On How Everything Sam Harris Says about Islam is Wrong

Sam Harris’s error-ridden and bigoted “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Religion” (Norton, 2005) singles out Islam for special opprobrium. Although Harris lambastes politicians of the Religious Right for having no special knowledge or credentials, the fact is that he himself has no credentials to write such a book other than strongly held opinions (he has a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience but knows no Arabic or apparently any history and seems unable to think historically or sociologically). The book is riddled with assertions that any social scientist finds laughable, and certainly that any academic expert in Islam is horrified at. (Harris goes back and forth between demanding that those he disagrees with have academic credentials and making fun of scholars with academic credentials–in other words he has to be right and get his way no matter what).

Harris stacks the deck in the beginning of his book by describing a suicide bombing by Muslim extremists. He goes on to deny that there are any truly “moderate” Muslims, arguing that the Qur’an and their faith demand of them extremism, and it is only their unfaced modernity and the blessings of secular society that dissuades most of them from acting on their scripture’s insistence on violence. (I will show how risibly wrong he is on this point in a future posting. But for now, those interested in a historical evaluation of the Qur’an passages Harris misuses should consult my book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace amid the Clash of Empires.

But what if he had started his book with another episode, the 1991 assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in India by a woman suicide bomber, Thenmozhi “Dhanu” Rajaratnam, of the Marxist Tamil Tigers (the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam [LTTE]) terrorist group? Although the Tamil Tigers sprung from middle class Sri Lankan Tamil discontents with their subordinate political position in Buddhist, Sinhalese-speaking Sri Lanka, they were a secular and not a Hindu nationalist movement. They pioneered suicide bombing and using women suicide bombers, techniques that were picked up from them by the radical Muslim fringe.

So the very initial pages of “The End of Faith” demonstrates Harris’s bad faith. The phenomenon he points to, suicide bombings by *religious* extremists, was initially developed and demonstrated not by a religious group but by a secular leftist nationalist one.

Of the 100 million or so people I estimate were wiped out by political violence in the twentieth century, the vast majority of them were killed by secular nationalists, Communists and Fascists. People of Muslim heritage probably killed 2 million or so, mainly in three episodes–the Armenian Genocide, the Iran-Iraq War, and the Afghanistan War. The genocide was committed by secular Young Turks enamored of Voltaire. The Iran-Iraq War was started by the Iraqi Baath Party, a secular Socialist party that foregrounded Arab nationalism and was founded by Christians, and which rejected a proposal to make Islam the religion of state. The Islamic Republic of Iran fought a defensive war against these secular invaders. The Afghanistan War that began in 1979 was provoked by a Communist coup and then the military occupation of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union, which pursued a dirty war of extermination and ethnic cleansing of villages that resisted the Red Army. Of the 7 guerrilla groups that tried to fight back against Soviet aggression, the majority were tribal and not religious in character.

Of course human beings can deploy religion for violent purposes, just as they can deploy any other ideology for violent purposes. But in the 20th century almost everyone killed in political violence was killed by persons of Christian and Buddhist heritage acting in the name of secular ideologies. Muslims were bit players and what killings they did carry out also were largely in the name of secular ideologies.

If we take Europe over the past 20 years, separatist, rightwing and leftist terrorist groups have carried out more actual terrorist operations than have Muslim or other religious groups in most years (2015 was a tragic exception). White supremacist terrorism in the US is a much bigger threat than any emanating from the 1% of the population that is Muslim-American, and virtually all of whom are strong American patriots.

Actual social science has found that neither personal piety among Muslims nor support for political Islam correlates with support for violence against the United States. Predictably, dislike of US foreign policy on the part of persons of all stripes, including secularists, is the strongest predictor for support for violence against the US.

All of Harris’s theses are incorrect, as in, scientifically wrong, and his work is a sort of intellectual pollution of our information system.

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