Absurd Being

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Fareed Zakaria Interviews Sam Harris

In response to the inflammatory Harris/Maher tag-team debate on Maher’s show Real Time last year, journalist and CNN host, Fareed Zakaria invited Harris onto his show for a little back and forth (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JqGIJBClwbQ ). Zakaria made four key points:

1. He takes issue with Harris’ claim that 20% of all Muslims are jihadis or Islamists

2. Islamic countries were at the “vanguard of modernity” in the past so it can’t be Islam the religion that is to blame for recent terrorist activities; rather it must be the social and political conditions within Muslim countries

3. Jihad means different things for different people. Harris agrees with Osama bin Laden’s interpretation of the Qu’ran

4. He criticises Harris’ aggressive stance towards Islam as being counter-productive

Zakaria supported his first point with some nonsense math that went something like this; there are 1.6 billion Muslims so 20% of this would mean 300 million Muslims who are jihadis or Islamists, that is, 300 million Muslims who “condon[e] violence and such”. Out of the 10,000 terrorist events last year, even if we assume they were all orchestrated by Muslims and each event took 100 Muslims to organise, that comes to about a million people who are jihadis; a far cry from Harris’ 300 million strong 20%.

The problem with this is that no one, including Harris, is saying 20% of all Muslims are jihadis who want to blow themselves up for their ideals. Harris makes this clear by defining ‘Islamists’ as people who want to “foist their interpretation of Islam on the rest of society”. As the much cited Pew Poll results have shown, if not majorities, then significant minorities of many Muslim countries continue to favour the traditional, backwards and even barbaric implementation of various punishments under Sharia law. Zakaria then objects that just because someone holds conservative religious views, e.g. a woman’s testimony should be worth half a man’s, that doesn’t mean they want to kill someone. But Harris never said it did. This whole argument is a non-starter because Zakaria is arguing against himself. He is putting words into Harris’ mouth that he never spoke. 20% is a conservative estimate of the number of Muslims who are either jihadis or Islamists, that is to say, the number of Muslims who support ideals and values we find reprehensible in the modern day and age.

What I think Zakaria is really arguing for here is that jihadis (perhaps defined as those who want to kill all non-believers) should not be lumped in with Islamists (perhaps defined as those conservatives who hold backwards, traditional values). This may be a fair claim but amounts to nothing more than semantics and doesn’t change the fact that Harris’ 20% is (according to statistical results) a conservative estimate of the number of Muslims who believe things like apostates should be murdered or a woman should be forced to wear a veil if she leaves the house.

Secondly, Zakaria argues that Islam wasn’t always so violent and at certain stages it was actually at the “vanguard of modernity”, preserving Aristotle, treating Jews better than Christians, and so on. In light of this, Islam is compatible with peace and we must therefore look to other causes to explain this most recent violent manifestation of the religion.

Harris, quite rightly in my opinion, counters that we ought to resist this “PC and sanitised history of religious conflict” that has recently become popular. The idea that any religion was peaceful during the Middle Ages seems to be a modern myth to me. Christian sympathisers have told us it was true of their religion, even as Christians were burning heretics at the stake, and now Muslim sympathisers are telling us the same, even as Muslims are beheading infidels in the Middle East. Most of the big religions are fundamentally divisive and violent in nature because they reflect the ideals and value systems that were predominant when they were created.

Must they lead to violence? No, of course not. But this is only because we have the remarkable ability to read a text and completely ignore the parts of it that we disagree with; i.e. to cherry pick. We can tolerate a truly astonishing level of dissonance when it comes to our beliefs and this is exemplified most clearly when it comes to religion. Jesus explicitly says he did not come to bring peace but a sword… and we elect to interpret this figuratively; the Qu’ran says men are in charge of women and we read this to mean that spouses ought to cherish and nurture each other. Zakaria’s point that religions don’t necessarily lead to violence is correct but only because doctrine turns out to be infinitely elastic. The point is therefore moot.

Note that this also fails to say anything about religion itself. Lots of things don’t necessarily lead to violence but that doesn’t mean they are good or even that they are morally neutral. As Harris says we have to recognise that “specific ideas have specific consequences” and the many bad ideas that abound in Islam (from murdering non-believers to enforcing Sharia law on non-Muslims to maltreating women) are clearly leading to many bad consequences in front of our eyes every day. Deflecting the cause onto other factors only confuses the issue and generates a smokescreen behind which religion can hide. Sure, social and political conditions, along with a hundred other factors including religion, play a part in any cultural / societal movement but playing this card is like attempting to exonerate a murderer by pointing out that he was abused by his father when he was a child. It might be true, but it doesn’t make the murder less terrible nor does it exculpate the murderer himself.

In this section of the interview, Zakaria also points out that Jews fled Christian lands for the Muslim Ottoman Empire because they received better treatment there. Apparently he thinks that highlighting the shortcomings of Christianity somehow scores a point for Islam. Well, even if he is right,[1] what he is really saying is that belief in nonsense in any guise (be it Christian nonsense or Islamic nonsense) leads to bad consequences. At that time we saw Christianity’s dark face and now we are seeing Islam’s. Specific ideas have specific consequences. If your religion tells you it is your duty to convert the masses by any means necessary or create a global caliphate (and these people aren’t making these ideas up – they are picking them up straight out of their holy texts) then we can expect certain consequences… and surprise, surprise, we saw them in Christianity and now we are witnessing their rebirth in Islam.

This brings us to Zakaria’s third point about differing interpretations of jihad. Given Harris’s views about this subject, i.e. jihad as it is referred to in the Qu’ran means holy war and recommends violence, Zakaria quips that Harris must believe that Osama bin Laden’s interpretation is correct. By linking Harris and bin Laden in their interpretations of the Qu’ran, Zakaria is trying to show that Harris’ position is untenable because no one in the civilised world would agree that bin Laden was correct about anything.

This is a classic example of that infinite elasticity I was talking about earlier. The Qu’ran is particularly clear about how the devout faithful have a right and even a duty to kill those who don’t accept Allah as the one true God. Zakaria’s talk about ‘correct’ interpretations is a smokescreen because it implies that there are other peaceful and equally plausible interpretations of jihad to be gleaned from the Qu’ran. This is false. No sensible person could read that book and sincerely come away believing that jihad is anything other than a holy war against the unfaithful. In setting up this false impression that more than one interpretation exists, Zakaria is trying to make it seem as if Harris is willingly and arbitrarily supporting the more barbaric.

This is a symptom of the insanity of the modern liberal Western mind. It is the result of an egalitarian urge to democracy and tolerance gone awry. It has its roots in a noble and sincere instinct but has now spiralled out of control until criticism of any form is reviled and immediately branded XYaphobia. Instead of calling a spade a spade and criticising bad ideas where we find them, particularly those in religion, which has enjoyed immunity from criticism for far too long, we are expected to bend over backwards and force these bad ideas into alignment with our modern values.

On the face of it this seems like a good idea; jettison the nonsense and leave the rest. In reality though this doesn’t work because of course, not everyone jettisons all of the nonsense, but more importantly, the packaging these bad ideas come in is given an artificial veneer of respectability which it quite simply doesn’t deserve. So instead of pointing out the flaws and inconsistencies inherent to all religious thought, we pretend there are none, we wave dictionaries over translations of these texts and turn ‘slave’ into ‘helper’ or ‘beat’ into ‘nurture’ (because don’t you know, in ancient Arabic the verb for ‘beat’ had a slightly different connotation from our modern understanding, meaning something more like ‘guide’ or ‘lead with compassion’), we give these beliefs credibility they don’t have… and wait for a group like IS to pick up a totality that we have endorsed as meaningful, and interpret it honestly without the modern filter we have speciously applied.

Zakaria’s final point is a difficult one. He criticises Harris for saying that Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas and implies that taking such an aggressive stance is only making it harder to reform Islamic beliefs.

In a sense this is true. If you want to persuade someone to change their opinion you shouldn’t leap up and attack their beliefs. This will generally have the opposite effect and make them dig their heels in even more. Even if your critique is articulate, rational and logical, a full out frontal assault on anyone’s beliefs will only serve to entrench them further behind those beliefs. But we must remember we aren’t having a debate here. We’re facing a mob of religious zealots with insane metaphysical and supernatural beliefs who are willing to die for them.

The change we are looking for won’t come about overnight. It can only happen through sustained discussion and honest criticism. True. Harris and those like him are direct, but this is what we need. If we pussyfoot around these backwards and dangerous beliefs pretending they have a place in modernity and mollycoddle the people who hold them like they are fragile china dolls, the crucial issues won’t be dealt with and we only set ourselves up for another round of Inquisitions or jihad somewhere later down the road.

If an American were to write a book endorsing sexism would we try to delicately deal with the subject without hurting anyone’s feelings? Of course not. It would be immediately slammed and the author vilified on every social media platform available. Put those same sentiments in an ancient religious text though and suddenly the way to deal with the problem is to tiptoe around it like prima ballerinas, translate and re-translate, interpret and re-interpret until, lo and behold, it turns out that it was never actually offensive in the first place.

Real, honest discussion is the only way things ever change. In the West we can say virtually anything we want about virtually any topic, even Christianity is being held accountable for its insane doctrines, but try saying something negative about Islam and you are immediately branded an Islamophobe, that’s if your workplace isn’t bombed first. No, a world where we are not allowed to say what we think (about ideas, we aren’t talking about slander or personal insults here) is a world where nothing changes and the status quo reigns supreme.


Fareed Zakaria has offered us nothing more here than another serving of a misguided liberal defence of a set of pernicious ideas that ought to have come under fire a long time ago. If I had to leave you with a few take-home points from this interview they would all revolve around the notion of ‘bad ideas’ and wouldn’t differ much from what Harris is being forced to repeat again and again to an audience who seem unable or unwilling to understand him:

1. Bad ideas have bad consequences and bad religious ideas motivate just as strongly, if not more so, than bad political ideas. Many liberals seem to think that no suicide bomber blows him or herself up for their faith. Rather, they want to blame upbringing or social and political instability or Western imperialism. Make no mistake, all of these things are powerful motivators but personal ideology, and religion in particular, is just as powerful. To disregard religion as a source of conflict is just naïve.

2. Almost all religions are full of bad ideas. Leaving religions as a whole unchallenged, even if believers have cherry-picked their texts for the good, is a recipe for disaster because it essentially encourages childish, foolish ways of thinking and gives the pernicious, cherry-picked nonsense a cover under which it can wait for the right people to pick it up and run with.

3. Criticising bad ideas, wherever they rear their ugly heads, is essential for any healthy society that hopes to make any kind of moral or societal progress. No institution, text or belief should be above criticism. If an idea can’t survive honest and brutal reflection then it probably wasn’t a very good idea in the first place. This is how we made slavery a thing of the past and how we are doing the same with sexism and homophobia (as usual, Christianity, another shining example of religion, is trailing the field). This instinct that different is not necessarily wrong, which we nurtured and brought to fruition and which has served us so well as we crossed into modernity, is now being hijacked and used against us by well-meaning liberals who seem to have lost touch with reality and are now unable to countenance any form of honest criticism.

[1] It is true that life was better for Jews under Muslim rule than Christian rule but this is only a relative distinction and Harris points out that it would have been nothing like what we would consider a good or ‘free’ life.





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