Home > Foreign Policy, Religion > Head in the sand atheists?

Head in the sand atheists?

September 19, 2006 Leave a comment Go to comments

Sam Harris has an op-ed in the LA Times attacking liberal responses to terrorism. If you know anything about Harris, you know where he’s going with this. Let’s look a little closer:

But my correspondence with liberals has convinced me that liberalism has grown dangerously out of touch with the realities of our world — specifically with what devout Muslims actually believe about the West, about paradise and about the ultimate ascendance of their faith.

On questions of national security, I am now as wary of my fellow liberals as I am of the religious demagogues on the Christian right.

This may seem like frank acquiescence to the charge that “liberals are soft on terrorism.” It is, and they are.

That’s quite an introduction. The evidence?

A cult of death is forming in the Muslim world — for reasons that are perfectly explicable in terms of the Islamic doctrines of martyrdom and jihad. The truth is that we are not fighting a “war on terror.” We are fighting a pestilential theology and a longing for paradise.

This is not to say that we are at war with all Muslims. But we are absolutely at war with those who believe that death in defense of the faith is the highest possible good, that cartoonists should be killed for caricaturing the prophet and that any Muslim who loses his faith should be butchered for apostasy.

Are we? There are a lot of people who die defending their faith and aren’t particularly dangerous. It all depends on what “defending the faith” constitutes. Dying for your right to practice a certain religion isn’t dangerous. We’re at war with people who think someone like me deserves to die for no discernable action on my part.

Unfortunately, such religious extremism is not as fringe a phenomenon as we might hope. Numerous studies have found that the most radicalized Muslims tend to have better-than-average educations and economic opportunities.

Given the degree to which religious ideas are still sheltered from criticism in every society, it is actually possible for a person to have the economic and intellectual resources to build a nuclear bomb — and to believe that he will get 72 virgins in paradise. And yet, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, liberals continue to imagine that Muslim terrorism springs from economic despair, lack of education and American militarism.

I’m all for dropping the despair and lack of education arguments, but American militarism is still a factor. Notice how Harris sneaks that in, without actually presenting an argument, as he did for economic despair and lack of education. More on that in a bit.

At its most extreme, liberal denial has found expression in a growing subculture of conspiracy theorists who believe that the atrocities of 9/11 were orchestrated by our own government. A nationwide poll conducted by the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University found that more than a third of Americans suspect that the federal government “assisted in the 9/11 terrorist attacks or took no action to stop them so the United States could go to war in the Middle East;” 16% believe that the twin towers collapsed not because fully-fueled passenger jets smashed into them but because agents of the Bush administration had secretly rigged them to explode.

Such an astonishing eruption of masochistic unreason could well mark the decline of liberalism, if not the decline of Western civilization. There are books, films and conferences organized around this phantasmagoria, and they offer an unusually clear view of the debilitating dogma that lurks at the heart of liberalism: Western power is utterly malevolent, while the powerless people of the Earth can be counted on to embrace reason and tolerance, if only given sufficient economic opportunities.

Pathetic. 9/11 conspiracy theorist are liberals? Hardly. It’s as much a phenomenon of the extreme right as it is of the extreme left. Harris is really grasping at straws here.

I’m going to go in a different direction now. You’ve probably noticed that I’m a fan of Robert Pape’s work on suicide terrorism. I think his explanation is pretty solid. It also doesn’t say it’s an outgrowth of Islamic doctrine. What does Harris think of that? He says here:

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.

There are quite a few problems here. Hamas and Islamic Jihad’s cycle of suicide bombing campaigns are directly linked to those concessions. As in, they stop when the recieve them, then continue on later to extract more confessions. Harris also ignores Hezbollah. They stopped suicide bombings once Israel left Lebanon. They’ve since transformed themselves into a different sort of group and hardly a more effective one. The impetus for those attacks disappeared. Another of Pape’s points is that the distribution of suicide terrorists’ countries of origin doesn’t correlate with the amount of religious extremism, but with U.S. involvement in the country. Next, Pape certainly doesn’t ignore that such communities are defined by religion. That’s a major point of this argument: the clash of religions is a major factor in suicide bombings. Nothing radicalizes believers like being attacked by infidels (or perceiving such a thing). Finally, bin Laden’s goals are pretty clear. He wants unbelievers out what he considers Muslim holy land. That’s exactly what Pape is talking about. Al Qaeda recruits people not by harping on the fact that it’s their duty to God, but by harping on what they believe infidels in their land to be doing. That’s the driving force. That fits with what Pape is saying, not with what Harris believes.

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.

The Tamil Tigers don’t appear to motivated by messianic religious goals. They simply don’t mention religion in their explanations of why they do what they do. They stopped suicide bombings when they worked out a tenative agreement with Sri Lanka. That’s consistent with their stated aims of independence. Harris’s vague claims that they’re religiously motivated are simply not supported by what we know.

In the end, Harris has to deal with the power of Pape’s theory. All suicide bombing campaigns are explainable in terms of territorial goals. Suicide bombers come from many different religions. Who needs Harris’s special pleading?

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Categories: Foreign Policy, Religion
  1. September 21, 2006 at 9:40 am

    Like Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris is motivated almost entirely by his disgust with religion of any sort. In many cases, this aligns him with the left, but not always. No doubt Islamic fundamentalism is a big problem, but I also think Harris overstates the issue.

  2. S4R
    September 21, 2006 at 6:11 pm

    With regards to “it is actually possible for a person to have the economic and intellectual resources to build a nuclear bomb — and to believe that he will get 72 virgins in paradise” I would stress the importance of mental health. I place a lot of blame in the hands of religious dogma as the world’s great catalyst for ignorance, but we can’t throw economic despair out of the equation because it in fact has profound effects on mental health. If religion can convince people of all its exaggerate claims, it can’t be too hard to convince the clinically depressed, perpetually disaffected, or schizophrenic to murder for promises of peace of mind.

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