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Sam Harris: The Truthdig Interview
Posted on Apr 3, 2006
What kind of fears did you have before writing such a book, and putting your name and picture on it?
There are security concerns, obviously. The Salaman Rushdie effect was not totally distant from my imagination as I was writing the book, but at a certain point you just have to speak honestly about these things, and I’ve taken reasonable steps to ensure my security.
Can you elaborate?
I don’t make my whereabouts particularly well known and I have security whenever I do an event—bodyguards and other precautions that are probably best not publicized.
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I’ve had some reasonably scary e-mails, but nothing that has risen to the level of a death threat.
How do most people react when you explain to them the thesis of your book? You meet someone at a dinner party, let’s say.
It depends where the conversation begins. If I begin with my criticism of Islam, anyone on the conservative side of the spectrum will tend to understand it, and liberals will find it to be a taboo-breaking repudiation of their political correctness and their multi-culturalism.
Conversely, if I start talking about my concerns about the intrusions of religion into our own public policy, liberals will tend to love this, as they share these concerns, but Christian conservatives will begin to protest. So I can establish rapport, or not, depending on what I emphasize in my argument.
But perhaps the most central thesis of your book, the attack on irrational faith itself, doesn’t that offend people on both sides of the political spectrum?
The most controversial aspect of my book has been this criticism I make of religious moderates. Most people think that while religious extremism is problematic and polarizing, religious tolerance is entirely blameless and is the remedy for all that ails us on this front.
But religious moderates are giving cover to fundamentalists because of the respect that moderates demand of faith-based talk. Religious moderation doesn’t allow us to say the really critical things we must say about the abject stupidity of religious fundamentalism. And as a result, it keeps fundamentalism in play, and fundamentalists make very cynical and artful use of the cover they’re getting by the political correctness in our discourse.
You also say religious moderation closes the door to more sophisticated approaches to spirituality, ethics and the building of strong communities. What did you mean by that?
Religious moderation is just a cherry-picking of scripture, ultimately. It is just diluted Iron Age philosophy. It isn’t a 21st century approach to talking about the contemplative life, or spiritual experience, or ethical norms, or those features that keep communities strong and healthy.
Religious moderation is a relaxation of the standards of adherence to ancient taboos and superstitions. That’s really all it is. Moderate Christians have agreed not to read the bible literally, and not read certain sections of it at all, and then they come away with a much more progressive, tolerant and ecumenical version of Christianity. They just pay attention to Jesus when he’s sermonizing on the Mount, and claim that is the true Christianity. Well that’s not the true Christianity. It’s a selective reading of certain aspects of Christianity. The other face of Christianity is always waiting in the book to be resurrected. You can find the Jesus of Second Thessalonians who’s going to come back and hurl sinners into the pit. This is the Jesus being celebrated in the Left Behind novels. This is the Jesus that half the American population is expecting to see come down out of the clouds.
Switching gears: to what extent do you see religion—as opposed to tribalism or just a plain desire to avenge past wrongs—responsible for the sectarian violence destabilizing Iraq?
I don’t think you can necessarily draw a neat line of separation here, because clearly the Shia and the Sunni, for instance, have defined their moral communities in terms of their religious affiliation. These communities have a long history of victimizing one another on that basis, so their conflict does have the character of a tribal feud. But the only difference between these two groups, really, is their religious identity—and it’s a marginal difference at best. These are two groups who really do worship the same god. They just can’t agree to worship him in the same way, and for this they’ve been killing each other for centuries.
To what extent will America be responsible if a theocracy takes over in Iraq?
Many people draw a lesson from the chaos in Iraq now—a lesson which suggests that we were rapacious, oil-greedy colonialists who ineptly wandered into a sectarian hell-realm and have inflamed the place. But I think it’s worth stepping back to ask what would be the best-case scenario—had we gone in purely for altruistic motives, to liberate 25 million people from Saddam Hussein and his diabolical sons.
I think it’s quite possible that we would see precisely the same chaos. Now, this is not to deny that we did many things terribly and ineptly, and Abu Ghraib cost us dearly. But it’s likely that we would still have some significant percentage of Muslims who would be ready to fight to the death simply to eject the infidels from Babylon, no matter how altruistic the infidels’ motives.
Given that fact, I think our culpability is somewhat mitigated, because I think there was a very good argument for trying to create a model democracy in the heart of the Muslim world, and Iraq was a plausible place to do that. But none of what I just said should be construed as a denial of the fact that we have done it horribly, or that we’re paying a terrible price for our failures. We are likely to pay for these failures long into the future.
Many people fear that Iraq will adopt Sharia [the Islamic fundamentalist legal code]. Is that preferable to a secular totalitarian regime?
No, I don’t think it is at all. They’re two evils. But if you get a truly ethical despot in charge—a benevolent despot—that may be the necessary transitional mechanism to democracy.
It should be pretty clear that much of the Muslim world is not ready for democracy, and we have to confront that reality. Many Muslims are prepared to tear out their freedoms by the root the moment they are given a chance to decide their destiny.
How we transition to a democracy in the Middle East—a true democracy—is a very difficult problem. We should consider the examples of Muslim communities living in Western Europe, and their failure to assimilate democratic values. If ever there were a test case for how immune a community can be to the charms of democracy, just look at the Muslim communities in Holland or France or Denmark. Look at the crowds of people who want newspaper editors and cartoonists decapitated. These are people who are living in Western Europe. Many of them have lived their whole lives there.
So you really think Islam is fundamentally incompatible with democracy?
For the most part, yes. Just look at the case of the apostate in Afghanistan who converted to Christianity and who was up for a death sentence. Then, after all the nations of the earth applied pressure on Hamid Karzai, he got spirited away. This is the reality under Islam: you take your life in your hands for criticizing the faith. A Muslim is simply not free to wake up in the morning and decide he no longer wants to be a Muslim. Such a change of mind is really punishable by death. So unless Muslims reform this feature of their religion, at a minimum, there is not much hope for Muslim democracy.
We’re not tending to talk about all of the deal-breakers that lurk in the mainstream theology of Islam. We’re pretending as though they’re not there, and we’re invading countries and creating constitutional democracies, apparently in ignorance of the fact that a majority of the people still want their neighbors killed for thought crimes. Until you change peoples’ minds on this subject—until you get them to run a different moral calculus, where cartoons cease to be the thing that most animates them, and a genuine compassion for other peoples’ suffering is the real gold standard of their morality—I don’t see how putting the structures of democracy in place will help anyone. You need a civil society before you have a democracy.
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