Sam Harris
Head-in-the-Sand Liberals

Western civilization really is at risk from Muslim extremists.

TWO YEARS AGO I published a book highly critical of religion, “The End of Faith.” In it, I argued that the world’s major religions are genuinely incompatible, inevitably cause conflict and now prevent the emergence of a viable, global civilization. In response, I have received many thousands of letters and e-mails from priests, journalists, scientists, politicians, soldiers, rabbis, actors, aid workers, students — from people young and old who occupy every point on the spectrum of belief and nonbelief.

This has offered me a special opportunity to see how people of all creeds and political persuasions react when religion is criticized. I am here to report that liberals and conservatives respond very differently to the notion that religion can be a direct cause of human conflict. 

This difference does not bode well for the future of liberalism.  

Perhaps I should establish my liberal bone fides at the outset. I’d like to see taxes raised on the wealthy, drugs decriminalized and homosexuals free to marry. I also think that the Bush administration deserves most of the criticism it has received in the last six years — especially with respect to its waging of the war in Iraq, its scuttling of science and its fiscal irresponsibility.

But my correspondence with liberals has convinced me that liberalism has grown dangerously out of touch with the realities of our world — specifically with what devout Muslims actually believe about the West, about paradise and about the ultimate ascendance of their faith.

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.

A cult of death is forming in the Muslim world — for reasons that are perfectly explicable in terms of the Islamic doctrines of martyrdom and jihad. The truth is that we are not fighting a “war on terror.” We are fighting a pestilential theology and a longing for paradise.

This is not to say that we are at war with all Muslims. But we are absolutely at war with those who believe that death in defense of the faith is the highest possible good, that cartoonists should be killed for caricaturing the prophet and that any Muslim who loses his faith should be butchered for apostasy.

Unfortunately, such religious extremism is not as fringe a phenomenon as we might hope. Numerous studies have found that the most radicalized Muslims tend to have better-than-average educations and economic opportunities.

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. And yet, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, liberals continue to imagine that Muslim terrorism springs from economic despair, lack of education and American militarism.

At its most extreme, liberal denial has found expression in a growing subculture of conspiracy theorists who believe that the atrocities of 9/11 were orchestrated by our own government. A nationwide poll conducted by the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University found that more than a third of Americans suspect that the federal government “assisted in the 9/11 terrorist attacks or took no action to stop them so the United States could go to war in the Middle East;” 16% believe that the twin towers collapsed not because fully-fueled passenger jets smashed into them but because agents of the Bush administration had secretly rigged them to explode.

Such an astonishing eruption of masochistic unreason could well mark the decline of liberalism, if not the decline of Western civilization. There are books, films and conferences organized around this phantasmagoria, and they offer an unusually clear view of the debilitating dogma that lurks at the heart of liberalism: Western power is utterly malevolent, while the powerless people of the Earth can be counted on to embrace reason and tolerance, if only given sufficient economic opportunities.

I don’t know how many more engineers and architects need to blow themselves up, fly planes into buildings or saw the heads off of journalists before this fantasy will dissipate. The truth is that there is every reason to believe that a terrifying number of the world’s Muslims now view all political and moral questions in terms of their affiliation with Islam. This leads them to rally to the cause of other Muslims no matter how sociopathic their behavior. This benighted religious solidarity may be the greatest problem facing civilization and yet it is regularly misconstrued, ignored or obfuscated by liberals.

Given the mendacity and shocking incompetence of the Bush administration — especially its mishandling of the war in Iraq — liberals can find much to lament in the conservative approach to fighting the war on terror. Unfortunately, liberals hate the current administration with such fury that they regularly fail to acknowledge just how dangerous and depraved our enemies in the Muslim world are.

Recent condemnations of the Bush administration’s use of the phrase “Islamic fascism” are a case in point. There is no question that the phrase is imprecise — Islamists are not technically fascists, and the term ignores a variety of schisms that exist even among Islamists — but it is by no means an example of wartime propaganda, as has been repeatedly alleged by liberals.

In their analyses of U.S. and Israeli foreign policy, liberals can be relied on to overlook the most basic moral distinctions. For instance, they ignore the fact that Muslims intentionally murder noncombatants, while we and the Israelis (as a rule) seek to avoid doing so. Muslims routinely use human shields, and this accounts for much of the collateral damage we and the Israelis cause; the political discourse throughout much of the Muslim world, especially with respect to Jews, is explicitly and unabashedly genocidal.

Given these distinctions, 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.

We are entering an age of unchecked nuclear proliferation and, it seems likely, nuclear terrorism. There is, therefore, no future in which aspiring martyrs will make good neighbors for us. Unless liberals realize that there are tens of millions of people in the Muslim world who are far scarier than Dick Cheney, they will be unable to protect civilization from its genuine enemies.

Increasingly, Americans will come to believe that the only people hard-headed enough to fight the religious lunatics of the Muslim world are the religious lunatics of the West. Indeed, it is telling that the people who speak with the greatest moral clarity about the current wars in the Middle East are members of the Christian right, whose infatuation with biblical prophecy is nearly as troubling as the ideology of our enemies. Religious dogmatism is now playing both sides of the board in a very dangerous game.

While liberals should be the ones pointing the way beyond this Iron Age madness, they are rendering themselves increasingly irrelevant. Being generally reasonable and tolerant of diversity, liberals should be especially sensitive to the dangers of religious literalism. But they aren’t.

The same failure of liberalism is evident in Western Europe, where the dogma of multiculturalism has left a secular Europe very slow to address the looming problem of religious extremism among its immigrants. The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.

To say that this does not bode well for liberalism is an understatement: It does not bode well for the future of civilization.

3 Responses to “Harris on Liberals and Terror”

  1. Kathleen Says:

    I think we need to check these things out historically for one thing. Muslims are to wage holy wars against “infidels” so I think we need to try to find out the meaning of the word infidel and why the West has become synonymous with the word. I know that the it is usually said to mean unbeliever, but I would be willing to bet that it goes a good deal deeper than that. Could it be that a person exhibiting insane, cruel, and disrespectful behavior towards another must be that way because he doesn’t believe in common decency, or goodness or something like that? So we might be able to discern that it is not merely economic despair, lack of education and American militarism that causes so much hatred. It has a good deal more to do with our own historic imperialism and a certain downright lack of respect born out of the racially supremist attitude of the “west” that the “west” has the right to abuse, invade, destroy, change, “improve”, instruct, bomb, murder, torture, enslave, steal the resources of, evangelise and convert, ethnically cleanse, insult etc. etc. any other person, place or culture on earth that it wishes to – for it’s own gain – and to make up lies in order to convince ordinary citizens to be the ones to go do the fighting and dying. We too send our young people off to their death and destruction after having indoctrinated them to believe it is a good thing for them to go fight some deplorable battle or other….. And we don’t even need to use religion to get them to do it – just good old fashioned american patriotism. And what exactly is that? After all Amerika is the “greatest country in the world” or “The west is the best”? or so I have been hearing endlessly for all the live long day since birth. I could go on and on – just suffice it to say we need to think critically but also deeply in order to understand why our entire world is down right phsychotic – religious or not. But one more thing…. The notion that “the west” tries not to harm innocent people?…. is absurd. We could start with Hiroshima and Nagasaki but it goes much much further back than that. And suicide bombers? Well I guess soldiers going to Iraq have a chance to live or a chance to die… kind of like russian roulette no?. Kind of suicidal if you ask me.

    We are the ones with all the big bombs and artillery and the ability and power to blow up the planet. Maybe they are trying to defend themselves against our thievery and our murderous ways. I think we may have brought this real and present danger upon ourselves not only because of our own behavior, but also because of our lack of diligence when it comes to keeping track of what our so called “leaders” have been up to in the pursuit of profit.


  2. Thanks for your comments, Kathleen. I saw your site – I don’t know you, do I? – and I like your art. But I will still respond to you in the same tone you used in your comment to me.

    Did you even read the essay? Because the mish-mash of platitudes you slop together is exactly the kind of thinking and rationalizing that the writer is criticizing. On top of that, you don’t respond to his points, and then change the subject to topics he specifically disavows.

    I can’t stand Bush (neither can the writer, although he puts it more diplomatically), and I’m not going to rush to defend his or America’s policies, nor do I give a pass to those who ineptly try to shill for this administration. But I detest and am much more worried about Islamism, and you’ll never find me making excuses for it. I don’t think such rationalizing in this context produces more insight, only more evasions and denial, and incentives and encouragements. Look back to the French liberals of the 1930s, or the American intellectuals who defended Stalin in the 1950s and you’ll hear how your words sound to me, and, I’m confident, will sound to the world in thirty years.

    I don’t know who exactly you think deserves my or “our” respect, but if you’re talking about the Islamists, I disrespectfully disagree, and I am proud to offer them the “downright lack of respect” they deserve. If you’re talking about the oppressed women and those who fight against totalitarianism and die for liberalism and democracy, respect is exactly what I have for them, and I’m not going to feign respect for those who enforce Sharia and intentionally bomb innocents in the name of the voiceless majority that the terrorists and tyrants are oppressing. Nor will I take the easy, masochistic, and voguish way out by spewing incoherent banalities that belong on a t-shirt. Freedom does indeed happen when you make a choice, and I know exactly where I stand on women’s rights, democracy, freedom of religion, gay rights, racism, apostasy, and freedom of speech: I stand firmly opposed to those for whom you demand respect.

    While liberals should be the ones pointing the way beyond this Iron Age madness, they are rendering themselves increasingly irrelevant. Being generally reasonable and tolerant of diversity, liberals should be especially sensitive to the dangers of religious literalism. But they aren’t.

    Given what the Islamists believe, I couldn’t be prouder of the label “infidel;” I embrace it, and will answer if so called. The apologists should be doing more to earn the name.

    Here’s a quote for you, by one of Israel’s strongest critics, and one of the Palestinians’ strongest defenders (co-author with Edward Said of “Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question”), who also, as much as he fights for Palestinian rights, doesn’t allow excuses for them to be made when they blow up kindergartens.

    Good luck with your art.

    It’s an exact equivalent of the evil nonsense taught by [such people], who say the suicide bombers in Palestine are driven to it by despair. Have you read the manifestos of these suicide bombers? Have you seen the videos they make? Have you seen the manifestos they put out? The propaganda that they generate? These are not people in despair. These are people in a state of religious exultation. Who are promised everything. Who are in a state of hope. Who are in a state of adoration for their evil mullahs. And for their filthy religion. It’s this that makes them think they have the right to kill others while taking their own lives. If despair among Palestinians was enough to create psychopathic criminal behavior, there’s been enough despair for a long time, and enough misery to go around. It is to excuse the vicious, filthy forces of Islamic jihad to offer any other explanation but that it is their own evil preaching, their own vile religion, their own racism, their own apocalyptic ideology that makes them think they have the right to kill everyone in this room, and go to paradise as a reward. I won’t listen, nor should you, to anyone who euphemizes or excuses this evil wicked thing.


  3. […] in the bar. (Yes, conservatives don’t care either, but despite it’s sordid past, I still expect more from the left.)   Not only are we not doing anything about human rights, nobody even knows this farce is taking […]


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