LONDON — When Sam Harris speaks his mind people tend to listen, regardless of whether they agree with him or not. Take his controversial appearance last October on the prime time HBO television show, “Real Time with Bill Maher.”
Harris began a conversation that night by claiming Western liberals have failed abysmally when it comes to challenging theocracy in the Muslim world.
“Liberals will criticize Christians,” announced Harris to the studio audience. “But when you want to talk about homosexuals and free thinkers in the Muslim world, liberals have failed us. We have been sold this meme of Islamophobia, where every criticism about the doctrine of Islam somehow gets conflated with bigotry of Muslims as people. And intellectually, that is just ridiculous,” concluded Harris that night.
Actor Ben Affleck, also a guest on the program, weighed in. His voice tight with anger, he called Harris’s ideas “gross” and “racist.” The clip now has over 2 million hits on YouTube.
Ahead of Harris’s next book, “Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue,” written with former Islamic extremist Maajid Nawaz and set for an October publication, the author speaks with The Times of Israel about religions in general, and Islamic fundamentalism and jihadism in particular.
Religious extremism is a topic the 48-year-old author, moral philosopher, neuroscientist, and chief executive of Project Reason — a nonprofit organization that promotes science and secularism — has written and spoken about extensively.
Back in 2005, Harris landed the PEN award for nonfiction with his debut book “The End of Faith.” In his 2006 follow up, “Letter to a Christian Nation,” Harris set out to demolish what he called the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms. His 2010 polemic “The Moral Landscape” aimed to solidify a point he repeats like a mantra every time he talks about science: that it ultimately does have the power to unlock the key questions about morality that theologians claim to have some kind of sacred ownership over.
Harris was raised in California as a secular Jew, while his father came from a Quaker background. He says, however, that religion played virtually no role in his cultural upbringing.
Harris is perhaps the only prominent atheist-intellectual who has written in some detail about seeking out a spiritual otherness
In his recent 2014 book “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion,” Harris looks to eastern religion — Buddhism, and more specifically, the mediation practice of mindfulness — as a way of finding a sense of otherness, outside of rational-conscious experience.
Harris is perhaps the only prominent atheist-intellectual who has written in some detail about seeking out a spiritual otherness, which temporarily eschews reason and knowledge. However, he argues in “Waking Up,” the Eastern tradition presents a very different picture from what most of us in the West would normally conceptualize as reality. In this view, he explains, consciousness itself is identical to the very thing one might otherwise mistake for God.
In Eastern culture, Harris posits, people center on a range of experiences that other world religions — such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam — all rule out of bounds. Harris believes that due to their obsession with political correctness, Western liberals are afraid to admit that massive distinctions do actually exist between the main world religions. He cites examples of Jewish rabbis he has interviewed who barely believe in God, a scenario he says staunch believers in Islam would view as sacrilegious, blasphemous, and extremely disrespectful.
Harris writes, “people do not want to hear that Islam supports violence in a way that Jainism doesn’t.”
Many people, like Affleck, find that this practice of singling out one ethnicity encourages an “Us vs. Them” mentality in which the potential for conflict increases and animosity between cultures only deepens as a result.
Is Harris aware why some people may find his comments about Islam offensive, and even racist?
“This idea that it’s racist to criticize the doctrine of Islam is horribly confusing,” he responds. “First of all, Islam is not a race, it’s just a set of ideas, which takes the Koran as the perfect order, where Allah is the creator of the universe. And it sees Muhammad as the last prophet. But 1.6 billion people— one fifth of the population of the Earth— believe in these ideas.”
“…Racism has nothing to do with this. And yet, that’s the first thing people hear when you say Islam is uniquely problematic as a religion in today’s world.”
Harris says his main problem with the doctrine of Islam is that it poses specific challenges to what most people refer to as “civil society” in the West. And these pose a different set of challenges, he argues, than what we might see, in say, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, or any other world religion.
‘There is no other religion that has a clear doctrine of Jihad and martyrdom’
“There is no other religion that has a clear doctrine of jihad and martyrdom,” says Harris.
“Those are real deal breakers for living in a pluralistic peaceful world,” he continues.
“And if we can’t speak honestly about the mayhem ideas like martyrdom, jihadism, blasphemy, and apostasy are causing at this moment in history, then we are just going to be deluding ourselves — based on political correctness — about what the real problem is.”
“It’s now even reached the point where the president of the United States says ISIS has nothing to do with Islam. We can only hope that he doesn’t actually believe that. But for some reason he feels like he has to say it publicly.”
Does Harris view the divide between Muslims and the West as a war of civilizations? Or, like with all political conflicts, is there perhaps a nuance somewhere within this discourse, if one looks at the finer details?
“Well, the nuance comes from the Muslims who are sympathetic to secular Enlightenment values,” says Harris. “And there are obviously many millions of those people.”
Harris’s soon-to-be-published book was written with one of these “enlightened Muslims,” Nawaz, a former Islamic extremist who spent five years in Egypt trying to engineer a coup. Nawaz eventually became de-radicalized and has now set up a foundation to de-radicalize other Muslim extremists.
“Nawaz emphasizes, just as I do,” says Harris,“that the problem is not just extremism generically, but Islamism: these people who want to force Islam onto the rest of the world, either politically or militarily.”
“And we [in the West] are definitely at war with these individuals who are trying to build a caliphate. The most abhorrent group at the moment is ISIS. But you also have Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and Al-Shabab.”
The main problem, Harris believes, is that the issue is far greater than simply containing radical ideas from a handful of Muslim extremists.
‘If you go and read the Koran, sit back, afterwards, then honestly ask yourself: what would Muhammad want?’
“If you go and read the Koran, sit back, afterwards, then honestly ask yourself: what would Muhammad want?” says Harris.
“The result is something that actually looks a lot more like ISIS, and not like Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, or any other pacifist movement. And if we don’t admit that to ourselves, we shouldn’t then be surprised that people who have the benefit of a Western education, and all the economic opportunity that one could need, get up one day and decide: I’m going to fight these guys, and kill apostates, because I want to get into paradise.”
When challenged, Harris qualifies that poverty, bad economics, and lack of education combined also form “a huge problem.” And, he says, beyond the religious differences “there are certainly legitimate grievances that some Muslims have, which could be solved politically. And that is certainly going on in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
‘We know there are many people who are sick of living in apartheid conditions in places like Gaza. But it’s all mingled with religiosity’
“And we know there are many people who are sick of living in apartheid conditions in places like Gaza. But it’s all mingled with religiosity, which is what you see going on with the Islamic state,” Harris says.
Harris doesn’t agree, however, that poverty creates violence of the magnitude seen from jihadists.
“I mean you have equally poor people in other places, and you can’t find any suicide bombers there. Essentially you have people who are willing to die for their religious beliefs in all of these organizations,” he says.
Harris is asked: If it was possible to draw up a chart documenting on a scale of one to ten the different sects of Islamic fundamentalism — with ISIS at the top, as the worst possible brand of it — would the levels of violence dissipate for those organizations who don’t see the fusing of politics and theology together as a sign of divine intervention?
“Well there are degradations to this madness,” Harris nods his head in agreement.
“And Hamas is practically moderate in comparison to ISIS. But that is a measure of how terrifyingly deranged ISIS are.”
Harris wants to make it abundantly clear, however, lest there be any confusion, that Hamas is not a moderate organization.
“It is an explicitly genocidal organization,” says Harris. “Hamas are effectively Nazis in their orientation. And they were popularly elected [in Palestine]. Now I am not saying that all Palestinians have a genocidal view of Israel. But many do. And the Koran encourages that: It’s based on the prophecy that history will not be fulfilled until all the Jews are eradicated.”
But aren’t there perfectly rational Palestinians who just want to live in peace and attempt to negotiate a credible two-state solution?
“Of course there are,” Harris responds.
‘As long as there are people who are fighting a cosmic war, to spread the one true faith, this conflict is not going to stop’
“And you have to try and empower these people. But as long as there are people who are fighting a cosmic war, to spread the one true faith — whether it is on a local or a global level — this conflict is not going to stop.”
“You can call this idea Islamism, Muslim extremism, Islamic terrorism, but the main point is this: it’s Islamic to the core. We [in the West] are not at war with generic extremism. We are at war with a death cult that is animated by a 7th-century approach to Islam.”