Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Sam Harris: hard on terrorism

In his latest, Sam Harris (the End of Faith guy, and self-described liberal) declares:
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.
Here is his chief complaint against liberals (except for himself):
...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 not sure what this abundant evidence is--Harris provides no hints. But let's focus on the connection between American militarism and Muslim terrorism; let's also focus on Bin Laden's followers, since that's the brand of terrorism which Harris is specifically addressing. How did Bin Laden attract his followers in the first place, pre-9/11? In 1998, he issued a fatwah declaring jihad against all Americans, in which he listed "three facts" which he took to provide an argument for the conclusion that America had already effectively declared war on Islam, necessitating jihad in response.

The three "facts", in brief: US military presence on the Arabian peninsula; US aggression against the Iraqi people; and US military support for Israel. Note the common theme.

A few details aren't immediately relevant here. It's not relevant how bad this "argument" for jihad is. It's not relevant that the "facts" are distortions (well, at least in parts). It's not even relevant that Bin Laden himself possibly didn't really give a damn about most of these issues. What is relevant is that some people received these "facts", and believed that they were true, and believed that they yielded an argument for the violent jihad of which 9/11 was a part.

Of course the situation has changed since 1998. The first "fact" no longer applies, but one imagines that the force of the second "fact" has been immensely strengthened in the eyes of Bin Laden's target audience.

In any case, it certainly looks as if American militarism (or, certain perceptions of it) was in fact a crucial part of Bin Laden's recruitment drive. I'm not sure what Harris would say in response. He ought to have something to say in response, though, if he is going to accuse liberals of ignoring, and even abetting, the One True Cause of terrorism: religious ideas, and the refusal to criticize them.
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.
This is Harris' constant theme. The greatest problem facing the world today is religion: a certain murderous form of it, in the first place; but also liberal ideals of religious tolerance which prevent the criticism of all religious ideas.

Including, apparently, those of Bin Laden and his ilk. Thus it becomes impossible, I guess, to criticize the idea that blowing up a bunch of people with a nuclear bomb will get you into paradise--which is why you'll never find any real criticism of that idea from a secular liberal pluralist, or a theist of any kind, and certainly not any Muslim.

Right. So much for the most substantive points in Harris' article. It mostly goes downhill from there.

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