Why Sam Harris Is Wrong about Islam

No doubt many of my readers know about the encounter about Islam between Ben Affleck, the Hollywood actor, and Sam Harris, the “New Atheist” writer and neuroscientist, on Bill Maher’s show. 

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I do not know Ben Affleck’s work as an actor, so I don’t know whether he is commonly cast in comic roles. He was pretty funny, in a slightly deranged sort of way, on Bill Maher’s show, but perhaps that is his usual modus operandi.

I propose to leave the substance — if “substance” is the correct word — of Mr. Affleck’s effusions to one side.  His performance did make me wonder anew about the odd place of “celebrities” in our culture. Why, I have often wondered, does any thinking person care what Barbra Streisand (for example) has to say about . . . well, about anything not intimately concerned with pop singing? And yet clearly they do, since it’s a rare month that passes without the news that the chanteuse has weighed in about some matter of political controversy. I’m not sure exactly which subjects I would be prepared to take Ben Affleck seriously on; Islam is certainly not one of them.

This is not, to say, however, that I am prepared to take Sam Harris seriously about Islam either.  As the Canadian and (more to the point) former Muslim writer Ali Sina points out in a brilliant article for the Jerusalem Post, the fact that Ben Affleck is wrong about Islam  “does not mean Harris is right.” Indeed.

Harris is widely considered a critic of Islam.  In his debate with Ben Affleck, however, he simply recycled a well-meaning but pernicious myth about the followers of Muhammed. “Hundreds of millions of Muslims are nominal Muslims,” Harris cheerfully reported, where by “nominal” he meant that they “don’t take their faith seriously,” “don’t want to kill apostates,” and “are horrified by ISIS [Islamic State].”  These are the people, he concluded, “we need to defend,” to “prop them up and let them reform their faith.”

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How often have you heard this? I hear it all the time, as often from conservatives as from liberals.  The trouble is, as Ali Sina points out, “reforming Islam the way he envisions it is an illusion.”

Why? Harris’s argument — you’ve heard it a hundred times — is basically this: Christianity was once intolerant. There were the Crusades, for instance, but think also of such episodes as the siege of Béziers, a Cathar stronghold, in the early 13th century. Here were Catholics besieging an heretical sect of their own people.  When asked by a soldier how they could distinguish the good guys from the bad, Arnaud Amaury, a Cistercian abbot who was helping to lead the fight, advised “Tuez-les tous! Dieu reconnaîtra les siens”: “Kill them all! God will know his own.”

But look at Christianity today. It’s all bake sales, bingo, and transgender-awareness retreats.  Maybe the same thing will happen to Islam.

Not likely, as Ali Sina points out. “Even though at one time the religion associated with Jesus had become violent and intolerant,” he notes, “there is nothing violent and intolerant in his teachings. The Crusades were the response of Christendom to jihad, and the Inquisition was the copycat of mihnah, a practice started by Caliph Ma’mun, which means ‘inquisition.’ They have no basis in the teaching of Christ.”

Let’s contrast the example and the teaching of Christ with the example and teaching of Mohammed. Christ is often denominated “the Prince of Peace.” He said things like “suffer the little children” to come to him.  And Mohammed? “He raided villages and towns,” Ali Sina points out,  and

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massacred unarmed men, beheaded his captives, raped their women and sold them as slaves. His successors, the so-called “rightly guided Caliphs” and their successors did the same. These are the very things the Wahhabis advocate and Islamic State is doing.

As for Mohammed and little children, there is of course the story of Aisha, the youngest of Mohammed’s wives. She was married to Muhammad at the age of “six or seven”  but she stayed in her parents’ home until the age of “nine or ten.”

Yes, there are people who describe themselves as Muslim “reformers.” They do not want to go back to the original teachings of Muhammed — they look slightingly upon massacring unarmed men, shrink back from beheading folks, and want to have nothing to do with raping women or encouraging slavery.

But they also, Ali Sina points out, want to “acknowledge the legitimacy of Muhammad as a prophet of God.”

How do they manage that trick? “How,” Ali Sina asks, “can we tell people Muhammad was a true prophet, but don’t believe him – that his message was from God, but don’t follow it? Furthermore, isn’t it what the majority of Muslims already doing? Most Muslims don’t practice the violent parts of the Koran. As long as Islam is accepted as a true religion there will always be a minority who will want to practice it fully and honestly.”

Item: Yusra Hussein is a 15-year-old British Muslim of Somali origin. One day she just disappeared. The next thing her parents knew, there she was a “jihadi bride” who had gone to fight with Islamic State. “If it can happen to Yusra,” her aunt said, “it can happen to anyone. She was just a normal, young girl. She was a home girl. There was no anger, no frustration. We had no idea.”

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Depressed yet?

“Thousands of young Muslims join Islamic State,” Ali Sina notes.

The great majority come from moderate Muslim families. It is easy to radicalize them. You ask them whether they believe in the Koran and they respond “yes.” Then you read it to them and show them that God enjoins jihad, that their parents who prefer this world to the next are hypocrites, and the Koran orders true believers to neither associate with the hypocrites nor take them as friends and guardians, even if they are fathers and brothers.

Kids understand this. It is a no-brainer. Their parents also understand it. But they want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to live in comfort and at the same time enter the Islamic paradise.

Telling the truth about Islam “offends” Muslims and their well-meaning supporters. But failing to tell the truth about Islam makes room for the Nidal Hasans of the world. Hasan was the Army psychiatrist who went on rampage at Ft. Hood, slaughtering 13 innocent people and injuring 30 others. He shouted “Allahu Akbar” — Allah is Great — while murdering those people and yet the Obama administration insisted that what the world witnessed was merely an instance of “workplace violence,” not an example of Islamic terrorism. “Oh but that’s just one example, one ‘violent extremist.’” What do you call the response to the Danish cartoons of Mohammed? How about the nightclub bombing in Bali? The Boston marathon massacre? The “shoe bomber”? The “underwear bomber.” The perpetrators of 9/11? The attempt to sink the USS Cole? The London subway bombing? Et very much cetera.  It is all part of what what one U.S.-based Islamist cell called the “Grand Jihad,” which aims at “eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and ‘sabotaging’ its miserable house . . . so that it is eliminated and God’s religion is made victorious over all other religions.”

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Seems pretty clear, doesn’t it?  The important thing about Ali Sina’s article is its clear-eyed appreciation of some fundamental distinctions. “Islam is either from God or it isn’t. If it is then we have to accept it because that is what the Koran says. If we don’t, we should not complain when Muslims kill us. They are following the religion we acknowledged to be true. If Islam is not true, we better tell it fearlessly.”

Ali Sina ends with some good advice. I wish more Western pundits, to say nothing of Western politicians, would heed it. “Stop tiptoeing around lest you offend Muslims’ sensitivity. Take sides. . . .Truth hurts the delicate sensitivity of Muslims, but lies kill. Thousands are killed every day to uphold a lie. If this is not insanity what is?”

Good question.

Also read: 

5 Ways Bill Maher Is Right and Reza Aslan Wrong About Islam

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