Sam Harris has published an article about the attacks on Malala Yousafzai and similar acts of violence. It’s a great piece, but one section stood out to me that I wanted to share. It was when Sam talks about the reaction of religious moderates to the atrocities catalyzed by religious belief:
Here is my pick for the most terrifying and depressing phenomenon on earth: A smart, capable, compassionate, and honorable person grows infected with ludicrous ideas about a holy book and a waiting paradise, and then becomes capable of murdering innocent people—even children—while in a state of religious ecstasy. Needless to say, this problem is rendered all the more terrifying and depressing because so many of us deny that it even exists.
To imagine that one is a holy warrior bound for Paradise might seem delusional, but we live in a world where perfectly sane people are led to believe such floridly crazy things in the name of religion. This is primarily a social and cultural issue, not a psychological one. There is no clear line between what members of the Taliban, al Qaeda, and al Shabab believe about Islam and the “true” Islam. In fact, these groups have as good a claim as any to being impeccable Muslims. This presents an enormous threat to civil society, which apologists for Islam and secular liberals can now be counted upon to obfuscate. A tsunami of stupidity and violence is breaking simultaneously on a hundred shores, and people like Karen Armstrong, Reza Aslan, Juan Cole, John Esposito, and Glenn Greenwald insist that it’s a beautiful day at the beach. Their determination that “moderate” Islam not be blamed for the acts of “extremists” causes them to deny that genuine (and theologically justifiable) religious beliefs can inspire psychologically normal people to commit horrific acts of violence.
Take a moment to consider the actions of the Taliban gunman who shot Malala Yousafzai in the head. How is it that this man came to board a school bus with the intention of murdering a 15-year-old girl? Absent ideology, this could have only been the work of a psychotic or a psychopath. Given the requisite beliefs, however, an entire culture will support such evil. Malala is the best thing to come out of the Muslim world in a thousand years. She is an extraordinarily brave and eloquent girl who is doing what millions of Muslim men and women are too terrified to do—stand up to the misogyny of traditional Islam. No doubt the assassin who tried to kill her believed that he was doing God’s work. He was probably a perfectly normal man—perhaps even a father himself—and that is what is so disturbing. In response to Malala’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, a Taliban spokesman had this to say:
Malala Yousafzai targeted and criticized Islam. She was against Islam and we tried to kill her, and if we get a chance again we will definitely try to kill her, and we will feel proud killing her.
The fact that otherwise normal people can be infected by destructive religious beliefs is crucial to understand—because beliefs spread. Until moderate Muslims and secular liberals stop misplacing the blame for this evil, they will remain part of the problem.
Once you accept the very obvious idea that not all religious beliefs are moral or beneficial, it has become time to stop making apologies for people who engage in monstrous behavior on account of religious beliefs as if a religion could never compel someone to wickedness.