Monday, September 18, 2006

Sam Harris, Islamism and Liberalism

Sam Harris, in the old formulation which Isaiah Berlin borrowed from Archilochus, is a hedgehog. That is, he knows one big thing -- or, to put it another way, he has a tendency to view everything through a single lens. In Harris's case, the lens is the superstitious and pernicious nature of religion.

Now, I should note that being a hedgehog is not necessarily a bad thing. Berlin describes hedgehogs as "relat[ing] everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel-a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance," and includes among their number ("to varying degrees") Dante, Plato, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen and Proust -- not bad company at all. These labels, thus employed, refer to styles of thinking and writing, and as that list indicates, it can be done well; but it can also be done badly. It all depends on what one's idea is, and how one applies it.

Now Sam Harris, it must be said, is not a thinker with a tendency for subtlety. This can be a major hindrance -- largely in making his work predictable: reading his recent piece on Popegate, it felt like, well, precisely what you'd expect Harris to say. He had a line, and he followed it; and it wouldn't have taken a Pierre Menard to recreate that particular piece of work. But in some ways this very lack of subtlety can be an asset: it can cut to the chase in an important way, adding some important things to an ongoing conversation. It's not the only voice one would want to hear, but, joined with others, it can be a useful one.

I should say that his line is not one I agree with -- although I agree with parts of it, and, as I said, I consider his voice an important and useful one. (I count myself an atheist, so I agree with Harris's metaphysics; but I don't share his certainty that religion is a net negative in the world, nor his disdain for liberal religion in particular. I would associate myself with the words of Daniel Dennett in his recent book Breaking the Spell, where he said that on the question of religions' overall effect we simply don't know -- it's too complex a question, too little-studied. (And it should go without saying -- but maybe it doesn't so I'll say it -- that freedom of religion is a fundamental and important right, and that respect, tolerance and civility are good things (although they should not hinder a lively debate.)))

But I think he goes badly off the mark with his op-ed in today's L.A. Times (via), where he accuses liberals of being "soft on terror" because they don't take the religious motivations of Islamists seriously. Harris writes (paragraphing removed):
On questions of national security, I am now as wary of my fellow liberals as I am of the religious demagogues on the Christian right. This may seem like frank acquiescence to the charge that "liberals are soft on terrorism." It is, and they are. A cult of death is forming in the Muslim world — for reasons that are perfectly explicable in terms of the Islamic doctrines of martyrdom and jihad. The truth is that we are not fighting a "war on terror." We are fighting a pestilential theology and a longing for paradise. This is not to say that we are at war with all Muslims. But we are absolutely at war with those who believe that death in defense of the faith is the highest possible good, that cartoonists should be killed for caricaturing the prophet and that any Muslim who loses his faith should be butchered for apostasy. Unfortunately, such religious extremism is not as fringe a phenomenon as we might hope. Numerous studies have found that the most radicalized Muslims tend to have better-than-average educations and economic opportunities. Given the degree to which religious ideas are still sheltered from criticism in every society, it is actually possible for a person to have the economic and intellectual resources to build a nuclear bomb — and to believe that he will get 72 virgins in paradise. And yet, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, liberals continue to imagine that Muslim terrorism springs from economic despair, lack of education and American militarism.... Given the mendacity and shocking incompetence of the Bush administration — especially its mishandling of the war in Iraq — liberals can find much to lament in the conservative approach to fighting the war on terror. Unfortunately, liberals hate the current administration with such fury that they regularly fail to acknowledge just how dangerous and depraved our enemies in the Muslim world are.

I think that there is a grain of truth in the idea that liberals -- sensitized by a (commendable) tendency towards instinctive multicultural respect, and pushed by a fear of the policies of their opponents -- sometimes play down the outrages promoted and/or committed by Islamists -- their opposition to women's rights, to gay rights, to freedom of speech and religion, and so forth. I'd like to see more forceful criticism of that myself. We need to uphold moral values -- liberal values -- everywhere. And theocracy is a terrible tendency that is to avoided no matter what religion is imposing it. Grant all that.

But Harris, I think, gets one thing crucially wrong, and avoids a second crucial issue entirely. (I am leaving aside his bizarre claim that liberals are starting to believe 9/11 conspiracy theories -- for which I have seen no evidence -- and his discussion of the morality of war tactics in the Middle East, which is tangential to his general argument and would distract me from my critique of his central focus were I to engage it.)

The thing he gets wrong -- because of his hedgehog, over-simplifying tendency to see everything through the prism of the superstitious and pernicious nature of religion -- is the issue of motive.

Harris says -- and argues at length in his book, The End of Faith -- that we should take religious ideology seriously as a motivator, in the case of Islamists just as much as in any other. And I grant the point: religious motivations are genuinely powerful, and malevolent ones can lead people to do genuinely horrific things.

But there is no contradiction between saying that religion is a genuine motivation and that economic and social circumstances can lead people to favor certain religious views.

I study history, and in history we talk about this all the time. Who did the tenets of early Christianity appeal to, and why? What populations were most drawn to the ideals of the Reformation? What sorts of people were involved in the Second Great Awakening in early Nineteenth Century America? Why were the ideas of Elijah Mohammed attractive to many African Americans in the 1950's and 1960's? And so on, ad infinitum. And in answering these questions we talk about issues of economics and social trends and cultural forces and their interaction with religious ideology. This is not to say that people aren't genuinely motivated by their religious beliefs, nor that they are not attracted to certain religions for genuinely religious reasons. But other factors can and do prepare them for that attraction.

Of all people, an atheist should understand this most. A Christian might say that early Christianity spread to certain people because God spoke directly to them; but this option is not open for an atheist. We have to look at more specific factors. This does not discount religious motivations; but it does underlie them.

So, yes, there is "a pestilential theology and a longing for paradise" which can lead to people believing that "death in defense of the faith is the highest possible good, that cartoonists should be killed for caricaturing the prophet and that any Muslim who loses his faith should be butchered for apostasy". But why are the more violent, reactionary forms of Islam in ascendence, and not more peaceful, progressive forms? And there issues of colonialism, of economic hope and despair, of cultural marginalization within western societies (particularly Europe), and so forth, come into play.

We may not be able to change the mind of someone who believes that slaughtering infidels will bring paradise by improving these matters; but we might well be able to make those beliefs less attractive in the first place.

(It also behooves those of us in the reality-based community to actually look at the evidence. Robert Pape's studies of suicide bombers have found that foreign occupation, not religious ideology, is the key motivating factor. But again: they needn't be separated like that. One can lay the ground for the other.)

And then there is the other big issue that Harris ignores completely: what we are going to actually do about this.

Harris's only call is for liberals to "acknowledge" and "realize" the dangerous nature of Islamist ideology. But of course acknowledging and realizing won't do a blessed thing. The question is what are we going to do once we have acknowledged and realized it.

The right-wing answer has been to invade a secular fascist dictatorship, replacing it (in a war marked by downright unbelievable levels of mismanagement) with a Hobbesian war of all-on-all, in which Al Queada is now, according to a recent report by chief of intelligence for the Marine Corps in Iraq, the chief political force in parts of Iraq and to, in the wake of this failure, push the consideration of a war against Iran. Harris himself acknowledges that this strategy has had its limitations.

Harris wants to inspire the opposition to religion as such -- get people to see that religion as such is superstitious and harmful, and to oppose it. Whether or not this would be a good thing is irrelevant, because -- in anything save a long-enough term that we will have to have an alternative strategy -- there isn't the slightest possibility of such a thing happening on a large enough scale to make the slightest possible difference.

So what then?

Might I suggest that we ask why it is the case that, as Harris suggests, "a terrifying number of the world's Muslims now view all political and moral questions in terms of their affiliation with Islam... [leading] them to rally to the cause of other Muslims no matter how sociopathic their behavior"? Might I suggest that radical Islam has become a rallying cry for those motivated by other -- yes, economic and social -- dangers? And that if we are to encourage people to view questions in other terms, a less militaristic approach might be in order?

But for Harris to deride liberals as "soft on terror" won't do any off this. It won't lead to social and economic conditions where the ideas of modern, scientific, liberal society can flourish. It will empower the religious right in its ongoing surge to become as militant and destructively committed to crusade as Islamists are to jihad. (Indeed, at the end of Harris's piece there are hints that he recognizes this.)

The question is, given the existence of a poisonous ideology, what do we then do about it. Conservatives wish simply to fight it -- despite the incredibly poor track record that bombing people has in making them adopt your values (funny, that). Harris, I think, wants to simply get them to snap out of it -- thereby managing to do what I would have said is impossible in coming up with a solution even less likely to work than the solution proposed by conservatives.

Liberals want to stop invading countries that aren't directly threatening us (since doing so only increases the appeal of the ideology we oppose, not to mention being immoral in its own right). Liberals want to restrict the abilities of terrorists to do harm -- by locking down loose nukes and promoting non-proliferation (indeed, anti-proliferation); by actually checking shipping containers coming into U.S. ports; and the countless other simple, basic precautions which Bush has been unwilling to do -- since, after all, people's ideology matters only according to the degree that they can do anything about it. And liberals want to promote the economic and social development of other parts of the world, on the belief that, if people are given genuine hope and respect in this world, they are less likely to seek the phantasmagorical hope and respect in the next that religion offers.

Liberals recognize the destructiveness of Islamism -- both in its tendency to terror, and its imposition (and desire to extend) sharia. That's why we oppose Dick Cheney: not because he is more dangerous than Islamism, but because he (and his ilk) are taking actions -- not "acknowledging" or "recognizing" anything, but taking actual, concrete actions -- that will expand the appeal of Islamism. Whereas Liberals wish to diminish its appeal (by improving the lot of the societies where it flourishes*), and to limit its actual capacities to harm us.

Harris is right that there are destructive forms of Islam out there (just as their are of Christianity, Judaism and all sorts of non-religious ideologies too, for that matter) -- ones that wish to oppose all sorts of values that we hold dear. But without asking why these ideologies are flourishing, and what we can do that would be genuinely productive, all Harris is doing is fearmongering. And fear is a great motivator of religious belief.

So, Sam Harris: please stop recruiting for religious extremists. Since you'd agree, I feel sure, that we have too many of those in the world already.

Update: Kevin Drum makes a similar point here.
(Much) Later Update: See also Steven Poole here for a very sharp response to this piece.

* If memory serves, Harris has cited the western, secular origins of the 9/11 hijackers as evidence that this is not about economics or social settings. But that's the wrong lesson: there are different economic and social problems that can promote religious fanaticism: poverty and imperialism are two, but the status of a persistently discriminated-against minority in an otherwise western, secular society is another. That's why Elijah Mohammed had so much appeal; and that is why those who recruit for Islamism in Europe do too.

1 comment:

gkru said...

As a longtime freethinker, I was interested in reading Sam Harris' book less for its arguments against religion (with which I am more than familiar) than to see what a best-selling "pop atheist" book looked like. (I've waited a long time for one.) I was very disappointed. Not only does Harris waste a lot of pages delving into abstruse philosophizing into the nature of happiness, etc., but his neo-neocon agenda astounded me. Yes, Islam is "bad", especilly when it stones young girls and hangs gay teenagers, and of course no one wants to see the sharia imposed on the West. But Harris clearly has a less than open agenda. Although he makes general condemnations of all three of the "Abrahamic" faiths, Judaism is conspicuously spared the deeper critiques he gives Islam and Christianity. In fact, his criticism of Judaism (the religion of his own upbringing, if I am not mistaken) is tepid. But he spends a lot of time on Muslim suicide bombers, and has a bit of a fit over pacifism. All of this has convinced me that Sam Harris's true motivation is less promoting freedom from religion, but stealth Zionism.