us, and that it’s so devilishly hard to sort them out.

    Given all that, then the best thing is probably just to face the fact that Islam simply doesn’t mix well with our own civilization, and to put as much distance between us as we can.

    That is, for example, what Lawrence Auster suggests here.

    Posted March 22, 2012 at 12:34 am | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says

    I see, by the way, Robert, that you are a chess enthusiast. I’ll confess that I am also. I used to post more often about the game; I should do so again, and stop yammering away all the time about how the world’s going to hell. I’ve neglected a lot of interesting topics around here lately, as our civilization circles the drain.

    You might enjoy this old item

    Posted March 22, 2012 at 12:50 am | Permalink
  10. Robert says

    Wonderful chess post, Malcolm – I have enjoyed the Nottingham book in the past, must revisit it!

    Posted March 22, 2012 at 2:02 am | Permalink
  11. JK says

    “I should do so again, and stop yammering away all the time about how the world’s going to hell.”

    Not just yet Malcolm. I’ve got 68 days of ‘vacation time’ left. And, don’t worry about that “uncomfortable position” bear in mind our dear mummified friend, Jeremy B.

    Posted March 22, 2012 at 9:34 am | Permalink
  12. “Henry, I think that simply slaughtering all the world’s Muslims is perhaps not the perfect solution”


    Would you be good enough to point out where I suggested such a preposterous “solution”?

    I stated, “If Islamofascists want to kill us, we need to figure out how to kill them first.” The pronoun “them” clearly refers to “Islamofascists who want to kill us”.

    The implication of your remark is that “all the world’s Muslims” are “Islamofascists who want to kill us”.

    How do you substantiate such a preposterous claim?

    Posted March 22, 2012 at 11:55 am | Permalink
  13. Malcolm says

    Do forgive me, Henry; I appear to have misunderstood the thrust of your remarks.

    But we nevertheless have no effective way of making the distinction on a case-by-case basis, so it’s going to be difficult to “kill them first” with any degree of precision, no?

    Posted March 22, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Permalink
  14. JK says

    The problem TBH “may” originate with me. I once suggested “dialing in some numbers” – but that was for a specific (more or less) set of coordinates – our common friend “might’ve” taken my remarks generally.

    Likely a simple slip of the monitor’s text. It happens.

    Posted March 22, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Permalink
  15. “… it’s going to be difficult to “kill them first” with any degree of precision, no?”

    No doubt about it, Malcolm. But that merely demonstrates the distinction to be made between what may be termed “a need” and “a workable solution”.

    In no way did I mean to imply that anything of the sort would be easy to accomplish. Serious people understand that, frequently, what is needed may be extremely difficult to accommodate. Nevertheless, in searching for a solution to any perceived societal problem, it seems reasonable, at first, to debate what is really needed.

    My suggestion has to do with my own opinion about what may be needed to resolve the issue under discussion. I know that my opinions here, as elsewhere, do not meet with universal approval. I accept that, for I know that I do not shy away from controversial opinions. Nevertheless, I most certainly would not advocate anything that even hints at “simply slaughtering” any group of people.

    Posted March 22, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Permalink
  16. Malcolm says

    Duly noted, Henry.

    Posted March 22, 2012 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

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