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Sam Harris: Obama is Sleepwalking Toward Armageddon

Sam Harris had some harsh words for President Obama after his speech last week, the one in which he declared, “ISIL is not Islamic.” Harris, one of the outspoken new atheists, wonders when, if ever, the truth about Islam will be spoken by our leaders.

As an atheist, I cannot help wondering when this scrim of pretense and
delusion will be finally burned away–either by the clear light of reason
or by a surfeit of horror meted out to innocents by the parties of God.
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? It may be true that no faith teaches people to massacre innocents
exactly–but innocence, as the President surely knows, is in the eye of
the beholder. Are apostates “innocent”? Blasphemers? Polytheists? Islam
has the answer, and the answer is “no.”

A bit later Harris turns his attention to liberal academics who lay the groundwork for an obviously absurd claim like “ISIL is not Islamic.”

Our humanities and social science departments are filled with scholars
and pseudo-scholars deemed to be experts in terrorism, religion, Islamic
jurisprudence, anthropology, political science, and other diverse
fields, who claim that where Muslim intolerance and violence are
concerned, nothing is ever what it seems. Above all, these experts claim
that one can’t take Islamists and jihadists at their word: Their
incessant declarations about God, paradise, martyrdom, and the evils of
apostasy are nothing more than a mask concealing their real
motivations. What are their real motivations? Insert here the most
abject hopes and projections of secular liberalism: How would you
feel if Western imperialists and their mapmakers had divided your
lands, stolen your oil, and humiliated your proud culture? Devout
Muslims merely want what everyone wants–political and economic security,
a piece of land to call home, good schools for their children, a little
leisure to enjoy the company of friends. Unfortunately, most of my
fellow liberals appear to believe this. In fact, to not accept this
obscurantism as a deep insight into human nature and immediately avert
one’s eyes from the teachings of Islam is considered a form of bigotry.

Sam Harris may despise religion but he understands it better than many of his fellow progressives for whom ignorance is bliss. Religion is not an undifferentiated gloss on universal human needs. Rather, it is a skein of values and ideas which set the communal importance of less fundamental ideas like innocence, the appropriate use of violence and individual freedom. Ultimately, Harris understands that the details of the faith in question, the doctrine, makes a difference. As he says, the behavior associated with certain religions is no accident:

Understanding and criticizing the doctrine of Islam–and finding some way
to inspire Muslims to reform it–is one of the most important challenges
the civilized world now faces. But the task isn’t as simple as
discrediting the false doctrines of Muslim “extremists,” because most of
their views are not false by the light of scripture. A hatred of
infidels is arguably the central message of the Koran. The
reality of martyrdom and the sanctity of armed jihad are about as
controversial under Islam as the resurrection of Jesus is under
Christianity. It is not an accident that millions of Muslims recite the shahadah
or make pilgrimage to Mecca. Neither is it an accident that horrific
footage of infidels and apostates being decapitated has become a popular
form of pornography throughout the Muslim world. Each of these
practices, including this ghastly method of murder, find explicit
support in scripture.

One does not have to agree with Harris in general to agree with his insight here. We are not all reading from the same script and that matters. At the root of ISIS is a far from universal but nevertheless widely shared view of Islam. It should not be considered a virtue to pretend otherwise.

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