Here is Sam Harris’s response to the Maher/Affleck brouhaha (in which he was involved, of course) about which I wrote here. The full quote that I shortened for the headline on this post is: “My criticism of Islam is a criticism of beliefs and their consequences—but my fellow liberals reflexively view it as an expression of intolerance toward people.”
Welcome to my world. For years now my colleagues and I have been stigmatized, demonized and marginalized for supposedly professing “intolerance toward people,” when actually we have only engaged in criticism of beliefs and their consequences. Sam Harris may not be fully aware that what his “fellow liberals” are doing to him now in misrepresenting his positions is exactly what Leftists and Islamic supremacists (and paleocons, and many others) do to anyone and everyone who dares to utter a negative word regarding jihad terror and Islamic supremacism — and that many of those whom he may assume are actually bigots and racists are actually just people who have said the same things he is saying now and are previous victims of the campaign that is now victimizing him. In this video, for example, Harris dismisses critics of Islam and jihad who came before him as “fascists” and right wing nuts, without pausing to consider that perhaps his opinions of them are the consequence of previous smear campaigns much like the one of which he is the target. As far as I have seen, Harris is not interested in engaging intellectually with anyone he doesn’t think is on the Left, and that is a shame, as what is needed today is a large movement against jihad terror and Islamic supremacism — one that is not the province solely of the Left or the Right.
Anyway, this entire piece is very good, but here are few of the highlights. “Can Liberalism Be Saved From Itself?,” by Sam Harris, October 7, 2014:
…The most controversial thing I said was: “We have to be able to criticize bad ideas, and Islam is the Mother lode of bad ideas.” This statement has been met with countless charges of “bigotry” and “racism” online and in the media. But imagine that the year is 1970, and I said: “Communism is the Mother lode of bad ideas.” How reasonable would it be to attack me as a “racist” or as someone who harbors an irrational hatred of Russians, Ukrainians, Chinese, etc. This is precisely the situation I am in. My criticism of Islam is a criticism of beliefs and their consequences—but my fellow liberals reflexively view it as an expression of intolerance toward people….
However, others in this debate are not so innocent. Our conversation on Real Time was provoked by an interview that Reza Aslan gave on CNN, in which he castigated Maher for the remarks he had made about Islam on the previous show. I have always considered Aslan a comical figure. His thoughts about religion in general are a jumble of pretentious nonsense—yet he speaks with an air of self-importance that would have been embarrassing in Genghis Khan at the height of his power. On the topic of Islam, however, Aslan has begun to seem more sinister. He cannot possibly believe what he says, because nearly everything he says is a lie or a half-truth calibrated to mislead a liberal audience. If he claims something isn’t in the Koran, it probably is. I don’t know what his agenda is, beyond riding a jet stream of white guilt from interview to interview, but he is manipulating liberal biases for the purpose of shutting down conversation on important topics. Given what he surely knows about the contents of the Koran and the hadith, the state of public opinion in the Muslim world, the suffering of women and other disempowered groups, and the real-world effects of deeply held religious beliefs, I find his deception on these issues unconscionable.
As I have pointed out many times, Aslan is an Islamic supremacist, a Board member of a lobbying group for the Iranian mullahs, and a friend and associate of numerous people and groups tied to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, and a sly apologist for jihad terror. But nothing I have ever written about that sinister charlatan approaches the grandeur of Harris’s crystalline takedown of Aslan in the paragraph above.
As I tried to make clear on Maher’s show, what we need is honest talk about the link between belief and behavior. And no one is suffering the consequences of what Muslim “extremists” believe more than other Muslims are. The civil war between Sunni and Shia, the murder of apostates, the oppression of women—these evils have nothing to do with U.S. bombs or Israeli settlements. Yes, the war in Iraq was a catastrophe—just as Affleck and Kristof suggest. But take a moment to appreciate how bleak it is to admit that the world would be better off if we had left Saddam Hussein in power. Here was one of the most evil men who ever lived, holding an entire country hostage. And yet his tyranny was also preventing a religious war between Shia and Sunni, the massacre of Christians, and other sectarian horrors. To say that we should have left Saddam Hussein alone says some very depressing things about the Muslim world.
Whatever the prospects are for moving Islam out of the Middle Ages, hope lies not with obscurantists like Reza Aslan but with reformers like Maajid Nawaz. The litmus test for intellectual honesty on this point—which so many liberals fail—is to admit that one can draw a straight line from specific doctrines in Islam to the intolerance and violence we see in the Muslim world. Nawaz admits this. I don’t want to give the impression that he and I view Islam exactly the same. In fact, we are now having a written exchange that we will publish as an ebook in the coming months—and I am learning a lot from it. But Nawaz admits that the extent of radicalization in the Muslim community is an enormous problem. Unlike Aslan, he insists that his fellow Muslims must find some way to reinterpret and reform the faith. He believes that Islam has the intellectual resources to do this. I certainly hope he’s right. One thing is clear, however: Muslims must be obliged to do the work of reinterpretation—and for this we need honest conversation.
I welcomed Maajid Nawaz’s rejection of Qur’anic literalism, even while remaining deeply suspicious of his overall goals, for reasons I explained here. In any case, it is important in this connection not to be naive. What are the chances that Nawaz’s rejection of Qur’anic literalism will become mainstream in the Islamic world, leading to a reevaluation and rejection of the jihad imperative by the schools of Islamic jurisprudence? The chances of that are about nil. So while Nawaz is certainly preferable to the execrable Aslan, his existence should not lull non-Muslims into complacency. If he gathers a significant following among Muslims, then there might be something to talk about. But until then, he’s just another moderate who makes non-Muslims feel good while the jihad fires rage ever more hotly.