Islamophobia, Sam Harris, and the prevalence of Islamic Extremism

Islamophobia, Sam Harris, and the prevalence of Islamic Extremism October 7, 2014

Let’s assume, as an illustration, that it’s the year before the Civil War. Half of the Christians in the United States believe that their religion permits owning slaves, and the other half believes that their religion opposes owning slaves.

What if we found out that the half that supported slavery was almost entirely in the bottom half of the nation, and the half that disapproves of slavery is almost entirely the top half? And let’s suppose that the top half’s economy is industrial while the bottom half’s is agricultural and largely dependent upon slave labor. If we wanted to know what caused Americans to support slavery, how helpful would it be to read the Bible, looking at specific verses, even those that support slavery?

When assessing slavery in the United States in the 1800s, how seriously could you take someone who said that in order to abolish slavery we needed to fight Christianity? How seriously would you generalize from slavery in the South to problems inherent with Christianity, full stop?

Now, let’s assume that we have a nation that has been at war with the United States for the better part of the last two decades. Let’s assume the United States has been routinely bombing another with drone strikes. Let’s assume that a civil war has erupted in another, and another had a democratically elected leader deposed by the British and American governments in the 70’s in order to install a leader with a more West-friendly oil policy. And let’s assume that, now, a lot of people living in and around these almost exclusively developing countries are more likely to be extremists, particularly calling for violence against Western nations.

How much sense would it make to say the cause of this extremism is the religion that overlaps these countries, when this religion is practiced all over the globe without these effects?

As Sam Harris makes clear on Maher’s show, this is about facts. It’s about statistics. He says:­

Just imagine you have some concentric circles. You have at the center, you have jihadists, these are people who wake up wanting to kill apostates, wanting to die trying. They believe in paradise, they believe in martyrdom. Outside of them, we have Islamists, these are people who are just as convinced of martyrdom and paradise and wanting to foist their religion on the rest of humanity but they want to work within the system. They’re not going to blow themselves up on a bus. They want to change governments, they want to use democracy against itself. Those two circles arguably are 20% of the Muslim world.

As if this were an argument about how extremist some Muslims are, as if this were an argument about how good a form of government theocracy is, as if it were a shock to anyone that there are Muslim extremists in the world. If you want to say that Islam as a religion is causing 20 percent of the Muslim world to be extremists of some sort or another, you need to do more than gesture toward the fact that arguably 20 percent of the Muslim world is an extremist of some sort or another.

To indict Christianity, you need to do more than point out that half of the U.S. Christian population supported slavery.

“We have been sold this meme of Islamophobia,” Harris said, “where criticism of the religion gets conflated with bigotry towards Muslims as people. It’s intellectually ridiculous.” But to say something like “20% of Muslims are extremists, so Islam is to blame” is not just abstractly criticizing a religion. It’s the logic of bigotry, the same kind that attributes urban crime to skin color. With no other group of believers do we take a fraction of extremists to reflect on the entire religion.

Imagine the full implication of what Sam Harris means when he says to a visibly upset Ben Affleck, “Let me just give you what you want. There are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are nominal Muslims, who don’t take the faith seriously, who don’t want to kill apostates, who are horrified by ISIS.”

Criticism of religion isn’t bigotry, but I’m pretty sure statements like that are. As if this should appease Affleck and other liberal viewers to admit that some Muslims don’t support murdering innocent people, just so long as they don’t take their religion seriously. As if the only real Muslims, the ones who do take their faith seriously, are the jihadists who want to kill apostates, the Muslims who aren’t horrified by ISIS. Were the abolitionist Christians not taking their religion seriously? Does Malala not take her religion seriously?

The Middle East is complicated, and I’m not going to pretend that I understand it. In all likelihood, you don’t understand it either, which is exactly why simplistic answers like “it’s the religion” are so unbelievably, unimaginatively wrong. I can’t emphasize enough how difficult and complex it is to parse out causation at a social or geopolitical level. I can’t emphasize enough how silly it is to point to the Netherlands and say it’s such a great place because of how irreligious it is, and I can’t emphasize enough how much statements like this…

BILL MAHER: One reason [voices opposed to jihad] don’t get exposed is because they’re afraid to speak out because [Islam is] the only religion that acts like the mafia that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book. There’s a reason why Ayaan Hirsi Ali needs bodyguards 24/7…

…entirely miss the point.



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