The Devil sucks in the most devout. In theology fanatics make for easier marks for conversion than moderates because of the jitters and fright common to all such breeds who fear their minds will be colonised by the Satanic advance of the secular world. I’m a living testament to the perils of monkeying with fundamentalism. Years ago, long before God outgrew his diapers, I was a devout Muslim who took shelter in the sanctum of the mosque from the sweet offerings of the land because frequenting the bars and clubs of town threatened to rob my faith. The laidback Muslim, conversely, has no fear that downing a bottle of whiskey will corrupt his deathless soul provided he affirms the elemental doctrines of Islam; but it was my unhappy fate to be drawn into the clericalism of the Salafi crowd among whom I studied and got my Islamic training.
I soon found that my literalism contained the seeds of its own euthanasia for if the Quran was the literal and immovable word of Allah, then I would be a good sight happier sweating in the warmer climes of hell.
By the time I got round to reading Sam Harris then I was fairly acquainted with the atheist canon tenanted by thinkers like Russell, Mencken, Ingersoll and other torchbearers of reason who had reconfigured my synaptic wiring to banish any supernaturalism. And I was keen to add Harris to this proud tradition of God slayers. Happily, it was an easy task getting to like Sam: His prose style is readable with a gift for the bon mot, vital traits of the intellectual worthy.
Any review of Sam Harris and his work is a review essentially of politics. And from there I will begin my examination of his thought and work my way back to the question of religion for which he is better known. Harris gave a revealing interview recently to Tablet that best sums up the key themes of his political writing on the Middle East, Israel and the Western relation to Muslims :
“The Israelis are confronting people who will blow themselves up to kill the maximum number of noncombatants and will even use their own children as human shields. They’ll launch their missiles from the edge of a hospital or school so that any retaliation will produce the maximum number of innocent casualties. And they do all this secure in the knowledge that their opponents are genuinely worried about killing innocent people. It’s the most cynical thing imaginable. And yet within the moral discourse of the liberal West, the Israeli side looks like it’s the most egregiously insensitive to the cost of the conflict.”
It’s a claim recycled from his book The End of Faith (2005), in which he maintains that Israel upholds the human rights of Palestinians to a high standard. His source? Alan Dershowitz. The spirit of the Zionist law attorney infuses a book in which he is approvingly quoted and in which he provides the basis for Harris’s ticking time bomb defence of torture. It’s not for nothing Dershowitz blurbs the book. But is it true as Harris gushes that Israel’s moral capital lies in the fact “They’re still worried about killing the children of their enemies”?
Consider the findings of human rights groups like Amnesty International’s investigation into the Gaza war of 2008:
“Amnesty International on Thursday accused Israeli forces of war crimes, saying they used children as human shields and conducted wanton attacks on civilians during their offensive in the Gaza Strip. “
What about the assertion that Arabs take cover behind their own children? Amnesty finds that although Hamas rocketed Israeli towns during the war, that:
“It could not support Israeli claims that Hamas used human shields. It said it found no evidence Palestinian fighters directed civilians to shield military objectives from attacks, forced them to stay in buildings used by militants, or prevented them from leaving commandeered buildings”
The co-author of the influential Goldstone Report for the UN Human Rights Council, Desmond Travers, has said:
“We found no evidence that Hamas used civilians as hostages. I had expected to find such evidence but did not. We also found no evidence that mosques were used to store munitions. ”
For a man who likes to badger Muslims about their “reflexive solidarity” with Arab suffering, Harris seems keen to display his own tribal affections for the Jewish state. The virtue of Israel and the wickedness of her enemies are recurring themes in his work. The End of Faith opens with the melodramatic scene of a young man of undetermined nationality boarding a bus with a suicide vest. The bus detonates, innocents die and Harris, with the relish of a schoolmarm passing on the facts of life to her brood, chalks in the question: “Why is it so easy, then, so trivially easy-you-could-almost-bet-your-life-on-it-easy to guess the young man’s religion?”
To which historians will answer: Because it is not.
Owing to the narrow focus of his book, written after the 9/11 attacks, Harris wishes the trauma of recent events to yield a Muslim answer. Had it been written on September 10, 2001, the answer would have been the nominally Hindu Tamil Tigers who have racked up almost four hundred suicide attacks; or, in 1945, a Buddhist Kamikaze; or, reflecting the Eastern Front of the same conflict, the German Luftwaffe’s suicide squadrons. What the religion of the bomber is depends on at which point of history you begin to start your timeline.
Harris knows this history only too well, for he secretes this admission in the footnotes away from the main body of the text. But that does not inhibit this bold oracle of reason from his anti-Muslim jihad. It’s a mode of reasoning that he’s perfected well because it crops up when he’s got to account for why, given that Islam forbids taking one’s own life in the roundest terms, some militant groups defy this. He concedes momentarily that the Quran does command “do not kill yourselves” (4:29), but gets around this prohibition by waving it away as having “loopholes”. Where these loopholes are he never says; it’s just asserted by fiat against the accumulated body of Islamic theology. He skips the numerous injunctions against it by Muhammad as a hellworthy offence:
“And if somebody commits suicide with anything in this world, he will be tortured with that very thing on the Day of Resurrection.”
And no exceptions are made for wartime:
“The Prophet said: A man was inflicted with wounds and he committed suicide, and so Allah said: My slave has caused death on himself hurriedly, so I forbid paradise for him.” (ibid)
Harris is keen to blur the sharp demarcation between the concepts of martyrdom and suicide in the hope of confusing the reader into conflating the plain meaning of distinct words. To be slain in battle is what makes one a martyr or a “shaheed” in Islam; not self-murder. This is why the grand imam of the leading Islamic centre of learning at the University of Al Azhar, Muhammad Syed Tantawi, published a fatwa before his recent death blasting the airborne hijackings of 9/11 as a crime and attacked Bin Laden as an “enemy of Islam”; and why Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei castigated the attacks; and why six thousand Muslim clerics denounced Al-Qaeda; and why polls show that Muslims are far less supportive of killing civilians than Americans generally.
None of these leaders of Islamic thought get any attention in the Harris formulation of “The Muslim World”; only cavemen in Tora Bora. In fact these leaders don’t even exist:
“In our dealings with the Muslim world, we must acknowledge that Muslims have not found anything of substance to say against the actions of the September 11 hijackers, apart from the ubiquitous canard that they were really Jews.” ( The End of Faith, p. 134)
It’s a well honed rhetorical ploy of Harris to demand why, if interventionism drives terrorism, there are no Tibetan suicide bombers. For are they not occupied as well? The alert reader will spot the shift of focus here from religion to nationality. As well ask why there are no instances of Indonesian suicide terrorists against Dutch colonialism, or Indian suicide bombers against the British Raj. The correct analogy is not between nationals from Tibet and Indonesia, but rather believers from Islam and Buddhism. When framed in term of religious affiliation, one observes why Buddhist suicide pilots loom very large indeed in recent military conflicts.
In the Harris depiction, Tibetans bear the jackboot of Chinese occupation meekly and in Christ-like surrender to violence in deep contrast to the mindless violence of Palestinians, proof yet again that Islam, and not the depredations of US foreign policy, is the progenitor of terror. From this narrative one would never guess that Tibet fought a bitter conventional war against China. The national liberation struggle of Tibetans doesn’t quite mesh with the dovish non-violence Harris conjures. And so out it goes from the record.
Given that Harris rails against pacifism in later chapters as being, not a worthy but impossible ideal as so many cherish, but an “evil” precept that would let killers go unmolested, his sudden enthusiasm for turning the other cheek is a suspect one. And you will seek in vain for any reference to Arab civil disobedience against the occupation in his work from the peaceful protests of the first Intifada in which scores of unarmed demonstrators were gunned down by the IDF to the present wave of mass hunger strikes.
The Jains are yet another commonly-trotted-out source of comparison for Harris. He wants to know why there are no Jain suicide bombers, unlike those horrid Arab barbarians. It is painful to inform this Princeton graduate of philosophy who presumably took a first year course in the rudiments of logic that Jains, unlike Palestinians, are not occupied by hostile foreign powers, are not displaced from their homes, are not imprisoned en masse without trial and tortured.
Harris never quite stoops to articulate why suicide bombing is objectively worse than more common variants of homicide like the monopoly enjoyed by Christians and Jews on aerial bombing which rubbles entire nations with far more loss of life than a semtex in a rucksack. The mystery unravels when we learn that Harris backed the 2006 carpet bombing of Lebanon and Gaza by Israel on the dubious premise that “there is no question that the Israelis now hold the moral high ground in their conflict with Hamas and Hezbollah. And yet liberals in the United States and Europe often speak as though the truth were otherwise”.
The rejoinder Harris offers to those wooly-minded liberal peaceniks who just don’t compute the bottomless evil of jihadism is that Arabs murder civilians intentionally whilst Israel, trained in the Holiness of Arms, kills women and children accidentally. Setting aside the unreality of this claim, which veils the indiscriminate shelling of Operation Cast Lead whose lethal casualty ratio was over 1,300 Palestinians to Israel’s 13, the logic of “collateral damage” is a proven con. As the late historian and WW2 air force pilot Howard Zinn noted:
“These words are misleading because they assume an action is either ‘deliberate’ or ‘unintentional.’ There is something in between, for which the word is ‘inevitable.’ If you engage in an action, like aerial bombing, in which you cannot possibly distinguish between combatants and civilians (as a former Air Force bombardier, I will attest to that), the deaths of civilians are inevitable, even if not ‘intentional.’ Does that difference exonerate you morally? The terrorism of the suicide bomber and the terrorism of aerial bombardment are indeed morally equivalent. To say otherwise (as either side might) is to give one moral superiority over the other, and thus serve to perpetuate the horrors of our time.”
At other times Harris acknowledges that what is termed collateral damage is not accidental but a predictable certainty of industrial war, conceding that “What we euphemistically describe as ‘collateral damage’ in times of war is the direct result of limitations in the power and precision of our technology”. A concession he repeats in this interview with Joe Rogan:
“The reality is that whenever you put Navy SEALs on the ground and let them shoot or drop bombs from Predator drones you’re going to kill some number of innocent people and that’s terrible; and the terrible truth is there is no alternative to that. Unless you are going to be a pacifist, you are going to run the risk of killing innocent people when you have to fight certain conflicts.”
It’s revealing that after this frank admission of the fundamentally anti-civilian nature of modern warfare, he proceeds to defend the incineration of Afghanistan by NATO and vilifies Julian Assange (“creepy bastard”) and Wikileaks for exposing the atrocities of the US state.
In his stampede to show how morally-inferior Muslims are to other benighted Third Worlders, it appears not to have jolted his cerebrum that what the imperialism of the atheist Chinese in Tibet and Taiwan really proves is that the absence of the Quran does not palliate the human propensity for aggression and violence.
It is sometimes alleged of Harris that no amount of data and facts will budge his doggedly anti-Muslim atavism. I think this is unjust; Harris does evolve with the facts. But like the ever moving goal post, he does so with stealth so as to mask his contradictions. A case in point: For years he hotly denied the reality of Christian suicide bombers in the Middle East, defying critics to name “Where are the Christian suicide bombers?” until a public encounter with the distinguished anthropologist Scott Atran forced him into a collision with just such a lot of Christians, namely the PLFP. And since then he’s quietly dropped this denial and switched to carping at their small numbers: “Palestinian Christians suffer the same Israeli occupation. How many have blown themselves up on a bus in Tel Aviv? One? Two?”
Wrong. The PFLP has conducted ten suicide bombings. And that’s just Palestinian Christians, not counting Lebanese or German.
If Harris seems like a wanton denier of Israel’s crimes in the occupied territories, he is an even more talented fugleman for US militarism. But a snag. How does one defend the aggressive wars of the Pentagon without losing one’s moral pretensions? There are two tried and tested means without which no aspiring militarist should be. First, frame the war as a missionary effort to save the poor afflicted natives. And second, argue, though taking delicate care not to deny it, that as terrible as our international policies have been in the past, the present round of military adventures marks a new dawn of moral purity unsullied by the cold economic and geopolitical considerations that once obtained but are now, for reasons unaccounted, no longer operative. Harris deploys both to good effect. Yes, our leaders have fallen short of our animating principle of universal justice he allows, but the US, whatever “misdeeds” it has been guilty of, is at bottom a “well-intentioned giant”.
The villains of The End of Faith are the traditional icons of the dissident Left: Noam Chomsky, Edward Said and Arundhati Roy. The heroes are Alan Dershowitz, Bernard Lewis and Paul Berman who, like Harris himself, are clear eyed about the pressing need to defend American exceptionalism and Zionism from the Muslim peril.
In a bid to show why Chomsky went astray for calling Bush’s invasion of Iraq a war crime, Harris proposes a novel thought experiment: It’s called “the perfect weapon” theory. Suppose there was a perfect weapon, he says, that could strike the enemy’s military defences without collateral damage.“How would George Bush have prosecuted the recent war in Iraq with perfect weapons? Would he have targeted the thousands of Iraqi civilians who were maimed or killed by our bombs ?” No, goes the argument, he would have used it only against Saddam in his tireless quest to bring democracy and freedom to Iraq.
And “If the situation had been reversed, what are the chances that the Iraqi Republican Guard, attempting to execute a regime change on the Potomac, would have taken the same degree of care to minimize civilian casualties?” Plainly then Bush was noble in intent and foiled in his mission only by the superhuman evil of Muslims to undermine his just cause. The distinction is between killing intentionally and unintentionally. “But for him (Chomsky), intentions do not seem to matter. Body count is all.”
As thought experiments go, this one drives revisionism to escape velocity. It’s needless to contrive fictive hypotheticals about ideal weapons. We already possess a rich mine of historical data in which to assess whether the United States sought to minimise human suffering: It imposed sanctions on Iraq which starved a million people to death, half children below the age of five, which was described as “genocide” by the UN Humanitarian Coordinator Denis Halliday who resigned in protest; sanctioned a policy of torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and Bagram detention centres; massacred unarmed Iraqi protesters; denied passage out of the shelling of Fallujah to the adult male population fleeing the bombardment; gave orders to shoot unarmed residents in the city after dark; deployed napalm and banned incendiary agents like white phosphorous which have made birth defects and cancer rates among the population soar beyond Hiroshima levels; closed the only hospital in Fallujah treating the wounded against the Geneva Convention; fired on ambulances; justified the deliberate killing of civilians by Blackwater mercenaries; authorised the slaughter of Baghdad residents by Apache helicopters infamously captured on the leaked Collateral Murder tape released by Wikileaks; installed a policy of acquiescence in the widespread abuse of prisoners by allied Iraqi torture squads.
None of these officially-sanctioned atrocities, a list that omits the far more numerous freelance crimes of individual military units like the one behind the Haditha massacre, feature in his ode to the high nobility of the Oval Office. There is a fleeting reference to the sanctions regime, but it’s dismissed as “irrelevant” to Bush’s measureless altruism. The United States is noble because it says that it’s noble. The factual record is surplus to requirements.
But Harris is not content to defend merely the atrocities of Bush. Former presidents get his doting service too. Thus Bill Clinton we are told is not morally culpable for the deaths of tens of thousands of people in Sudan (Boston Globe) whose chief aspirin factory he bombed in 1998 in a desperate effort to shift the cable news cycle from the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the ensuing impeachment proceedings. Although Washington enjoyed diplomatic relations with Khartoum and the factory was open to foreign tourists, including the German and Italian ambassadors to Sudan and the British engineer who built the plant, Harris defends Clinton’s action as just: “What did the U.S. government think it was doing when it sent cruise missiles into Sudan? Destroying a chemical weapons site used by Al Qaeda.”
This propaganda was debunked a long time ago. The words of the former United States ambassador to Sudan, Donald Patterson: “The evidence was not conclusive and was not enough to justify an act of war”.
“American officials have acknowledged over the years that the evidence that prompted President Clinton to order the missile strike on the Shifa plant was not as solid as first portrayed. Indeed, officials later said that there was no proof that the plant had been manufacturing or storing nerve gas, as initially suspected by the Americans, or had been linked to Osama bin Laden, who was a resident of Khartoum in the 1980’s.”
“President Bill Clinton knew he was bombing a civilian target when he ordered the United States attack on a Sudan chemical plant. Tests ordered by him showed that no nerve gas was on the site and two British professionals who recently worked at the factory said it clearly had no military purpose.”
That guillotines the Bin Laden canard. But Harris mounts another defence: “Did the Clinton administration intend to bring about the deaths of thousands of Sudanese children? No.” Here is a thought experiment: Do speeding motorists intend to kill pedestrians? No. Does that get them off the hook for the predictable outcome of their disregard for human life?
But even that analogy is flawed. The White House did not just vaporise the antibiotic stocks of a poor and needy country’s pharmacy which produced “90 percent” of its major products (Boston Globe) whose replenishment was made difficult at an affordable cost by the US-imposed trade embargo; it refused even to compensate for this unlawful aggression to the present. Clinton did not just run over a crowd of pedestrians accidentally, but he jumped out of the vehicle to survey the carnage, then climbed back into his SUV and, blaming his victims, sped off without so much as calling a paramedic. He did this on a macroscale without apology or reparations. And Harris, keen to deny the crimes of the past so he may justify the ones in the present, makes apologetics for this gangsterism. They’re savage Muslims, anyway.
Not quite done with salvaging the humanitarian case for the Iraq war, he offers this defence of collateral damage:
“Chomsky might object that to knowingly place the life of a child in jeopardy is unacceptable in any case, but clearly this is not a principle we can follow. The makers of roller coasters know, for instance, that despite rigorous safety precautions, sometime, somewhere, a child will be killed by one of their contraptions. ” (p. 147)
So there is no moral distinction between cluster bombs and Disneyland. Death is death, so what’s the problem? The claim amounts to holding that there is no difference between choking on a pretzel and sustaining a nuclear attack because, well, in both cases people die. The act of raining down “Shock & Awe” bears no likeness to the far less perilous and unlikely accidents of theme parks which, on the rare occasion they occur, do not make rubble of homes and infrastructure and uproot millions of refugees. And rollercoasters invite the willing patronage of thrill seekers, as opposed to Tomahawk missiles, whose victims do not volunteer for the risk of being shredded. The distinction is both in scale and human agency, between a minuscule risk undertaken freely in the knowledge that one is strapped in by “rigorous safety precautions”, and mass lethality thrust upon one by a hostile foreign power.
But what about “automobile” fatalities, cries Harris: If you oppose the Iraq war, don’t you have to oppose cars too for the sake of intellectual consistency?
No. The existence of mortality is not a reason for piling on the corpses needlessly or giving license to the grasping ambitions of war criminals out to make a buck for the petroleum industry. If Harris thinks so, then he will no doubt urge the prompt release of all convicted killers from the nearest jail to his home on the exotic premise that butchering a child is no different than dying from a peanut allergy.
Harris bemoans the cultural ascendancy of moral relativism as a malign force corrupting the values of the republic. By his reckoning intellectuals are wedded too fondly to ethical dithering and it’s high time the dysfunctional marriage was annulled for a universal morality to flourish. Leaving aside the reason that so many university departments have (unwisely) taken to postmodernism is because of the revulsion against just the flag-waving triumphalism and patriotism that he urges on us, we can affirm that the correct response to colonial domination is not a rejection of universal moral values.
But like America’s use of Shariah law to spring CIA agents held for murder out of Pakistani jails when Common Law would have seen them prosecuted for their crimes, Harris traffics in the worst relativism when it is advantageous. So when the White House brings the full might of its globe-spanning empire to bear on laying much of Asia and Africa and Latin America to waste in an imperial career stretching back to WW2, that does not reflect on its boundless goodness and charity. But when some ramshackle non-state Muslim actors do a fraction of the same against the howling objection of leading Muslim thinkers, this is an illustration of the arrested moral development of the “Muslim World”.
When not pressing young Americans to sacrifice their lives for the war on terror, Harris likes to round on young Muslims for sacrificing theirs by denigrating them as a “thoroughgoing death cult”. As with the American media’s hymn to the flag draped coffins of fallen US servicemen, Islam does honour those killed in the service of beleaguered Muslims, but the Quran forbids starting hostilities: “Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight you, but do not begin hostilities for Allah does not love aggressors” (2:190).
Harris admits that such is indeed the case. He allows, in a rare departure from his cudgel bearing nationalism, that “Those who wage jihad are enjoined not to attack first” and that “one who would fight for God is also enjoined not to kill women, children, or the aged, unless in self-defense.” Yet seeing the decapitation this inflicts on his anti-Muslim thesis, he caveats this admission: “But this injunction restrains no one.”
Got that? Islam may abhor terrorism, and it may lay down a strict code of ethics bearing on Just War theory, but we shall not let its precepts halt our vilification of what Muslims believe.
So it’s not that Harris ignores the codified rules of jihad, which urge restraint, like this one: “And if the enemy inclines to peace, then incline to it also and trust in Allah” (Quran, 8:61). It is that he scorns the very idea of judging Islam by its teachings, focusing instead on what a microscopically small cohort of terrorists out of a billion souls do against the directives of holy scripture.
No word is uttered with more frequency by Harris than “apostasy,” about whose legal penalty in Islam he is very, very exercised. A man who objects so much to shedding innocent blood is no doubt set against the drones that have incinerated masses of civilians in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan, no? Don’t count on it:
“We cannot let our qualms over collateral damage paralyze us because our enemies know no such qualms. Theirs is a kill-the-children-first approach to war, and we ignore the fundamental difference between their violence and our own at our peril. Given the proliferation of weaponry in our world, we no longer have the option of waging this war with swords. It seems certain that collateral damage, of various sorts, will be a part of our future for many years to come.“ (The End of Faith, p. 203)
My hope in this review was not to get tangled in the finer points of Islamic theology, but if former Muslims like myself stand any chance of winning friends and family to the cause of the Enlightenment, we must begin to deconstruct the tabloid caricatures of Muslims by Harris and his fellow immigrant baiters. I use that phrase advisedly. Harris dabbles in the most extravagant conspiracy theories about the impending conquest of Europe by Muslims:
“Islam is the fastest growing religion in Europe. The demographic trends are ominous: Given current birthrates, France could be a majority Muslim country in 25 years, and that is if immigration were to stop tomorrow.”
To understand how nine-months-pregnant with delusion this claim truly is, one has to only reflect that the French Muslim population is forecasted by the Pew Research Centre to grow to 10% by 2030 from its present figure of 7.5%, and France will be the Western European state with the highest number of Muslims. The only country that surpasses it is Russia which, even as it borders autonomous Muslim states, is projected to see her share of Muslims rise to 14%.
This fetish for the breeding habits of immigrants is one that Harris cultivates with far-right nationalists like Robert Spencer and Daniel Pipes. He admits: “With a few exceptions, the only public figures who have had the courage to speak honestly about the threat that Islam now poses to European societies seem to be fascist.” (Letter To A Christian Nation, P. 85)
As with all liberal interventionists who caught the messianic bug, Harris makes a good deal of his sorrow for the benighted women of Afghanistan who warrant more tears, for reasons not too clear, than Palestinian or Lebanese women by whose IDF-imposed misery only daft peaceniks are repulsed. And as with all jingos, he never cares to know what Afghan feminists like the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, who toil for human rights, actually seek, namely an immediate halt to the US bombing of their country and its people, bombings that swell the ranks of the hated Taliban, who before the US cruise missiles landed faced an internal revolt drawn among a wide strata of ethnic and political elements.
It’s a forgivable indulgence to ascribe this military cowboyism of Harris to a misplaced idealism to bring democracy at the point of Hellfire missiles, but that would be to misread him. Gravely. The reason he presses for US interference in the region is that, like his deathly silence on the pro-democracy movements of the Arab Spring that have dynamited his notion that Muslims are hot for theocracy, he thinks only Western imposed dictators can lead Muslims to Enlightenment:
“It appears that one of the most urgent tasks we now face in the developed world is to find some way of facilitating the emergence of civil societies everywhere else. Whether such societies have to be democratic is not at all clear. Zakaria has persuasively argued that the transition from tyranny to liberalism is unlikely to be accomplished by plebiscite. It seems all but certain that some form of benign dictatorship will generally be necessary to bridge the gap. But benignity is the key and if it cannot emerge from within a state, it must be imposed from without. The means of such imposition are necessarily crude: they amount to economic isolation, military intervention (whether open or covert), or some combination of both.” (The End of Faith, p. 151)
He has his reasons for shrinking from writing about the most revolutionary and hopeful changes of the modern political era, namely the great Arab Awakening that is sweeping away the US-backed tyrants in North Africa and the Middle East. It began of course last year, and in the interval, Harris has found time to devote thousands of words to ethnically profiling Muslims at airports. His justification for ignoring the awakening is that he thinks “we cannot merely force Muslim dictators from power and open the polls. It would be like opening the polls to the Christians of the fourteenth century”. Although conceding that “our collusion with Muslim tyrants” has been despicable, “our culpability on this front must be bracketed by the understanding that were democracy to suddenly come to these countries, it would be little more than a gangplank to theocracy”. Those who delight in the flowering of Arab democracy must remember that “the only thing that currently stands between us and the roiling ocean of Muslim unreason is a wall of tyranny and human rights abuses that we have helped to erect”. (p. 132)
The region’s people are unfit to be trusted with self-determination because they are morally inferior: “It is time for us to admit that not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development.” Indeed, such is the moral depravity of these barbarians that “At this point in their history, give most Muslims the freedom to vote, and they will freely vote to tear out their political freedoms by the root”. The solution then is for the US to command stewardship of the area imposing “benign” dictators in the place of bad ones who may lead Muslims to reform.
Harris speaks much of the dream of a globally-integrated civilisation and the need to construct “a world government”. Presumably this means some respect for international law and the United Nations. So what does Harris think of the worst breach of these legal bodies in recent memory, the unlawful invasion of Iraq? He celebrates the killing of Saddam and his sons – “I think it’s a good thing that we killed him; unless you’re a total pacifist you have to admit that it’s what guns are for”, and defends the “humanitarian purpose” of the war, but he’s ultimately agnostic about the invasion itself, pleading that “I’ve never known what to think about the war”. His only gripe is that it was in hindsight a tactical “disaster”. He was enthusiastic for the bombing of Libya and Afghanistan, but Iraq was poorly executed because the torture revelations of Abu Ghraib alienated our friends:
“Indeed, the Abu Ghraib scandal may be one of the costliest foreign policy blunders to occur in the last century, given the degree to which it simultaneously inflamed the Muslim world and eroded the sympathies of our democratic allies. While we hold the moral high ground in our war on terror, we appear to hold it less and less.” (In Defence of Torture)
Not that he’s opposed to torture, mind. Just torturing the wrong people: “I am one of the few people I know of who has argued in print that torture may be an ethical necessity in our war on terror.”
The right people are Al-Qaeda suspects. He jeers at the Bush Admin’s lack of nerve to put the screws on 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a task they finally got around to with gusto:
“Given the damage we were willing to cause to the bodies and minds of innocent children in Afghanistan and Iraq, our disavowal of torture in the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed seems perverse. If there is even one chance in a million that he will tell us something under torture that will lead to the further dismantling of Al Qaeda, it seems that we should use every means at our disposal to get him talking. (The End of Faith, p. 198)
The defence on which he relies for torture is the fictional time bomb scenario that no doubt looks very compelling on the silver screen where a foot long bomb fuse sputters and gutters long enough for burly FBI agents to leisurely manhandle the villain who is caught just in time. The discerning reader might ponder whether, by the same logical footwork, Harris would support the kidnap and torture of US diplomats by Iranian secret service to determine which civil nuclear reactors they are planning to strike and thereby save untold lives.
Harris professes alarm at the prospect of nuclear proliferation, and his objections are couched in the language of a green anti-nuclear activist robbed of sleep by the concern that Mother Nature will be defiled by atomic weapons. But dig a little deeper and one finds that he’s got nothing to say about the vast stockpiles of the greatest violators of the NPT, namely his favourite imperial powers like Israel and America whose never-ending wars of aggression are the prime cause of proliferation on the part of jumpy little states.
Marching in lockstep with the AIPAC crowd, he focuses exclusively on Iran and other Muslim states against which he urges a pre-emptive nuclear strike if they should acquire the bomb. It will be an “unthinkable crime,” he reassures, but we must do it for the sake of Western Civ. So actually it is thinkable. And what must be done cannot logically be a crime for a crime would entail free choice to pursue a different course. Harris well knows how to package his counsel for genocide. We cannot of course entertain anything so foolish as to abide by the directives of the NPT and work to eliminate all nuclear stockpiles nor address the aggravating political factors which may drive states to seek a deterrence. Just nuke the evildoers.
At the core of his political thinking is a curious dualism that maintains on the one end that Islam is the darkest villainy to afflict the race, and on the other that he doesn’t really hate Muslims after all. It’s analogous to saying that fascism is evil, but that fascists are not a bad lot. How so? The bearers of tyranny are certainly the free born man’s enemy, so why does Harris pretend that he doesn’t abominate Muslims? It’s not just the beardos with the bombs that he wishes to kill recall, but all who live by the vision of the Quran:
“We are at war with Islam. It may not serve our immediate foreign policy objectives for our political leaders to openly acknowledge this fact, but it is unambiguously so. It is not merely that we are at war with an otherwise peaceful religion that has been ‘hijacked’ by extremists. We are at war with precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran.” (The End of Faith, p. 109)
Much else remains to be said about Harris’s ideas of statecraft, but it’s what he believes about atheism that is even more diverting.
Had he confined himself to discharging artillery shells at the folly of religion, his writings would have been redeemable, but Harris, though withering of the Abrahamic creeds, rejects atheistic materialism as just another religious “faith” and “sacrament” held by arrogant scientists and says, in a lunge toward mysticism, that we can survive the death of the physical body because consciousness is not generated by the brain:
“Most scientists consider themselves physicalists; this means, among other things, that they believe that our mental and spiritual lives are wholly dependent upon the workings of our brains. On this account, when the brain dies, the stream of our being must come to an end. Once the lamps of neural activity have been extinguished, there will be nothing left to survive. Indeed, many scientists purvey this conviction as though it were itself a special sacrament, conferring intellectual integrity upon any man, woman, or child who is man enough to swallow it. But the truth is that we simply do not know what happens after death. While there is much to be said against a naive conception of a soul that is independent of the brain, the place of consciousness in the natural world is very much an open question. The idea that brains produce consciousness is little more than an article of faith among scientists at present, and there are many reasons to believe that the methods of science will be insufficient to either prove or disprove it.“ ( p. 208)
Survive death? A possibility? Out goes scientific materialism and in comes supernaturalism. If the afterlife strikes the ear as a creepy throwback to the neolithic fables of Christians, Harris assures us that it’s not the gospel’s vision of heaven that he has in mind. His brand of post-mortem rebirth bears a closer kinship to something a tad more Hindu:
“There may even be credible evidence for reincarnation”. ( P. 242)
The footnote for this religious assertion takes one to books that Harris finds compelling such as “20 Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation” which includes colourful tales of past-life regressions and children who speak dead languages. And, even more good news in store for mind readers and psychics: “There also seems to be a body of data attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena, much of which has been ignored by mainstream science.” (p. 41)
Practitioners of ESP are in luck too because Harris knows just what it means to enjoy mental powers of telepathy as he states in this interview with Salon:
Salon: It sounds like you’re open-minded to the possibility of telepathy — things that we might classify as psychic. You’re saying it’s entirely possible that they might be true and science at some point will be able to prove them.
“Yeah, and there’s a lot of data out there that’s treated in most circles like intellectual pornography that attests to there being a real phenomenon. I just don’t know. But I’ve had the kinds of experiences that everyone has had that seem to confirm telepathy that minds can influence other minds.”
Tell me about one of those experiences.
“Oh, just knowing who’s calling when that person hasn’t called you in years. The phone rings and you know who it is and it’s not your mother or your wife or someone who calls you every day. I’ve had many experiences like that. I know many people who’ve had even more bizarre experiences. But that does not rise to the level of scientific evidence. The only way to determine if it really exists is to look in a disinterested and sustained way at all of the evidence.”
I like that caveat: Linger over exotic superstitions in anecdote upon anecdote and then dart off some afterthoughts about the need for more enquiry to give the whole fantastic proceeding a touch of the labman’s objectivity. Harris ruminates in a long footnote appended to a celebration of psychedelic drugs that he is taken with hallucinogenic reports of alien beings:
“Many users of DMT report being thrust under its influence into an adjacent reality where they are met by alien beings who appear intent upon sharing information and demonstrating the use of inscrutable technologies. The convergence of hundreds of such reports, many from first-time users of the drug who have not been told what to expect, is certainly interesting. It is also worth noting these accounts are almost entirely free of religious imagery.
“One appears far more likely to meet extraterrestrials or elves on DMT than traditional saints or angels. As I have not tried DMT, and have not had an experience of the sort that its users describe, I don’t know what to make of any of this.”
Is this the product of a mind scattered by intoxicants? Apparently not. Harris repeated the same flight to occultic planes at the Melbourne atheist convention where, after enthusing about the curative powers of spiritual meditation, he was desperate to reassure the assembled gathering of skeptics that his fascination with “aliens and insectile like creatures” is not “insanity”. Observe that he says these are not vacant hallucinations by high school stoners on a par with UFO sightings and crop circles, but that corroboration comes from “smart and serious people” of an extra-dimensional universe occupied by elves, reptilians and extra-terrestrials keen to impart scientific knowledge to lowly mortals about whose veracity “I don’t know what to make”. Welcome to David Icke territory.
The paranormal debunker James Randi chastised him for this quackery, twice, saying there were no choices to be made between virgin births, reincarnation, alien reptiles and telepathy– that bunk was bunk, and that science had once and for all spoken.
And finally Harris appeared to step back from the crankdom: “My position on the paranormal is this: While there have been many frauds in the history of parapsychology, I believe that this field of study has been unfairly stigmatized.”
Or maybe not. It’s a custom of his when interrogated by experts to berate scientists for being mean to New Age bosh-mongers. He alone is the true empiricist who, though having just recently acquired his doctorate at the late age of 40, knows more about the scientific enterprise than all those intolerant and smug lab rats who graduated decades ago. So when the pressure mounted on him, his last ditch effort was to backtrack somewhat: “I have not spent any time attempting to authenticate the data” because it is not worth his time. Which begs the question of why he trumpets their mumbo jumbo as “credible evidence” that is “ignored by mainstream science”. Plainly what is not worth one’s time is not “unfairly stigmatised”.
And just when it appears that Harris wants to extricate himself from the unwisdom of wading into mystical humbug and pseudoscience, he slides right back into sham insisting that he “cannot categorically dismiss their contents.” For science will deliver metaphysical and otherworldly truths to those hungry of spirit:
“We may live to see the technological perfection of all the visionary strands of traditional mysticism: shamanism (Siberian or South American), Gnosticism, Kabbalah, Hermetism and its magical Renaissance spawn (Hermeticism), and all the other byzantine paths whereby man has sought the Other in every guise of its conception.” (The End of Faith, p. 221)
It occurs to me that as much of a renegade as I am from Islam, I’m not alone in my betrayal. Sam Harris too is an apostate from the intellectual atheist tradition of Russell and Mencken that was built on the twin pillars of anti-mysticism and anti-militarism.