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December 24, 2015 5:06 am

Sam Harris, Ben Affleck, and Noam Chomsky — and the Truth About Radical Islam

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Ben Affleck on 'Real Time with Bill Maher.' Photo: YouTube screenshot.

Ben Affleck on ‘Real Time with Bill Maher.’ Photo: YouTube screenshot.

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.

His first book is a 2004 offering entitled, The End of Faith. His most recent is Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue, with British Muslim reformer, Maajid Nawaz.

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.

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  • Tim

    “Is the primary motivation drawn from a sense of grievance, humiliation, and hopelessness….?”

    Of course there’s always a complicated aspect to such phenomonons but it’s a bit much to swallow to say that those are the primary reasons. Why haven’t the tibetans lashed out in a similar fashion against their subjugators?

    You also have to ask, why do so many educated people join this death cult? Bin Laden was well to do and the number of jihadist who have degrees in fields such as engineering is staggering.. What hopelessness did they really have? What grievance did ISIS have against the the ethnic christians in the region who they are taking as sex slaves? What did those christians ever do to them?

    • Glen Brunner

      In response to the Q’s: “Is the primary motivation drawn from a sense of grievance,
      humiliation, and hopelessness?” and “Why haven’t Tibetans lashed out?” and “Why do so many educated people join this death cult (ISIS)? I’d like to propose something I came across rather accidentally that has brought this whole matter of human violence into some perspective for me….and that is the role of the human ego. This may, at first, sound mundane and bland–but consider the Big Picture. Where does the human anger and hate come from? From–or via– the human ego. How does the ego develop? Via childhood…and child-rearing practices. What happens to a child who is made to feel that he/she is partly or completely “bad” or “evil”? A split of the human psyche into “good” and bad” so severe occurs that they become their own worst enemy–and the term “enemy” is critical here as it becomes the target of the ego’s wrath toward whatever it has been taught to hate…or whatever has become the projected “dumping ground” for the anger issues the person may harbor. So I suggest taking a close look at the ideas of whatever religion—Islam included—to see what effects such teaching to young children will have on their growing selves / egos. I think you will discover that the child-rearing practices (and I’ll include anyone under 21 years of age here…to include any adoption of religious and political belief systems ) will explain why anyone from any walk of life–from a penniless jihadist to “educated people” can be subject to the lure of emotional release via whatever “righteous or noble cause” that catches their ego’s fancy. Like a computer virus that can take over one’s computer, the “anger” or “hate virus” can infect the brain of one already possessing the volcanic-like pressure of built up, repressed anger. As the Pope recently warned, beware of all ideologies–although he somehow failed to see that he happens to head one of the largest in the world….the Catholic Church. But his warning is spot on…. Watch out, human beings, what program you operate on…. If it’s an ideology of any kind, it might be in control of you instead of vice versa…. Last, specifically on the Q of why haven’t the Tibetans lashed out…. I suggest looking closely at Tibetan culture, Buddhism specifically, and child-rearing practices. Tibetans…headed most notably by the Dalai Lama…are world-renowned for their peaceful approach to life…and one another. This is not to say their approach has overcome the brutal oppression they’ve suffered under the Chinese, for example, but their peaceful behavior supports the contention I’m making here that their ego development in general must lead to a more well-balanced, altogether healthier state of being than those whose “souls” or “psyches” have been split into “good” and “bad” at such a deep level that rage ensues. So they have no need to “lash out.” They can…and have…instead, martyred themselves by lighting themselves on fire–the epitome of doing no harm to others….while acting with true integrity…and love.

  • Dean Gustafson

    No one is suggesting we shouldn’t criticize radical Islam and the violence it produces. The people who don’t agree with Sam Harris don’t do so, not because he is criticizing radical Islam, but because he is a bigot towards Muslims. I don’t understand what’s so difficult to understand about this. More importantly, I don’t understand what’s so “intellectual” about Sam Harris…. Can someone please explain this to me or explain why he’s an “intellectual?” If anyone wants to know Harris’ true understanding of Islam, the Muslim brotherhood, Hammas or other related topics, watch his debate with Reza Aslan- I think it was in 2007. Harris is incredibly ignorant and unsophisticated on the topics mentioned. He is embarrassing to listen to. As for his debate with Chomsky, you can go look at the conversation yourself. After Harris lost the debate, he said something along the lines of, “Morally confused liberals thought I lost with debate with Chomsky.” Again- all verifiable.

  • Hicham

    ‘Race’ is an imagined construct; racism against a people DOES NOT necessarily anchor in ‘physicality’; e.g. racism against Irish, Jews, Slavs etc has an ugly history.

  • Saaed.

    Harris is logical, but he may not be entirely correct. The point to decipher is what motivates the Islamists. Is the primary motivation drawn from a sense of grievance, humiliation, and hopelessness, or the scriptures? To me it seems it is the former, and the latter is then added on to give themselves an imprimatur of justification. And they cherry pick the scripture for this justification which they badly need to commit something so horribly inhuman.
    It need be understood that a small fraction of the deadly Islamists are overly religious to begin with. They initially seems to step into the “reborn” mould because of a sense of grievances. Scriptures come later.

    • praveen

      @saeed, Please read book “islam-and-the-future-of-tolerance” by Sam H and Majid Nawaaz to get clear understanding of what Sam Harris thinks about Islamism or Radical Islam.
      As you said, Primary motivation can be hopelessness or grievances But this alone cannot push an ordinary muslim man to blow up people, throw gays from building, beat women, and kill apostates. As you yourself pointed out, Ideology is the key in doing all the heinous crimes. This “Ideology” is what has to be reformed.

  • Gnomercy9

    Criticism of Islam is unnecessary. There is nothing more damning than telling the truth about Islam. Islam’s bloody record (past and present) speaks for itself.

  • Jack Jolly

    “Chomsky is, essentially, a peddler of the moral equivalency canard.”

    This misunderstands and misrepresents Chomsky’s arguments by a country mile.

    Unfortunately this issue is not a media football match with a winner and looser along with a hero and anti-hero that fits the media template very easily.

    Both Chomsky and Harris are largely right about many things. The conflict of their ideology is a media sideshow that refuses to accommodate complexity.

    The USA still struggles with a narrative of its history and image of itself as the ‘good guys’ that contrasts starkly with the reality of its own behaviour and legacy post WW2. It’s behaviour also follows its own beliefs. But these are beliefs in statehood and the moral superiority of the USA’s rhetoric as much as any other group. Outside of the USA (even in western countries) these views are considered parochial and jingoistic, but we fail to recognise this.

    Unfortunately, the problem is that we have TWO deluded groups who think themselves quite sane (Radical Islam and the conservative religious USA fruitcake and Israel lobby) fighting it out on behalf of their imaginary gods for the title of King Nutjob.

    When deluded ideologies fight on the world stage it is because reason has been abandoned by each.

    • Mordecai

      Chomsky is a bigot. Every few years I look for his writings and I see it. He even peddles worse bigotry in french. Harris has never shown himself or his aurguements tainted with falsehood or misleading bigotry… Chomsky should examine his positions against Harris unless he is scared that more people will see through his crap… The way he assumes the reality of an international Jewish conspiracy shows a consciousness that could have penned Mien Kampf… If I ever had some words to say to him, it would be “old man, by not debating you prove you are the same as Donald trump, full of hateful and inflexible words. Just keep on trucking until you can hide behind dementia and go to hell.”

    • Russell Webster

      Well put Jack.

  • Dan Clore

    This article grotesquely misrepresents the debate between Harris and Chomsky, as anyone who actually read it would know.

  • i’m a bit less impressed with affleck’s intelligence. and i found his grandstanding on an issue of which he has little or no knowledge or education, to be rude and embarrassing.

    it was clear in the way he immediately attacked harris that he had an agenda. but what he failed to do, or found unnecessary, was to educate himself beforehand, much less listen to the substance of what harris had to say.

    my disappointment with harris was that he is essentially not a rude and nasty person, because he could have really embarassed affleck in a way he frankly deserved by–for example, by asking in turn what expertise he had to speak so vociferously on the subject. have you read the koran? hadiths? sunnah? what can you share with the audience of the life of mohammed? crickets.

  • Joseph Stein

    Affleck in labelling Islamic critics ‘racists’ is as you said a mistake. A race is a population group that displays like physical characteristics. Indonesia has one of the largest Muslim populations on the planet, of which the largest racial group is Malay. However, this race may be Hindu, Muslim, or Christian.
    Affleck is in my opinion a very talented creative artist and performer, and may also be highly intelligent, but it would appear that there are some gaps in his basic education.