Bombing Our Illusions
By Sam Harris
Open the newspaper today—or tomorrow, or almost any day for many years to come—and you will discover that some pious Muslim has deliberately blown himself to bits for the purpose of killing “infidels” or “apostates.” It is likely that the bomber was male, middle class, and comparatively well educated. It is especially likely that he was guided by the sincere expectation of spending eternity in Paradise. In fact, suicide bombing is now so commonplace in our world that most of us have lost sight of just how unimaginable it should be. It is, perhaps, the least likely thing human beings could ever be inclined to do. What, after all, is less likely than large numbers of middle class, educated, psychologically healthy people intentionally blowing themselves up—in crowds of children, in front of the offices of the Red Cross, at weddings—and having their mothers sing their praises for it? Can we even conceive of a more profligate misuse of human life? As a cultural phenomenon, suicide bombing should be impossible. But here it is.
Anyone familiar with my work knows that I am extremely critical of all religious faiths. I have argued elsewhere that the ascendancy of Christian conservatism in American politics should terrify and embarrass us. And yet, there are gradations to the evil that is done in name of God, and these gradations must be honestly observed. So let us now make sense of the impossible by acknowledging the obvious: there is a direct link between the doctrine of Islam and Muslim terrorism. Acknowledging this link remains especially taboo among political liberals. While liberals are leery of religious fundamentalism in general, they consistently imagine that all religions at their core teach the same thing and teach it equally well. This is one of the many delusions borne of political correctness. Rather than continue to squander precious time, energy, and good will by denying the role that Islam now plays in perpetuating Muslim violence, we should urge Muslim communities in the West to reform the ideology of their religion. This will not be easy, as the Koran and hadith offer precious little basis for a Muslim Enlightenment, but it is necessary.
Anyone who imagines that terrestrial concerns account for Muslim terrorism must answer questions of the following sort: Where are the Tibetan Buddhist suicide bombers? The Tibetans have suffered an occupation far more brutal, and far more cynical, than any that Britain, the United States, or Israel have ever imposed upon the Muslim world. Where are the throngs of Tibetans ready to perpetrate suicidal atrocities against Chinese noncombatants? They do not exist. What is the difference that makes the difference? The difference lies in the specific tenets of Islam. This is not to say that Buddhism could not help inspire suicidal violence. It can, and it has (Japan, World War II). But this concedes absolutely nothing to the apologists for Islam. As a Buddhist, one has to work extremely hard to justify such barbarism. One need not work nearly so hard as a Muslim. The truth that we must finally confront is that Islam contains specific notions of martyrdom and jihad that fully explain the character of Muslim violence. Unless the world’s Muslims can find some way of expunging the metaphysics that is fast turning their religion into a cult of death, we will ultimately face the same perversely destructive behavior throughout much of the world.
While the other major world religions have been fertile sources of intolerance, it is clear that the doctrine of Islam poses unique problems for the emergence of a global civilization. The world, from the point of view of Islam, is divided into the “House of Islam” and the “House of War,” and this latter designation should indicate how Muslims believe their differences with those who do not share their faith will be ultimately resolved. While there are undoubtedly some moderate Muslims who have decided to overlook the irrescindable militancy of their religion, Islam is undeniably a religion of conquest. The only future devout Muslims can envisage—as Muslims—is one in which all infidels have been converted to Islam, politically subjugated, or killed. The tenets of Islam simply do not admit of anything but a temporary sharing of power with the “enemies of God.” Devout Muslims can have no doubt about the reality of Paradise or about the efficacy of martyrdom as a means of getting there. Nor can they question the wisdom and reasonableness of killing people for what amount to theological grievances. In Islam, it is the moderate who is left to split hairs, because the basic thrust of the doctrine is undeniable: convert, subjugate, or kill unbelievers; kill apostates; and conquer the world.
We are now mired in a religious war in Iraq and elsewhere. Our enemies—as witnessed by their astonishing willingness to slaughter themselves—are not principally motivated by political or economic grievances. How many more architects and electrical engineers must fly planes into buildings before we realize that the problem of Muslim extremism is not merely a matter of education? How many more middle-class British citizens must blow themselves up along with scores of noncombatants before we acknowledge that Muslim terrorism is not matter of poverty or political oppression?
It is not enough for moderate Muslims to say “not in our name.” They must now police their own communities. They must offer unreserved assistance to western governments in locating the extremists in their midst. They must tolerate, advocate, and even practice ethnic profiling. It is simply a fact that the greatest predictor of terrorist behavior anywhere in the world (with the exception of the island Sri Lanka) is whether or not a person believes that Allah is the only god and Muhammad is his prophet. Moderate Muslims themselves must acknowledge this fact without equivocation. The time for political correctness and multi-cultural shibboleths has long passed. Moderate Muslims must accept and practice open criticism of their religion. We are now in the 21st century: all books, including the Koran, should be fair game for flushing down the toilet without fear of violent reprisal. If you disagree, you are not a religious moderate, and you are on a collision course with modernity.
The war in Iraq, while it may be exacerbating the conflict between Islam and the West, is a red herring. However mixed or misguided American intentions were in launching this war, civilized human beings are now attempting, at considerable cost to themselves, to improve life for the Iraqi people. The terrible truth about our predicament in Iraq is that even if we had invaded with no other purpose than to remove Saddam Hussein from power and make Iraq a paradise on earth, we could still expect tomorrow’s paper to reveal that another jihadi has blown himself up for the sake of killing scores of innocent men, women, and children. The outrage that Muslims feel over U.S. and British foreign policy is primarily the product of theological concerns. Devout Muslims consider it a sacrilege for infidels to depose a Muslim tyrant and occupy Muslim lands—no matter how well intentioned the infidels or malevolent the tyrant. Because of what they believe about God and the afterlife and the divine provenance of the Koran, devout Muslims tend to reflexively side with other Muslims, no matter how sociopathic their behavior. This is solidarity born of religious delusion, and it must end—or a genuine clash of civilizations will be unavoidable.
Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere have been traumatized by war and by decades of repression. But this does not explain the type of violence they wage against us on a daily basis. War and repression do not account for suicidal violence directed against the Red Cross, the U.N., foreign workers, and Iraqi innocents. War and repression do not account for the influx of foreign fighters willing to sacrifice their lives merely to sow chaos. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is not George Washington with a hood. Sawing the heads off of civilian contractors, humanitarian workers, and journalists is not “resistance” to oppression. It is the work of men who left their hearts in the 7th century. Civilization really does have its enemies, and we have met—and, perhaps, made – many of them in Iraq.
It is time we admitted that we are not at war with “terrorism”; we are at war with precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran. This is not to say that we are at war with all Muslims, but we are absolutely at war with millions more than have any direct affiliation with Al Qaeda. Every person living in a western democracy should read the Koran and discover the relentlessness with which non-Muslims are vilified in its pages. The idea that Islam is a “peaceful religion hijacked by extremists” is a dangerous fantasy—and it is now a particularly dangerous fantasy for moderate Muslims to indulge.
It should be of particular concern to us that the beliefs of devout Muslims pose a special problem for nuclear deterrence. There is, after all, little possibility of our having a cold war with an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons. A cold war requires that the parties be mutually deterred by the threat of death. Notions of martyrdom and jihad run roughshod over the logic that allowed the United States and the Soviet Union to pass half a century perched, more or less stably, on the brink of Armageddon. We must come to terms with the possibility that men who are every bit as zealous to die as the September 11th hijackers may one day get their hands on nuclear weaponry. As Martin Rees has pointed out, there is no reason to expect that we will be any more successful at stopping nuclear proliferation, in small quantities, than we have been with respect to illegal drugs. If this is true, weapons of mass destruction will eventually be available to anyone who wants them. It seems a truism to say that there is no possible future in which aspiring martyrs will make good neighbors for us.
It is not at all clear how we should proceed in our dialogue with the Muslim world. But deluding ourselves with euphemisms and pandering to the religious sensitivities of Muslims is not the answer. There is much about Islamic culture that should appall us. The treatment of women in Muslim communities throughout the world is unconscionable. All civilized nations must unite in condemnation of a theology that now threatens to destabilize much of the earth. Muslim moderates, wherever they are, must be given every tool necessary to win a war of ideas with their coreligionists. Otherwise, we will have to win some very terrible wars in the future.
October 10, 2005