Tuesday, December 9, 2014
Sam Harris, Islam and Israel
Recently, David Samuels interviewed Sam Harris in Venice Beach, California. Harris' first book, "The End of Faith," had an explosive impact in this country and while many considered it a much-needed breath of fresh air, others, especially conservative Christians, thought it proved he was the antiChrist.
The discussion between Samuels and Harris covered a number of topics, but there was one area I thought most interesting, insightful and helpful in trying to make sense out of our world.
Harris emphasizes that beliefs matter. What a person believes gives impetus to his or her actions. He offers the example of a bus driver who believes in the power of prayer to the extent that from time to time he takes his hands off the wheel because Jesus is driving. Such a person is dangerous.
For some reason some people have a hard time accepting that beliefs matter. Samuels asked how Harris would respond to those who agree with much of what he has "to say about God and science and religion" and yet "find themselves politically sympathetic to obscurantist and often violent political movements like Hezbollah, which have no interest whatsoever in reason and science or in protecting the rights of gays or women?"
Harris notes again that beliefs matter. Religious beliefs matter. Religious beliefs drive much of the violence in the world. There is a hesitancy to criticize religion and a willingness to accept the religions' claim that their beliefs are sacrosanct and above criticism, even though the word, religion, applies to various groups that are sharply divided on most issues. "Islam is a religion and Jainism is a religion and they have few things in common, but what they don't have in common is a commitment to nonviolence, which Jainism has in spades and Islam doesn't have in principle. That's a difference worth noticing."
So, we should not speak of all religions or political movements driven by religion as being the same or of equal worth. There are important, even crucial differences between them.
On to Islam. One of today's "memes" ... "is that terrorism ... has nothing in principle to do with the religion of Islam: It's coming out of other things, economic inequality, political hopelessness, people have been victimized by the Israelis or somebody else or by the legacy of colonialism; there's nothing about the actual doctrine of Islam that accounts for it. That is untrue."
Untrue or not, there are those who continue to stress a "moral parity claim, which obviously the Israelis suffer from the most. The Israelis are confronting people who will blow themselves up to kill the maximum number of noncombatants and will even use their own children as human shields. They'll launch their missiles from the edge of a hospital or a school so that any retaliation will produce the maximum number of innocent casualties. And they do all this secure in the knowledge that their opponents are genuinely worried about killing innocent people. It's the most cynical thing imaginable. And yet within the moral discourse of the liberal West, the Israeli side looks like it's the most egregiously insensitive to the cost of the conflict."
Harris then references what he calls the "pathology of liberalism," by which he means the notion often adopted by [some] "liberals" that "everyone everywhere more or less wants the same thing and ignores the endless supply of people with no obvious political or economic grievance who are willing to devote their lives to jihad. What you don't hear Jihadis saying, 'I was just so desperate, I just saw no way out [f]or me or my family, and it just seemed like the only thing I could do to express my rage at an unfair system."
That isn't what we hear at all. Rather the jihadis speak specifically of going to the Islamic paradise if killed in their pursuit of violence.
"There are people who will use human shields on one side, and there are people who will be deterred by other people's use of human shields: They're still worried about killing the children of their enemies. Those are two very different groups of people."
For too long, says Harris, religion has gotten by with the claim it is above criticism. "What religion has had up until this moment is a different set of rules that apply only to it, which is you have to respect my religious certainty even though I'm telling you I arrived at it irrationally."
We can apply this to fundamentalist Christianity in the United States which continues to insist that they be exempt from community laws, Constitutional laws and common standards in order to practice the "faith." That's what the Hobby Lobby case was all about. And when they are challenged as to their insouciance regarding the rights of others, they cry foul.
Harris, however, is concerned in this instance with Islam. He argues that if you can demonstrate why the Quran is worthy of respect and deference, please do so. But, "I've read the Quran several times and it's not that good. In fact, it's conspicuously bad as a moral map, and a spiritual map. You can wander blindfolded into a Barnes & Noble, and the first book you pick off the shelf will have more wisdom than the Quran. The Quran is uniquely barren of wisdom relevant to the 21st century. It's got a few good lines about patience and generosity, and the rest is just vilification of the infidel."
He could, and has, of course, said similar things about the Bible. In an article entitled, "Why Don't I Criticize Israel?", he notes that "when we're talking about the consequences of irrational beliefs based on scripture, the Jews are the least of the least offenders. [...] But let me remind you that parts of the Hebrew Bible--books like Leviticus and Exodus and Deuteronomy--are the most repellent, the most sickeningly unethical documents to be found in any religion. They're worse than the Koran. They're worse than any part of the New Testament. But the truth is, most Jews recognize this and don't take these texts seriously. It's simply a fact that most Jews and most Israelis are not guided by scripture--and that's a very good thing."
In the United States, we have a number of theocrats who would, if they could, take over our government and remake it into a kind of Old Testament theocracy where violence would play a very important role. They have told us this. They have warned us. The speak reverently of stoning those caught in adultery and executing gays.
These are dangerous people because of what they believe. Their religion deserves to be criticized and mocked, not treated with respect!
Finally, in this article Harris speaks of the difference between Israel and Hamas. "The truth is that there is an obvious, undeniable, and hugely consequential moral difference between Israel and her enemies. The Israelis are surrounded by people who have explicitly genocidal intentions toward them." The charter of Hamas is explicitly genocidal, looking forward to the fulfillment of a Koranic prophesy when all Jews will be killed.
"The discourse in the Muslim world about Jews is utterly shocking. Not only is there Holocaust denial--there's Holocaust denial that then asserts that we will do it for real if given the chance. [...] There are children's shows in the Palestinian territories and elsewhere that teach five-year olds about the glories of martyrdom and about the necessity of killing Jews."
He goes on: To appreciate the moral difference between Israel and her enemies, "you have to ask what each side would do if they had the power to do it."
We know what Israel would do, because while they have they power to kill everyone in Gaza at any time, they forgo that option. On the other hand, the Palestinians "have told us what they would do. They tell us they would commit genocide. They tell us they will kill every Jew in Israel."
And that is a world of difference! It is not a trivial difference. And it's a difference that impacts all of us. 9/11 is an example. "For the rest of our lives, and the lives of our children, we are going to be confronted by people who don't want to live peacefully in a secular, pluralistic world, because they are desperate to get to Paradise, and they are willing to destroy the very possibility of human happiness along the way.
"The truth is, we are all living in Israel. It's just that some of us haven't realized it yet."
For more of Mr. Harris' writings, go to his website here.