This past week saw a frenzied discussion on all things Islam after a segment on Real Time with Bill Maher went insta-viral. True to form, Maher and Sam Harris join forces in pummeling the world’s second largest religion in broad strokes while calling out politically correct liberals who are quick to criticize Christianity but stop short when it comes to Islam. A flustered (and possibly hopped up on something) Ben Affleck also happened to be on the show and burst in with charges of racism and broad-brushing. While the hysterics were predictable given the setting, Affleck’s emotionally freighted cut-ins were less than the kind of thoughtful articulation needed to address such a nuanced issue. Watch the clip below if you haven’t already.
As the easy scapegoat in these verbal skirmishes, Sam is often handed the Islamophobia card. Indeed, Affleck could hardly keep this indictment holstered for more than a minute. In general, I happen to think blanketing someone with a label like racist or bigot is a poor strategy for successful communication. So I won’t do that here: I do not think Sam Harris is either (though his comments on airport profiling could certainly be construed otherwise). Rather, I think his depiction of Islam is largely deficient and, as a matter of course, unfaithful to reality. I will offer here what many of Sam’s critics already have since he first raised the topic publicly: that there are several variables missing from his platform on Islam that help refocus the discussion with proper context.
Specifically, I will argue that Harris and his co-thinkers disacknowledge the diversity of Muslim-majority nations and Muslim beliefs; that they too readily discount the geopolitics and socioeconomic factors feeding into how religion functions in any given society; that their equal opportunity animus towards religion breaks down at the border of Islam; and that insufficient attention is paid to the reformers within Islam. While Harris has clarified his views over the years with qualifying language, his narrow appreciation of religion in general and Islam in particular remains an area of concern.
We first must recognize the diversity within Muslim culture. As Reza Aslan emphasizes in his CNN segment below, the contextless pillorying of the “Muslim world” as if it’s some monolithic entity is absurd. It’s a common thread in not just Harris’ discourse but in media on both the right and the left. The differences that exist between Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq on one hand and Turkey, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Lebanon and Albania on the other, are often hugely underappreciated in these conversations. The latter group directly falsify the notion that the influence of Islam, by its very nature, leads to sectarian strife, regional instability and an all-out assault on human rights.
In Indonesia, home to the largest Muslim population in the world and a G20 nation, religious freedom is inscribed in the constitution as it is in the U.S., and gender equality is highly valued and central to several organized movements. Turkey, with 96-99.8% of its population professing Islam, is an intentionally secular democracy that has had more female heads of state than a certain democracy often held up as exemplar to the rest of the world. Turkey and Kazakhstan also consistently outrank the U.S. in education enrollment, with adult literacy rates of 94.1% and 99.5%, respectively. Bangladesh, another democratic state, is moving with the tide of progress, not against it, making great strides in gender equity and universal primary education, and is now classified as a Next Eleven economy. If Islam is the root of all evil, why aren’t these failed states, shot through with Bronze Age barbarism and psychotic death cults?
Islam is not a race, but it is part and parcel of a wide swath of cultures of different races and ethnic identities. The refusal to disaggregate a heterogeneous, global community—lumping together autonomous cultures and speaking about them in the same terms—is in large part what invites the xenophobia charge. To Aslan’s point, when we draw conclusions about other cultures based on stereotypes inherited from our own, we have plunged into the territory of bigotry.1
The species of belief and believer is another area where undue homogenizing occurs among commentators. Yes, we’ve all seen the polls, and they are a significant problem. But you find Muslim-majority nations on both ends of the spectrum. To caricature the most backward beliefs as mainstream Islam, or to pretend that peaceful presentations don’t exist, is to fail to recognize the diversity of Muslim expression. Trite headlines like, “Is Islam an idea that should be supported?” or, as in the CNN segment, “Does Islam promote violence?” may make for high-voltage television but are devoid of any sophistication.
Islam, as with other religions, is a broad collection of ideas, doctrines, symbols and traditions formulated, revised and reinvented by different cultures at different times in response to different needs, desires, concerns and motivations, be they individual, social, economic or political.2 Were you to ask a group of Christians, Buddhists or Hindus about an idea associated with their faith, you would be met with a rich continuum of understanding of that idea, including rank repudiation in many cases. Islam is no different.
Likewise, within Christian communities and Christian-majority nations you will find values that are progressive and run parallel to secular values, and others that defy all reason and are worthy of condemnation. Rummage through Christian and Hindu thought and you will find zealots and mossbacks championing doctrines that disgust and appall, and reformers who rebuke them with equal zeal and poignancy. Islam is no different.
Just this past month a consortium of 120 Islamic scholars from around the world signed an 18-page open letter thoroughly denouncing the beliefs associated with extremist groups like ISIS. Everyone should read this authoritative fisking, which includes such dictums as “It is forbidden in Islam to ignore the reality of contemporary times when deriving legal rulings” and “It is forbidden in Islam to deny women their rights.”
In 2007 a gathering of Muslim intelligentsia, ranging from devout reformers to ex-Muslims, unanimously affirmed the coexistence of Islam and secular democracy. The resulting document came to be known as the St. Petersburg Declaration, which included the following language: “We find traditions of liberty, rationality, and tolerance in the rich histories of pre-Islamic and Islamic societies. These values do not belong to the West or the East; they are the common moral heritage of humankind.”
These and other proclamations speak strongly against the injustice carried out under the banner of Islam, insisting that ISIS and other radicalized factions are about as representative of the faith as the KKK and fundamentalists like Ken Ham are of mainstream Christianity. Sam Harris demurs on this point, contending that Muslims who don’t want to kill apostates or wage global jihad simply aren’t “taking their faith seriously”.3
This curious presumption that Islam is more or less synonymous with certain Universal Doctrine™ appears to be intimately tied to how he reads religious texts and sees their role in religious expression. Which brings us to the Quran, the sacred text of Islam. Within its pages are splashes of peaceful proverbs, spoonfuls of tribalistic babble and a dash of everything in between. Yet even if it were all primitive barbarism, a religion is not defined solely by what is written in its companion literature. If that were the case, Christianity would be coupled with child-stoners, atheist-murderers and misogynists, its members enchained to belief in witchcraft and a flat, four-cornered earth. The Bible is, after all, every bit as densely populated with inhumanity and falsehood.
To understand a religion, we must not simply look inside its texts, but outside as well—to the people and communities who practice and cultivate the faith. And since both peaceful and non-peaceful followers can cite Quranic support for their values, it is beside the point to cavil over who represents the “true” faith. There isn’t such a thing. Like any ideology that’s reached a critical mass, religions evolve according to the social and political structures in which they find themselves. As new perspectives emerge, ideas are discarded, others refashioned. Communities take up new ideas even as old ones are vociferously defended by others. It’s in fact why there are some 30,000+ denominations of Christianity. Islam is hardly singular on this score. Asserting that the Islamic faith unilaterally calls for martial jihadism or death for apostasy or censorship of the press is as misguided as asserting that the game of chess is associated with a single set of rules.
A Perfect Storm
We can now turn to the question of what spawns militant expressions of faith. If seventh century manuscripts cannot sufficiently account for the toxicity in the Middle East and groups like ISIS, what else can? First, other religions have seen their fair share of backwardness in the past, and it has had little to do with ancient books. History lays bare the depths to which so many religions can sink during fragile times with poverty or power hanging in the balance. In the clip above, Aslan touches on the horrors being committed by Buddhists right now upon Muslims in Myanmar. The Christian legacy is patterned with long periods of pious men wielding the cross as a sword, high among them the Crusades—a series of bloodthirsty expansionist campaigns carried out under the pretext of converting the heathens and claiming the glory of the earth for its God—the silencing of dissent and unbelief through incarceration and death, literal witch hunts and other greatest hits.
As secular democracy gained a foothold on Western shores, the beast was tempered, though far from tamed. This side of the Atlantic has witnessed the near-genocide of the Americas by a Christian-ruled Europe,4 KKK hit squads, attempted and successful assassinations of presidents and civil rights leaders by Christian perpetrators, the lynching of local police and attacks on abortion clinics and doctors by groups like Army of God and The Covenant, The Sword, and the Arm of the Lord. Moving closer in, the last century has seen the emergence of Christian fundamentalism which has besieged democracy in its own special way. Yet there is no question that the Christianity of today is nothing like the Christianity of the Middle Ages. So perhaps religion is better contained when hubbed out of more privileged, stable countries. Imagine that.
Turning to Islam, might we think of ways that geopolitics has influenced its trajectory? We shouldn’t have to strain too hard. Over the course of several decades, the United States has aggressively insinuated itself into nearly every proto-democracy upwelling in the Middle East, with little foresight of the fallout of failure. Let’s not forget we overthrew a secular government in Iran that was democratically elected. Allow that to sink in. Or how Western interests systematically resisted other secular democratic movements in Egypt and several Middle Eastern states in callous bids for power. When we defenestrate democratic steps toward stability, what else can fill the vacuum but extremism?
Here’s Chomsky, who’s been at the spear point of this very matter for the last four decades, in a recent interview:
Is it really that surprising that a region torn apart by Occident colonialists and exploited for minimally the past sixty years, the same region which happens to have a large concentration of energy wealth, will have some rather serious issues regardless of which faith predominates there?
And for the full context of nominally Islamic war-bent groups, need we look any further than the ultimate Faustian bargain: the U.S.-Western alliance with Saudi Arabia—the most extremist regime of the modern world, beheading 19 citizens last year alone? Chomsky and others such as Robert Dreyfuss have maintained for years that the soil for ISIS and its predecessors was largely seeded by these economic maneuverings. As the nexus of wealth in Western Asia, Saudi Arabia exports far more than oil, establishing mosques and madrasahs that spread destructive doctrines throughout the world and funding the most militantly fundamentalist philosophies on the planet (see Wahhabism). By the same token, Western nations (U.S., the UK, France, Germany and Italy collectively) have dealt more than $262 billion in weapons to autocratic regimes like Saudi Arabia in the previous decade alone. Given their financial ties to intolerance, the U.S. and Western Europe are in no position to stand aghast at ISIS with their fingerprints all over the scene.
Were Christian and Muslim countries to reverse rungs on the economic ladder, might we instead be outraged over third-world Christians committing atrocities in the name of their faith? For the destitute and downtrodden, for the marginalized and maligned, religion is among the only palliatives which serve to numb the abjection. The last shard of a tattered identity, religion becomes a way to cope with the state of brokenness and has often been used as a cover to justify long-nourished grievances, both real and imagined, or as a North Star in the quest for significance and belonging. That economically disadvantaged and socially diminished peoples latch onto destructive ideologies is not new insight, and has been borne out in the research as key drivers of radicalization.5
But according to Sam Harris, we can safely ignore all of this in favor of the simplistic narrative that Islam is uniquely arranged to accommodate violence of the kind we are witnessing today. Harris took to his blog following his appearance on Bill Maher to defuse the maelstrom that materialized in its wake. He says, “The civil war between Sunni and Shia, the murder of apostates, the oppression of women—these evils have nothing to do with U.S. bombs or Israeli settlements.”
Nothing to do with foreign policy? In these and other appearances, Harris continually neglects the fact that religion doesn’t operate in isolation, but is inflected through culture, human nature, competition for power and other seesawing forces which conspire in its manifestation in society, while democracy, economic security, education and literacy, and individual agency tend to suppress its more harmful aspects. It’s in fact why Albania, Turkey and Kazakhstan occupy different sociocultural zip codes from Pakistan, Sudan and Iraq. The pat argument that jihadists are animated by select Scriptures strikes me as woefully incomplete, no better than the comic-book mentality that terrorists attack us because they hate our freedoms. If convictions drawn from outmoded books were ground zero for explaining the messiness of reality, this world would already be ablaze, long before Sam Harris arrived to tell us about it.
I’ve certainly spilled enough words on this topic here and elsewhere, but what motivated me to encapsulate them in long-form was seeing my ultra right-wing friends sharing and tweeting the Maher-Harris commentary in approbation. This is a group who views all Muslims through the lens of 9/11, who has no understanding that there are hundreds of millions of Muslims living among us who do not identify with the most extreme manifestations of their faith and who practice a peaceful Islam. It’s why many clear-thinking commentators on the left view the kind of generalities for which Harris is known as distinctly right-wing in nature. This laser focus on Islam as the Great Scourge fuels a culture of anti-Muslim animus, a sentiment already given safe harbor by the Christian right and large swaths of Western Europe. And history, and research, show that this can only generate more alienation, more unrest and more violence.
Objecting to the worst of organized religion is fair, healthy and necessary, but those of us working for a better world are remiss when we deemphasize the diversity of voices within these communities and delegitimize even those whose interests align with our own. I have followed Sam Harris for years, subscribing to his Facebook updates and to his blog. On occasion, he will fire off a spree of the most incendiary, batty piece of Islam-related news he can find. Meanwhile, there are scores of reformist groups seeking to root out the radical elements of their faith. Why not, for example, call attention to the aforementioned joint letter by Islamic scholars? Or the 2013 Duke University study which found that more people suspected of terrorism were brought to the attention of law enforcement by the Muslim-American community than were discovered through U.S. government investigations? Or how Turkey and the UAE, including the UAE’s first female air force pilot, are helping the U.S. bomb ISIS?
After all, the shelf life of religions is long; Islam isn’t going anywhere. The best way forward it seems to me is in giving the reformers priority in the public conversation. These are the voices we desperately need to prop up, not the sloppy, pre-formatted rhetoric of Harris, Maher & Co. in which dangerous right-wing ideology finds refuge.
– Religion and Violence
– Islam isn’t inherently violent or peaceful
– Mindless terrorists? The truth about Isis is much worse (Scott Atran)
– ISIS is America’s Grotesque Middle Eastern Legacy
– You Can’t Understand ISIS If You Don’t Know the History of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia (Part I)
– Middle East Time Bomb: The Real Aim of ISIS Is to Replace the Saud Family as the New Emirs of Arabia (Part II)
– To Really Combat Terror, End Support for Saudi Arabia
– Fareed Zakaria: Let’s Be Honest, Islam Has A Problem Right Now
– Think Muslims Haven’t Condemned ISIS? Think Again
– Karen Armstrong on Sam Harris and Bill Maher
- The link between religion and race or ethnicity is tricky. In some religions they are more strongly connected–Judaism and Islam e.g.–in others much less so. In criticizing a religion, you need to be aware of the degree to which it is tied to race and culture, or you’re going to get in trouble.
- A great source text on the sociology of religion: Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. 1974.
- This notion suffuses Sam Harris’ rhetoric on this topic. Along with making this explicit statement in the Maher segment, also see his piece here. See if you can count the number of times he is guilty of the infractions I highlight in this post.
- See historian David E. Stannard’s text American Holocaust (1992).
- See Kruglanski et al. 2014 and USAID’s report “Guide to the Drivers of Violent Extremism“.