No, Sam Harris is not Islamophobic

Cue the liberal freak-out over the title of this post.

Frequently antagonistic comedian Bill Maher made news last week when he and Ben Affleck got into a Fox News style shouting match over Islam. Maher was joined by fellow atheist and famous neuroscientist Sam Harris. Both of them made the argument that while most Muslims are peaceful and moderate, the main problem with Islamic jihad is Islam itself.

Ben Affleck’s first response to the completely valid point was predictable: That’s racist!

“[It’s] the only religion that acts like the mafia that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book,” Maher said. “There’s a reason why Ayaan Hirsi Ali needs bodyguards 24/7.”

Harris’ response was more eloquent and – I’d argue – relevant…

“[Muslim cultures] often keep women and homosexuals immiserated…we have to empower the true reformers in the Muslim world to change it,” he told Affleck. “And lying about doctrine and this behavior is not going to do that.”

He’s absolutely right.

Islamophobia exists. I’m not debating that. Far-right leaders and talking heads proposing the abolition of First Amendment freedoms for Muslims is probably the best example. It is ludicrous to think that most Muslims are fanatical jihadists, too. The Muslim faith has a-billion-and-a-half adherents worldwide. Incredible and brilliant people are among its followers. Islam – like the world’s other large religions – is also full of different theological interpretations of the Qur’an. Liberal and moderate Muslims exist, despite most press coverage.

But the Qur’an, like the Christian Bible, is also an incredibly violent book with troubling morality. Calling for the death of blasphemers or stoning women and homosexuals can be found in both. Genocide, sexism, homophobia, racism….these are all central themes of the Old Testament and the Qur’an. Pointing this out is not Islamophobic or anti-Christian – it’s a fact. It also has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that most Muslims have darker skin than Europeans and Americans.

Even though I’m not religious, I have immense respect for religious leaders who recognize Bronze Age religious texts for what they are – too-frequently barbaric. Just like Harris, I believe that these brave men and women should continue to be empowered to fight fanaticism and savagery within their cultures. Progressive Muslim Akmal Ahmed Safwat of the Democratic Muslims of Denmark says it best for religious reformers: “The Qur’an’s divine instructions were interpreted and explained by fallible and mortal men who were the product of their time and culture.”

If secular liberals and progressives are to continue to fight the spread of fundamentalist Christianity (as we should definitely continue to do), we have to be intellectually honest and continue to denounce radical and fundamentalist Islam as well. That’s not racist, bigoted, or neoconservative. It’s vital to maintaining a pluralistic society.

Sam Harris

 

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21st Century Prophecy

Internationally, times are incredibly tense these days. Syria’s years-long, bloody civil war has recently taken a turn for the worse – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used deadly chemical weapons – banned under international law – on over 1,400 of his own people as a way to cripple rebel forces. Now the United States may use a military strike against Assad to send him a message that such barbarism will not be tolerated anywhere…a message that could very easily become yet another U.S.-involved war in the Middle East. Oh, yeah, and Russia is one of Syria’s most vocal allies.

Naturally, Americans are worried and deeply divided as to what exactly should be done, especially since it’s the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. After warring in the Mid East for over a decade, the American people are weary of the prospect of more war. Most Democrats, Republicans and political independents agree that we should not get involved. Now that Assad has said he will turn over his nation’s chemical weapons to the international community, I expect national public opinion to further sour on the prospect of a military strike.

However, for some, that worry has turned to the to-be-expected belief that this latest episode of turmoil in the Middle East is just another “sign” of the “end times.” For those of you who aren’t familiar with one of fundamentalist Christianity’s favorite obsessions, “end times” refers to the larger eschatological belief that the New Testament book of Revelation contains prophecies written specifically about the modern world. In this worldview, literally every breaking news story about tension in the Middle East is instantly tied to some vague passage of the Bible to support the belief that the “soon” and “coming return” of Jesus Christ may be around the proverbial corner. Ironically, this has been the understanding amongst fundamentalists since the 19th century (Napoleon was once seen as the Antichrist). The fact that these prophecies do not typically outlive the lives of fire-and-brimstone clergymen never seems to sway these fundamentalist believers.

Fox News host Neil Cavuto recently featured a segment on the possible Syria-prophecy connection by interviewing a “scholar” who followed the end times mold to a T. Joel Rosenberg, author of several books on “end times” prophecies, peddled the idea the conflict in Syria was possibly mentioned in the Old Testament book of Jeremiah (because nothing sells books better than the creepy air of possibility…). “…you have seven million Syrians already on the run—two million have left the country; five million are internally displaced,” Rosenberg told Cavuto. “The Jeremiah 49 prophecy says that people will flee, but there’ll still be people in Damascus when the prophecy happens. So the bottom line is we don’t know.” Cavuto was easily convinced and told his viewers, “It’s in there. It’s worth a read.”

Cavuto’s right – it is worth a read. When you read the Old Testament for what it is, a Bronze Age religious document that chronicles stories of conquests, kings and glory (with a lot of genocide, sexism and homophobia, too), you don’t find a secret decoder ring to the modern world. You find numerous examples of tragedy and megalomania. The cycle of civilizations rising, falling, crumbling in on themselves, and overtaking each other all tend to center on fighting, be it over religious superiority/inferiority, natural resources or the throne itself. In the end, these civilizations have all died out, closed off from the rest of the world and new ideas.

It’s not prophecy and mysticism. It’s the darker side of human nature. The only prophecy here is the fact that civilizations are prone to making the same mistakes as their predecessors.

In 2013, communication with anyone on the planet is possible. Ideas, philosophies, popular music, movies and even funny cat memes are shared around the world. With the proliferation of the World Wide Web in the Middle East and the Arab Spring, beginning in 2011, it would seem that the region may be able to change for the better. “Secular” culture and ideas, like equality and democracy, are starting to become mainstream. That’s what led to the conflict in Syria in the first place – rebel groups tried to overthrow their authoritarian government. Never before have such revolutionary ideas spread so quickly all over the globe.

one of NASA's most famous images

The world is rapidly changing faster than it ever has before. The “new” is quickly replacing the “old.” National cultures are becoming part of an emerging global culture of shared values and even entertainment. If we are to avoid the rise of powerful and tyrannical dictators like Assad, we must continue to work through diplomacy and international cooperation as well as strategic, economic sanctions. Civil and regional wars usually become international conflicts because the world is so interconnected. It affects us all. Given the weapons of warfare of the 21st century, we should be doing all that we can to avoid armed conflicts.

We have the knowledge and agency to make sure that the oldest prophecy of all, a civilization’s self-destruction, doesn’t happen.

 

 

Correction to my post on the “Ground Zero” mosque

On my last post, I expressed my personal view of the supposed “Ground Zero” mosque that has been all over the news recently.

I must correct an embarrassing error: The mosque is actually not on the Ground Zero site itself but a few blocks away. And not only is a mosque planned, but an Islamic cultural center as well.

In the light of this updated information and after giving the issue some more thought, I have to say that my opinion has changed.

Peaceful Muslims are trying to bridge the vast gap  between two different cultures. In a way, they are showing that they are not only sorry for the extremists who murdered thousands of Americans but also very interested in showing a brand of Islam to the American people that is frequently forgotten: A peaceful religion that is able to coexist with Western society.

In the name of peace, I hope that this works. I have nothing but disdain for the violence and brainwashing that fundamentalism and extremism preach…and that goes for all religions. Whenever the Mother Teresas and Benazir Bhuttos of the world speak up and make a difference, progress is made. In order for the world to move forward, the twin demons of extremism and fundamentalism must die out like the dinosaurs.

That’s my two cents.