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Sam Harris: The Truthdig Interview
Posted on Apr 3, 2006
By Blair Golson
In your book, you write that when a suicide bomber blows himself up, the role that faith played in his actions is invariably discounted. His motives must have been “political, economical, or entirely personal.” Why does faith get a free pass?
This is one of the interesting things about our discourse right now. Our own religious demagogues, the fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, will call a spade a spade and observe that there is a link between Islam and the kind of violence we see in the Muslim world. While I don’t agree with these people on anything else, they are actually offering a much more candid and accurate diagnosis of the problem, vis a vis Islam, than anything that’s coming from the Left.
Leftists, secularists, religious moderates, and religious liberals tend to be very poorly placed to recognize that when somebody looks into a video camera and says, “I love death more than the infidel loves life,” and then blows himself up, he’s actually being honest about his state of mind.
This is not propaganda, this is not politics and economic desperation masquerading as religion. People are really being motivated by the content of religious beliefs, and there are people who are really willing and eager to blow themselves up because they think they’re going to get to paradise.
Religious moderates and secularists don’t understand that because they don’t really know what it’s like to believe in God. They don’t know what it’s like to be sure God is there to hear their prayers , that He has dictated a book, and that the book is perfect in every syllable, and it’s a roadmap to paradise. And fundamentalists understand what it’s like to believe these preposterous things.
You assert that Islamic suicide bombers aren’t using religion as a pretext for political or economic grievances. But how do you know?
First of all, the 9/11 hijackers showed no evidence whatsoever of being people who were concerned with poverty or the plight of the Palestinians—that’s just not where their heads were at. They were talking about the evils of infidel culture, and the pleasures that await martyrs in paradise.
When you read about what they were doing with their lives, these people did not seem to have a political bone in their bodies. And they were not people who personally suffered oppression under the U.S. , the British, or the Israelis.
Osama Bin Laden is another example of this. He is not somebody who himself had been victimized, and he’s not somebody who, if you read his diatribes, spends a lot of time thinking about the poor. In fact, he only added the Palestinians to his list of woes as an afterthought. Originally, he was really concerned about theological offenses, about the fact that there were infidel boots on the ground near the holy sites of Mecca and Medina.
So we have people who are unambiguously well off, unambiguously well educated, willing to hit the wall at 400 miles-per-hour. And they spend a lot of time talking about paradise and virgins.
So it seems like a case of really tortured reasoning that somehow religion is not the motive for their actions—that their motives are economic or political—even though they are saying it is, and doing things that are only rational in light of these religious beliefs, and when they themselves have no economic or political grievances.
You spend a long chapter writing about beliefs as “principles of action”—that, given the right set of beliefs, a person will almost inexorably act in a certain way. Applying this to Islam, you say that given the tenets of a religion that guarantees a place in heaven for martyrs, it’s no wonder we see so many Islamic suicide bombers. However, if the connection between belief and action were this absolute, then how do you explain that all Moslems aren’t suicide bombers?
There’s always the question of whether you really believe what you say you believe. We have gradations of belief and certainty. Clearly if you were certain that paradise existed, and if you were certain that death in defense of the faith got you and everyone you loved into heaven for eternity, it would only be rational to die in those circumstances.
What we are finding is that there are people who really are certain, or at least are functionally certain of these propositions, and are eager to blow themselves up in the process of killing infidels, because they’re quite sure that the creator of the universe wants infidels to burn in fire for eternity. Of course, any Muslims they happen to kill in the process will go to paradise as well, and will be quite grateful to have been sent there.
Once you imagine what it would actually be like to believe these things, this behavior becomes totally reasonable. You find mothers of suicide bombers literally celebrating the deaths of their children, who have blown themselves up in crowds of other children at discotheques. This is the most obscene and inexplicable human behavior—and yet, it is totally reasonable, given what many Muslims say they believe about martyrdom.
What do you mean when you say that intolerance is intrinsic to every creed? And what are the implications of that?
The core claim of every creed is that it, alone, is true. The truth is, if you’re a Christian, Jesus really was the son of God, and was really resurrected, and he’s really coming back to judge the living and the dead. This is a fact. It is metaphysically true, it is physically true, it is historically true; if you’re standing on the right spot at the right time, you’re going to see Jesus come back with a host of angels.
This description of the world is either right or wrong. If it’s right, only the Christians are right, and only the Christians are going to heaven. So this doctrine, by definition, excludes the truth-claims of every other religion . Muslims claim that Jesus, while he was a prophet, was not divine, and that anyone who thinks he is divine is going to go to hell. This is explicitly spelled out in the Koran. These are mutually incompatible claims about the way the world works. They’re worse than that. They’re incompatible claims that are extremely motivating, because their adherents think that the difference between believing the right thing and the wrong thing is the difference between spending eternity in hell, or eternity in paradise. And that’s a very big difference.
What is it about the tenets of Islam that present a greater danger to the survival of our species, than, say, the tenets of Christianty?
The doctrine of martyrdom and Jihad is more explicit and central to the Islamic faith. There have obviously been martyrs and a lot of killing that has been reconciled with the doctrine of Christianity over the years, and it’s certainly possible to read the Bible in a way that will justify the Inquisition and all of the other things we’ve seen in the history of Christianity that seem every bit as bad as what we’re seeing in the Muslim world now, but there are a few unique features of Islam that are problematic.
One is that it is a much more coherent doctrine, which is to say that the Koran is a much shorter, more coherent book, and there is no sermon on the Mount in there that you can fixate on and use as a bulwark against the rest of the dangerous gibberish in the book in the way that you can with the Bible.
The basic message of the Koran really is hatred of the infidels. The infidel is fit only for the fires of hell; the creator of the universe is in the process of mocking and cursing and shaming and destroying and not forgiving and not reprieving the infidel.
Your job is to ignore the infidel, by all means do not befriend the infidel. When you get the power: subjugate, convert, or kill the infidel. And those are really the only three choices.
Devout Muslims take the Koran and the Haddith seriously because there is no other brand of Islam. There is no moderate school of Islam that suggests the Koran was really just written by men and may not be the word of god, or has to be interpreted very, very loosely. Most Muslims are what we would call “fundamentalists” in the Christian world.
But what about the tradition in Islamic societies of consulting with Mullahs or Imams before acting on a directive in the Koran? Don’t those people tend to moderate the harshest edicts of Islamic law?
It’s not that there’s not a wealth of discourse about what the Koran actually says. There is a lot of Muslim scholarship out there. The problem is that there really is no basis for what we would call a moderate and genuinely pluralistic worldview to be pulled out of Islam. You really need to do some seriously acrobatic theology to get an Islam that is compatible with 21st century civil society. This is witnessed virtually every day we open the newspaper now, the latest case being the apostate in Afghanistan who converted to Christianity. The basic message of this episode should be clear: this is a government that we came in and reformulated and propped up, and the fact that it had to have a constitution that was in conformity to Islam, opened the door to the true face of Islam, which is: apostasy is punishable by death. That is a fact that no liberal exegesis of Islam is going to change. We have to find some way to change it, of course. Islam needs a reformation. But at present, it’s true to say that the real word of God in Islam is that if you change your religion, you should die for it.
Isn’t that also the case in the Bible? Don’t we see similar edicts and punishments for apostasy?
Yes. There’s nothing worse than the first books of the Hebrew bible: Leviticus and Deuteronomy and Exodus, these are the most barbaric, most totalitarian, most Taliban-like documents we can find. But there are a few loopholes, and these loopholes don’t exist in Islam, to my knowledge. One loophole for Christians is that most Christians think that Jesus brought us the doctrine of grace, and therefore you don’t have to follow the law. While it’s true that there are other moments in the New Testament when Jesus can be read as saying that you have to fulfill every “jot and tittle” of the law (this is in Matthew)—and therefore you can get a rationale for killing people for adultery out of the New Testament—most Christians, most of the time, don’t see it that way.
The Bible is a fundamentally self-contradictory document. You can cherry-pick it in a way that you really can’t the Koran, even though there are a few lines in the Koran that say, “Allah does not love aggressors”—if you hew to just those few lines, you can say things like, “Osama Bin Laden is distorting the true teachings of a peaceful religion.” But the basic fact is that Osama Bin Laden is giving a very plausible reading of Islam. You have to split hairs to find a basis for what we would recognize as real moderation in Islam.
Then by that logic, why aren’t we worried that Jews, for instance, who aren’t necessarily following Jesus’ doctrine of grace, why aren’t we worried that they are also directed to kill for apostasy? Why are we only so focused on the Muslims when the edicts are the same in both books?
Again, the details really matter. It really matters what people specifically believe. And with Jews, you don’t have this idea of martyrdom, you don’t have this explicit promise of paradise, the after-death state is not spelled out with any kind of specificity in Judaism, and Judaism is very much a religion of this world. Also, the Jews are massively outnumbered. There are something like 15 million Jews on the planet, and they have tended to be the most beleaguered population historically, so they have not been in a position to demand that people observe their law and to threaten death to infidels.
But is it really your position that were they in the majority, they would follow edicts of killing heretics in the same way that Muslims seem to in higher numbers?
This is an interesting question. If you had an Orthodox Judaism that was truly ascendant, then it would be problematic. The Jewish settlers are really deranged by their theology, and I would argue that they are some of the most dangerous and irresponsible people on earth right now. If anyone is going to push us to a third world war, it’s going to be Jewish settlers doing something stupid like tearing down the Dome of the Rock, or fighting to the death to assert their claims on the West Bank. This expression of Judaism is problematical, without a doubt. But the eschatology of Judaism is rather specific, and they’re waiting for their messiah to come back, for the temple to be re-built, and for the Sanhedrin to be reconvened. If you asked them what they will do once all this happens, what law will we need to live by when the messiah comes back, I think you’ll find the Orthodox Jews will be open-minded about killing people for adultery or working on the Sabbath. I don’t know what argument they could find against doing these things.
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