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.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16415287407278685717 Lamar

    Is it “piss-poor” scholarship to point out to everyone that the Koran tells us to kill in the name of Allah? Or that we should give a young woman, upon her being raped, 100 lashes? What “metaphorical” interpretation can that stand to? I guess Sam Harris is a fanatic; although, the CIA isn’t so interested because he seems to pose no suicidal threat to anyone else in the world.

    To claim that suicide bombings occur solely because of one’s religion, and not one’s environment, is a little far-fetched, I’ll admit. However, we cannot ignore the fact that the culture in the Middle East, which is far more fanatic than anything going on in America–despite what you want to think–is shaped by the Muslim faith. Women are treated with utter disrespect. In Pakistan, ten-year-old girls are forced into marriage with sixty year old men–a kind of mass kidnapping and statutory rape. Women who want to get an education in the more radical parts of the Middle East fear for their lives. A comedian who draws the Prophet Mohammed is condemned to die. A woman who names a teddy bear after Mohammed is forced to stay in jail, and receives hundreds of death threats. A woman who is gang raped by seven men is sentenced to 200 lashes (which is the correct thing to do according to the Koran because she was with another man who was a non-relative), and is pardoned by the leader of Saudi Arabia (only for the lashes, but not for the stay in prison), not because it is wrong to hurt an innocent person, but because it may create unrest amongst the global community if they go ahead with the lashing. The leader of Saudi Arabia was essentially forced to say, even when pardoning her, that she still deserves the lashes because of the fanaticism of the conservative Muslims living in that country. Atheist bloggers are forced to shut down their blogs for fear of their lives. An atheist website in Turkey is forced to shut down. This is real life, and it is quite fanatic. So who are the fanatics again?

    It is also fanatic to decide to go to war in order to spread the goodness and righteousness of Christianity, as Pat Robertson may want to do. But it is not fanatic to point out simple facts about Muslim culture. Where are the Muslim institutions condemning acts of violence done in the name of Allah? On the Hajj, are their religious leaders or wise men giving preaches condemning the evil actions of Osama bin Laden? Harris may be misleading or slightly off-base as he blames everything on Islam, and Hitchens may be too radical as he claims that we should go to war against these Muslims, however, in diagnosing the problem, we need to consider the influence of religion. It is not fanatic to consider the Islamic faith as a motivator of such fanaticism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Lamar: Is it “piss-poor” scholarship to point out to everyone that the Koran tells us to kill in the name of Allah? Or that we should give a young woman, upon her being raped, 100 lashes? What “metaphorical” interpretation can that stand to? I guess Sam Harris is a fanatic . . .

    Wrong author, wrong book. I’m discussing Lee Harris’s views.

    Furthermore, nothing in what I say is an excuse for the extensive list of Muslim social and political pathologies. You do, however, have to realize that there are substantial numbers of Muslims—people with devout belief in God, other supernatural beings, and a divine revelation to Muhammad being recorded in the Quran—who are vocally disgusted with many of the same pathologies. Indeed, many are politically active to try to change things. No one speaking of “Islam” as a whole has any business ignoring the very substantial differences among Muslims.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16415287407278685717 Lamar

    Things get murky all of the time when you try to understand the social reasons for something like the mass suicides going on in the Middle East (about 400 per year). For example, how do we understand the fact that 4 women in the past 4 months alone have blown themselves up in Iraq in an attempt to kill as many people as possible? Women, not to be sexist, don’t usually do that. There are lots of people in the Muslim community speaking out against these horrific actions and to go to war simply because one thinks that we need to spread the enlightenment is mentally insane. But to ignore the fact that the holy book of Islam can be quoted for 3 pages telling the faithful to commit acts of violence for Allah is also insane.

    Notice that Lee Harris (I know he’s not Sam Harris, but you’ve commented on him, and his book, in the past too so I went with what I knew) is denouncing “radical” Islam, which basically means the kind of Islam where people listen to exactly what the Koran says. Just look at what it says; it is not enlightening. The fact that Lee Harris focuses on one specific religion as a threat to the enlightenment may irk some liberals, but the point is legitimate–if he can defend himself. It should not be dismissed so quickly as “piss-poor” scholarship, or laziness. There seems to be no lack of examples with which he can defend his point of view. In the end, however, I disagree with Lee Harris that radical Islam is a threat to the enlightenment. (I am not afraid that some Islamic terrorist group will take over the world.) But I would say that radical Islam is not very enlightening.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01294436437292859972 Malcolm Kirkpatrick

    (Taner Edis): “I recently read The Suicide of Reason: Radical Islam’s Threat to the Enlightenment, by conservative commentator Lee Harris.
    …worthless…
    …asinine…
    …crude stereotypes…
    …tripe…
    …Harris represents this fanaticism…
    …intellectual laziness…
    …piss-poor scholarship…”

    (IIDB): “Users are not permitted to post derogatory comments about other users, insults, or flames. For example, calling a fellow poster “delusional” or “deceitful,” or making a similarly inflammatory accusation, is not acceptable even if you believe that the accusation is true. You may attack ideas but you are not allowed to attack the individual who offers them.”

    Good advice, doncha think?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00763792476799485687 J. J. Ramsey

    Malcolm Kirkpatrick: “You may attack ideas but you are not allowed to attack the individual who offers them.”

    And as far as I can see, “worthless”, “asinine”, etc., are being applied to the ideas, not the person. Your objections look like a mirror image of some of the weaker criticisms of Dawkins, namely those that criticize Dawkins’ manner of criticism rather than its substance.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01294436437292859972 Malcolm Kirkpatrick

    Here’s a proper review.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/06/books/review/Ali-t.html?_r=4&oref;=slogin&oref;=slogin&oref;=slogin&oref;=slogin

    “His points are assinine” doesn’t address the points at all. Either rebut them without the crudities, or be silent.

    There’s a continuum: I say “A”, and you say: “B”, or “Not ‘A’, B”, or “That’s wrong. B”, or “You’re wrong. B” or “You’re wrong.” or “You’re an idiot”, or “You’re an asshole”. Mr. Edis’ review fell pretty far toward the lower end of that continuum.


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