Sam Harris Nails ‘Moral Cowardice’

Sam Harris hit one out of the park with his Sept. 19 piece On the Freedom to Offend an Imaginary God.

The latest wave of Muslim hysteria and violence has now spread to over twenty countries. The walls of our embassies and consulates have been breached, their precincts abandoned to triumphant mobs, and many people have been murdered—all in response to an unwatchable Internet video titled “Innocence of Muslims.” Whether over a film, a cartoon, a novel, a beauty pageant, or an inauspiciously named teddy bear, the coming eruption of pious rage is now as predictable as the dawn. This is already an old and boring story about old, boring, and deadly ideas. And I fear it will be with us for the rest of our lives.

Harris speaks of “the contagion of moral cowardice” that follows such outbreaks, and he points the finger, rightly, at my side of the aisle – liberals.

Consider what is actually happening: Some percentage of the world’s Muslims—Five percent? Fifteen? Fifty? It’s not yet clear—is demanding that all non-Muslims conform to the strictures of Islamic law. And where they do not immediately resort to violence in their protests, they threaten it. Carrying a sign that reads “Behead Those Who Insult the Prophet” may still count as an example of peaceful protest, but it is also an assurance that infidel blood would be shed if the imbecile holding the placard only had more power. This grotesque promise is, of course, fulfilled in nearly every Muslim society. To make a film like “Innocence of Muslims” anywhere in the Middle East would be as sure a method of suicide as the laws of physics allow.

What exactly was in the film? Who made it? What were their motives? Was Muhammad really depicted? Was that a Qur’an burning, or some other book? Questions of this kind are obscene. Here is where the line must be drawn and defended without apology: We are free to burn the Qur’an or any other book, and to criticize Muhammad or any other human being. Let no one forget it.

The money quote, for me, is low on the page:

The freedom to think out loud on certain topics, without fear of being hounded into hiding or killed, has already been lost.

Do I want more religious freedom? More protection for the religious at the expense of those who are not religious?

No. From the vantage point of the atheist movement, MY movement, a critical social effort still just barely born …

I want an enhanced FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION that includes religion, but also – emphatically equally – includes the freedom to criticize, mock and deride religion. The freedom to make reasoned critiques as well as fart jokes.

Speaking of which …

Mohammed STILL sucks big sweaty donkey balls.

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  • Brownian

    I want an enhanced FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION that includes religion, but also – emphatically equally – includes the freedom to criticize, mock and deride religion.

    Then you’d do better to ignore Harris, rather than promote him. He argues for enhanced screening at airports etc. that specifically targets “Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it.” And his criticism of the Ground Zero Mosque is probably best read in its entirety for an example of the very sort of moral cowardice he impugns. It opens with:

    Should a 15-story mosque and Islamic cultural center be built two blocks from the site of the worst jihadist atrocity in living memory? Put this way, the question nearly answers itself. This is not to say, however, that I think we should prevent our fellow citizens from building “the ground zero mosque.” There is probably no legal basis to do so in any case—nor should there be. But the margin between what is legal and what is desirable, or even decent, leaves room for many projects that well-intentioned people might still find offensive.

    And ends with:

    And the erection of a mosque upon the ashes of this atrocity will also be viewed by many millions of Muslims as a victory—and as a sign that the liberal values of the West are synonymous with decadence and cowardice. This may not be reason enough for the supporters of this mosque to reconsider their project. And perhaps they shouldn’t. Perhaps there is some form of Islam that could issue from this site that would be better, all things considered, than simply not building another mosque in the first place. But this leads me to a somewhat paradoxical conclusion: American Muslims should be absolutely free to build a mosque two blocks from ground zero; but the ones who should do it probably wouldn’t want to.

    • bradleybetts

      I disagree with Sam Harris on a lot, the two opinions you mentioned being good examples, but it doesn’t change the fact that he is right about this. I do not, and probably never will, understand this idea that just because you disagree with someone about one thing means you must be fundamentally opposed to everything they say. Sam Harris can be, and quite often is, a grade A arsehole, but he’s still right about this.

  • Albert Bakker

    I don’t always agree on all topics with Sam Harris either, but here I agree fully and without reserve. And his criticism of concerned liberals here is exactly right. With deserved shame I recognize it all too well, for I used to have that tendency too.

    • philboidstudge

      And his criticism of concerned liberals here is exactly right.

      His criticism would be marginally persuasive if he told us how he knows what’s in the hearts of liberals, or even if he actually named a few. Instead, we hear about unnamed contributors to the NYT and NPR. Since Harris cannot bring himself to identify even one “liberal” by name, or even quote one anonymously, I’m left wondering whether he’s just lazy or full of shit. With his long history of telling us with authority what “most secular liberals” think — based on absolutely nothing — I’m going to go with the latter.

      • bradleybetts

        …you’re really going to sit there and tell us that you, personally, cannot come up with a wealth of anecdotal evidence to support his claim? I can, and I’m included in most of the examples.

  • Alverant

    “Behead Those Who Insult the Prophet”
    I thought that was a Photoshopped sham. It’s really too bad Harris thinks the notion of “equal treatment under the law” as a weakness. Protesting the islamic community center makes about as much sense as protesting a Luthern church being built near an all-boys school due to the RCC child abuse scandal. The sec of muslims who committed a terrorist attack was different that the sec who want to build the community center. Is it far to penalize one group of people for what another group did? What’s next, banning all falfel carts within 10 blocks of Ground Zero?

  • Albert Bakker

    I can’t imagine you really want to say Sam Harris would object to falafel carts in the vicinity of Ground Zero.

    And Ground Zero mosques or “Islamic community centers” whether they be of Sufi, Ahmadiyya, Salafi or other Islamic schools, sects or whatever are not the issue. Neither is racial profiling at airports or philosophizing about torture or the question whether science is the appropriate tool to investigate the landscape of human morality, or blind spots for Buddhism, or rhetorical trickery or whatever reason there might exist to find fault with Sam Harris. The issue is that freedom of expression includes blasphemy, distasteful ridicule and attempts to provoke and the clear and full acknowledgment that there exists no right not to be offended or insulted that would limit the right to freedom of expression in any way shape or form. This choice is very clear, dichotomous, and has to be made unreservedly and defended without apology, provisions, conditions, restrictions, requirements and so forth. To not do so is to effectively choose against it.

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