When questioned about Sam Harris’ views on Islam, as expressed on Bill Maher’s Real Time show, Karen Armstrong expressed despair. Despair that these views (Harris said that “Islam was the mother lode of bad ideas”) were the sorts of views that “led to the concentration camps of Europe”.
You can read the article here. It starts off quite reasonably, and gets progressively more divorced from reality. I find that if this pattern is followed in interview pieces, it indicates that, even with a facade of reason, the logic of a position just isn’t standing up to the scrutiny that a good interviewer should provide. This is certainly the case here.
The article is full of the sort of apologia which she explicitly states she doesn’t espouse and much of this could and should be subject to challenge. Some of these more general points are covered in Armstrong’s book ‘Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence’. To read Tom Holland’s insightful review of the book, click here. (It may still be behind a pay wall!). I, however, would like to focus on her criticism of Harris’ stance and here assertion that this kind of thinking led to the creation of Nazi concentration camps as part of the ‘final solution’.
First, we should take a step back…. Harris often seems to attract this sort of criticism (usually from the religious and Leftists) so it’s worth a review to see whether these criticisms have foundation. The criticism has been more vocal in the last few weeks since Harris appeared on Maher’s show and had the, now infamous, exchange with Ben Affleck.
These criticisms often accuse Harris of ‘Islamophobia’, racism and much besides. But these criticisms are often made by those who are apologists for sacred texts which promote far worse views and claim nuance and context as a defense.
Now, I’m not being a relativist here, and certainly wouldn’t excuse Harris from having a bad world view. I’m simply pointing out the hypocrisy of many of the critics. As well as Armstrong (from a (former?) Christian point of view), there are many more Muslim critics:
Our old friend Mohammed Ansar:
He obviously thinks Sam Harris is anti-Muslim which appears to be his sentiment when he accuses someone of ‘Islamophobia’. Maybe this sensationalist tone and attempted vilification of Harris and Maajid Mawaz’s Quilliam Foundation isn’t too surprising given what we have seen from Mo on other issues.
Here is someone more surprising:
Qasim Rashid is an Ahmadi Muslim who wrote the (good) book ‘The Wrong Kind of Muslim’. He supports secular politics and emphasises the peaceful side of Islam. With Harris’ overt criticism of Islam, however, he loses his rationality:
Rashid promotes a ridiculous cherry-picking meme of Harris’ quotes (which Harris responds to above) and then continues in the face of having the full context explained to him. Lest I be accused of cherry-picking, the full thread is here. Excluding the obvious misunderstanding of the word ‘natural’ on Rashid’s part, it’s a revealing exchange. One in which Rashid thinks it’s ironic that people are defending Harris on a point of context, when this is Rashid’s standard defense of the Qur’an.
Rashid’s progressive view of Islam is something that would benefit from an alliance with rationalist thinkers like Harris, but he seems to stuck drawing an equivalence between the attacks on the ideology of Harris and attacks on his fellow Ahmadiyya by other Muslims. I have great sympathy with him for the persecution of Ahmadi Muslims around the world; Harris is NOT one of the persecutors.
And then there’s Reza Aslan, and this:
I’m afraid ‘RT ≠ endorsement’ just doesn’t cover it here. Endorsing this view and Retweeting this to his ~ 100k followers (closely followed by an RT by Glenn Greenwald to his ~ 430k followers) is reprehensible and completely alien to serious debate. This quote is so badly cherry-picked I’m surprised that it wasn’t reduced down to “Kill people”!
Of course, the great benefit Harris has in providing context, as opposed to the writers of scripture, is that he is still around to provide it. He does so here in a (mammoth) conversation with Cenk Uygur on the Young Turks YouTube channel.
As Harris explains in the conversation, the political correctness & offense culture we seem to have in modern, supposedly liberal society no longer likes to discuss difficult questions. Just the act of asking the question is enough for people to run for cover under the stultifying blanket of offense.
Harris wants to discuss ideologies and their potentially retarding effects on humanity. He wants a serious grown up debate. We have to accept that however secular our societies have become in the liberal west, there remains a deep rooted feeling of discomfort when openly critiquing religion. It’s a protection which is entirely unwarranted (as is protection for any ‘idea’), but for which religious people and some leftist ‘liberals’ still fight.
Armstrong is one of these. Perhaps she’s still carrying the baggage of seven years as a Catholic nun, but through her lens on the world she is misrepresenting the effect organised religion has had, and is having. This leads her to draw an equivalence between Harris’ language on Islamic ideology with Nazi rhetoric on Judaism.
Is this true? Here are some examples:
Harris: “Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas.”
Nazis: “The Jew is the enemy and destroyer of the purity of blood, the conscious destroyer of our race … As socialists, we are opponents of the Jews, because we see, in the Hebrews, the incarnation of capitalism, of the misuse of the nation’s goods.” (Goebbels)
Harris: “Who will reform Islam if moderate Muslims refuse to speak honestly about the very doctrines in need of reform?”
Nazis: “The struggle for world domination will be fought entirely between us, between Germans and Jews. All else is facade and illusion. Behind England stands Israel, and behind France, and behind the United States. Even when we have driven the Jew out of Germany, he remains our world enemy.” (Hitler)
Harris: “Which will come first, flying cars and vacations to Mars, or a simple acknowledgment that beliefs guide behavior and that certain religious ideas—jihad, martyrdom, blasphemy, apostasy—reliably lead to oppression and murder?”
Nazis: “…the personification of the devil as the symbol of all evil assumes the living shape of the Jew.” (Hitler)
I hope the examples above are clear enough to show that, whilst Harris readily attacks the ideology of Islam (attracting its defenders; believers and liberals alike), the Nazis attacked and dehumanised Jews, not Judaism.
This systematic dehumanisation led to other humans being able to form the cognitive dissonance required to build, administer and support the concentration camps of the 30s and 40s. It certainly wasn’t the philosophical and ethical questioning of a critical thinker into an ideology which mandates its adherents to think it’s immutable and perfect.
It takes a lot of courage to continue the intellectual pursuit in the face of these challenges, and I, for one, am very glad Sam Harris continues to fight for Liberal (big ‘L’) values and the power of reason.