Yesterday on Huffington Post, religion historian Omar Sarwar thoroughly debunked two of Bill Maher and Sam Harris’ go-to Islam talking points.
While the HuffPo title emphasizes Maher, the “facts” of both myths are actually pushed most forcefully by Harris. However, that may be besides the point since the points are made during Maher’s show, where Harris serves as the comedian’s scholarly sidekick. I’ll post a short portion of it here, but you really should take the time to go and read the whole piece.
Myth #1: Poll results show that 20% or more of the world’s Muslims are “Islamists” who want to impose Islam on all of humanity
In a recent conversation with [Fahrrad] Zakaria, Harris explained that he arrived at this number as a “conservative estimate” after examining, among other things, a UNC Chapel Hill study conducted by Charles Kurzman and Ijlal Naqvi, which shows that between 1969 and 2009, Islamists won 15% of the vote in parliamentary elections throughout the Islamic world. As it turns out, the story Harris tells is astonishingly simplistic and incomplete and thus throws the 20% figure into doubt.
It’s true that the UNC Chapel Hill study shows that the median Islamic-party performance over forty years came out to 15% of seats in parliamentary elections. But Harris leaves out all the other key findings of the study which explode the idea that supporters of Islamist parties are essentially hostile to human rights. For example, Kurzman and Naqvi argue that in the Muslim-majority countries where these parliamentary elections took place, voters had little enthusiasm for Islamic parties, and increased voter participation didn’t increase the share of seats those parties secured.
Further, the majority of these parties captured less than 8% of the vote, and even where they rose to power as a promising alternative to secular tyranny, they were seldom able to hold on to that power.
Sarwar also points out that Islamism is a modern concept, which is an aside in this debate but important nonetheless. While we in the West have come to understand Islamic theocractic rule to be an inherent feature of the Islamic faith, political Islam in its current form is largely based on Western ideas about nationhood. Moreover, Islamic political factions largely rose to power with the aid of Western governments, who saw them as allies in the fight against communism.
The second point Sarwar makes is highly relevant to a post I made earlier this week:
Myth #2: Violence perpetrated by Muslims around the world should be attributed primarily to Islam
Harris fails to engage with some of the most respected scholarship on what makes militant groups acting in the name of Islam tick. Instead he replicates the familiar stereotype of Muslims–be they jihadis, Islamists, or conservatives–as emerging seamlessly from their religious texts and narratives, fixating on how “the doctrines of Islam … produce” reprehensible actions. He’s right that there is a moral, religious logic to what many militants do in the name of Islam and that they often openly confess to having a religious motive for their militancy. But it hardly follows from this that their violence “has its origins in religion” or that religion is “the true source of [their] bad behavior.” To assert this is to make a category mistake by conflating motive with cause.
A suicide bomber might have eternal bliss in heaven as a motive for his action, but that doesn’t mean that heavenly bliss is “the true source” of his action. The search for this true source requires us to distinguish between causes, which are the social, biological, and material conditions that “push” people to engage in certain behaviors, and motives, which are the imperatives, desires, and objectives that “pull” people to do certain things. Causes include things like one’s psychological profile and evolutionary predispositions, as well as institutional power, political marginalization, economic circumstances, and the structural violence of occupation. Motives, by contrast, include things like entry into Paradise, avenging the death of one’s friend, acquiring fame, or securing financial support for one’s family.
[Even] if we found that religion formed a big part of the cluster of causes giving rise to jihadi militancy in a certain society, we’d still need a good reason to think that religion is “the most important [causal] variable” for explaining jihadi violence, that religious doctrines are “especially conducive to fanaticism,” or that religious texts wield the greatest causal power above and beyond all other causes in generating that violence.
This only scratches the surface of Sarwar’s argument, but I hope it’s enough to inspire you to check out the piece in its entirety!