Sam Harris, Ben Affleck, and Noam Chomsky — and the Truth About Radical Islam
It is a pleasure to discover a writer whose thoughts can serve as a baseline of one’s own.
Neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris is just such a guy.
For most of his career Harris wrote about the intersection between faith and cognition from the perspective of a neuroscientist.
In recent years, however, he has focused on the rise of political Islam. His interlocutor, Nawaz, is a Muslim reformer and former Islamist.
I want to emphasize two aspects of Harris’ thinking that very much caught my attention. These are the link between behavior and belief and the significance of intention as an ethical matter, and one of predicting likely future behavior.
Academics and journalists have been searching high-and-low for the reasons why jihadis rammed two commercial jets into the World Trade Center, and for the reasons of the subsequent rise of political Islam following the so-called “Arab Spring.”
The answers put forth by the purveyors of public opinion generally center around socio-economic factors and the history of Western imperialism.
What Harris suggests is that if we want to understand the rise of political Islam then we must listen to what they say about themselves. What he, therefore, argues is that there is a direct line between belief and behavior.
Thus if we listen to what the Islamists say about themselves it becomes clear that they are primarily driven by a seventh-century vision of Islamic dominance under al-Sharia.
This does not mean that political or socio-economic factors should be dismissed. What this does mean is that the reasons for the rise of the Jihad are directly connected to Islamic primary sources like the Qur’an and the hadiths.
Harris recently clashed with MIT linguist and left political icon, Noam Chomsky.
Harris approached Chomsky in the hope that they could explore the differences between them and thereby lay-out those differences for you and I to consider.
This was not to be, and Harris published the email conversation as a lesson on the difficulty of speaking entrapped in what I call “ideological blinkertude.”
What struck me most about the conversation, however, was Harris’ focus on the ethical significance of intention.
Chomsky is, essentially, a peddler of the moral equivalency canard. He has suggested that there is no greater source of terrorism in the world than Washington D.C.
In support of his thesis, he notes Bill Clinton’s 1998 bombing of the l-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan and suggests that the negative effects on Sudanese society were at least as bad, and probably far worse, than anything that the United States suffered after 9/11.
Clinton claims that the plant was manufacturing chemical weapons and had ties with Al Qaeda. Chomksy claims that the attack was retaliation for the US Embassy bombing that left 200 dead in that same country, that same year.
What Harris argues is that the difference is one of intention and that intention matters. The people who flew those jets into the World Trade Center intended to kill as many innocent people as possible. Clinton, if we can believe his own stated intentions, did not desire to aimlessly murder people, but to prevent the creation of chemical weaponry in Sudan coming directly on the heels of the embassy bombing.
Harris, I would argue, is correct.
Intention does matter.
Chomsky may argue that the “road to hell is paved with good intentions,” and he is undoubtedly correct, but from an ethical perspective intention still matters, and, as Harris points out, it demonstrates the likely behavior of the individual or the group going forward.
I first became aware of Harris when Ben Affleck decided to confront him on Bill Maher’s “Real Time.”
What Harris said is that criticisms of the doctrines of Islam get immediately conflated with bigotry or “racism” toward Muslims as people.
Then, not surprisingly, Ben Affleck rushed forward to do precisely that.
Affleck is an intelligent guy, but he is wrong to conflate criticisms of Islamic doctrine, or criticisms of political Islam, with bigotry towards Muslims.
Anyone who thinks that criticism of political Islam (or radical Islam or Islamism) is the same as bigotry toward Muslims, in general, is unwittingly suggesting that all Muslims are essentially Jihadis.
Now that is bigotry.
Ben Affleck is an intelligent man, but he is simply mistaken.
I very much hope that upon reflection, he gives Harris the consideration that he deserves.