Bombing Our Illusions II
By Sam Harris
In my last post, I argued that there is a direct link between Islam and suicide bombing. Many readers of this blog considered this post to be offensive, tendentious, and even irresponsible. An addendum seems to be in order. Criticism of my argument fell into a few broad categories:
1. Sam, you don’t know a damn thing about Islam, the Koran, or Muslim history. Islam is a religion of peace that has been hijacked by extremists.
This objection is generally put forward by people who have not read the Koran or the hadith (the literature that recounts the sayings and actions of the Prophet). Some readers also pointed out that the bible contains some very scary passages. This is true, and I discuss the consequences of biblical literalism in my other writing. But the bible is a vast, self-contradictory book. It is very easy to just read the “good parts” and ignore all the barbarism found in books like Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Exodus, etc. The fundamental message of the Koran is impossible to ignore and far easier to summarize. And there is no Sermon on the Mount in there to break the spell. Yes, there is a single line that can be read as a prohibition against suicide (4:29 – “Do not destroy yourselves.”), but this line can also be read as an admonishment to Muslims to refrain from killing other Muslims. In any case, we are talking about one line set in a wilderness of other passages that clearly admonish the faithful to despise unbelievers. On virtually every page of the Koran we are informed that Allah is in the process of “mocking,” “cursing,” “shaming,” “scourging,” “not forgiving,” “not reprieving,” the infidels. Had Allah wanted to guide the infidels to the true path, he would have. So he has cursed them with their doubts. He allows them to prosper in this world only so that they may have a greater opportunity to heap sin upon sin and more richly deserve the eternal punishment of the fire whose “fuel is men and stones.” As a basis for religious tolerance in a pluralistic world, the Koran is one of the least promising documents ever written—despite the few lines that, read in isolation, seem to counsel patience, charity, tolerance, etc. And the hadith is even worse.
It is a mainstream belief among Muslims that apostasy (the repudiation of Islam by a Muslim) should be punished by death (granted, this rule is only made explicit in the hadith). It is also a mainstream belief that infidels should (if possible) be politically subjugated and forced to pay a poll tax. Yes, Muslims are counseled not to be aggressors, and thus to fight only defensive wars. But “defensive” is in the eye of the beholder. We can be sure that Osama bin Laden can tell a story about why his actions have been purely in “defense” of the faith.
Those readers who think I have offered a caricature of Islam must explain why an uncountable number of imams supported the fatwa against Salman Rushie, while not a single one (to the best of my knowledge) has pronounced a fatwa on Osama bin Laden. I submit to you that the belief that the Koran was dictated by the Creator of the Universe explains this ludicrous and terrifying situation. If you have not read the Koran, read it. It will nearly kill you with boredom, but you will learn something about what devout Muslims believe.
Some commentators on my last post imagine that Muslims have shown exemplary tolerance of other faiths in the past and have only recently been made anti-Semitic and anti-Christian by the lunatic incursions of Zionists and greedy colonialists. This is an imaginary history. Consider the widespread idea that the Jews lived for centuries under Muslim rule and had a relatively easy time of it. It is true that life was often worse under theocratic Christendom. It is also true, however, that life for Jews within the House of Islam has been characterized by ceaseless humiliation and regular pogroms. A state of apartheid has been the norm, in which Jews have been forbidden to bear arms or to give evidence in court. They have been forced to wear distinctive clothing (the yellow badge originated in Baghdad, not in Nazi Germany) and to avoid certain streets and buildings. They have been obliged, under penalty of violence and even death, to pass Muslims only on their left (impure) side while keeping their eyes lowered. In parts of the Arab world it has been a local custom for Muslim children to throw stones at Jews and spit upon them. These and other indignities have been regularly punctuated by organized massacres and pogroms: in Morocco (1728, 1790, 1875, 1884, 1890, 1903, 1912, 1948, 1952, and 1955), in Algeria (1805 and 1934), in Tunisia (1864, 1869, 1932, and 1967), in Persia (1839, 1867, and 1910), in Iraq (1828, 1936, 1937, 1941, 1946, 1948, 1967, and 1969), in Libya (1785, 1860, 1897, 1945, 1948, and 1967), in Egypt (1882, 1919, 1921, 1924, 1938–39, 1945, 1948, 1956, and 1967), in Palestine (1929 and 1936), in Syria (1840, 1945, 1947, 1948, 1949, and 1967), in Yemen (1947), etc. Life for Christians under Islam has been scarcely more cheerful.
There is, of course, much more to say about all this, and I attempt to offer a more complete account in my book. While the argument I present in The End of Faith is against faith in general (and in support of a rational approach to spiritual experience), there are books that deal specifically with the liabilities of Islam. I recommend Ibn Warraq’s Why I am Not a Muslim for starters.
2. Sam, suicide bombing is a more general phenomenon than Muslim terrorism. Most of the people who blow themselves up are not Muslim or even religious. Read what Robert Pape has to say about this (you idiot).
In his influential essay, “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” (American Political Science Review 97, no. 3, 2003) and in a subsequent book, Robert Pape has argued that suicidal terrorism is best understood as a strategic means to achieve certain well-defined nationalist goals and should not be considered a consequence of religious ideology. In support of this thesis, he recounts the manner in which Hamas and Islamic Jihad have systematically used suicide bombings to extract concessions from the Israeli government. Like most commentators on this infernal wastage of human life, Pape seems unable to imagine what it would be like to actually believe what millions of Muslims profess to believe. The fact that terrorist groups have demonstrable, short-term goals does not in the least suggest that they are not primarily motivated by their religious dogmas. Pape claims that “the most important goal that a community can have is the independence of its homeland (population, property, and way of life) from foreign influence or control.” But he overlooks the fact that these communities define themselves in religious terms. Pape’s analysis is particularly ill-suited to explaining the actions of Islamists. Al Qaeda and other Islamist groups define their “strategic goals” entirely on the basis of their theology. To attribute “territorial” and “nationalistic” motives to Osama bin Laden seems almost willfully obscurantist, since bin Laden’s only apparent concerns are the spread of Islam and the sanctity of Muslim holy sites. Suicide bombing in the Muslim world tends to be an explicitly religious phenomenon that is inextricable from notions of martyrdom and jihad, predictable on their basis, and sanctified by their logic. It is no more secular an activity than prayer is.
If it were not for the religious doctrines of martyrdom and jihad, there would be no Al Qaeda; nor would there now be an influx of foreign fighters in Iraq. Nothing explains the behavior of Muslim extremists better than what these men and women believe about God, paradise, and the moral imperative of defending the faith against infidels and apostates. Pape resolutely ignores the fact that we are now confronted by people, on a dozen fronts, who will take to streets and start killing innocent civilians whenever their favorite book gets flushed down the toilet. What, exactly, is “secular” about that?
Several readers followed Pape’s and put forward the Tamil Tigers as a rebuttal to my claim that suicidal terrorism is a product of religion. But it is misleading to describe the Tamil Tigers as “secular,” as Pape often does. While the motivations of the Tigers are not explicitly religious, they are Hindus who undoubtedly believe many improbable things about the nature of life and death. The cult of martyr-worship that they have nurtured for decades has many of the features of religiosity that one would expect in people who give their lives so easily for a cause. Secular Westerners often underestimate the degree to which certain cultures, steeped as they are in otherworldliness, look upon death with less alarm than seems strictly rational. I was once traveling in India when the government rescheduled the exams for students who were preparing to enter the civil service: what appeared to me to be the least of bureaucratic inconveniences precipitated a wave of teenage self-immolations in protest. Hindus, even those whose preoccupations appear to be basically secular, often harbor potent religious beliefs.
3. Yes, the doctrine of Islam is problematic, but you run the risk of demonizing 1.3 billion people whenever you point this out. We must reach out to Muslims, not alienate them.
I fully agree. I also agree with those readers who thought that we should put our own house in order before we expect too much of another culture. With 83 percent of our neighbors believing that Jesus literally rose from the dead, we hardly appear to a kingdom of reason. Still, distinct religious beliefs have distinct behavioral consequences. Some ideas are worse than others. We ignore this at our peril.
October 11, 2005