Islam And The Future Of Liberalism

The Article: Islam and the Future of Islam by author Sam Harris.

The Text: I recently had a very enjoyable three-hour conversation with Joe Rogan on his podcast, where the topics ranged from jihad to probability theory to psychedelics. But I subsequently received a fair amount of abuse online for a few things I said about Islam and our adventures in the war on terror.

For instance, I appear to have left many viewers with the impression that I believe we invaded Afghanistan for the purpose of rescuing its women from the Taliban. However, the points I was actually making were rather different: I think that abandoning these women to the Taliban is one of the things that make our inevitable retreat from Afghanistan ethically problematic. I also believe that wherever we can feasibly stop the abuse of women and girls, we should. An ability to do this in places like Afghanistan, and throughout the world, would be one of the benefits of having a global civil society and a genuine regime of international law. Needless to say, this is not the world we are living in (yet).

The ferocious response to my discussion with Rogan about the war on terror has, once again, caused me to worry about the future of liberalism. It is one thing to think that the war in Afghanistan has been an excruciating failure (which I believe), but it is another to think that we had no moral right to attack al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the first place. A significant percentage of liberals seem to hold the latter view, and consider President Obama to be nothing more than a neocon stooge and Islam to be an unfairly maligned religion of peace. I regularly hear from such people, and their beliefs genuinely trouble me. It doesn’t take many emails containing sentences like “The United States and Israel are the greatest terrorist states on earth” to make me feel that liberalism is simply doomed.

My criticism of Islam, as of any other religion, is aimed at its doctrine and the resulting behavior of its adherents. I am not talking about races of people, or nationalities, or any other aspects of culture. And yes, there are more moderate strands of the faith: The Ahmadis, for instance, resemble what many liberal Westerners imagine the “true” face of Islam must be like. I still find their creed disconcerting: According to one of the websites affiliated with this movement, Ahmadis believe that the “Holy Qu’ran is the word of God which is to guide mankind forever, and the Holy Prophet Muhammad was the perfect model of Islamic teachings whose example shall forever be binding on every Muslim to follow.” To my ear, the words “forever” and “perfect” and “every” and “binding” convey the scent of despotism about as well as “a thousand-year Reich”—especially when one considers the actual contents of the Qur’an and the example set by Muhammad.

However, the Ahmadis at least claim to believe that jihad “primarily signifies a spiritual, intellectual and moral struggle to reform oneself and others” and to condemn “all use of force except in unavoidable self-defense.” I’m not sure I would want to put these assertions to the test by venturing into an Ahmadi mosque with a fresh batch of cartoons of the Prophet, but the Ahmadis are at least disposed to make the sorts of conciliatory sounds that the religious must make in order to live peacefully in a pluralistic world where most people do not share their favorite superstitions.

But the Ahmadis are by no means the “true” face of Islam, and their mosques are regularly bombed in Pakistan. It is only decent to observe that these atrocities have nothing to do with Israel’s occupation of Palestine, or U.S. foreign policy, or any other terrestrial concern. Why do Ahmadis suffer and die in this way?

The reason is as easily discerned as reasons generally are among religious lunatics: Sunni Muslims consider Ahmadis to be heretics—in fact, the government of Pakistan officially deems them so. Unwisely, one branch of this sect holds that its founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835–1908), was a true Prophet of Islam, akin to Muhammad. One thing is as certain in the year 2012 as it was in the year 1012: If you claim that your favorite mystic was Muhammad’s true successor, some young Muslims will be eager to lay down their lives for the pleasure of destroying yours.

As I tried to make clear on Rogan’s 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?”

Consider the position of Israel, which is so regularly vilified by the Left. As a secularist and a nonbeliever—and as a Jew—I find the idea of a Jewish state obnoxious. But if ever a state organized around a religion was justified, it is the Jewish state of Israel, given the world’s propensity for genocidal anti-Semitism. And if ever criticism of a religious state was unjustified, it is the criticism of Israel that ceaselessly flows from every corner of the Muslim world, given the genocidal aspirations so many Muslims freely confess regarding the Jews. Those who see moral parity between the two sides of Israeli-Palestinian conflict are ignoring rather obvious differences in intent.

My fellow liberals generally refuse to concede that the religious beliefs of groups like Hamas merit any special concern. And yet the slogan of Hamas, as set forth in Article 8 of its charter, reads: “Allah is its target, the Prophet is its model, the Koran its constitution: Jihad is its path and death for the sake of Allah is the loftiest of its wishes.”

Whether or not every Palestinian believes these things is not the point. The point is that many do, and their democratically elected government claims to. It is only rational, therefore, for Israel to behave as though it is confronted by a cult of religious sociopaths. The fact that much of the world, and most Western liberals, cannot see the moral imbalance here only makes the position of Israel more precarious, leaving it increasingly vulnerable to overreacting to Palestinian provocations. If the rest of the world were united in condemnation of Hamas, and of Islamism generally, Israel could afford to be slower to reach for its guns.

As is so often the case on the subject of religion, those who should know better reliably do not. For instance, Nicholas Kristof has consistently championed the cause of women in the developing world, many of whom suffer under the strictures of Islam. But he has also been a tireless advocate of political correctness on the subject of religion.

There is sanctimony to spare here, of course, but that is not the worst of it. How could someone as smart and as obviously well-intentioned as Kristof be so off the mark when discussing the views and career of Ayaan Hirsi Ali? He, of all people, should understand how important Hirsi Ali’s contributions have been to our global conversation about the rights of women (and what an obstacle religion has been to the establishment of those rights).

Whenever I make observations of this kind, I am accused of misunderstanding the true causes of the conflict between Islam and the West. Almost invariably, I am urged to read the work of Robert A. Pape. Pape is the author of a very influential paper, “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism” (American Political Science Review 97, no. 3, 2003), and the book Dying to Win, in which he argues that suicide bombing is best understood as a strategic means to achieve certain well-defined nationalist goals and should not be considered a consequence of religious ideology. No one has done more to convince my fellow liberals that if we just behaved ourselves on the world stage, our problems with Islam would go away. I am happy to say that Pape has agreed to discuss these issues with me on this page in the coming weeks. Stay tuned…


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