The Suicide of Reason

I recently read The Suicide of Reason: Radical Islam’s Threat to the Enlightenment, by conservative commentator Lee Harris. It’s pretty worthless, except as evidence that anyone seems to feel free to write a book on Islam, without the benefit of research or experience.

Some of Harris’s points are sane enough. Liberal Enlightenment-based politics is different. It’s a historical accident, not some kind of natural default state. Neither is it a way of life that’s automatically appealing to people not specifically enculturated in a modern Western-derived mode. And this political culture can be fragile.

But beyond that, Harris is not really interested in the real world. He portrays the US as a polity corresponding to an ideal type of liberty (in the conservative sense), and peppers his arguments with assumptions that look asinine to anyone who isn’t an American nationalist. Then, to oppose this ideal type of “reason,” he presents a negative ideal type, that of “fanaticism,” now embodied by a monolithic mass called “Islam.” And that’s it. His view of both the “West” (represented by conservative aspects of the US) and “Islam” (represented by the suicide-bombing fringe) never rises above the crude stereotypes informing his ideal types, and he doesn’t seem to care about how actual countries or cultures might approximate or strongly deviate from the ideal types, even in cases where they might be ideologically committed to such ideals.

I guess there’s a market for this sort of tripe, especially among people who like to be praised as embodying “reason” while their (often imaginary) enemies get dehumanized as “fanatics.” I’d be hard pressed to say there’s a lot of reason in Muslim lands at present. But there’s plenty of fanaticism back here at home, and I’m inclined to think that in the end, Harris represents this fanaticism. There’s a scary aspect to conservative Islam-bashing, that goes beyond intellectual laziness and piss-poor scholarship.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University


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